The League of Nations: Destined for Failure

As the progenitor of the modern-day United Nations, the League of Nations was the first intergovernmental organisation which was established after the end of World War I. The organisation found its roots in President Woodrow Wilson’s speech “Fourteen Points,” in which he called for an institution designed to facilitate multilateral discussions to foster long-term cooperation and unity among nations. In January 1919, the Allied powers gathered for the Paris Peace Conference where they became signatories of the Treaty of Versailles, thus forming the League of Nations. The League was the epitome of international diplomacy, yet its structural flaws opened the doors for the systemic failures which would ultimately render the organisation powerless and ineffective.

The Treaty of Versailles served as a foundation upon which the Covenant of the League of Nations was built. Representatives, headed by President Wilson, gathered to pen the Covenant which came to fruition in 1919. The creation of the League was, however, not without its difficulties. Opposing viewpoints arose from different parties: Britain was fearful of French domination, Japan insisted on the ratification of its proposed clauses on racial equality, the US Senate refused to allow US participation in the League, which arguably serves as the most significant blow to the legitimacy of the League, among many other disputes. The Covenant consisted of highly idealistic yet unattainable values. Jacks poses a question: “How can [Member states] do other than break up with nothing done?” [1] The sentiment behind a statement such as this hammered the nail into the coffin, culminating into criticism aimed at the League for its ineffectiveness on having relied so strongly on a supposed pooling of sovereignty to enforce its statutes upon its members. Despite the divisions, the Covenant was officially enforced in 1920, foreshadowing its tumultuous future.

The Gap in the Bridge: The sign reads “This League of Nations Bridge was designed by the President of the U.S.A.” Cartoon from Punch magazine, December 10, 1920, satirizing the gap left by the U.S. not joining the League.

The League’s primary objective, as indicated in the preamble, was to “promote international co-operation and to achieve international peace and security.” [2] The horrors of the Great War served as a rallying cry for an international institution to facilitate a means of forum whereby countries could gather to settle any disputes, should they arise. Fostering peace between countries was an ambitious plan contingent upon the existence of diplomatic relations and a willingness to cooperate. The Covenant strongly promoted the Westphalian principle of state sovereignty in Article 10, urging its Members “to respect and preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all Members of the League.” [3] This statute ties with Article 21, which upheld mutual respect for international agreements like the Monroe Doctrine, a U.S. foreign policy which condemns intervention and colonialism in the Western Hemisphere and forwards the principle of national self-determination. Article 16 of the Covenant declares that a war against one Member is a war against all, and that the aggressor would be subject to sanctions. [4] It is in these ideas promoted by the Articles of the League Covenant that we see the ways in which the efficacy of the League relied on multilateral compliance. Although the Covenant possessed optimistic endeavours of international cooperation, the League was, in fact, an unrealistic and naive embodiment of a regulatory body that lacked the power to enforce its laws upon its Member states, putting the organisation into an inevitable deadlock.

There are a plethora of loopholes in the logistical organisation of the League, many of which L.P. Jacks covers in his article “A League of Nations as a League of Governments?” Jacks states, “No account is taken of the wide differences that exist among governments.” [5] In saying that, Jack implies that the League of Nations, constituting of various Member states, could never be united under a homogenous Covenant because each would possess different agendas and goals which the League, as it stood, was unable to curb, and the disunity was worsened by the absence of any legitimate form of an enforcer. A League, which was designed to keep the peace, according to Jacks, “would inevitably crumble” and would be doomed to fail because nations would find a way to dodge the unenforceable Articles contained in the Covenant to serve their own interests. [6] Therefore, Jacks concludes, “When these different governments act . . . under the form of a league, there is no collective check to restrain them.” [7] The inability to restrain its Member states from committing offenses accounted for the inevitable failures of the League, which will prove evident in the examples.

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Guided by the Wilsonian spirit of idealist liberalism (prioritising individual liberty in political agendas), the League launched a series of Minority Treaties which sought to safeguard the rights of the minority populations of member states by ensuring that member countries do not differ in their treatment of their subjects. Despite the seemingly good intentions, the treaties revealed the highly ambiguous nature of the policy as reflected in the abuses committed by the Great Power Germany. As Weimar Germany, under Gustav Stresemann, sought to regain her lost kin in Eastern Europe, Germany took on a role of the “defender of minorities” as branded by historian Carole Fink. [8] The Volkisch international policy, which bases itself upon the belief in the superiority of the German people, was a clear contradiction to Germany’s self-proclaimed title as a stout defender of all minority rights on the global stage and was simply used as a disguise to hide their agenda for imperial acquisition. The German-Polish Convention regarding Upper Silesia of 1922 (a plebiscite organised by the League), although partly successful in resolving border disputes, only granted the German minority in Poland the freedom to present their grievances to the League. [9] After all, Germany’s role as the defender of minorities was a mere guise to hide Berlin’s hopes of domination through imperialist conquests which remained amid internal weaknesses.

This tragedy signified the vague nature of the treaties, allowing for injustices committed by a great power such as Germany, thus discrediting the League’s overall credibility due to its impotence in implementing its statutes. The League had failed to “to secure just treatment of the native inhabitants of territories,” as titled under Article 23b of the Covenant, by allowing Germany to establish themselves under the sun, despite the lack of apparent interest in the protection of their people. L. P. Jacks notes that “the assumption is made that all governments are competent, . . . to compel their own subjects to keep promises made on their behalf.” [10] [11] Jacks indicates a fatal flaw within the great power states who dominate the international scene, which have vested interests as their forefront objective. Mazower correctly mentions that “this supremely paternalistic stance assumed that “civilized” states such as those in Western Europe had evolved procedures to facilitate the assimilation of minorities,” which gives strong evidence that powerful states are explicitly exploiting their own countrymen. [12] It also reveals the inaction on behalf of the League to reprimand the offender, Germany, or to holistically resolve the problems suffered by ethnic minorities. Among other factors, the rise of Adolf Hitler prompted Germany’s withdrawal from the League, further diminishing the League in rightfully enforcing its resolutions upon offending states like Germany.

Germany withdrawing from the League of Nations. October 14, 1933.

Another Eastern European country who suffered under the guise of advancing minority rights was Poland, though the League of Nations acted as a guarantor to safeguard these rights. [13] The formation of “an independent Poland brought into being . . . minority rights.” [14] Despite this, the bilateral Polish Treaty, which was signed together with the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, resulted in heated tensions between Germany and Poland. Poland houses many ethnic minorities including ethnic Germans and Jews who were oppressed due to the antisemitic wave which was on the rise in 1930s. Colonel Beck, the Polish premier “denounced Poland’s minority-rights obligations, ‘pending the introduction of a general and uniform system for the protection of minorities,’' resulting in Poland rejecting the Minority Treaty in 1934. [15] As a result, many of the Polish Jews were stripped of their basic rights, which came into conflict with the League’s aim to preserve the self determination of peoples. This is an example of the League’s inability to safeguard against and reprimand minority abuse occurring among its own Member states, thus undermining the League’s legitimacy which, inevitably, resulted in a “waning confidence felt by European minorities in the value of the League.” [16] The rejection of the Polish Treaty indicated a lack of enforcement powers the League’s Covenant possessed, reducing it from the role as a enforcer to a mere “interlocutor helping governments carry out their own obligations.” [17] The League’s apparent apathy was used to support such claims, effectively curtailing their influence. Much of the European discontent had its origins in the “action of governments in their relationships with one another, and to their hostile interferences with each other’s business,” beyond which the League found itself incapable of quelling. [18] [19] [20]

In the 1930s, nations such as Germany, Italy, and Japan saw the gradual rise of fascism and dictatorship rulings whose foreign policy was structured upon their insatiable imperial conquests. Worsened by the economic downturn of the Great Depression from 1929, their combative ultranationalism would foreshadow many offenses committed on their behalf against the Covenant. Jacks writes, “To suppress [combative nationalism] by a league of combative nationalisms is not possible.” [21] Having fascist countries as members of the League was a barrier to other member states in working within a conducive framework of international cooperation. Jacks poses an interesting question: “But who are these possible offenders, and who are the most dangerous of them? They are precisely those Great Powers.” [22] After all, it was the Great Powers who persistently violated the central tenets of the League.

As a founding member of the League, Italy, as one of the Great Powers, used her ability to conquer Abyssinia, otherwise known as Ethiopia. The rise of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and the Italian disappointment in not getting a fair share of lands after World War I prompted the country to unlawfully invade Abyssinia in 1935. By doing so, Italy violated Article 10 of the Covenant by disrespecting the sovereignty of Abyssinia. [23] In response, the League imposed a series of sanctions against Italy which failed to pose any serious consequence, considering Italy’s prompt withdrawal from the League in 1937. To make matters worse, France and Britain were involved in a tacit agreement with Italy and agreed to the Italian annexation of Abyssinia. The failure of dominant members of the League to comply and respect the League’s code of conduct gives truth to Jacks’ astute observation: “The great European states, which are to play the part of chief policemen, [are] also the chief criminals.” [24] The Great Powers within the League were the main and significant violators of the Covenant in more than just “several” instances, bringing substantiated criticism upon the League in discrediting the organisation overall. The U.S.’ disinvolvement in the League (another rising Great Power and the main advocate for the creation of the League in the first place) also brought a considerable blow upon the legitimacy of the League, especially regarding the efficacy of the sanctions and policies that were supposed to bind their member-states.

The fascist government of Japan was the epitome of another Great Power compromising the integrity of the League. Japan proved itself able to stand on par with the European Great Powers which had existed prior to the war, and they utilised the interwar period to exercise its imperialistic desires, exerting power and dominance on the global stage. In 1931, Japan breached Article 10 by launching an attack on the Chinese authorities in Manchuria. [25] Japan’s aggressive foreign policy, which led the Japanese army to finally conquer the region in 1932, was one of the instances whereby the League failed to reprimand their member states. The Japanese invasion of Chinese territory was not equalled with any economic sanctions imposed by the League, and it did not antagonise or boycott Japan to debilitate them in any way as promised in Article 16 of the Covenant which promises a war against the aggressor. [26] However, when the League’s commission decided that Manchuria ought to be returned to China, Japan resigned from the League in 1933 to sidestep any consequences. Similar to Germany’s withdrawal, this move by Japan only emphasises the League’s growing inability to enforce its Covenant. Jacks provides a clear analysis of this incident: “While remembering what governments have done in keeping the peace at home, we must not forget what they have done in breaking the peace abroad.” [27] Jacks’ remarks points at a paradox contained in the League’s peacekeeping mission – the Great Powers were more enthusiastic in breaking, rather than preserving, the primary objective of the League: peace.

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Several Latin American countries enjoyed their inclusion to the League, making up “one-third of the total membership of the League.” [28] Though the League benefited much from a significant Latin American representation, these said countries became disillusioned during certain fallouts that they had with the League. However, the Latin American nations “remained in Geneva [awaiting] the definitive admission of the United States into the [League],” [29] but the U.S. remained on the sidelines due to strong domestic opposition against their membership to the League. The League meddled with Latin American affairs, particularly in the 1930s, during which two major wars erupted under the League’s supervision — the Chaco and Leticia wars. In 1932, Bolivia and Paraguay engaged in the Chaco war which eventually culminated into another one of the League’s failures in mishandling international disputes. The “capture of the Paraguayan fortress of Boqueron by Bolivian troops” [30] precipitated the war, which later evolved to be a deadly one. This is considered to be a direct violation of Article 10, since Bolivia failed to uphold Paraguay’s sovereignty. [31] The League’s sanctions failed to rival the damages caused to the Paraguayans by Bolivia and, ultimately, resulted in the Paraguayan withdrawal from the League and “damaged [the League’s] reputation in the international community.” [32]

The League’s failures may also be traced back to its fundamental structural error of alienating the Latin American nations, as it was primarily concerned with “topics directly related to the postwar period” and hesitant as to their perception of “Latin America as a homogenous region.” [33] Its inability to construct an equal stage for all its Member states to be fully represented on the global stage led to the League’s eventual downfall, as demonstrated by the League’s inability to prevent the Chaco and Leticia wars. After all, Jacks mentions that “Leagues of democracies are no easier to maintain than Holy Alliances of kings and emperors,” [34] arguing that democratic countries are “subject to violent revulsions.” It is as if all the countries belonging to the League are taking the same medicine—it cannot cure all.

The League was bound to fail.

In conclusion, the League of Nations was an organisation that was dominated through the monopoly of Great Powers. The failures of the League stemmed from the highly ambitious and idealistic Covenant, coupled with the League’s inability to enforce them on their Member states. The limitations of the League allowed for several Members to violate them due to self-interested national policies. The ease in the Members’ withdrawals from the League ultimately diminished the span of their control to enforce their Covenant. L. P. Jacks brings insightful analyses to the League’s inadequacies, tracing them back to the inefficacy of a League of democratic countries. When a League of government exists, it sets itself up for destruction regardless of its primary objective. After all, a kingdom which is divided against itself cannot stand.

[1] L. P. Jacks, “A League of Nations as a League of Governments?” The Atlantic, February, 1923. 9.

[2] “The Covenant of the League of Nations,” 1919. P. 1.

[3] “The Covenant of the League of Nations,” p. 2.

[4] “The Covenant of the League of Nations,” p. 3.

[5] L. P. Jacks, “A League of Nations as a League of Governments?” The Atlantic, February, 1923. P. 2.

[6] Jacks, p. 4

[7] Jacks, p. 16

[8] Mark Mazower, Minorities and the League of Nations in Interwar Europe, Spring, 1997, published by The MIT Press. P. 52.

[9] Carole Fink, Defender of Minorities: Germany in the League of Nations, 1926-1933, published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of Central European History Society. P. 334.

[10] “The Covenant of the League of Nations,” p. 4

[11] Jacks, p. 2

[12] Mazower, p. 53

[13] Minority Treaty Between the Principal Allied and Associated Powers and Poland. Versailles. 28 June 1919.

[14] Mazower, p. 54

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Mazower, p. 51

[18] Jacks, p. 12

[19] Mazower, p. 51

[20] Jacks, p. 12

[21] Jacks, p. 14

[22] Jacks, p. 15

[23] “The Covenant of the League of Nations,” p. 2

[24] Jacks, p. 14

[25] “The Covenant of the League of Nations,” p. 2

[26] “The Covenant of the League of Nations,” p. 3

[27] Jacks, p. 12

[28] Fabi Herrera León, Latin America and the League of Nations, 31 August 2016, Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo. P. 2.

[29] León, p. 3

[30] León, p. 9

[31] “The Covenant of the League of Nations,” p. 2

[32] León, p. 10

[33] León, p. 3-4

[34] Jacks, p. 8