Understanding International Relations
a web resource prepared for students of Mary Baldwin College
Gordon L. Bowen, Ph.D.
Professor of Political Science and International Relations
this webpage last updated on April 28, 2010
The League of Nations
Separate sections below discuss the origins of the League and the ideas behind it; the structure of the League; limitations in membership that hampered the League; cases that tested the war-preventing concepts associated with the League (Japan in China; the Chaco War in South America; and Italy in Ethiopia); and the ways in which the League applied the ideas surrounding the doctrine of self-determination of various ethnic nations.
(Readers interested in viewing a timeline of the history of the League of Nations should follow this link).
Origins: The calamity that was World War I formed the backdrop.
Citizen movements in USA and UK advocated creation of an organization to prevent another war:
“League to Enforce the Peace” (USA)
“League of Nations Society” (UK)
Governments of the Allied Powers supported the idea:
UK: Lord Robert Cecil and Lord Phillimore wrote drafts of a League charter for the British cabinet.
FR: Leon Bourgeois headed planning.
USA: Pres. W. Wilson advocated the concept in 1916; he called for formation of a League of Nations in his April 2, 1917 War Request.
South Africa: Jan Smuts drafted another proposal.
An International Conference moved the issue forward.
January 1919: Woodrow Wilson headed a special committee at the Paris Peace Conference; it drafted the Covenant of the League of Nations.
Other Great Powers on this committee included:
UK, FR, IT, USA, Japan
Plus 9 smaller states
Wilson, Cecil and Smuts became known as the “Fathers of the League.”
Key assumptions shared by the League's Founders
1. W.W.I was an “accidental war” that must not be repeated. Behind this perception lay further assumptions:
2. Peace is Humanity's nature; War is, in general, avoidable.
Here the Founders were guided by Immanuel Kant's ideas as articulated in the book Perpetual Peace.
W. Wilson, prophet of the League, believed with Kant that peace was only possible in a world of democracies.
3. War grows out of dual characteristics of modern societies: the phenomenon of conflict and the phenomenon of cooperation.
4. Just as I.O.s best can prosecute a war, I.O.s best can prevent war's recurrence.
- Joint bodies had been created: Supreme War Council, Allied Maritime Transport Council, Blockade Council, etc.
- Similar joint institutions were needed for peacetime.
5. New Tools need to be created to prevent war.
The Tools Created by the League Reflected these Assumptions
1. The Structure of the League was designed to prevent war, much like the Concert of Europe.
The Council was composed of 5 Great Powers with permanent seats, plus 4 others . It would meet regularly.
The Assembly of all member states would meet intermittently, once each 4 or 5 years.
Membership in the Assembly and League would be universal, but only “peace loving states” would be admitted.
Peace loving was understood to mean democratic. Democracies were assumed to never initiate aggressive wars, but autocracies were so inclined.
Just as democracy within states would inhibit war, democratic procedures in decision making among states in I.O.s would prevent war.
The unanimity principle was to be used in voting.
2. The League embraced the principle of self-determination.
- World War I was attributed to conflict arising from domination over minorities; and to the cooperative tendencies of groups of states which widened the initial conflict.
- By eliminating what were believed to be the “root causes” of war (i.e.: lack of self-determination; lack of democracy), cooperative tendencies could be channeled toward peace maintenance.
- Real self-determination, however, was applied selectively to Germany, Austria-Hungary, and (ironically) to post-revolutionary Russia. It was not applied to the colonies of the victors: France, Britain.
3. Collectively and through the authority of the League, states would act to stop breaches of the peace. This is the doctrine of collective security. It assumes states have a common interest in opposing aggression This proved to be difficult to identify during the inter-war years, at least for some states. Even where aggressors were clearly visible, it was difficult for some states to actually oppose aggressors when their own separate interests collided with the assumptions of collective security doctrine. Consider these examples:
The League in Action: Responses to Threats to Peace
Collective Security assumes that all will act to stop aggression, but all never even chose to be members of the organization that was to identify aggressors. The Universality Principle in membership never was realized: Soviet Russia only joined in 1934; USA never joined; Germany under Hitler quit the League, Oct. 14, 1933.
Many small countries also were reticent to join: Mexico only joined in 1931; Costa Rica quit in 1925, following Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, citing the high expense of membership. None of the colonialized peoples were members, as only fully sovereign states were members of the League.
Thus, the universal membership that was intended to unite the whole world, collectively against aggressors fell short. (The more universal membership of the U.N. after 1945 underlines the point that states will at times elect to not oppose aggressors, rather than behave as collective security doctrine supposes they will behave.)
Collective Security against aggression also was weakened by terms in the League's charter: League- authorized sanctions against aggressor states would be enforced via member states' voluntary compliance. Even when the organization identified an aggressor, it could not enforce measures to compel all states to act to isolate that aggressor.
Cases: 1931 Japan attacks Manchuria, China; China requests League assistance.
Council Secretary-General Eric Drummond asks U.S. to join discussions; U.S. initially refuses, later reverses and does sit, but does so silently. U.S. Secretary of State Henry Stimson lectured the parties on the need to seek peaceful solutions. In light of ongoing Japanese aggression, this was a weak response.
UK was reluctant to act, due to anti-China attitude. Japan vetoed League draft resolution calling for its withdrawal.
1932: League sent “Mission of Inquiry;” but Japan continues, even widens military operations; recognizes “Manchukuo” as a fait acompli.
Collective Security Cases: Chaco War
Bolivia and Paraguay began fighting in 1928 over border areas known as Gran Chaco. Paraguay declares war in 1933.
Both were League members; neither was willing to submit dispute to League mediation. States of the Western Hemisphere appoint a (non-League) “Washington Commission” to investigate; neither belligerent recognizes it.
1934 League Council imposed an Arms Embargo against both. Non Member USA plus 35 League members supported this. (This actually led to an interesting test of the U.S. President's constitutional authority to enforce such an embargo, and a 1936 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. vs. Curtiss-Wright, that sweepingly enlarged Presidential powers in this regard.)
1935 League Council subcommittee OKs mediation by Argentina and Chile.
June 1935, under leadership of Argentina's Carlos Saavedra Lamas, Bolivia and Paraguay sign peace settlement. Saavedra rejects League delegates being present at conference, which Brazil, Chile, USA, Uruguay and Argentina convened.
Collective Security Cases: Ethiopia
Background: 1896 Ethiopian army massacred Italian army at Adowa; 1922 Mussolini came to power in Italy; 1928 Italian-Ethiopian Friendship Treaty.
December 1934: Italians and Ethiopians clash at Wal Wal oasis in the Ogaden (disputed region on Somalia-Ethiopia frontier; this region remains under disputed status to the present day). Conflict begins.
Jan. 1935: Ethiopia's Haile Selassie requests League intervention under Article 11 to “safeguard peace;” and under Article 15 “to avoid a rupture” (in March).
League prevaricates. Secretary-Gen. Avenol confides in Italians on secretariat staff, counsels Italy to “make its case”; UK and FR pursue appeasement of Italy at Stresa meeting, and subsequently. Italy mobilizes for war in Horn of Africa. Only USSR supports Ethiopia within League.
Mussolini threatens League: “To military sanctions, we shall reply with military measures.” Full scale invasion begun Oct. 3, 1935. Poisoned gas used by IT in 1936.
League declares IT in violation of League Covenant; sanctions bar arms to IT, but not oil to the area. USA enacts unilateral sanctions on both.
May-June 1936, Haile Selassie speaks to League; IT delegation walks out; disrupts later speech.
1936: IT defeats Ethiopia militarily; League votes to end all sanctions on IT; UK and 43 others support; only Ethiopia opposed.
Self Determination and Democracy
Plebiscites produced a few successes that lowered international tensions. They included: plebecites in Silesia, Saar; German-Polish border; Finland-Russia border; Lithuania-Russian border; independence of Albania; Bulgarian-Greek border.
Protection of Minorities' Rights
Minority Rights Treaties
-were not universal
-applied principally to collective rights of Hungarians and Germans living outside national state
-Procedures for enforcement:
1. aggrieved minority petitions Council of League of Nations
2. Accused Govt. given right to comment
3. League refers petition to 3 nation sub-Committee who may
- dismiss petition
-attempt negotiated settlement
-refer case to whole Council. Only accused state, not minority, could speak there.
Analysis: German and Hungarian Govts. resented procedures; Poland quit process in 1934; League disbanded effort in 1939.
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