The postwar was, as it often is, a projecting age. Following World War One, political, military, thought, and other leaders resolved to prevent such a catastrophe from ever occurring again. Projects proposed at the Paris peace talks were many and varied in origin, scale, ideology, and so on. More significant, though, was an overarching commonality in their conceptualization. The projects were defined by a certain way of thinking.
One such project, the creation of the League of Nations, was supposed to enable the wide-reaching and effective control of international relations for the purpose of universal peace. Consideration of its creation offers critical insight into the premises, methods, and assessments that have generally conditioned attempts at ordering between states. Indeed, the learning experience might help lead us beyond the epistemic bounds within which we usually operate onto policy-making paths that are different and more promising.
Origins of the League
While the concept can be traced back at least to Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace (Zum ewigen Frieden, 1795), the proximate origins of the League of Nations lie in the Fourteen Points speech U.S. President Woodrow Wilson made on January 8, 1918. Wilson proposed a new way of running the world, calling for the creation of a “general association of nations . . . under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.”
Wilson’s proposal extended ideas of the Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907, envisioning the further legalization and moralization of international relations. It was warmly welcomed by so-called internationalists, who had been campaigning for international organization for world peace in the previous decades.1 Wilson was received in Paris in December 1918 for the peace talks by intellectuals and the general public alike as a messiah.
Impetus for the League
The League’s birth defects, such as the U.S. absence, and still more its resounding failures in the international crises in Manchuria (1931) and Abyssinia (1935), among others, evoke in many today the reaction, “what were they thinking?” Rather than dismissing the League out of hand, I believe that an open-minded attempt to understand its founders’ construction is warranted, not least because such thinking is still prevalent today.
The League was the result of international actors’ ongoing efforts to order international relations, permitted by the “open-textured’ nature of international law. Being open to revision, to different disciplines, and to interpretation, international law allows multi-perspectivity. Policy-makers at historic moments like the Paris peace talks probe the possibilities of such openness.
Considering the League’s historical situatedness or better imagining ourselves as contemporary witnesses helps explain much about its rise and subsequent fall.
- The establishment of the League was neither accidental nor spontaneous. Allied leaders saw a great opportunity, with one stating in December 1918 that international relations’ “very foundations have been shaken and loosened, and things are again fluid.”2
- Official delegates were politicians and diplomats but at the same time professionals, experts, and idealists. They were self-conscious in their efforts and deliberate in their decision-making. An elaborate, intricate conception of international ordering prevailed during the months of talks.
- Their will to order was naturally driven by the desire to salvage something positive from the Great War’s unprecedented carnage and horrors. Good intentions are, however, insufficient for judicious policy-making and may counteract it.
- They pursued this goal amid great haste, turmoil, and uncertainty globally, circumstances not conducive to informed debate and deliberation on serious, sensitive issues.
- The peacemakers’ work was affected by tremendous popular pressure; the widespread expectations of a truly “brave new world” could not realistically be met—and did not have to be encouraged.
Assumptions behind the League
If the international system is “nothing but a structure of ideas,” the struggle over its policy is an ideational struggle.3 What, then, were the assumptions behind the League? During talks about its mandate, considerable disagreement arose as to what such an “association” would look like, which powers it would be conferred, and how it would function. There was, however, remarkable consensus among the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Italy about the premises of their work and the conception of the League. Delegates’ thinking was framed by the ostensible lessons of the war and by “self-evident truths” as regards the human situation globally, shared challenges, and international governance.
Delegates advocated new norms, bodies, and techniques that embodied Enlightenment notions of reason, regulation, rights, and wrongs. More rule internationally would, they optimistically believed, mean more security, as it had nationally. Delegates made proposals based on their own liberal democratic concepts and formations.4 They saw the world, as it were, in their reflection in the Hall of Mirrors. Thus, the League would serve as a place of “unlimited discussion”5 for the ascertainment of common interests and the consensual resolution of all matters of international concern, including the question of a state’s very existence. National leaders could gather, grasp, and come to grips with such matters, none being too touchy, messy, or tricky for open debate, negotiation, and settlement.
The Treaty of Versailles comprised 440 articles and regulated the transition from war to peace in exquisite detail. The League’s mandate was comprehensive and ambitious: to facilitate (further) cooperation between states in matters of war and peace through schemes for disarmament, peaceful dispute settlement, and collective security. Delegates acted on a conviction in progress and perfectibility in national and international policy-making. While the experience of the World War may have brought the era of modernity to a rude end otherwise, the objective of Wilson and the other leaders remained the systematic development of international relations toward lasting liberal democratic peace.
Hindsight and Foresight
The Covenant of the League of Nations demonstrated high aims for the conduct of politics internationally, a hope for hitherto unknown levels of cooperation and morality as well as a faith in the positive trajectory of history. Yet we all know how this episode of world government ended: with the 1930s suffering from “the hangover of the ‘enlightened’ post-war age.”6
Wilson and his colleagues can be fairly criticized for self-delusion about their position, that is, for the hubristic presumption of understanding, capability, and power that subsequent events laid bare. Knowledge that, beyond the corridors of power in Paris, violent conflict continued in eastern Europe might have induced some modesty in the leaders about their mastery over developments. Their refusal to consider alternative, possibly contrary views, for example, of the insurgent Bolsheviks and the defeated Germans, who were not invited to the talks, was also sorely mistaken. The Allied leaders were enthralled by the notion of being the closest thing to a “world government” hitherto witnessed, and they projected the same on the League.
Nonetheless, the leaders should be judged in the context of their time. We should resist the urge to ridicule the peacemakers’ projecting with the “arrogance of posterity.” The League had some success in resolving conflicts in Europe in the 1920s. It is unfair to criticize them for a failure to foresee, let alone forestall, novel developments like the coming of the Great Depression or Hitler's rise to power.
Evaluation of the peacemakers’ way of thinking and the League’s Covenant should be self-critical as well as even-handed. After World War Two, their project was developed further, foremost in the form of the League’s successor, the United Nations, again with mixed results in matters of war and peace. Our own post–Cold War age has shown itself to be a projecting age too, such as in efforts at smart peace and democracy promotion. Contemporary leaders, though able to draw on more knowledge and experience, remain unable to resolve issues that confounded their predecessors, be they containing religious fundamentalism and extreme nationalism, defining self-determination, or banning war.
This insight should make us reconsider our own efforts and ambitions regarding world government. The project of the peacemakers then and now was defined in contradistinction to the past and was accordingly limited by it. Yet the failure of power-based relations between nation-states did not require their outright renunciation and the adoption of an alternate rules-based international order. The simple reversal of one system into its mirror image does not necessarily constitute human progress. Indeed, it may do little good, accelerating instead the oscillation in relations between states. Likewise, the rejection of politics and the embrace of law for the purpose of international peace and governance is problematic. In Paris in 1919, it exacerbated the perils of projection. The peacemakers had the illusion of order and control, whereas the appropriateness and effectiveness of recourse primarily to law were—and remain—questionable in this context.
Such reflection advises policy-makers seeking order internationally not to “Try again. Fail again. Fail better,”7 but to think and act differently. Rather than engage in further “projecting,” pursuing particular proposals for fundamental political and legal change, we should be amenable to alternative ways of thinking and remain flexible in our approaches.
Malcolm MacLaren is lecturer (Privatdozent) in Public International Law, Constitutional Theory, and Comparative Constitutional Law at University of Zurich.
- For one list, see Frederick Pollack, The League of Nations (London: Stevens and Sons, 1920), 83–85, available at HathiTrust. ↩︎
- General Jan Smuts, South African statesman, quoted in Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World (London: J. Murray, 2001), 89. ↩︎
- Philip Allott, Eunomia: New Order for a New World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), xv. ↩︎
- See also Martti Koskenniemi, The Gentle Civilizer of Nations: The Rise and Fall of International Law 1870–1960 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001) 361–62. ↩︎
- Wilson, quoted in Jan Klabbers, An Introduction to International Organizations Law, 3rd ed., (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 19. ↩︎
- George Orwell, Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, vol. 1, An Age Like This 1920-1940 (London, 1970), 585. ↩︎
- Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho (New York: Grove Press, 1983), 7. ↩︎