The League of Nations headquartered in Geneva Switzerland, was an international organization formed after the first world war on January 10, 1920. Its genesis can be traced to the Paris Peace Conference, which ended the first world war. It was created to provide a forum for resolving international disputes.
The League was the brainchild of the then US President Woodrow Wilson, who, in his famous Fourteen Points, stated to come up with a ‘general association of nations. . . formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike’.
As per the covenant, the League would guarantee territorial integrity and political independence of member states. It was also authorized to take ‘any action . . . to safeguard the peace, establish procedures for arbitration , and create the mechanisms for economic and military sanctions’. Its prime focus was on preventing wars through collective security and disarmament, and, came up with the procedures of negotiation and arbitration to settle international disputes.
But, all of these proved futile when the world plunged again into another, yet more devastative world war within just two decades. Some historians, however, are of the view that US’s never acquiescence of the League diluted and weakened its core concepts and led to failure of its mandate.
Reasons for Formation
The first world war i.e., ‘ war to end all wars’, gave a severe blow, affecting the social, political, and economic systems, to Europe and its colonies. It inflicted psychological and physical damage to the people and led to rising up of anti war sentiments. The world got terrorized by the slaughter that had taken place in what was meant to be a civilized part of the world.
The obvious next step, visible to the leaders, was to create an international organization so as to do away with any possibility of war, and, if any war occurred, to come up with a speedy solution. This led to creation of the League of Nations in January 1920.
In its Preamble, it was stated that ‘the High Contracting Parties in order to promote international co-operation and to achieve international peace and security; by the acceptance of obligations not to resort to war … agree to this covenant of the League of Nations’ . It was, hence, mandated to circumvent war through disarmament, open diplomacy, international cooperation, restrictions on the right to wage war, and penalties making war ill-favoured.
Objectives of League of Nations
According to the covenant of the League: The High Contracting Parties , in order to promote international cooperation and to achieve international peace and security agree to:
Accept obligations not to resort to war,
Adhere to open, just and honourable relations between nations,
Establish understandings of international law as the actual rule of conduct among Governments, and,
Maintain justice and a scrupulous respect for all treaty obligations in the dealings of organized peoples with one another,
From the above covenant, the aims and objectives of the League of Nations could be summed up as under:
stop war (s),
establish, and further maintain, world peace and security,
establish friendly and cooperative relations between nations,
solve International issues with peace, avoiding the wars,
obey the International Law,
improving people’s living and working conditions,
encourage international cooperation in trade aspects.
Successes of League of Nations
The concept of League, and, its establishment, was, in itself, a success. Apart from the existing differences among the nations, 42 states came together to form the League of Nations. The objective underlying inter alia was to ensure a peaceful world and settling disputes through means of mediation and arbitration. Although its successes were undermined by multiple failures, some of them are worth mentioning.
The first world war rendered innumerable people homeless and engendered the refugee problem. Lakhs of POWs (Prisoners of war) were there. The League, taking note of this, set up a Refugee Commission. It took half-a-million POWs home and within not more than two years the question of refugee issue was settled.
A Slavery Commission was set up in order to check the inhumane practice of slavery especially in Africa. Approximately 2,00,000 slaves were liberated in Sierra Leone. Although it couldn ’t effectively tackle the issue.
To improve working conditions, pensions and minimum wage schemes and to encourage formation of trade unions, the International Labour Organization(ILO) was founded in 1919.
A Health Organization was also formed to tackle epidemics especially leprosy, malaria, yellow fever, etc.
A Disarmament Commission was set up to pursue disarmament across Europe.
It was also quite successful in avoiding small wars by settling border and territorial disputes. Few instances were :
It successfully arbitrated the dispute between, Czechoslovakia and Polandover coal rich Teschen in 1920.
Settled the controversy between Sweden and France in their contest over Aaland Islands in 1921.
Fixed the friction between Germany and Poland over Silesia in 1921.
Supported Iraq’s demand of Mosul, as against Turkey, and successfully resolved the discord.
Ordered and successfully accomplished withdrawal of Greece from Bulgaria in 1925.
Failures of League of Nations
The League of Nations, banking upon the idea of Collective Security, was created in order to do away with any tussle which may lead to war, to maintain peace, etc. It was clearly elucidated in Article 11 of the League’s Covenant that ‘any war or threat of war is a matter of concern to the whole League and the League shall take action that may safeguard peace’.
In that sense, the most evident failure of the League was that the globe once again plummeted into another war in just two decades (1939). The interwar period (1919-39) was also contentious which again sabotaged League’s another, yet important, mandate of maintaining world peace. The specific failures could be pointed as:
Capture of Fiume (1919)
Angered by the settlements made under the Treaty of Versailles, Italian nationalists, in 1919, captured port Fiume (now in Croatia), which was given to Yugoslavia by the Treaty. League did nothing and after some 15 months , Italian government solved the issue.
Capture of Vilna (1920)
In 1920, the Poles captured Vilna (capital of Lithuania), where, after the post – war settlements, 30% of the population were Polish and 2% were Lithuanians. League could do nothing even after help was sought by Lithuania, and, Vilna remained under Polish control till the second world war.
Meanwhile, other events took place where the League was mere a spectator and did nothing. Some of them were: scuffle between Turkey and Greece in Smyrna, 1922; French invasion of Ruhr in 1923, over the failure of Germany to pay war reparations on time; etc.
Manchurian Crisis (1931)
Japan occupied Manchuria in 1931 and established a puppet government, Manchukuo. Although the League refused to recognize Manchukuo, it did not ask Japan to restore status quo ante and end expansionist policy and aggression. Following this, Japan left the League and continued its aggressive and expansionist acts (invaded China later on).
Abyssinian Crisis (1935)
In 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia which was a member of the League. This led the League to impose economic, yet limited, sanctions against Italy. In mid-1936, Italy annexed Ethiopia. Two months later, those sanctions were also withdrawn.
Spanish Civil War (1936-39)
In July 1936, armed conflict broke out between the Spanish Nationalists and Republicans. The Nationalists were supported by Mussolini and Hitler. Even after Spanish foreign minister’s request to the League for ensuring political independence and territorial integrity of Spain, League could do nothing.
Apart from these annexation and military scuffle issues, several other areas also witnessed League’s futility:
The 48-hour week provision for workers, proposed by the International Labour Organization (ILO), could not be realized in practice.
A Disarmament Conference, 1923, failed because of Britain’ s stand against it.
Reasons for Failure of League of Nations
US’s Reluctance in Joining League
According to some historians, the very discernible weakness of the League was US not joining it despite Woodrow Wilson behind the concept of the League. It impaired the legitimacy of the League.
After this move of the United States, which was the only world power not affected (as compared to those in Europe) by the First World War, the onus got transferred to Britain and France. Britain and France were already war – ravaged and their situations were not well so as to sustain that position of world leadership without US. In addition, there were confrontations between Britain and France on various issues. Both, France and Britain, had different priorities also. France saw League as its guard against Germany, while, Britain wanted League to protect its imperialist interests .
Dependence on Great Powers for Manoeuvrability
The League lacked an armed force of its own. It was dependent on the Great Powers for enforcement of its resolutions which they were reluctant to do. At most League can impose economic sanctions. It also had no substantial impact on the target country, because they could simply trade with non-members of the League.
Sometimes, even this available power of imposing economic sanctions was not used in proper sense. During the Abyssinian crisis, 1935, the League imposed only limited sanctions on Italy and after few months even that limited economic sanctions were withdrawn.
As per the League’s covenant, all decisions of the League would be taken with unanimity. That provision of unanimous adoption of any decision was the biggest structural hindrance in the seamless working of the League. There was hardly any decision which had fluently came out of the League. This also obstructed the League to take any swift action.
Policy of Appeasement
The irrational policy of Appeasement followed by Britain and France, who could, instead, have stopped the growth of the fascist power(s), added fuel to the pyre of world peace. They covertly supported, by not taking any substantial action, the fascists in a view that the rising fascism would cover them against any possible communist revolution. And because the command of the League was in the hands of these two states, League did nothing.
USSR Not being a Member of the League
The United States came out of the League following its policy of isolationism and Britain and France pursued appeasement. Then the Soviet Union was only great power which took stand against rising fascism and their barbarities. But USSR was not a member of the League and this was also one of the facts which led to League’s failure.
The League faced paucity of funds which was also one of the reasons for its failure. The members were unwilling to fund the organization.
Suspicion among Members and Withdrawal of Membership
The League was dominated by the victors of the first world war. Hence, League failed to check any aggressive step taken by them. Therefore, other members, gradually, began to lose their confidence on the organization, which further led to several withdrawals from the League. Some members, like Japan, also withdrew either because of their personal interests or League’s stand against them. For instance, Japan came out of it after League refused to recognize the Manchukuo government.
League of Nations: A Critical Analysis
The League of Nations was but an association of number of nations, based upon the notion of Collective Security. As a concept, the League, in itself, which was an unprecedented step towards ensuring world peace , security, etc., was a success. The covenant specifically illustrated all such principles. But the failure of member nations, esp., the victors, in realizing the rationale behind the League culminated to the defeat of the mandate of League in broader sense.
It was rather the defeat of the then great powers viz. US, Britain, etc., which raised its head in the form of the failure of the League. Although, it achieved successes on various issues (discussed earlier ), it failed in its prime motive of maintaining world peace and avoiding another war. It is evident how much disrupted was the world peace during the interwar period. The world witnessed another, yet more devastating , war within two decades. The members were together at that international platform only formally, but they were far separated in reality. All of them had their own interests and took no lessons from the first world war. The notion of Collective Security was only on papers, in reality, they were suspicious about each other, and were very wary of taking any action which may have avoided the war.
Their appeasement policy, only in light of their ideological differences with socialism (hence, communism), disrupted the League. So, in a nutshell, if the failures and successes of the League are juxtaposed, the League, in reality, was indeed a debacle of the world and humanity on the whole.
Demise of League of Nations
In 1946, the League of Nations was officially dissolved with the establishment of the United Nations. The United Nations was modeled after the former but with increased international support and extensive machinery to help the new body avoid repeating the League’s failures.
Many League bodies, such as the International Labor Organization, continued to function and eventually became affiliated with the UN. The League’s assets of $22 ,000,000 were then assigned to the U.N.
The structure of the United Nations was intended to make it more effective than the League. The principal Allies in World War II ( UK, USSR, France, U. S., and China) became permanent members of the UN Security Council, giving the new “Great Powers” significant international influence, mirroring the League Council.
Decisions of the UN Security Council are binding on all members of the UN; however, unanimous decisions are not required, unlike the League Council. Permanent members of the UN Security Council were given a shield to protect their vital interests, which has prevented the UN acting decisively in many cases.
Similarly, the UN does not have its own standing armed forces, but the UN has been more successful than the League in calling for its members to contribute to armed interventions, such as the Korean War, and peacekeeping in the former Yugoslavia. However, the UN has in some cases been forced to rely on economic sanctions. The UN has also been more successful than the League in attracting members from the nations of the world, making it more representative.