The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 in the aftermath of war-torn Europe promised to usher in a new world order. However, this change did not occur in an expected direction of peace and international stability. Instead, this indirectly engineered further turmoil less than two decades later. However, one cannot ignore the impact that these developments had on constructing what we have known since 1945 as today’s United Nations – a development far more lasting than its predecessor, the League of Nations.
In several ways the League, in fact, inspired the United Nations. Both had core organs, known as the General Assembly in the latter; a smaller, binding executive body that is our Security Council; and a secretariat, headed today by a Secretary General. Despite these similarities, why are we not left with a League today?
One of the answers to this lies in the role of the Security Council. In light of developments in the Second World War, Allied leaders recognized the need for such an executive group to be given greater influence; as such, the Security Council’s ability to impose military and economic sanctions, binding obligations and veto, was granted. Such powers were not available to the League executives, and led to its helplessness in the face of Italian invasions into Ethiopia and Japanese into northern China in the 1930s – crises that further reduced its reputation.
The United Nations is the largest intergovernmental body in contemporary politics (ahead of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation at 56 members). The involvement of 193 current member states allows for broad, representative debate on global issues, in addition to an arena in which various political cultures and religious affiliations can all be present, ranging in economic growth and conflict status. This was not the case with the League, whose membership peaked at 57 – less than half of all nations present at the time. At the time of the League’s inception in 1920, membership was only offered to victors of the First World War; a defeated Germany was only invited to participate in 1926. Furthermore, with the American Senate failing to ratify a treaty permitting its entry into the League, the loss of an emerging power’s influence reduced the League’s clout. With this level of representation, settlements between victors and the defeated were enacted without the latter’s consideration, leading to increasingly harsh terms and reparations that, rather than creating peace, aggravated tensions until a second war was inevitable.
Arthur Sweetser, an American present in several League of Nations affairs, described addressing the United Nations as ‘A man on his second honeymoon asked to speak about his first wife’. Indeed, many of the League’s more ‘technical’ influences have impressed upon the UN we know today. The League’s initial refugee protection agendas continue today as well; the former’s Commission for Refugees repatriated half a million prisoners of war. It also saw initial attempts to try war criminals and establish a permanent court of international justice in the Hague – familiar to us as the ICC.
In some respects, the consensus is that the League did fail in maintaining peace in a new world order. Regardless, without it, the status of the UN today would not have been the same without its existence; the League’s failure, in fact, inspired the UN’s success and significance.