League of Nations

League of Nations

The League of Nations was the ill-fated predecessor of the United Nations.


To Alexander of Russia’s scheme of a Holy Alliance we need only briefly allude. Though admirable in intention it was rejected as “sublime nonsense and mysticism” by Castlereagh, and it eventually degenerated into a mere prop of despotism supported by the empires of Central Europe and France. But the work of Castlereagh is worthy of closer attention. He tried to substitute for the chaotic political methods of the past a system of Diplomacy by conference, confining his efforts, however, to the Great Powers; though he desired to make their attitude to the Smaller Powers one of “influence rather than authority.” He provided his “Conference of Ambassadors” with an organized plan of work and with a secretariat, and he supplemented it by occasional Conferences of the Principal Statesmen of the Concert. His Conference of Ambassadors continued to sit in one form or another for almost six years, and he held four or five of his Conferences of Principal Statesmen.

Later in the 19th century Castlereagh’s work bore fruit in the European Concert, which proved on a number of occasions to be an effective instrument for the joint settlement of Balkan problems and for the maintenance of European peace. But at the time, and for the purpose for which he had created it, Castlereagh’s system of Diplomacy by conference almost completely failed. It did so because it never had in it the seeds of life. Its members differed fundamentally on all the greater issues of international politics; while some of them were independent and autocratic sovereigns, subject to no control, and without the pressure behind them of a general democratic will for peace. Indeed the paramount cause of failure, not only of the vague and mystic ideas of Alexander, but also of the more practical and definite schemes of Castlereagh, was that they were not backed by the force of a strong, persistent, instructed public opinion.

Since the Napoleonic wars, forces have been at work which have slowly changed the economic condition of the world —knitting its many parts together, and making more and more possible an international political organization, which shall exist side by side with the economic organization already created. The first of these forces is the revolution in communications which has occurred in the course of the last century, and which has brought the most remote parts of the world nearer to each other than neighbouring towns were a hundred years ago. The second of the forces —in a sense it is the result of the first— is the remarkable raising of the standards of civilization through the coüperation of mankind in ever larger groups and in enterprises conceived and conducted on an ever greater scale. To-day no part of the world can live without the rest; and a greater proportion of the world’s commerce is conducted by vast international companies. Thus we have a general community of interests between human beings living in different States. It was evident before the World War?—?and if it were not, the war proved it to demonstration?—?that the interests of any one civilized country are indissolubly bound up with those of every other country , and no sensible statesman will ever again base his policy on the principle that his country will gain by another’s loss.


Nor is this community of interests between peoples confined to their material well-being. It extends to every sort of scientific, political and moral activity in which men coüperate for the progress of their race. The revolution in communications, which is still in progress, rapidly destroying the factors of space and time, has rendered possible a development of warfare which has changed its whole character, and rendered it universal in a sense never hitherto imagined. Withal, “science,” as Lord Esher remarks, “sleepless, restless and revolutionary, is exploring every day new methods of destruction, and opening up avenues to novel tactics, rendering certain that war in the future will be waged with weapons hitherto undreamt of, fought in the air and under the water by contrivances which will render those of 1918 as obsolete as gunpowder rendered bows and Bills .”

Thus it is not too much to assert that another world war would almost certainly throw mankind back into the dark ages. For these among other reasons some sort of international organization for the conduct of the relations of States is essential, if the human race is not to abandon the hopes and the ideals for which it has striven during centuries of progress.

Essential Conditions

It may be taken as commonly accepted that the purposes and objects of a league are the following:

  • First, the maintenance of peace.
  • Second, and as a corollary to the first, the solution of international disputes by methods of law, if and when the necessary law exists; when it does not, their solution by political methods, by public debate, by impartial investigation and by conciliation on the basis of the accepted canons of right and justice.
  • Third, the promotion of international cooperation wherever necessary or useful, between States and between the citizens of different States. The promotion of such cooperation will imply the development of rules and the general acceptance of common machinery and common practice in ever wider spheres of international activity.

Further, a first principle which must be borne continually in mind is that the fundamental basis of all law, and the primary condition of all political organization, is the consent of those who are to obey it. And an important and relevant corollary of the proposition is that the force, even the united force, of the greater or more powerful members of a society cannot in the long run coerce the will, or replace the consent, of the others. It is useless, therefore, to plan any organism which depends on the coüperation of the powerful States, but which will not also receive the willing acceptance and coüperation of the great body of other States.

An examination of the results of these limiting conditions, and of the lessons to be drawn from historical experience, and of the accepted objects which it is desirable that a league should achieve, will perhaps indicate to us without further discussion the minimum of rules and of machinery which is essential.

In the first place, then, there must be rules laying down the conditions of membership of the League. As the members of the League, in order to carry out the objects which they agree upon, must give reciprocal undertakings, they must have some guarantee that those with whom they associate themselves are willing and able to carry out what they promise. Next, it is essential that all the members should enter into agreements to meet in full conference from time to time. Third, it will in practice be necessary, and even in theory it is most desirable, that there should be some smaller organ than the full conference of all the members, which in the current business of the League, and when executive action is required, can represent the whole body of the members.

It is evident that the composition of such an executive organ will —in a society in which members are so unequal in size, population and power— involve most difficult problems of representation. And a further consequence of any attempt to organize international affairs through regular conferences of all the members of the League, and through a smaller executive organ, is the necessity for a secretariat which shall be charged with the duty of preparing the work of the organs of the League, which shall act as a central exchange for information among members of the League and shall organize the central and technical services for conferences and for the meetings of the executive organ. The secretariat would also have to keep the records of the League, supervise the execution of the League’s decisions and in general act as an organizing agency for the promotion of international coüperation. It is, perhaps, theoretically possible that these duties ‘should be fulfilled by means of national secretariats attached to the representatives who compose the full conference or the executive organ of the League; but there are great practical advantages in an international secretariat whose members are individually independent.

At that period of time, looked evidently essential that every member must agree that it will not go to war with any other member without previously submitting the dispute to peaceful methods of settlement, either through the instrumentality of the League or otherwise. Further, and as a corollary to this first undertaking, there must be a second one providing for common action against members who break this fundamental agreement. What the nature of this common action must be is a matter for discussion; but it must at the least provide for united and energetic moral pressure by the whole body of the League against the recalcitrant member.

It may well be argued that in the world as it is to-day this united moral pressure should be supported in whatever way may be possible by united material pressure as well. What in any case is essential is to find some means of bringing home to every citizen of a member which breaks its League agreements the universal disapprobation of the other members. Thirdly, it is practically, if not theoretically, necessary to lay down in advance some method, or methods, for the Settlement of Disputes by peaceful means. Great elasticity may be left as to the nature of these methods, and as to the choice of method which the parties to a dispute may adopt. But the agreements of the League should include plans for settlement by conciliation, or arbitration, or judicial verdict; and these plans should be based on the essential principles by which alone moral pressure can be brought to bear on individuals or on Governments?—?that is to say, on strictly impartial inquiry into the merits of disputes, and on full publicity for the contentions of the parties and for the proceedings by which settlement is attempted.

It was further essential that the agreements of the League should include the automatic abrogation by members of all Treaties or undertakings which are not consistent with their obligations as members of the League. No general organization such as a league of nations can operate or inspire confidence in its members if the undertakings to which they agree by their membership are overborne or superseded by other inconsistent agreements which they may enter into with individual States.

The organization and the undertakings indicated seem to constitute the minimum that can serve as the basis of any effective international organization for the prevention of war. Beyond this minimum, there are other things not absolutely essential, but highly desirable. For example, in the plans laid down for the Settlement of Disputes , it is necessary to make provision for settlement by conciliation, by arbitration and by judicial verdict. The last of these alternatives implies a court of international law. It is true that such a court might be set up ad hoc for any dispute in which it is required. But it is preà«minently desirable that a permanent court of international justice should be established as part of the machinery of the League. Only such a permanent court can guarantee the full, absolute and unquestionable impartiality without which States will not submit their disputes to its jurisdiction. Further, such a court appears to be a necessity if we are to achieve the development of international law as an increasingly important factor in the relations between States.

Again, it was highly desirable, though it was not seen as theoretically essential, that the agreements of the League should provide that any dispute, or any circumstances affecting the peace of the world, should be a matter of general concern to every member, so that any member may be within its right in demanding the consideration of any such matter by the organs of the League. Interdependence of States had so far advanced during the course of the 19th century that this principle received some slight and tentative recognition in the international conventions for the peaceful settlement of international disputes drawn up by the conferences at The Hague. But the principle needs full recognition and application if countries are to be prevented from drifting into armed conflicts which, in these times, certainly will involve the interests of their neighbours.

The League in Action

Of the two principal organs of the League, the Council was naturally the one which, up to the summer of 1921, had the best opportunity of proving in practice its working value. Meeting at Geneva, in the first 18 months of its existence, it held 13 sessions, many of which lasted a fortnight. Its members therefore had time to prove by experience whether or not the conception of the Council, as set forth in the Covenant, is right or not. There is probably no statesman who has sat as a member of the Council who would deny that it is an institution which has proved a success.

In its working there were, of course, great difficulties to be overcome. The first and most important of these was that of representation of the Governments entitled to seats on the Council. How was it to be?—?by ambassadors, by Cabinet ministers, by prime ministers? There is an evident difficulty in expecting a prime minister to give up so much time as the members of the Council had to give up during 1920-1 to their duties. There are no less solid objections to allowing the representation of members by ambassadors.

Nevertheless, for far-distant countries —such as China and Japan— it is obvious that their coüperation can only be secured by representatives permanently residing in Europe, which, in practice, means their ambassadors; and of course the solution adopted by the European countries had varied. It is a matter which the Covenant leaves every country free to decide for itself. For the ordinary conduct of the affairs which come within the consideration of the League the solution acted on by Great Britain is probably the best one, namely that it should be represented by a Cabinet minister, whose duties are primarily to deal with all League of Nations business. He must act in close coüperation with the Foreign Office, even if he is not, as perhaps he should be, directly attached to it. When matters of first-class political or general importance are under discussion, it is eminently desirable that prime ministers or foreign ministers should themselves attend, and, if the League is to succeed, it will at great crises be essential that they should do so.

In a great deal of its work the Council required expert and technical study to enable it to take decisions, and to this end it adopted in a large number of cases a plan of appointing special temporary commissions to study the matter under discussion and to make a report. In practice this plan worked admirably. A striking example is the commission which prepared the project for the International Court of Justice.

The Council appointed this commission, consisting of nine of the most eminent jurists in the world, and provided it with an expert secretariat. The Commission invited proposals, examined numerous schemes laid before them, prepared a detailed plan and submitted it, unanimously, for the consideration of the Council. The Council examined it, amended it in important particulars and presented it, in turn, to the Assembly. The Assembly again amended it, adopted it, and signed it in the form of an International Convention. It is a remarkable example of how the Council, by delegating technical work and by then taking the necessary political action on technical reports, can achieve results which, without the League, could not have been achieved.

The Council also adopted another method of delegating authority, namely, by the appointment of high commissioners. It appointed Dr. Nansen to act on its behalf in securing the repatriation of nearly half a million prisoners-of-war in Russia and Central Europe, who, 18 months after the Armistice, were still without prospect of being able to reach their homes. Dr. Nansen was able to coürdinate the action of Governments, to obtain an international loan, to induce Governments and voluntary philanthropic societies to act harmoniously together, and, in general, to secure effective international coüperation in a sphere in which such coüperation could certainly have been achieved by no other means.

The Council also had to solve the problem of carrying on the detailed work and providing for the day-to-day decisions required by some of the administrative, or quasi-administrative, tasks which were entrusted to it. It solved this difficulty by entrusting its president with authority to take current decisions, in conjunction with the Secretary-General, and to exercise his own discretion as to when and how he must consult his colleagues by telegram or otherwise on any given matter. Thus, by means of a permanent secretariat, the difficulties of time and space are minimized.

On the whole it may be said that most of the very different tasks confided during its early existence to the Council were executed with a remarkable degree of unanimity and efficiency. The machine worked even better than it was expected to work and the advantages of continuous coüperation and discussion among the members were made increasingly plain.

The Assembly, considered as a political machine, was no less successful than the Council. Its first meeting was, indeed, a great event in the history of the world. No man could say beforehand what manner of thing it would prove to be. It might have been like previous international Conferences?—? remarkable for ill-prepared work, for formalism, and confused debate, or it might even have ended in disorder and sterility. Such was not the case. On the contrary, on the basis of the admirable preparatory work accomplished by the Council and the Secretariat, a very great amount of constructive work on the organization of the League and its subsidiary bodies was done. Some international agreements of the first importance were made.

Compared with national parliaments the Assembly must be ranked very high, both for the order and interest of its debates —in spite of the difficulty of interpretation— and for the amount which it accomplished in the comparatively brief period of five weeks for which it sat. Most important of all, it created an international spirit, and an atmosphere of conciliation and coüperation, which were certainly unique in the history of international conferences, and augured well for the future of the League.

At the beginning of its labours the Assembly was bound to be faced by very difficult problems of its own internal organization. Obviously a great many items of its long agenda would have to be thrashed out in committee before they could be dealt with by the Assembly at large. It was also obvious that every country represented might wish to take part in any or all of these detailed preliminary discussions. That is to say, every country might wish to be represented on any, or all, of the Committees which the Assembly might set up. The following device was therefore adopted: the whole of the agenda was divided into six groups, and each of the groups was entrusted to a separate Commission. On each of these Commissions every member of the League had the right to one representative. Thus each delegate could serve on two of the Commissions (since each member can have three representatives), or could nominate a substitute to take his place. This system resulted in six Commissions which theoretically might each consist of 42 members, but at which, in practice, there was an attendance of from 25 to 40 members. These Commissions were not too large for the effective conduct of business; and yet they satisfied the legitimate desire of every country to be heard at all stages of every debate. In practice the Commissions studied the business put before them in great detail, and with great efficiency, and laid before the Assembly reports which, for the most part, were adopted as they stood. For some work it was of course necessary for the Commissions to appoint smaller Sub-Committees; but this in no way destroyed the control of every member over the detailed conduct of business.

For the general organization of the work of the Assembly, a central Committee or Bureau was appointed. This consisted of the President of the Assembly, the President of each of the six Commissions, and six other members elected by the Assembly at large. This body was responsible for settling the order of the agenda and for dealing with any current questions which arose. The system worked to the satisfaction of everyone. In its conduct of detailed practical business, no less than as a forum of international opinion, the Assembly fulfilled the best hopes that had been placed in it.

The Secretariat similarly proved in practice to be a sound working instrument. In many ways its task was more difficult even than that of the Council and of the Assembly. In accordance with the spirit of the Covenant, it was built up on lines as truly international as is consistent with the efficient conduct of its work. Over 20 nationalities were represented among its members, and yet the whole staff worked together harmoniously in pursuit of common ends. It was divided into sections, following the general division of the work which has been entrusted to the League. It is in no sense a rival to the Foreign Offices. It proved an efficient agency for the preparation of the work of the Council and of the Assembly, and for the execution of their decisions. Its work is greatly comph’cated by the fact that both French and English are official languages, and by the difficulties of maintaining continuous contact with 48 different and distant States. Its work was none the less carried out in a spirit of devotion and with a degree of economy which earned the high approbation of a special Committee of Inquiry appointed by the Assembly.

The provisions of the Covenant with reference to disputes (Articles 11-17) had not yet been] put into application sufficiently for a conclusive opinion to be formed on them. But there was sufficient experience of their working to make it fair to claim that they are based on sound principles.

The Articles relating to the legal settlement of disputes had hardly as yet been tested. The plan laid down in Article 14 for the creation of the Court worked well. It is worthy of special note that nine States had by the middle of 1921 already agreed to give the Court obligatory jurisdiction in all juridical disputes which might arise between them.

Apart from this, one legal question was solved in 1921 by the League, which would have been referred to the Court had it been in existence. This was the question of the competence of the League to deal with the à…land Is. dispute. Finland claimed that the islands lay entirely within its sovereignty, and that therefore the League could not deal with the matter. As there was no Court, the Council referred this contention to a Commission of three eminent international lawyers, a Frenchman, a Dutchman and a Swiss. This Commission made an elaborate report and produced so great a body of convincing legal argument in support of the League’s competence that their decision was never for one moment questioned even by Finland, against whom it went. It was a good demonstration of the value of judicial methods; and it indicates the great authority which the International Court may be expected to wield.

The provisions of the Covenant for the settlement of disputes by political methods (Article 15) had more extensive trial. Three disputes of first-rate importance had been dealt with by the League by Aug. 1921?—?the à…land Is. dispute, between Finland and Sweden; the Vilna dispute, between Poland and Lithuania; and the Albanian frontier dispute, between Albania, Serbia and Greece. Of these the first in date and importance was that of the à…land Is. It was laid before the League in the month of June 1920, at a moment when there was great tension between the parties tension which in the opinion of a good many competent judges was very likely to result in war. The Council’s conduct of the matter afforded an illustration of the working of almost every provision in the Covenant that relates to the settlement of disputes.

To begin with, the matter was brought to the League by the action of a third party?—?Great Britain?—?under the terms of Article 11; no better example could be wished for of the value of this Article. Next, the question of the legal competence of the League was referred by the Council, under Article 14, for an advisory opinion to a Commission of jurists representing the International Court. Next the Council appointed a political Commission of persons of high international authority, and of impeachable impartiality, to investigate the contentions of the parties and the merits of the dispute.

This Commission spent several months on its inquiries, and passed a long time among the à…land Islanders themselves. As a result, they produced a remarkable report, against parts of which the Swedish Government strongly protested, but which nevertheless was recognized by public opinion as a fair and statesmanlike presentation of the facts and merits of the problem, and as a wide and practicable proposal for its solution. This report was published for the examination of the world at large as soon as it was laid before the Council. The matter was finally dealt with by the Council at its 13th session.

The substance of the Commission’s report was adopted as the Council’s decision, and this in turn was accepted by all the parties. The à…land Islanders, whose representatives were themselves heard by the Council, secured guarantees from Finland amounting almost to autonomy, while the Swedish-speaking population of Finland secured protection, which, without the intervention of the League, they would not have done. Thus a very probable war was averted, and a path to friendly coüperation between close neighbours was opened. Such was the result of the full application of the new methods of delay, publicity and impartial investigation which the Covenant provides.

The history of the Council’s conduct of the Vilna dispute between Poland and Lithuania is less satisfactory. The matter was rendered far more difficult from the start by the fact that, immediately it was referred to the League, the Polish forces of Gen. Zeligowski executed a coup de force and occupied the area in dispute. The Polish Government repudiated Gen. Zeligowski, but have since tacitly admitted their responsibility for his actions. There are provisions in the Covenant which might have been applied to induce Poland to remove Zeligowski’s forces from the territory he had unlawfully invaded. These provisions were not applied.

Moreover, had greater publicity been given to the conduct of the dispute by the Council in its early stages, the parties would have found it difficult to maintain their unreasonable, and on some points unjustifiable, course of action. But, in spite of these difficulties and mistakes, the Council nevertheless succeeded in preventing the outbreak of war. If even induced the parties to continue direct negotiations under the presidency of a distinguished member of the Council. It unanimously adopted recommendations at its 13th session, which, if the parties accepted them, seemed likely to lead to the settlement of the dispute by methods of peaceful negotiation and not by force of arms. Thus, even when the Council fails to avail itself of its full powers under the Covenant, it may still, as a result of the moral authority which it possesses, achieve very important results.

With regard to the promotion of international cooperation (Articles 8 and 9, 23, 24 and 25 of the Covenant) the League had done perhaps the most convincing and successful work of its early history. Reference may be made to the principal activities it engaged in. The first was the Brussels Financial Conference of 1920, which resulted in the formation of economic and financial Advisory Committees, and the preparation of a scheme for the financial and economic rehabilitation of Austria. The next was the Transit Conference, held at Barcelona in the spring of 1921, which drew up a number of conventions and recommendations on transit by sea, by river and by railway. The work of this Conference was prepared in the greatest detail by a League Committee, acting under the authority of the Council, and the results which it achieved, including the establishment of a Transit Committee, on which 14 different countries were represented, were of an encouraging kind.

Another Conference, on the regulation of the white slave traffic, was held in June 1921, and was attended by a far greater number of States than any other similar Conference before, and achieved results of great importance which were shortly to be embodied in the form of a convention. With regard to the allied subject of opium, the Assembly appointed a Committee which has begun its work for the supervision of the traffic in drugs in a systematic way, on the basis of which a machinery of supervision and control will in due time be worked out.

In another order of ideas, the League acted as the coürdinating centre of international action in various matters in which such action could not have been achieved except through the League and its Secretariat. As an example may be cited the repatriation of prisoners-of-war already referred to. Another was the campaign against typhus in central Europe, carried out by means of a central fund raised by members of the League and administered under the authority of an Epidemics Commission appointed by the Council. Such administrative international action is unique in the history of international relations, and there seems no reason why it should not be extended advantageously in the future.

There is one other matter which should be mentioned in connexion with this aspect of the League’s work?—?the protection of racial and religious minorities. A great number of treaties have been signed in the last 70 years or so, in which provision has been made, and solemn obligations undertaken, for the protection of such minorities, particularly in central and south-eastern Europe. It is unfortunately true that these treaties have been of very little worth. But by a series of new treaties, to which practically every State in central and south-eastern Europe has given its consent, the protection of these minorities is now placed under the authority of the League. When it is remembered how very mixed are the populations of the new States created by the Treaties of Peace, and how strong are the national feelings left by the war, it cannot be doubted that, if the League succeeds in securing the effective protection of minorities, it will do much to remove a very potent cause of trouble.

With regard to the League’s work for disarmament, in addition to the Permanent Commission to which reference has already n made, the Assembly recommended to the Council that it should adopt again the plan to which it had had resort in connexion with the project for the Court of International Justice; and accordingly the Council appointed a Temporary Mixed Commission, consisting of military men, of politicians, of economists, of employers and of workmen, to study in more detail the application of Article 8, and to propose plans for the adoption of the. Council and of the Assembly. This Commission had only just begun its work in the summer of 1921.

As a result, then, of the general review which has been given of the Covenant in action, it may fairly be held that in technical spheres the results which the League had achieved up to the middle of 1921 had been good. In political matters they had, whenever the Covenant had been acted upon, been no less good. But only too often the Governments of the members of the League and the members of the Council had failed to apply the provisions of the Covenant to matters of political importance with which it was intended that the League should deal. Until the members of the League use the methods of the Covenant for dealing with all international questions of first-rate political importance which arise, the League cannot have that full authority by means of which alone it will be able at times of crisis to prevent the outbreak of great world wars. If the members of the League do use the methods of the Covenant, experience justifies the belief that they will secure the effective settlement of their disputes, and that in doing so they will calm the passions and mitigate the hatreds which otherwise are calculated so gravely to menace the peace of the world.

The League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, also known as the Palestine Mandate, the British Mandate of Palestine and the British Mandate for Palestine, was a legal commission for the administration of Palestine, the draft of which was formally confirmed by the Council of the League of Nations on 24 July 1922, amended via the 16 September 1922 Transjordan memorandum and which came into effect on 29 September 1923 following the ratification of the Treaty of Lausanne.

Incapability of the League of Nations

The League proved incapable of effective action in the face of territorial aggression in the 1930s by Italy, Germany and Japan. The league ceased to function as a collective-security organization, although its social and economic activities continued until World War II.

The League of Nations, even though ultimately unsuccessful in achieving collective security, established a new pattern of international organizational activity.



See Also

References and Further Reading

About the Author/s and Reviewer/s

Author: international

League of Nations

Embracing mainstream international law, this section on league of nations explores the context, history and effect of the area of the law covered here.

League of Nations and Europe

There is an entry on league of nations in the European legal encyclopedia.


See Also

  • International Organization
  • Foreign Relations
  • Organization
  • United Nations
  • United Nations System


See Also

Further Reading

  • Entry “League of Nations” in the work “A Concise Encyclopedia of the European Union from Aachen to Zollverein”, by Rodney Leach (Profile Books; London)


Further Reading

  • The entry “league of nations” in the Parry and Grant Encyclopaedic Dictionary of International Law (currently, the Encyclopaedic Dictionary of International Law, 2009), Oxford University Press