The League of Nations was founded under a covenant of the Treaty of Versailles (1919) and came into existence on the date the treaty came into effect, in January 1920. The seat of the League was Geneva, Brussels having been rejected as too closely associated with the recent Great War. By the end of 1920, most western European states had become members of the League, with the notable exception of Germany, which joined in September 1926. In a speech to the Chamber of Deputies in January 1925, French prime minister Edouard Herriot described the League as ‘the first outline of the United States of Europe’. By October 1935, the League had 58 members worldwide, half of them European states. However, the US Senate had refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles in 1920, so the United States was never a member of the League. Among League members were states as small as Panama and Honduras and as large as China and the Soviet Union, but in terms of formal voting power, all were on an equal footing.
Under the terms of the Covenant, members of the League committed themselves to ‘the reduction of national armaments to the lowest point consistent with national safety’ and to the exchange of ‘full and frank information as to the scale of their armaments’ (Article 8). The crucial Article 10 committed members of the League ‘to respect and preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence’ of other members. Under Article 12 (as revised in 1924), members agreed to submit disputes to arbitration, judicial settlement or to an inquiry by the Council of the League, and not to resort to war until at least three months after the adjudication was pronounced. A member that failed to respect this provision was ‘deemed to have committed an act of war against all other members of the League’, which would then ‘subject it to the severance of all trade or financial relations’; the nationals of the offending state would be denied contact with those of any other state, ‘whether a member of the League or not’ (Article 16).
The permanent organs of the League were the Council, the Assembly, the secretariat and the International Court of Justice at The Hague. Like the Security Council of the United Nations, the Council was composed of permanent and non-permanent members, the latter elected by the Assembly. At first, there were four permanent members: the British Empire, France, Italy and Japan; a fifth, Germany, was added in 1926. (The government in Berlin insisted on permanent membership of the Council as a condition of Germany’s membership of the League). The number of non-permanent members grew from four in 1920 to 11 in 1936. The Council was empowered to deal ‘with any matter within the sphere of action of the League or affecting the peace of the world’ (Article 4) and in practice met three times a year. Each member of the Council had one representative and one vote. A member state not represented in the Council was entitled to send a delegate to Council meetings at which matters affecting that state were discussed, and the delegate was entitled to vote.
The Assembly was composed of three representatives and three substitutes appointed by the government of each member state. However, as in the Council, each member state had only one vote. Some representatives were parliamentarians, but many were not. The Assembly met in plenary session once a year in September in Geneva, but it was entitled to hold extraordinary sessions at other times and in other places. The Assembly’s work was done in seven committees, to which each member had the right to appoint one representative, dealing inter alia with legal affairs, budgetary questions and disarmament. More technical subjects, such as health and communications, were dealt with in committees of experts attached to the League, as were more recondite matters such as slavery, opium and ‘European Union’ (to consider the proposal for a European federation made in 1929 by Aristide Briand). The organs of the League were serviced by a small international secretariat headed by Eric Drummond (Earl of Perth), later British ambassador in Rome, and from 1933 by Joseph Avenol of France.
Although procedural matters could be settled by majority, substantive decisions of both the Council and the Assembly had to be unanimous (Article 5). Taken in conjunction with the absolute right of interested states to participate in Council deliberations, this proved an insuperable obstacle to effective action. Although the League was responsible for several successful peace-keeping operations – such as the 1935 plebiscite in the Saarland – it failed entirely to curb the aggressive policies of Hitler and Mussolini. Indeed, it was the failure to prevent Mussolini’s invasion and annexation of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) that finally discredited the League and the ideals of inter-state cooperation and collective security on which it was based. Germany and Italy withdrew from the League in 1933 and 1937 respectively. With the outbreak of the second world war in 1939, the League ceased to meet, but it was not formally dissolved until 1946, when it was succeeded by the United Nations.
The League was deliberately intended to mark a break with the ‘old diplomacy’, that is, with bilateral agreements (not all of them publicly acknowledged) between sovereign states, with the Great Powers playing the dominant role. Initially, it enjoyed widespread support, but, as Alfred Zimmern wrote in 1935, ‘Statesmen have been as profuse in professions of loyalty to the League as they have been timid and vacillating in their handling of concrete issues of policy. Indeed, the existence of the League, with its multifarious armoury of diplomatic implements, by increasing the means at their disposal, has afforded them new and up-to-date pretexts for procrastination or evasion’ (The League of Nations and the Rule of Law, 1918-1935, 1939).
Few more recent studies of the League have found much to say in defence of the ‘Geneva experiment’, the importance of which today is as an idealistic model of international cooperation along intergovernmental lines that was fatally compromised from the start by the frailty of the constraints it laid upon the sovereignty of the member states and by the absence of any effective means of enforcing its decisions. Many of the distinguishing features of the European Union – an independent European Commission, a body of law taking precedence over national law, a directly elected European Parliament – can best be understood as springing from a determination on the part of Jean Monnet and others not to repeat the mistakes of the League (of which Monnet had been deputy secretary-general) and to move away from purely intergovernmental cooperation towards a system based upon supranational institutions.
See also supranationalism and intergovernmentalism.
Copyright: Anthony Teasdale, 2012
Citation: The Penguin Companion to European Union (2012), additional website entry