Successes and Failures of the League of Nations


By DR. MAX HABICHT, Member of Secretariat of the League of Nations; Counsel for European Legal and Financial Matters; Lecturer and Writer on International Relations, Duxbury, Massachusetts. Delivered at Institute of Public Affairs, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, July 10, 1939

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. 5, pp. 703-704

GENERALIZATIONS often heard—"The League of Nations has failed" or "The League of Nations has not failed"—are both incorrect. The activity of the League of Nations during the twenty years of its existence has been so varied that we better think of it as a bundle of strings, some of which are white and some of which are black. The white strings might represent those activities of the League in which the Geneva organization has been successful. The black strings being less numerous would, on the other hand, remind us of the League's failures. It is therefore more correct to say that the League of Nations has been quite successful in numerous fields of its activity while it must also be admitted that it has failed in others.

The League has succeeded in bringing together periodically in Geneva representatives of some 50 governments. It started with 42 state members and increased the membership up to 60 states during its prime. At the present time there are about 50 states cooperating through the medium of the League. This represents the overwhelming majority of humanity as there are only around 65 sovereign states in existence all over the globe today.

In addition to regular meetings of the representatives of League members, the Geneva organization has built up a permanent international civil service consisting of about 1,000 officials giving their full time to the solution of interstate problems. The League of Nations has been successful in housing these activities in one of the most beautiful public buildings erected during the last 20 years: the Palace of the League of Nations facing Lake Geneva.

Two years after its inception the League of Nations created the World Court at The Hague. This instrument consists of 15 permanent judges appointed to settle legal disputes between states. The Court is open to any sovereign state which wishes to make use of its service. Up to date more than 70 cases have been submitted to this judicial organ. It is important to mention that since its inception the Court has included among its judges a citizen of the United States.

The dangerous conflicts between states, however, are not those in which sovereign states are in dispute as to their rights and obligations—so-called legal disputes. The real dangers to world peace are conflicts between states about the change of their rights and obligations, conflicts commonly referred to as disputes concerning the change of the status quo. In order to help in the solution of such conflicts the League established a machinery of mediation and conciliation at Geneva. Since 1920 about 40 conflicts of this kind were submitted to mediation and conciliation by the League of Nations and over 30 of them were satisfactorily settled by the League. To mention just one of these conflicts, in 1935 the League of Nations was successful in solving peacefully the controversy about the Saar Valley. In this dispute, France demanded, according to the Versailles Peace Treaty, that the desires of the Saar population should be determined by plebiscite as to the question whether they desired to live in future under French sovereignty or German sovereignty or continue to be governed by international administration.

The German government insisted that the Saar Valley should return to German sovereignty. The German government, being quite sure that a plebiscite would lead to such a result, agreed to this course. As it was clear that a plebiscite could thus satisfy all the parties involved, the League's intervention was requested by the disputants in order to carry through the plebiscite with the help of an international police force. The Saar incident is one of the examples where the immediate interests of all parties can be said to have been parallel: they all demanded the same action—a plebiscite. That is the reason why it could be solved peacefully through the League machinery. In all disputes about the change of the status quo successfully settled by the League, the immediate interests of the parties involved were parallel, and for that reason the parties could come to unanimous agreement, which is a precondition of any action through the instrumentality of the League.

Among the successes of the League we must count its supervision of the administration in mandated territories. These mandates are former German colonies and are now administered by some of the victors of the last World War. Their administration has to live up to a number of international standards laid down by the Covenant of the League of Nations, and once a year the mandatory powers have to submit to the League of Nations a detailed report about their administration in the mandatory territories. The international supervision by the League of Nations has substantially improved colonial administration in those territories.

There have been many other fields often referred to as so-called non-political activities in which the League has been called upon to take action, such as the suppression of the white slave traffic, the fight against the abuse of opium and dangerous drugs, questions of international transit and communication, international assistance to refugees, the exchange of populations between Greece, Turkey, and Bulgaria, public health matters, the protection of children, the improvement of the condition of workers, and so on. The League of Nations has been successful in bringing about the conclusion of more than 10 multi-lateral conventions in these fields. This means that the League of Nations has produced during the period of the last 20 years a new convention every second month, and these conventions have greatly facilitated the carrying on of international cooperation. In addition to making this law, the League has also been charged with collecting all the bilateral treaties concluded between states, and it has published more than 4,000 international treaties representing a large net of law now ruling the world.

The above mentioned successes of the League, however, should not prevent us from recognizing that the League of Nations has failed in some other respects. It has not been able to protect some 40 million minorities created through the peace treaties and put under the League's protection by the Covenant. Nor has it achieved military or economic disarmament by the nations. Most spectacular, however, were the failures of the League to settle the disputes about Man-

churia in 1931, about the Chaco territory in South America in 1933, about Ethiopia in 1935, and about Spain, Austria, and Czechoslovakia during the last two years. In all those disputes the immediate interests of the parties involved were diametrically opposed. One state asked, for instance, a part of a territory of another state which this latter was not willing to cede. In such disputes it is impossible to expect that the partners can ever come to an agreement. Therefore no mediation and conciliation can solve the problem. If the immediate interests of the disputants are diametrically opposed, the present machinery of the League has not been able in the past and will never be able in the future to bring about a peaceful solution.

The lesson of the last 20 years of activity by the League of Nations is that its machinery, based upon the unanimity rule of sovereign states, can be extremely helpful in settling disputes and organizing international cooperation whenever the immediate interests of all partners are parallel. If it has been possible to fight successfully through the League of Nations the international white slave traffic, it is due to the fact that all sovereign states have the same immediate interests to fight the international slave trafficker. That is why the League's activity in such fields has been successful.

On the other hand, a state usually does not consider that it is in its interest to give up a part of its territories in order to satisfy a corresponding request of another state. That is the reason why the League could not settle the conflict about Manchuria in the Far East, the dispute about the Chaco

territory in South America, nor the conflict between Italy and Ethiopia.

Is there a possibility to improve the League of Nations in order to allow it to bring about a peaceful settlement even in the fields where the immediate interests of states are opposed to each other? The answer is "yes"—but only if the League members are ready to transform their present confederacy based on the unanimity rule into a superstate ruled by majority decision and comprising a proper international legislative and law enforcement machinery.

Peace can only be guaranteed if there is available in the community a judge, a legislator, and a policeman. This is the experience of humanity within the state in our villages, cities, and provinces. Peace between states can not be organized differently. We should therefore learn from the experience of the League that it will be possible to organize international cooperation on the basis of the unanimity rule whenever the interests of states are parallel, but that permanent peace can not be guaranteed on that basis alone. A transformation of the present League of Nations into a superstate is the only solution if humanity wishes to secure permanent peace. That has been the experience of a number of confederacies in the past. It has been the lesson of the Confederacy of the 13 independent American colonies. It is the lesson we must learn from the two decades of the League of Nations' activities. Let's hope that the world is intelligent enough to profit from these experiences without going through the catastrophe of a second world war.