UNDUE despondency, or elation, from insufficient cause is natural to man, but does not conduce to clear sight and calm judgment. It would seem that the recent failure to admit Germany to a seat in the Council of the League of Nations is a case of this kind, for it has produced in the United States, among those who favor, and still more among those who oppose, our entry into the League, an effect out of proportion to its true significance. Let us review briefly the history of the matter.

From the fifth to the sixteenth of October the Premiers, or Ministers of Foreign Affairs, of Germany, Great Britain, Belgium, France, Italy, Poland and Czechoslovakia met at Locarno and drafted a series of treaties dated on the last of these days. The central compact of the series was made by the representatives of the five countries first named and provided for a joint guarantee of the frontiers of Germany, France and Belgium as fixed by the Treaty of Versailles; Germany and Belgium, Germany and France, agreeing moreover not to attack, invade or make war on each other except in self-defense or in pursuance of the Covenant of the League of Nations. They further bound themselves to settle all questions that might arise between them, if legal by judicial decision, otherwise by conciliation, or, the latter failing, by referring the matter to the Council of the League; any violation of these agreements to be brought before that Council, and all the other contracting parties undertaking to come to the help of the state against which such a violation has been directed, in accordance with the findings of the Council. The final article provided that the treaty "shall enter into force as soon as all the ratifications have been deposited and Germany has become a member of the League of Nations," it being universally understood that on entering the League she would, as one of the Great Powers, be given a permanent seat on its Council.

With this principal treaty were associated arbitration conventions by Germany with Belgium, France, Poland and Czechoslovakia, and also by France with the last two. The treaties were all formally signed in London on December 1st and reported, amid general rejoicings, to the Council of the League at its meeting on the 14th of that month.

So far everything went smoothly, but before the Council met again in March, when a special session of the assembly had been called to vote the admission of Germany to the League, France formed a plan for granting to Poland also a permanent seat as a counterweight to German influence. To this Germany objected, intimating that such action would present a fatal obstacle to her entering the League. The question caused a debate in the British House of Commons, and called out a vigorous expression of opinion there against the use of any pressure upon Germany that would keep her out of the League and thereby defeat the Treaty of Locarno.

We need not consider the demands of Spain and China for permanent seats on the Council, or the talk about a preponderant influence therein of Latin or Catholic nations, because these things did not affect the result. The bald facts are that Briand went to Geneva seeking a permanent place on the Council for Poland; Luther and Stresemann with the determination that if this were done Germany would not go into the League. After much fruitless negotiation Sweden offered to resign her temporary seat, if Czechoslovakia would do the same, to make a temporary place for Poland. This compromise was accepted by all the states that had a direct interest in the question, and would have been acted upon at once by the Council had not an obstacle -- insuperable for the time -- been created by Brazil. That country, which filled one of the temporary elective seats and wanted its place made permanent, took advantage of the rule that acts of the Council must be unanimous to insist that she would not vote for the admission of Germany to that body unless she was herself given a right to a place on the same permanent terms. Thereby the execution of the Treaty of Locarno has been blocked until the annual meeting of the Assembly of the League next September.

Two things are noteworthy about this occurrence: first, that an acute controversy over the admission of Poland to the Council was amicably adjusted by an agreement among all the countries affected; and second, that the immediate execution of that agreement was prevented because a state having no real interest in the question in dispute made use of the unanimity rule to acquire a privilege for itself. In so far as the compromise about Poland is concerned the League fulfilled one of its chief objects -- that of inducing an accord on a heated controversy by bringing the parties together for its discussion. But on the other hand, there is clearly something wrong in the organization when such an accord can be frustrated, or postponed, by a stranger to the dispute for purposes of its own.

There may be said to be two reasons for the rule requiring unanimity in the Council. One of them is to preclude anything in the nature of a super-sovereignty in the League. The object of the Council is to consult, to bring about mutual understanding, a common opinion and course of conduct, not to impose the will of a majority. Perhaps this object might be sufficiently, though less fully, attained by a provision that no nation should be bound by any vote to which it did not assent. But there is another reason for the rule which has a peculiar application to the large states -- the Great Powers as they were formerly called. It is that any course of action on which they do not all agree cannot in fact be carried out. A striking example of this was given by the complete abandonment of the Protocol of 1924 as soon as the British Government stated its unwillingness to proceed. A mutual guarantee from which Great Britain held aloof would not have afforded security enough for the other parties to the proposal. All this, however, is true only of the powerful countries which must act in harmony for any effective result. It does not apply in the same way to the small states. A disarmament program, for example, would be futile in which either Great Britain, France or Germany was not included, but it would be absurd to discard such a plan because of a refusal to agree on the part of Latvia, Siam, Abyssinia or Guatemala, to take a member of the League from each of four continents.

Why then, it may be asked, if the consent of the small nations is not essential, should they be represented on the Council? For a most excellent reason. No one desires to hand over the control of the world to the large nations. The League was created for the benefit of all mankind. The small countries have rights as well as the big ones, and in the aggregate their citizens form a large part of the peoples of the earth. A few of them were therefore very properly given seats upon the Council. They could not all have places there, as in the Assembly, because the Council would have been far too large to perform its functions; and hence they were allotted four, and later six, seats, with a provision that the countries to fill these places should be selected from time to time by the Assembly. The object was clearly to represent the collective opinions of the small states, not the peculiar interests of those selected; and perhaps no one imagined that they might use their position for individual instead of representative purposes; that any of them would attempt to trade its vote for its own advantage. The particular difficulty in this case can easily be overcome in September by electing some other state in place of Brazil, if she does not give way by that time; for although a proposal has been made for a definite term of service on the Council, it has never been adopted, and the practice has been to choose afresh each year. Usually the existing members of the Council have been reëlected, but that has not been invariably done and it is certainly by no means necessary.

Yet the occurrence reveals a defect that might at some time become serious. Either the small states elected to temporary seats ought to be representative, and in some way responsive to the nations they represent, or their unanimity should not be required. Brazil claimed, indeed, to be acting on behalf of America, M. de Mello-Franco saying, at the final sitting of the Assembly of the League on March 18:

. . . using our right as an American nation, we claim for America a more equitable and numerous representation on the Council. Brazil, as an integral part of America, has the right, on the same footing of equality as the other American states, to formulate this claim, since it follows logically from the community of interests as from an abstract condominium, that one of its joint possessors may defend as his own a possession which is held in common. . . .

This seems to mean that Brazil, as the representative of American states, might claim for her own benefit that which belonged to all. If Brazil was representing the Central and South American nations, she was not responsive to their opinion, for M. Caballero, of Paraguay, at the same meeting, stated that the delegations of Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Paraguay, the Dominican Republic, Salvador, Uraguay and Venezuela had unanimously informed M. de Mello-Franco "of their desire that Brazil should facilitate, by any means which she may consider to be most advisable, the unanimous agreement of the Council in order to solve the difficulties which prevent it from reaching a decision." In other words, they unanimously asked Brazil to vote for the admission of Germany. In this connection it is interesting to observe that a little later M. Comnene, of Rumania, remarked that "as soon as it was informed on Monday, March 15th, of what was expected of the representative on the Council of the 'Petite Entente' during its present session, the Rumanian Delegation immediately did everything possible to show its international spirit in solution of the grave problems which arose;" showing that Rumania considered that a seat on the Council was held as a representative of a definite group of states. M. Mehdi Frasheri, of Albania, took a different, but not less positive, view of the representative character of the non-permanent members, saying that they held a mandate from the Assembly and not from their own governments, and that while free to express their own personal views, yet if such a member should oppose the settlement of a question in which the direct interests of the League of Nations are concerned, the Assembly would be competent to take an immediate decision in spite of its opposition.

If, in fact, the small states sitting in the Council are there to urge their own particular interests the arrangement is not democratic, for it is giving a small population a right to control the action of large ones. That Rhode Island should have the same number of senators as New York, that before the Reform Act of 1832 a small borough in England should have had as many members of Parliament as a large city, may or may not in each case have been just and wise for other reasons, but no one has ever claimed that it was democratic.

The League has been undergoing an evolution in two respects, which are not unconnected. In its early days it was occupied with matters, like the sovereignty of the Aaland Islands, the Polish-Lithuanian dispute, and technical and administrative questions, of great importance certainly, but not of primary consequence to the large nations of Western Europe. The problems of immediate concern to them growing out of the war and the Treaty of Versailles, such as the payment of reparations and disarmament by Germany, were for the most part kept in their own hands, and dealt with in conferences among themselves and with the German Government. For this reason, as one reviews the meetings of the Council and Assembly of the League he is impressed by a change in the persons who have taken part. At all the earlier sessions of the Council France was represented by M. Leon Bourgeois, a statesman with large views of international duty, to whom more than to any other one man is due the launching of the League on its career of practical usefulness; but although President of the French Senate and a former Prime Minister, he was not at the time in the Cabinet and could hardly be considered wholly a spokesman of the government in France. The British representative during this period was usually Mr. Balfour, a member, indeed, of the Cabinet, but neither Prime Minister nor Foreign Secretary. Much the same was true of Italy; and these facts show that the work of the League was not regarded as one of the chief matters of international concern.

It is significant, on the other hand, that at two of the last meetings of the Council, that of September, 1925, and the one just held, France was represented by Briand when Premier and Foreign Minister -- replaced by Painlevé at the time when he was the Premier -- and England by Chamberlain, her Foreign Secretary. It is interesting to compare also the membership of the Assembly in the early and later periods. At its first meeting, in 1920, the French delegates were Bourgeois, Viviani and Hanotaux, all of them eminent in public life, but none of them in the Cabinet; the British were Balfour, Fisher and Barnes, two of them, indeed, in the Cabinet, but none of them in charge of foreign affairs. At the fifth meeting in 1924 the leading representatives of Great Britain and France were MacDonald and Herriot, both of them the Premiers and Foreign Ministers of their nations; and to the sixth and last -- a change of Ministry having taken place in each country -- Great Britain sent Chamberlain, her Foreign Secretary, and France Briand, who was again both Foreign Minister and Premier. There sat, indeed, in that Assembly three Premiers and sixteen Foreign Ministers; such men coming because they thought that the matters to be considered required their presence, as in fact they did.

The Corfu incident of 1923, coming when the Assembly was in session, brought sharply to mind the function of the League in controversies likely to lead to war, and although that affair was carried to a peaceful end by the Council of Ambassadors rather than by the organs of the League, yet it drew attention to the need of concerted action which the League is designed to promote. The next year the thorny question of disarmament brought that need still more to the front. No sooner was the question seriously considered than it became clear that disarmament and security were inseparable, that no nation could be expected to lay aside its weapons until it felt safe from attack. This meant that it must have such a guarantee of assistance from powerful neighbors as would effectually prevent any attempt at aggression; and only under those conditions could judicial or arbitral decision be substituted for armed preparation for defense. It was a question of vital import to all countries, not least to the large ones on which the burden of the guarantee would fall with the greatest weight. The Assembly at which the matter was taken up in 1924 was, therefore, as we have seen, attended by the Prime Ministers of both Great Britain and France. It framed and recommended unanimously to the several governments the Protocol for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes, which sought to carry out more definitely and rigorously the agreements and guarantees of the Covenant. Within a few months a change of Ministry in Great Britain, and the objection of the Dominions, caused the plan to fall through; but the fact that it had been made, and the way it was made, show how deeply the governments felt the need of taking an active part in regulating international relations through the League.

Finally the desire for a definite settlement of the position of Germany and for receiving her again into the concert of nations brought the Premiers or Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the principal states together at Locarno where the convention was made last October. The very importance attached to the admission of Germany as a member of the League with a seat on the Council, and to the question of other additional seats there, shows the significance ascribed by the leading governments to the League and its Council. In fact, M. Briand, at the last sitting of the Assembly on March 18, speaking of the Locarno convention, said:

"We know that it cannot have all its possible strength nor attain its full development except under the protection of the League of Nations. It is to the League that we have entrusted it. It is by the League, within the League, that we must develop it to its full extent. . . . "

Now it is clear that if the ruling statesmen of the greater nations shall continue to regard the League as important it will be important, for they have the power to make it so.

The course of history depends upon the interplay of the actual forces in the world. Observe the use of the word forces in the plural, for people are prone to attribute to the expression force the sense of military force alone. There are other forces, by no means negligible even in war, and far more potent in time of peace; forces economic, racial, religious, forces of tradition and of thought. Let us say of thought, rather than of public opinion, because overwhelming as a genuine public opinion may become when aroused, there is a tendency to apply the word to a sentimental attitude not very profound and liable to be obscured in the face of insistent fact. These manifold and complex forces are not always in harmony, and one of the chief tasks of a statesman is to adjust, without collisions, the conflicts between those forces that arise either in his own country or with other nations.

When conflicts of interests, ambitions or ideas occur between two states, and no more, they may be arranged by a diplomatic conference of those two. But with the expansion of commercial intercourse and the interlacing of relations of all kinds the questions that affect more than two countries are ever increasing in number; and an attempt to settle them by separate negotiations between two governments at a time involves at the least an element of suspicion, and at the worst alliances of some nations against others, in short the old evil of leagues to maintain the balance of power. It is much better for all those interested to meet about a common table for mutual discussion. In such a procedure the alignments are likely to differ on different questions and enduring lines of cleavage to be escaped. Nor does harm result if there happen to be present at the board impartial representatives of states not directly concerned in the issue debated.

In a body of this kind one must expect differences to be presented that kindle strong feelings, are not easy to allay and may not be adjusted at the first attempt. If this were not so, if the course of the League always ran smoothly, without friction, it would be because the really important questions were kept out; and if so it would not be a true clearing house for international problems. Moreover, quite apart from the settlement of acute controversies, one of the merits of the League is that it meets not only, like the former European Congresses, when serious difficulties have arisen, but at frequent intervals; the Assembly once, and the Council four times or more, a year. This gives to the governments opportunities to meet and talk over matters of common concern, to forestall future dissensions and get into closer personal touch, without arousing public fear of dangers ahead. Diplomatic congresses summoned only in crises cause general alarm, are at once reflected on stock exchanges, put merchants on their guard, and give rise to newspaper recrimination; whereas meetings at regular or frequent intervals may be held without apprehension or excitement.

Unless something unforeseen should occur the present difficulty about the admission of Germany to the League can easily be surmounted in September. A more persistent question is whether the attendance of the Premiers and Foreign Ministers at the meetings of the Council and Assembly will prove a lasting custom, or is due merely to certain pressing questions that will pass away. The very presence of Germany in the Council, by enlarging the range of questions presented and the weight of the decisions reached, may well tend to bring to its meetings the men in charge of the foreign affairs of other countries. If, in spite of occasional disappointments, the governments of the greater nations seriously intend to use the League and its Council for threshing out international problems, the importance and influence of the League are assured. Principles and policies will there be worked out and generally accepted, and every country will inevitably find its advantage in taking part in the discussions at the formative stage.

In America we have already witnessed an example in our own case of not being present when a matter of universal interest was considered. In 1856 we took no part in the Congress of Paris which agreed to abolish the use of privateers in naval warfare. We refused to assent to that agreement unless the nations would go farther by conceding to private property at sea the same protection that it has on land, and we made it clear that we should not feel bound by the provision against privateers since we were not a party thereto. But in face of the general sentiment created by the Declaration of Paris we have never ventured to act against this provision and we never shall. At the opening of the Spanish War, indeed, we felt so strongly the need of bowing to an opinion created in our absence that we declared we should conform to the Declaration of 1856. Later the Protocol of Geneva asserted in 1924 another principle far more at variance with our ideas, for it provided that a decision by the Permanent Court of International Justice, or by the Council of the League, that a matter is solely within the domestic jurisdiction of a nation should not prevent its consideration by the Council or the Assembly; and that another nation which went to war with her on such a matter should not be presumed to be an aggressor, as would be the case of an attack for any other cause. What effect the provision would have had on the attitude of the world toward domestic questions, if the Protocol had been ratified by a large number of countries, need not be considered; but it is an illustration of the fact that opposition is easier before a thing is done than afterwards, and that a movement can be more effectively turned at the outset than after it has acquired momentum.

We are a sensible and practical people, and if the other governments shall hereafter resort to the League as the place for the discussion of the world's problems, if it becomes an international clearing house for all important differences, the United States will ultimately take her place in it by the very force of events. She will do so the sooner if foreign nations do not show excessive anxiety to have her come in, and if Americans do not urge it exclusively on altruistic grounds.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now