THE League of Nations is today an integral part of international life. That in itself is a remarkable fact. Anyone who has not watched the League closely during the past ten years must find it almost impossible to realize the laborious development which has brought it to its present high estate, the innumerable difficulties which have had to be surmounted. It took the devastation, moral and material, of a world war to transform the outlook of mankind sufficiently to allow idealistic schemes to be given a place on the working tables of responsible statesmen. The mentality which the philosophers and historians who were the bulwark of autocracy in centuries past had propagated in their own interests had to be swept away, along with the innumerable obstacles by which autocracy or theocracy in their modern forms sought to hinder the progress of democracy and humanity.

The Covenant of the League of Nations is based upon the idea that the preservation of peace and the welfare of mankind call for efforts far exceeding the capabilities of individual nations, and instruments more efficient than they can separately devise: hence, that international coöperation is necessary. It considers that there is an adequate basis for the welfare of mankind in the system of independent states, but that in order for them to be in a position to work for the well-being of their citizens they must feel secure. It believes that this end cannot be attained through the efforts of individual nations but only through the organized coöperation of all the nations. The final requirement, then, is that international relations must be founded on justice and honor, must be openly conducted, and must be guided by the prescriptions of international law and particularly by the obligations contained in international treaties.

THE PERIOD OF ORGANIZATION

The circumstances under which the League of Nations began its existence were not favorable. Few placed whole-hearted hopes in it. Sceptics and the supporters of the old political methods were opposed to it from the start. Moreover, the faith of progressive people was shaken when they realized with what distrust the League idea was viewed by the majority of Old World statesmen, the very men through whom the decisions of the League were to be rendered. Then, too, there was the fact that the United States remained outside. It seemed that the League of Nations, without the United States and in the hands of statesmen imbued with the old traditions, would be only a shadow of the influential institution which Woodrow Wilson had had in mind, an institution which was to draw its power from its universality and its progressiveness. In addition, Europe was passing through a period of the greatest unrest; the post-war economic and social upheavals, the resistance to the new political order which appeared in many quarters, aroused justifiable fears that these forces would destroy the new organization before it had taken root.

Gradually, however, the magnetic force of the League idea exerted itself. People of good will in all countries rallied to it. The difficulties of the political and economic situation increased the power of attraction which the League had for the public generally, and also brought some of the older statesmen into line; indeed, one might say that they took refuge in the League. And the League itself pursued the very sound policy of spending its first energies on its own organization, and of undertaking only things which it was really competent to handle.

First of all, the Secretariat was properly established. Few realize fully how much effort and skill went into its organization. Suitable personnel had to be found, its various duties -- immediate and future -- had to be defined, and novel methods for carrying out those duties had to be devised, for the officials who were to coöperate in the Secretariat were of all sorts of nationalities, with diverse mentalities and interests. The task of fusing together the different elements and producing in them the spirit of the League of Nations, something so fundamentally dissimilar to the spirit which governs citizens of particular states, was far from easy. Today the Secretariat is a great reservoir of talent, the result of special training, special experience and special knowledge. Any number of valuable international services would be quite unthinkable without its work of preparation and coördination. New appointments to its staff must continue to be made, as hitherto, mainly on the basis of personal efficiency.

In addition, it was necessary to establish a series of technical commissions so that the Council might have proper expert advisers constantly on call. The following committees and commissions were therefore set up: the Economic and Financial Commission, the Advisory and Technical Committee for Communication and Transit, the Permanent Advisory Commission on Military, Naval and Air Questions, the Permanent Mandates Commission, the International Committee on Intellectual Coöperation, the Opium Commission, and several others.

The establishment of these commissions is significant of a definite working method. The specialists who participate in them are citizens of many states and have influence -- some direct, some indirect -- on the development of affairs at home. By meeting periodically they learn to know one another, and gradually create common interests and a common will superior to their individual interests and will. Problems are studied on a technical and systematic basis. Only then do the political organs of the League -- the Council and the Assembly -- take them up for final action, basing their decisions on considerations of political desirability and feasibility.

My remarks on the effect of systematization and coöperation on the mental habits of the experts applies also to the members of the Council, and to a large extent of the Assembly itself; in their case, too, systematic coöperation leads to a vision of common interests above individual interests, to the creation, in a word, of what is generally described as "the spirit of Geneva."

Just how unique an accomplishment in international life was the establishment of the Permanent Court of International Justice can be estimated only when we recall the apparently insuperable difficulties which attended all efforts to set up a real international court before the war. Those who know the authority of the Court and the confidence which it inspires after only eight years of activity, and who have paid attention to the importance of its role (direct and indirect) in examining complicated political disputes from a calm juridical point of view, realize how fully it has justified the highest hopes. And if we compare the existing Court today with the sort of court which the Powers aimed to create before the war, we can see what an immense progress has been made in the world's conception of the proper method of dealing with juridical and political conflicts.

HUMANITARIAN AND INTELLECTUAL ACTIVITIES

Part of the League's work has been to ameliorate the sufferings of prisoners of war and refugees. The treatment of these called for a general plan and for coordinated and rationalized supervision, and this the League was able to supply. A total of 500,000 war prisoners, particularly from Siberia, were repatriated within a period of two years. As for the war refugees, the League has helped them to become productive elements in the economic life of the countries where they are now installed; among those taken care of in this way have been large numbers of Russians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Armenians and others. Its action has been of assistance not only to the refugees themselves but also to states like Greece and Bulgaria, which would have been swamped by the problem if left to deal with it single-handed.

At the very outset the League entered vigorously into the struggle against epidemics (for example, in Poland and Greece), and has subsequently built up a great health organization, which coordinates scattered efforts and succeeds where individual states would fail. The League has established a regular epidemiological press service and a special office of epidemiology at Singapore, and, aided financially by the Rockefeller Foundation, it has organized an exchange of sanitary personnel, etc. My brief mention of the humanitarian aspects of the League would not be complete without reference to the efforts which it has made to limit the use of narcotics, especially opium, and against the white slave traffic.

Intellectual relations between the nations were severed in the course of the war, and it has been necessary to reëstablish them. Here also the League has taken the initiative. In the first place, it conducts investigations into the post-war conditions of intellectual life in the individual countries. When it finds a state of affairs (often of an economic nature) which threatens to paralyze intellectual development, it intervenes and requests institutions and societies to render assistance. America and England in particular have responded to the call, and help has been rendered especially in Austria and Hungary. This work of the League incidentally rationalizes the labor of intellectual workers, thereby increasing their efficiency. All this is an indirect safeguard of peace, for it adds to the consciousness of human solidarity and removes ill-will which often springs merely from insufficient knowledge.

FINANCIAL AND ECONOMIC ACTIVITIES

The League has shown great activity from the outset in the economic sphere.

Difficult problems of transport and transit have been dealt with at general conferences under the aegis of the League in a spirit of freedom and equality for all nations. The means developed include general agreements, as well as model bilateral and collective agreements. In this connection the Committee for Communication and Transit performs a valuable function by acting as arbitrator in transport disputes.

In finance, the League's work has been more than useful; it has been essential. Not only was it necessary after the war to restore the bonds which held the world together in a great economic whole, but also to reorganize economic life so that it might satisfy the new conditions and demands. For this it was not enough to have international collaboration; the work had also to be supported and directed by some authority with a higher prestige than that of any individual state.

As early as 1920 the Council of the League organized a conference at Brussels to make an investigation of the underlying difficulties and to find means of overcoming the economic and financial crisis. That conference, both in method and results, is characteristic. The League calls together the most eminent experts of almost every nation; the problems are examined from the most varied standpoints, in accordance with the needs of individual states and with a view to their habits, convictions and experience; gradually the powerful pressure of circumstances forces them all onto a common path, the one path which leads to a solution; the conference, being composed of experts and not of representatives of states, only makes recommendations in an advisory capacity; it recommends definite financial principles to be adopted and suggests specific means for putting them into practice.

For a time the Brussels resolutions appeared only theoretical. But later it was seen what rich resources had been created there for practical adaptation and use. First individual finance ministers began basing their policies on the Brussels program, quite independently of the League. Then the League, being called to the task of clearing up the economic and financial chaos of Austria, availed itself of the findings of the Brussels Conference. The work in Austria is worthy of more than passing note because it proved what broad powers of recuperation are inherent in a state even as disorganized as Austria, given far-sighted coöperation from outside. Furthermore it proved the efficacy of direct coöperation of a state with the League itself, and in that respect established an encouraging precedent. The case of Hungary followed that of Austria; then came the Esthonian, Greek and Bulgarian loans, and the action taken in regard to Danzig. The League's experience is useful also outside its own field. Thus Sir Arthur Salter, head of the financial and economic section of the Secretariat, was quite right when at the recent economic conference in Prague he declared that he did not think the Dawes Plan could have been realized as early as the year 1924 if it had not been for the pioneer work of the League. In the same way, it would not have been possible for the Young Plan to supersede the Dawes Plan, and for the Hague Conference to be held, without the economic and particularly the political influence of Geneva.

In the economic field the climax of the League's activity for the time being has been the 1927 Economic Conference, which set out a more far-reaching program than has ever been known before in the economic history of mankind. The conference opposed the short-sighted policy of national self-sufficiency, which tends toward economic imperialism, and artificial intervention by the state through customs duties, prohibitions and dumping. On the other hand it supported endeavors to bring about a natural division of labor throughout the world, by the association of the state with private initiative in the formation of industrial agreements and agrarian coöperative societies.

At present the League is concentrating on getting the resolutions of the Economic Conference put into effect gradually by means of international agreements. An agreement has been prepared and negotiated looking toward the removal of import and export prohibitions and restrictions. In the near future two further agreements will probably follow, one dealing with economic statistics and the other with the treatment of foreigners. The recommendation regarding the reduction of customs tariffs has already led to two international agreements regulating the export duties on hides and bones. The adjustment of import duties is, of course, a much more difficult matter, and for the time being the League is restricting its study to certain manufactures or products -- aluminium, cement, timber, fruit and vegetables. It is also studying the world crisis in coal and sugar. Finally, supreme importance is attached to the resolution of the League of Nations passed at the 1929 meeting of the Assembly calling for an armistice in the tariff war -- a resolution which was submitted on the initiative of the British. Its fulfilment will be a work of many years, but the move undoubtedly opens up the way for the economic reorganization of the whole of Europe.

The methods employed by the League of Nations in the economic sphere are similar to those which it employs in other branches. It conducts a technical investigation of problems, lays down principles, formulates ways and means, and carefully follows up the details of application.

DISARMAMENT, SECURITY, ARBITRATION

The most prominent matter which so far has engaged the attention of the League of Nations is the reduction and limitation of armaments or, to use the shorter term, the question of disarmament. This is natural. The League came into being mainly as a result of the desire to end war, and certainly one of the chief causes of the last war was the rivalry in armaments. The Covenant binds the states members of the League to reduce their armaments to a degree compatible with their security and their ability to share in any necessary joint action. So far, of course, no positive and final results have been achieved in this direction, but that is not to say that nothing has been accomplished. Indeed, from the technical point of view it is possible to consider this problem as solved, at least with regard to the immediate future. The extent of this success will be understood only by those who realize that this extremely complicated problem had not been studied at all before it came before the League of Nations, and that many years of energetic work on the part of innumerable military, naval, aeronautical, economic, financial and transport experts have been required before all the different sides of the question could be made clear and before it was possible to elaborate the plan which was accepted in April 1927 at the first reading by the Preparatory Commission on Disarmament.

This technical preparation laid the ground work, and permitted us to see that disagreements on this question are mostly of a political nature. Thus the nations can henceforth concentrate their energies upon a few points, instead of spreading their attention as formerly over the whole confused field.

Security, another question engaging the attention of the League, acquired its importance mainly in connection with the question of disarmament, when governments realized that they could not undertake the responsibility for any reduction of their armaments unless in return for the resultant loss of security they obtained compensation in the form of strictly defined promises of help from other states in case of unprovoked attack. In this matter the League has already achieved some positive results. The proposed Treaty of Mutual Assistance of 1923 and the Geneva Protocol of 1924 fell through, but the principles on which the Protocol was based were adopted in the Locarno agreements and now they have been adopted also in the model treaties recommended at the last meeting of the Assembly.

The universal organization of security has not been achieved; but regional security has been provided in the most inflammable part of Europe. This has been done outside the framework of the League, but as a direct result of the League's pioneer work and in accordance with its principles.

A further positive result of the League's activity in this field is to be observed in the volume of arbitration agreements now being concluded. The number has grown unexpectedly since the Geneva Protocol, and there has also been an increase in the proportion which stipulate that political disputes are included among those to be submitted for settlement by arbitration. The last meeting of the Assembly has given a new impetus to the process, by recommending model treaties which cover all requirements. These have been worked out by the most experienced experts and they represent the best thought available today.

The immense advance which has been made in the signing of arbitration treaties during the last two years allows us to speak today of a new juridical organization of Europe and of the world.

THE SETTLEMENT OF POLITICAL CONFLICTS

Of great assistance to the League in its efforts to organize the peaceful settlement of disputes will be the codification of international law. For this purpose the League in 1924 established a special commission and entrusted it with the task of ascertaining the successive steps by which codification is desirable and possible. The first conference summoned in 1927 discussed international agreements dealing with the questions of nationality, territorial waters and the responsibility of states for damage done in their territories to the persons or property of foreigners.

In this connection reference should be made to the fact that (in accordance with Article 18 of the Covenant) the League of Nations publishes all treaties submitted to it for registration. The importance of this collection of treaties lies not only in the fact that it is very valuable to those seeking knowledge of the treaty obligations of states, but also because it provides a means for ascertaining whether the treaties concluded by the member states are in agreement with the spirit and principles of the Covenant.

The regulations for the registration and publication of treaties are intended to produce a feeling of mutual confidence among the states. It is not sufficient, therefore, that treaties should simply be registered and published. It is necessary that guarantees should be provided, through the organization of an effective supervision, to prevent the registration and hence the entry into effect of any treaty which is not in accord with the principles of the Covenant. In this connection great and burning questions await consideration by the League, and cannot be long postponed.

Up till now one article of the Covenant dealing with treaties (i. e. Article 19) has not been applied at all. This article lays down that the Assembly may call upon member states to reexamine treaties which have become inapplicable and also to take under consideration international conditions which might threaten world peace. This article promotes international confidence, for it means that the Covenant does not rest on the idea that the status quo of 1919 is petrified and unalterable.

For the time being, the importance of this article has lain mainly outside the League, in connection with efforts to mobilize resistance to the present European political order. In particular, it is frequently made use of for propaganda in favor of a revision of the peace treaties. But when this article comes actually to be applied, I think it will prove an effective weapon precisely against those who are striving to secure an alteration of the present régime and who assert that the present order is founded on unjust treaties based on erroneous and one-sided information. Following its accustomed scientific method, the League of Nations will proceed to inquire into the question whether the pretensions of those who criticize the present régime are correct and whether conditions warrant the invocation of Article 19. The League will discover, according to my view, that these assertions are made only to mobilize public opinion against the treaties.

In addition to the above-mentioned activities, the League of Nations has settled several serious disputes and has also been of assistance in smoothing over a number of difficult questions which have come before it. I need only mention the question of the Aland Islands, the Polish-Lithuanian dispute, the question of Upper Silesia, the Javorina dispute, the question of Memel, the question of Mosul, and the Bulgarian-Greek conflict. It has prevented war where there was a threat of war; it has removed the causes of tension where this was possible, or at the very least has cleared up the pretexts adduced to justify tension. In this way the League has steadily strengthened public trust in it, so that more and more disputes are being submitted to it for settlement. There is no need for it to solve directly all the problems that arise, if only they are eventually solved in the Geneva spirit.

PHASES OF THE FIRST DECADE

Looking back on the history of the League of Nations during these ten years we see that it may be divided into four great phases.

The first phase of development extends up to the year 1922 and comprises the organization of the League machinery. The Secretariat and the individual standing commissions are set up and the traditions governing the meetings of the Council and the Assembly are established. Above all, this phase sees the organization of the Permanent Court of International Justice at The Hague.

The second phase lasts from 1922 until 1925. This is the period of the struggles over security, arbitration and disarmament. It begins in 1922 with the famous Fourteenth Resolution, which lays down the principle that the Disarmament Conference shall not be summoned until a certain degree of universal security has previously been insured. On the basis of the interrelation of disarmament and security the Treaty of Mutual Assistance is prepared in 1923; and in 1924 a third principle is added to supplement the first two, arbitration. On the basis of these three principles, the well-known Geneva Protocol is put to vote in the Assembly in September 1924. This is the culminating point of the second phase of the history of the League.

The third phase of development begins with the struggle conducted by England in the spring of 1925 against the Geneva Protocol. The Protocol is rejected and a proposal is made for the conclusion of security and arbitration treaties of a regional character. Negotiations between England, France and Germany lead to the Locarno Conference, the Rhine Pact and arbitration treaties between Germany and her neighbors. In 1927 and 1928 the principles embodied in the Locarno Pact are adopted by other League members. Under the influence of the great extension of the principle of arbitration, the Briand-Kellogg Peace Pact is signed. During this phase, after the conclusion of the Locarno treaties, Germany enters the League of Nations, and thus preparation is made for a genuine liquidation of the war so far as Europe is concerned. Although some of these negotiations are not conducted directly in Geneva, the League of Nations in reality acts as sponsor for the majority of them; either it facilitates them or actually calls them into being.

The fourth phase begins in 1929. The liquidation of the war requires the settlement of the question of German reparations. At Geneva -- not indeed within the framework of the League, but under its influence -- England, France and Germany arrive at an agreement. The Young Plan is accepted and the Hague Conference is held. Owing to the success of the latter, Geneva enters upon a quieter period and the League of Nations finds itself placed on a new basis. It no longer works under the pressure of post-war difficulties and fettered by apprehensions lest some new conflict may arise as a heritage of the struggle of 1914-1918.

The new task set for the League is positive; it no longer is solely the prevention of conflicts but includes in addition the positive organization of world peace. The Assembly meeting in September 1929 revealed how much the League desires to settle the last question that remains from the period of the war -- the question of the Disarmament Conference -- and then be free to devote its fullest energies to the economic reorganization of Europe and of the world. At this session of the Assembly the questions of a customs armistice and of a European federation were placed on the agenda. As its eleventh year opens the League of Nations enters its genuinely constructive and positive phase, the phase in which the peace of Europe -- perhaps even of the world -- is to be reorganized.

At present the United States stands aside, but coöperates with Geneva in a number of questions. In my opinion this is a sound and correct policy for the present. I have never thought it wise to urge any state to enter the League of Nations. Any state's entry must come as a natural development, and it must be left quite free to decide for itself whether such action is or is not in its own interest. The necessary condition is that the League of Nations shall show by its record that it is a powerful factor and one essential to the welfare of the world; it must show that it is working well and that so far as human intelligence can tell it will work well in the future. Then its relation to the United States will be settled satisfactorily in the interests of both and in accordance with the desire of all friends of peace in Europe and in America.

CONCLUSION

Let me now sum up. All the forces of revival working to remove the heritage of damage and fear left by the World War were crystallized in the Covenant of the League of Nations. The Covenant brought into being an organization whose task was to see that these forces did not perish but on the contrary grew stronger, that they stimulated to effective and purposeful action all people of good will, that they aroused the indifferent and converted those of ill will. We have seen in what measure the League of Nations has collaborated in healing the wounds caused by the war and in helping the world to rise to a new, more healthy and richer life. The League of Nations is only in its beginnings. Let anyone who feels like reproaching it for not having done this or that, or with not having acted with sufficient speed in any particular question, bear in mind that its efforts to bring about the organization of international coöperation, peace and security have had to pierce the steel armor collected during long centuries around the conceptions of national prestige, national honor and national duty.

The important fact is that there exists an institution which is working systematically for the revision of these age-old shibboleths. The degree of progress made by the League in any particular question depends upon how thick is the armor of the old ideas in comparison to the strength of the onset of international improvement.

The tasks of the League will never be completed; they are eternal. The necessity of organizing international coöperation will always exist, because new situations will always arise to demand international adjustment. The same is true of the organization of peace and security; new threats to peace will continue to arise. The answer to the question whether the League of Nations has fulfilled its task in a definite period will always depend on the number of needs that have been satisfied and on the number of factors which remain to cause doubts and fears regarding the preservation of peace. If we consider the work of the League of Nations from this standpoint, we must say that very many tasks still remain for it to deal with in the period now opening.

Above all bear in mind that the League of Nations commenced its activities in a very unfavorable period. For a long time it had to repair before it could construct. The field of its activity lay entirely, or almost entirely, untilled. It has had to create its own implements and methods. But the League is on the right path. The best proof of this is the growth of confidence and trust with which it is regarded. It will succeed in its tasks in proportion as it manages to keep on its side a sufficiently large section of the public opinion of the world, for that is and always will be its strongest weapon.

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