Foreign Affairs: 100 Years
The Future of History
Can Liberal Democracy Survive the Decline of the Middle Class?
THE anxious drama of the political and economic crises that have convulsed the world during the past twenty years has tended to detract attention from many of the more prosaic yet profound changes that have taken place in the organization of international life. For these changes the League of Nations, more than any other institution, has been responsible. The place which that institution deserves in the history of our time will doubtless be the subject of controversy for decades to come. Some students will feel that it was doomed to failure by the very form of its constitution or by its political environment; others that it might have succeeded if only certain events had turned out differently -- if, for instance, the United States had not withdrawn at the start, or if the Allied Governments controlling its destinies had been more positive in conciliating Germany, or if the League Powers (with the United States) had been more firm in putting down aggression when it first occurred in Manchuria or Ethiopia, or finally, if the so-called Have-Not Powers had been content to wait till the operation of the natural forces of history had given them the new resources they desired.
But however widely opinion may differ concerning the accomplishments of the League as a whole, there is unanimity of judgment as to the value of its technical and non-political work. Unhappily, that work has been obscured by the more exciting events of postwar history. It is one of the lesser tragedies of this tragic period that few people know and appreciate the great progress which has been made on the humble level of what might be called the world's daily business. The League's own reverses, particularly in the Disarmament and Economic Conferences and in the Manchurian and Ethiopian disputes, have distracted attention from its solid but less conspicuous successes. This is the more regrettable because, by distorting our understanding of events since 1919, valuable clues as to what the future may hold in store for us have been concealed.
Any political institution is a reflection of the society from which it has sprung. The League is a particularly good example of this rule. Contrary to the picture often drawn of it, the League has not lived a separate life of its own in a rarefied atmosphere detached from the world about it, but has been a very vivid expression of the period into which it was born. Its record is valuable both as an index of the stage which international life has at present attained, and as an augury of the course we may expect it to take in the future. That course cannot be mapped out by following theory alone; it must be based on actual experience, it must grow out of the daily life of nations.
The present moment is peculiarly auspicious for an appraisal of the League's non-political accomplishments. Chapter One of the League's history -- a compact twenty-year period from the end of the First World War to the outbreak of the Second -- has come to a sharp close. The great and varied work of international coöperation carried on at Geneva for two decades has been suspended. The conferences which had become almost daily events have for the time being ceased; the international staff has been drastically reduced; some of the technical services, beginning with the financial and economic, are being transferred to the United States on the joint invitation of three educational institutions at Princeton -- the University, the Institute for Advanced Study and the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research.
At the same time, thinking people everywhere are taking stock of the assets that remain, for on these will be built the new organization of international coöperation that will inevitably rise when the present nightmare has passed. There can be no doubt that in the future there will be a need for more international coöperation than in the past, not only because the ravages of the present conflict will have to be repaired but because the world is growing constantly smaller. The advance of science is relentless; the needs of industry are pushing commerce ever farther afield in the search for specialized materials; the world's population is approaching the two and a quarter billion mark. In a word, the world's highways are becoming dangerously crowded, and the necessity for some kind of an international traffic system will thus be more indispensable than ever. After this war the greatest single problem confronting mankind will once again be -- how can the world organize life so as to prevent another and even more calamitous disaster?
It is hence very important, at this moment of world-wide disruption and discouragement, to understand how great have been the advances made since 1919 in the field of technical and nonpolitical collaboration between nations. As Secretary of State Hull declared on February 2, 1939, "The League . . . has been responsible for the development of mutual exchange and discussion of ideas and methods to a greater extent and in more fields of humanitarian and scientific endeavor than any other organization in history. . . . The United States Government is keenly aware of the value of this type of general interchange and desires to see it extended." Upon a later occasion, President Roosevelt, when commenting on the creation of an American committee concerned with the League's technical activities, stated that "without in any way becoming involved in the political affairs of Europe, it has been the continuous policy of this Government for many years to coöperate in the world-wide technical and humanitarian activities of the League. Certain of them, indeed, are not only worthy but definitely essential. . . . However Governments may divide, human problems are common the world over, and we shall never realize peace until these common interests take precedence as the major work of civilization."
The tremendous growth of international coöperation that marked the period following 1919 was due more than anything else to the fact that the League provided a center where all international activities, particularly those of a technical and nonpolitical nature, could concentrate and draw strength. For the first time in history there existed a central agency where the affairs of the world were constantly surveyed by specially created groups of experts who were provided with a meeting place, a staff and working funds. The significance of this humble and little appreciated fact cannot be exaggerated. Before the establishment of the League, a major diplomatic effort was required to assemble an international conference on any subject, even one of pressing importance; the great majority of questions were of such secondary interest that no attempt was even made to convene a meeting to consider them. With the coming of the League, delegations from all corners of the world met every year in the League's Assembly, under which were plenary committees: Legal, Social and Humanitarian, Financial and Economic, Political, and Disarmament. Any question not sufficiently urgent to call for a special conference could be taken in its stride by the appropriate Assembly committee.
A flexible and efficient mechanism existed for carrying out the work thus authorized. The League Council, a kind of executive committee meeting quarterly, has been on hand to take administrative steps, such as appointing committees and fixing dates of meeting. The Secretariat, an international civil service of some seven hundred officials at its maximum, has been constantly available to collect information, prepare preliminary documentation, and provide for translations, the keeping of records and other secretarial work. Finally, a network of expert committees was built up, ranging over almost the entire field of international affairs. This system, as a system, was as nearly complete as it could reasonably be expected to be; that it did not succeed in its primary purpose of preventing another world war should not obscure its very real achievements in other less important fields.
Among the League's technical agencies the most highly developed is the Economic and Financial Organization, part of the work of which has recently been established in the United States. This organization, set up on the recommendation of the Brussels Financial Conference of 1920, afforded invaluable assistance to such important gatherings as the World Economic Conferences of Geneva (1927) and London (1933). Less wellknown yet important activities included the sponsoring of many specialized conferences, in addition to a vast amount of unspectacular but highly useful day-to-day work. The principal agencies of the Organization are the Economic and Financial Committees, composed of experts who are often high-ranking government officials but who for the moment drop their official status in order to exchange views more freely. These two committees are served by the permanent staff of the Secretariat, assisted by specialized committees on subjects as diversified as double taxation, statistics, economic depressions, raw materials, demographic problems, and the gold standard. The result is a kind of specialized economic and financial league within the general League -- one with which non-members, particularly the United States, have been closely associated. However far the world may have moved in the opposite direction from the liberal policies of free and unrestricted trade recommended by the League's experts, the fact remains that in the end these policies will prove to have been the right ones.
The foundation of the League's work in this almost unlimited field lies in its scientific publications. These, for the first time in history, afford a perspective of the world looking down from above rather than the usual foreshortened view as seen horizontally from the window of a particular nation. The Monthly Bulletin of Statistics, the Statistical Year Book, International Trade Statistics, and International Trade in Certain Raw Materials and Foodstuffs have provided essential statistical information on the world's economic life. Other, more analytical publications such as the Review of World Trade, World Production and Prices, Monetary Review, and Money and Banking, have been widely used, particularly in the United States and Germany. Other more popular ones such as the World Economic Survey have been useful in giving a picture of world economy as a whole; while one specialized study has found its way into use as a college textbook. Though these publications do not claim to be the final word on their subjects, they have demonstrated a new and useful approach to world problems.
The various special committees set up in this field have also made definite, if modest, contributions to the cause of international economic organization. The Fiscal Committee has by years of effort perfected several model conventions on fiscal and double taxation problems which have been used as the basis for over a hundred bilateral treaties. The Committee of Statistical Experts, comprising some of the world's foremost statisticians, has evolved a series of standard forms which have already been widely adopted. The Committees on Raw Materials, Economic Depressions, Demographic Problems and the like have made, or are making, similarly valuable studies.
While most of this work has taken the form of analysis or recommendation, some of it has been given precise or even contractual expression. A number of international treaties have been drawn up dealing with subjects as varied as customs formalities, commercial arbitration, treatment of foreigners, counterfeiting of currency, bills of exchange, regulation of whaling, and veterinary problems. Though these agreements cover but a part of the field of international affairs, they constitute a useful contribution to the international law of economic and financial relations which would hardly have been possible without some such permanent agency as the League.
Mention should also be made of the reconstruction loans to-talling something over $400,000,000 issued under League auspices on behalf of such countries as Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Greece. These loans undoubtedly saw Europe over a serious crisis and demonstrated a method of international investigation and control far superior to the disastrous and unchecked loans which followed. The experience received from them offers useful suggestions for the large-scale financing which will doubtless follow the present conflict.
Then there is the League's work in communications and transit. This activity made a promising start at the Barcelona Conference in 1920, when a new international law of communications and transit was outlined and an autonomous agency was created, in which participation was later opened to non-member states on a basis of full equality. Its subsequent development did not, however, fully carry out the early promise, partly because it tended to follow the pathways of international conventions rather than of analytical studies, and partly because several of its most important aspects -- such as posts, telegraph, telephone and aviation -- were already entrusted to other bodies which were unwilling to pool their activities with the more general agency. Even so, the latter was able to demonstrate its value. Few travelers at sea today realize that the League's Transit Organization has been working for years on the standardization of buoyage and the lighting of coasts; still fewer automobilists in Europe, particularly in Germany, realize that the traffic signs on many roadways were given a standard form at League meetings.
In the field of health, the success of the League has been outstanding. Born during the dangerous emergency when typhus threatened Western Europe after the First World War, its work has been practical to a degree which ought to satisfy even the most cynical critic of international coöperation. It has operated on the principle that disease is no respecter of national frontiers. Two of its foremost officials have met death in its service, an American in Syria and a Dutchman in China.
The League's Health Organization, going far beyond any previous efforts in its field, has woven together a world-wide coöperative system embracing governments and individuals, institutions and foundations, hospitals and laboratories. Its work has been directed by a Health Committee consisting of the foremost authorities, often Ministers of Public Health serving unofficially, assisted by an expert permanent staff in the Secretariat, by a network of committees on special problems, and by an annual review on the part of the plenipotentiary delegates at the Assembly. It has thus been able to move fast and far, with complete independence and impartiality and with full access to existing agencies for the protection and improvement of health. Its first task has been to prevent the spread of diseases. This has necessitated sending commissions to several points of danger, as to Poland in 1920 and Spain in 1937. Far more constant, however, has been the watch which it maintains against the outbreak of disease. These activities are centered in the Epidemiological Intelligence Service, which has an Eastern Bureau at Singapore and which operates a radio service embracing no less than 186 ports, working day and night, unseen and unsung, as a vital part of the world's health protection.
Not content merely to prevent disease, the League has sought to improve health facilities throughout the world. Probably not one person in a million, when treated with any of a score of different serums and pharmaceutical products, realizes that the "international" standard on which they are based and on which depends the patient's health, or even life, is in reality a League of Nations standard worked out with infinite patience by laboratories and experts coöperating all over the world. Still fewer are aware that League committees have studied malaria in London, Hamburg, Paris, Rome and Singapore, have even developed a wholly new drug, totaquina, which is far cheaper and quite as effective as quinine, or that they have organized a leprosy research institute in Brazil, or made comparative tests of syphilis treatment in many countries, or studied sleeping sickness in Africa and pellagra in the rural districts of Rumania. Here, indeed, unperceived by the public at large, has been a world coöperative campaign against man's most ancient and implacable enemy.
Another innovation has been the assistance which the League has afforded to individual governments for improving their own health services. For the first time in history, a nation in need of such assistance has been able to apply for it from an international association, without having to fear political complications. Almost from the start of the League, China has drawn heavily upon the advice and aid of its experts in caring for her colossal public health problem. Greece likewise received considerable assistance when reorganizing her health services in 1928. Various other nations have benefited, though less extensively. The League has also organized collective tours by which over 700 health officers from thirty-five different countries have been enabled to study medical methods abroad.
The most timely of all the League's health functions has perhaps been its work in the field of nutrition. Incidentally, this work clearly illustrates the cumulative method of League procedure and the interplay between different zones of interest and authority. The first embryo of this work may be found in an inquiry which the League carried out at the request of the Government of Japan into the food problems of that country. Shortly thereafter, the ravages of the depression led the Health Committee to set up a group of experts to study its specific effects on health. In its turn the International Labour Conference took steps to consider the effect of widespread malnutrition on the health of workers. It remained, however, for the Australian delegation to put the subject on a universal basis by proposing to a somewhat skeptical Assembly in 1935 that the League undertake a study of nutrition in all its aspects -- health, social, economic and industrial. As a result, a Mixed Committee on the Problem of Nutrition was set up, the personnel of which included agricultural, economic and health experts. Enlisting the aid of the Advisory Committee on Social Questions, the International Labour Office and the International Institute of Agriculture, it arrived at certain basic principles of nutrition which are embodied in its final report of 1937.
The subject continued to expand, however, and national committees have accordingly been set up in different countries, until there were over a score of them that have proved so effective that their representatives have twice been called into general conference at Geneva. Similarly, a regional approach to specific aspects of the problem has been made through conferences of government representatives. Out of all this study and consultation has evolved a scientific knowledge concerning foods and food values, a maximum and minimum standard of nutrition, a framework of policy for governments and health ministries, and an exposure of the unnecessarily low standards of nutrition prevalent throughout the world. To quote President Roosevelt again: "The world-wide efforts for better nutrition standards have already shown that the way towards solution of health problems may also be the way towards definite improvement of economic conditions."
Housing, commonly regarded as a very individual problem, is another subject in which the League has recently shown an interest. Here again, the subject has been approached from two widely different angles. On one side, a group of health and building experts has, on the basis of the comparative experience of all countries, worked out certain fundamental, scientific requirements for air, heat, light, noise prevention, sanitation and other structural necessities. On another side, a group of financial experts has elaborated various methods for meeting the problem of financing. In the field of housing each nation has much to learn from the others, for where one has excelled in design, another has excelled in interior equipment, and still another in financing. Housing very definitely offers a field of comparative experience in which a free exchange of all available knowledge and techniques is urgently needed in order to aid the millions of ill-housed people in all lands.
It is in the sphere of drug control, however, that the League has most nearly approached direct international government. Before the First World War only timid attempts were made to reduce this terrible scourge. Since the creation of the League, however, these efforts have been accentuated until today they have culminated in the most advanced form of international administration so far accepted by sovereign nations. As in other fields, an Advisory Committee was created, which in this case was composed of government representatives. Its domain kept continually widening as the pursuit of the illegitimate drug producer and trafficker went ever farther afield. Special world conferences were called in 1924-25, 1931 and 1936; and new conventions, some of them the most widely ratified international agreements on record, were adopted. Control progressed step by step: first, over the international traffic by means of a universally adopted system of import and export certificates; next, over the manufacture of drugs by estimating world needs and bringing about a reduction in production; and then, over national administrations by imposing an embargo against offending nations. More recently, there has been drafted a Convention for limiting the production of raw materials. One group of League experts has authority to estimate what quantities of drugs should be manufactured; another surveys the traffic as it actually exists and as it is reported by the separate governments. In case the Convention is violated, this latter group, sitting as an impartial international tribunal, has the power to embargo further commerce in drugs with the offending nation. Never before have the nations given an international agency such wide authority. The results, however, have been dramatically justified by the fifty percent reduction in morphine production between 1929 and 1932, the large reduction in heroin and cocaine production and the decrease in the number of drug addicts, e.g., from 100,000 to 50,000 in the United States. This effort has, fortunately, called forth the coöperation of practically all nations, not only of former members like Germany and Italy, but more particularly of the United States, which has been a most militant participant from the beginning.
Such have been the principal technical and non-political activities of the League. Many others less conspicuous or less continuous exist in nearly all phases of international relations, but we need not examine them in detail, for the principles they involve have already been described. The only two we might mention in passing are the League's Child Welfare work and its committees on intellectual coöperation -- both typical of the new and useful fields of international action which the League has opened up.
These multifarious activities have come to the League from very different sources. Some, such as opium control, health and the suppression of prostitution, were already in an embryonic stage before the First World War. Others, such as communications and transit, were given special stimulus in the peace treaties. Still others, such as parts of the economic and financial work, originated in plenipotentiary conferences which later entrusted to the League permanent duties that they were not equipped to continue. The great majority, however, represent new activities generated by discussion at the League itself.
As the historical origins of these activities have been different, so necessarily have been their legal bases. Some, though interwoven with the League, are firmly embedded in international convention or treaty, notably the opium work which has behind it the conventions of 1912, 1925, 1931 and 1936. Others are grounded in the League's organization itself, particularly its economic and financial work, which has developed through analysis and report rather than by juridical expression. Still others, such as the institutes of intellectual coöperation at Paris, cinematography at Rome, and leprosy at Rio de Janeiro, have been established as autonomous agencies associated with the League but having their own governing bodies and, unfortunately, as experience has shown, an ultimate dependence on the governments that give them hospitality.
The various activities have also manifested very different and uneven rates of progress. Some have developed rapidly, others slowly, and often quite contrary to expectations. The speed has depended in part on the nature of the subject and in part on the energy with which it has been pursued. Where a government has taken a strong position, as the British on slavery or the American on opium, progress has tended to be rapid. Where there has been a resolute group of people interested in the question or where a tradition of activity has already been built up, as in the campaign against organized international prostitution, work has likewise gone ahead quickly. In some cases, notably as regards refugees or double taxation, energetic support from individuals has brought great progress. The League method has been simple, informal and receptive; a government or group desiring action could usually secure it unless the opposition was very determined. Very often hostility, if not irreconcilable, has contented itself with mere abstention; an indifferent majority has frequently allowed an energetic minority to have its way.
Any general evaluation of the League's non-political activities inevitably returns us to the point stressed at the beginning of this article: that by its mere existence the League has given an unprecedented stimulus to international coöperation. The very fact that there has been in operation a permanent agency with an annual Assembly, a quarterly Council, manifold committees, a permanent staff and an adequate budget, has made it possible for many international activities to catch the world's attention, receive a hearing, and be given whatever encouragement they deserved.
One of the little understood phenomena of this system has been the development of something which might almost be described as spontaneous combustion in generating new ideas and plans. Bring together the representatives of many nations and many viewpoints in periodic conferences, and the result is almost sure to be the formulation of ideas of the most unexpected sorts. No one would have predicted, for instance, that the most ambitious Press Conference ever convened would develop out of a curious Chilean complex; or that a world-wide campaign for better nutrition would find its origin in Japan and Australia; or that many other activities, in particular those concerning the suppression of the drug traffic and prostitution, would originate among Americans -- whose government was not even a member of the League. The League has made it possible for the world to tap its wealth of human experience, wisdom and leadership in a way heretofore impossible. Governments, organizations and individuals which in the past had often had considerable difficulty in discovering a forum in which to present their ideas have found in the League a hospitable medium.
Another important feature of the League method has been its flexibility. It has been able to work without undue haste or pressure, but with periodic revision and checking. It could proceed stage by stage -- preliminary study in the Secretariat, more formal discussion in a group of experts, still more formal discussion in the Assembly, and finally full diplomatic action in a special conference. The League has been under none of that compelling urgency so prevalent before the First World War when things were either accomplished suddenly at ad hoc conferences or had to wait for years until, as in the case of the old Hague Conferences, public interest demanded the calling of a new meeting.
The League has also been able to carry on its work in a far more scientific and non-political spirit than had been possible in the past. This is well stated in the Report of the Special Committee on the Development of International Coöperation in Economic and Social Affairs (known as the Bruce Committee), which says:
In the early days of the League, it was perhaps too often assumed that international coöperation necessarily implied international contractual obligations and that the success of such coöperation could be measured by the new obligations entered into. In certain fields, indeed, notably in the control of the drug traffic, and in numerous problems connected with the régime of international communications and transit -- such methods have met with striking success and continue to be appropriate. But it is coming to be realised that many of the really vital problems, by their very nature, do not lend themselves to settlement by formal conferences and treaties -- that the primary object of international coöperation should be rather mutual help than reciprocal contract -- above all, the exchange of knowledge and of the fruits of experience.
This philosophy has introduced the expert into international life to an unprecedented degree. There, as elsewhere, the first necessity is to know the facts without fear or favor; once they have been ascertained, the action to be taken is often surprisingly clear and is generally accepted. It is when facts are but half-known, or are partially obscured by extraneous elements, that conflict is most likely to develop.
Another important and seldom appreciated advantage inherent in a permanent international mechanism like the League is that it permits those working in one field of activity to cross professional lines and obtain assistance from those engaged in cognate fields. The Opium Committee, for instance, has frequently turned to the Health Committee for its judgment on certain drugs; the Nutrition Committee has drawn upon the Health, Economic and Labor Committees; the Child Welfare Committee has turned to the Cinematographic Institute; and so on around the circle. Interesting to note is the fact that the World Disarmament Conference examined the system of international drug control in search of ideas it might use for setting up a similar system of control over world armaments.
The League's twenty years of experience have brought out sources of weakness as well as of strength. First of all, this experience has shown that delegates at Geneva all too frequently vote a resolution only to have their governments fail to carry it out. This has often been interpreted as bad faith, but more likely it is merely a difference of tempo. At Geneva the delegates find themselves in a new atmosphere: as a result of free discussion they gradually come to accept the fairness of other viewpoints; this leads them slowly to modify their own ideas; and thus they eventually come to an agreement representing the greatest common good. The governments at home, however, feel these stimuli but faintly, for their outlook is limited by national interests and in the formulation of their policies they are particularly subject to local group pressures. One can readily understand, then, why there is often a gap between what a diplomat viewing the world as a whole recommends and what a local politician at home is willing to accept. How to narrow this gap is one of the great problems facing the future.
Another difficulty has been the tendency on the part of certain totalitarian governments to make no differentiation between the political and the non-political functions of the League. When Japan left the League, she continued for a while to coöperate in its non-political activities; subsequently, however, she severed her connections with all branches of the League's work. Similarly, when Germany and Italy withdrew, they left the League and all its works. The only exception was that Germany continued to participate in its opium control because this work had originated in a special treaty. It is worth mentioning that the United States, though not a member of the League, has pursued a gradually expanding policy of selective coöperation, until today the American Government is widely represented in the League's technical work.
Another difficulty, this time one of organization rather than of politics, is that several specialized international agencies already in the field before the League's creation have guarded their independence so jealously that they have kept certain important activities from coming under League control. The situation has differed from case to case, but the principle has been substantially the same. The International Postal and Telegraphic Unions, for instance, remain almost without contact with the League; the International Institute of Agriculture has coöperated somewhat uncertainly; the Bank of International Settlements has been kept rather conspicuously apart from the League. The International Health Bureau has, on the contrary, become largely overshadowed by the League's Health Organization. It is true that during the present world upheaval these agencies have been able to maintain a sort of precarious life, whereas the League has seen its work badly crippled. But in normal times, their insistence upon a completely separate individuality often leads to conflicts and duplications of effort injurious alike to the international community as a whole and to the agencies themselves. Another problem to be faced after this war will therefore be to establish a greater degree of unity and coöperation among the various international bodies that render service to the world at large.
The record of the League of Nations in these past twenty years is neither all black nor all white. The League proved inadequate to avert the great catastrophe which many had hoped it might avert. Yet this failure cannot destroy the fact that the League experiment, during its first brief period of life, made appreciable contributions not only to the solution of day-to-day problems but even more to the opening up of new subjects and new methods from which we may derive inspiration and hope for the future. This experience has been deeply valuable, for it marks a phase in the slow transition of mankind from international anarchy to the world community.