Dashed Hopes for a Peaceful Future: How the League of Nations was Set Up to Fail
“A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.” - Woodrow Wilson
With that statement from American President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points speech, a new hope for diplomacy and renewed international order in the name of peace was born out of the First World War (WWI). Within this article, I will consider why the League of Nations failed to prevent Germany from starting the Second World War (WWII). To accomplish this, I will analyze internal factors that plagued the League, preventing its success from within its own structure, and systemic, external factors that failed to establish the optimal conditions for its success. The internal factors I will analyze are the League’s structurally-engrained lack of force and thus its lack of meaningful collective security. The systemic factors I will analyze are international reactions to its attempted disarmaments and the prioritization of regional and national interests over collective international interests. Similar to how Wilson and other idealists wanted great powers to learn from past mistakes in order to prevent another world war, analysis of the League’s failure is essential to preventing its successor, the United Nations, from a similar fate. I chose to focus on the circumstances surrounding the League’s establishment to try to elucidate why an organization that explicitly tried to ensure peace after WWI would end up so powerless, even contributing to the start of another great war. Additionally, I wanted to focus on how it could take just one generation to shift from the ‘never again’ post-war sentiment to the start of an even more destructive war. Finally, this topic relates to broader issues in security studies; particularly research on international norms and what happens when actors, such as Napoleon, or Hitler in this case, defy them.
Why was the League of Nations unable to provide collective security?
While the purpose of the League of Nations was to prevent future armed conflict, primarily by brokering agreements and promoting disarmament, it lacked its own military force that could enforce its positions and affirm its strength. Furthermore, the powers it did have to deter aggression were often applied too weakly. The main ways by which the League dealt with international disputes were arbitration or judicial decision by its Permanent Court of International Justice. For cases in which the League’s intervention had failed to dissolve tensions, members bringing disputes to the League were bound to avoid initiating war for at least three months following arbitration or the Court’s settlement. However, the only way the League could enforce this obligation was through economic sanctions against the offending state, as well as the employment of any military force offered voluntarily by other sovereign member states. Additionally, Woodrow Wilson believed that in the post-war world, moral pressure and the gravity of global public condemnation would deter aggression, enshrining his belief against the use of military force in the League’s Covenant. While this combination of factors did limit armed conflicts, the League’s lack of real, independent military power was a noticeably exploitable weakness as states began to challenge its authority. Because the League was dependent on members with the greatest military power to present any degree of physical threat where needed, the foreign policies of these countries were inherently entangled with the abilities of the League to assert its authority. Following the losses of WWI, Britain and France (the two greatest League powers) were understandably hesitant to exert military force and enter into other armed conflicts. This meant that there was essentially no fallback option to deter states from initiating wars where diplomacy failed.
As nationalist and fascist ideologies began to fester in Europe in the 1930s, this proved to be a fundamental vulnerability of the League. Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini exploited this weakness in his 1934-1936 conquest of Abyssinia, wherein the League’s diplomatic process failed to protect Abyssinia (a weaker member state) from colonization by a more powerful member state. In this Italo-Abyssinian war, Abyssinia’s requests for assistance and arbitration went unanswered for too long because of the League’s inefficient diplomatic process. This allowed Mussolini, who would later ignore the League’s decision anyway, the time to build up his military. By the time Italy was deemed the aggressor and the League was able to take action, their economic sanctions were ineffective. They should have placed an embargo on oil to impede the Italian military effort, but neither the British nor the French wanted to risk the wrath of Mussolini. They should have closed the Suez Canal, but had no legal recourse to do so. Thus, Italy was able to conquer Abyssinia with no real consequences, and later independently chose to leave the League.
This inaction and weakness on the world stage emboldened German Chancellor Adolf Hitler to violate the Treaty of Versailles, enticing the League to react, by remilitarizing the Rhineland and annexing Austria. The League’s weakness was proven once Britain and France adopted policies of appeasement towards Germany, even allowing Hitler to annex the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. This was reflected in the League’s silence and subsequent inaction on Hitler’s aggression towards its member states. Consequently, Hitler invaded Poland, officially marking the start of WWII, with increased strength from his annexation of the Sudetenland and the confidence that the League could not, or would not, stop him any time soon. Ultimately, the power of the League of Nations’ “collective security” was severely undermined by its limits as a diplomacy-based collective of sovereign states with their own interests and policies, instead of an actor with a united military force that could enforce its agenda, even if just by demonstrating military capacity.
Why did disarmament fail?
Disarmament following the end of WWI was one of the top priorities of the League of Nations, but ultimately the League’s attempts at general arms limitation failed, leading to the rearmament of aggressive powers including Germany. Although Article Eight of the Covenant established that “the maintenance of peace requires the reduction of national armaments to the lowest point consistent with national safety,” the great powers of the League were hesitant to consider limiting their own arms. German disarmament was proposed as a way to initiate general disarmament, but in this goal the League had failed to consider how closely member states associated general security with arms availability. After German disarmament was considered complete, progress was made in terms of naval disarmament with conferences such as the 1930 London Naval Conference. However, the aforementioned French and British disagreement about the threat of Germany plagued other talks and led to a standstill wherein neither side could agree on a plan for their own disarmament. By 1933 Germany left the disarmament talks and the League altogether, as the other powers refused to match their disarmament to German levels, signaling the failure of the League’s disarmament attempts. The disarmament of Germany actually had the opposite of its intended effects, as “limiting the size of her army [...] provided Germany with a strong incentive to substitute machines for men” (Spender). In this way, disarmament failed to create lasting peace by instead creating the conditions for a stronger German military, as well as grounds for resentment as Germany felt it had been treated unequally compared to other powers. This combination only fueled Hitler’s confidence in Germany’s abilities, especially once it started to rearm, and his resolve to make Germany great again.
Why did nationalism and regionalism prevail over internationalism in the League of Nations?
Despite the need for international cooperation and pursuit of collective interests after WWI, a pervasive sense of nationalism and regionalism remained in Europe and abroad, and such beliefs were destructive to the League of Nations. Although it was never more than a union of sovereign states, the League’s efficacy and strength depended on its member states’ willingness to sacrifice a bit of their sovereignty. The United States’ unwillingness to do this resulted in them not joining the League, as isolationists in Congress refused to ratify the agreement despite President Wilson’s enthusiasm for it. This denied the League a potential source of immense strength, and delegitimized its authority.
The secret 1935 Hoare-Laval Pact served as a particularly salient example of regional interests impeding international interests. British Foreign Secretary Samuel Hoare and French Prime Minister Pierre Laval had collaborated to offer territorial concessions in Abyssinia to Mussolini, in order to end the Second Italo-Abyssinian War and ensure European security. Their plan was made secretly, outside the League and in contradiction to its diplomatic process along with general international opposition to appeasing Italy (so as not to inspire Hitler). Thus, it was seen as the ultimate betrayal of the League. The Pact undermined the League’s ability to look out for international interests, as well as its commitment to protecting the territorial integrity of less powerful member states such as Abyssinia. Furthermore, it made the League appear even weaker and less cohesive. This weak and divided appearance further encouraged Hitler to continue with his own nationalist campaign of territorial conquest, sparking WWII.
The main finding of this article is that overall, internal and systemic factors combined to limit the League’s power and undermine its authority, leading to its failure to prevent WWII. The League was an idealistic attempt at securing lasting peace, but in cases such as its failed disarmament attempts, it actually helped establish the conditions for WWII. Despite its good intentions, its execution failed because its principles of cooperation and collective security were grounded in an international system that had yet to fully embrace global integration. Ultimately, the founding vision of the League placed too much trust in the popularity of democratic values and the emerging new world order to carry out its goals. Creating peace only through the League’s weak diplomatic channels was unrealistic, given the international context at the time. Although perhaps the involvement of the U.S. and the early guidance of the League by someone other than the idealistic President Wilson could have changed the outcome, the League was neither set up to have the strength nor did it exist in the right conditions to stop a conflict like WWII. Analyses of its failure can impact security today however, especially in how they can advise its successor, the United Nations, to avoid similar mistakes. Additionally, analyses such as mine inspire further research questions: why has the UN generally succeeded so far where the League failed? Did WWII provoke a certain shift in the international system that WWI did not? Considering the dynamic nature of the international system, especially today, examining and answering questions like these is critical to preventing the next global war.
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