Was the League of Nations Undermined Mainly by Its Own Constitution?

The League of Nations was certainly undermined by the inherent faults of its constitution; this was the product of a particularly idealistic period of history, in which the notion of a supra-national body was a conception ultimately unable to keep up with the Great Depression and the rapacious revisionist powers of the 1930s. This idealism was also seen in the assumptions made in the League’s creation – seen for example in the likelihood of US membership, as well as the motivations and intentions of Britain and France, both of which did not take kindly to becoming de facto world policemen. It is also clear that matters relating to the Covenant and the nature of League machinery predominate in calculations of the failure of those years. The interpretations and arguments presented stem fundamentally from the way the League was constructed and built; this greatly undermined the League, leading to its eventual failure and the collapse of international order.

Jack Watson makes the primary case for the notion that the League’s constitution represented the main reason for its failure; in his book Twentieth Century World Affairs he proposes that the Covenant ‘barely faced up to the problem of major powers which refused to accept the League’s rules’, and that is certainly true; in the Italian seizure of Corfu in 1924, for example, Italy, the aggressor, was allowed to extract reparations from Greece having bullied the latter and invaded its territory. The spirit of this statement is supported by Terry Morris and Derrick Murphy, in Europe 1870–1991, who quote Mussolini on the same essential point: ‘[The League] fails when eagles fall out’.

It could be added that the actions of powers such as Japan in Manchuria were enabled by two essential elements of the League’s make-up: its fundamental weakness in terms of military response, and the time it took to make a decision. The Lytton Commission took several months to report back to the League, for example, and this time-frame, essentially enforced by the League’s internal machinery, meant that Japan retained control of part of China thereafter; dislodging Japan was something neither Britain nor France – to whom the responsibility essentially fell – wanted to do at all. This ‘indecisiveness’ was alluded to by Stephen J. Lee in Aspects of European History 1789–1980, but it is more built on self-interest than on an inability to act. Morris and Murphy, whose interpretation holds that ‘the machinery of the League appealed only to those … too weak to look after their own interests’, second this point. Thus the Chinese appeal for a0rbitration was built upon a desire to use the League mechanism out of Chinese own weakness, and the League’s own inability to act – built upon the failures of the body’s mechanisms – undermined its authority and influence and status. Finally, although elements of this debate are concerned with American absence, this too makes an important point about the League’s mechanism: sanctions, a fundamental part of the way the League hoped to deter war ‘were pointless without American participation’ (pace Lee), undermining the League’s power by demonstrating that its mechanism, which was intended to act as a supra-national body, could not cope in a world where the one of the world’s greatest and most powerful nations did not join.

This argument is also heavily linked to the notion that the League’s constitution made it unable to stop great powers if they chose political revisionism over diplomacy. This was aided by the League’s constitution, as, in the words of Watson, ‘the Articles were too vague … and too readily assumed that breaches of the peace could be dealt with by sanctions’.

This argument is as strong one, as exemplified by the Abyssinia crisis, in which Italy undertook to invade and annex another League member state, and nothing approaching military action was offered against this action. This demonstrates, it could be argued, a void at the heart of the League Covenant, where Article 16 – the clause detailing military sanctions – was only voluntary. A pertinent example of this is the Hoare-Laval Pact, which attempted cynically to carve up Abyssinia in advance of a complete Italian victory in order to preserve the ‘Stresa Front’ against Germany; the great powers of Britain and France attempted to circumvent the League. Yet Lee’s point is also a valid one when he states that ‘sanctions against Italy were pointless without American participation’. In this respect, the League was without its ‘keystone’, and the absence of America – which even offered to sell oil to Italy in greater quantities during a period which threatened sanctions – could be seen to undermine both the legitimacy and power of the League. However, this sanction-breaking could be seen in part as a result of the Great Depression – an eventuality few nations and organisations were prepared for – and not an essential failure of the League’s Covenant.

Another important notion is that of idealism and the ways it led to the creation of the League, which, it could be argued, was fundamentally misconceived. While it was simply assumed by the peacemakers that America would join the League, she did not, and this, according to Lee ‘undermined the League from the beginning’, presenting a counterpoint to the idea that it was the constitution which did this fundamentally. American absence had a great impact on Latin American nations, for example, who feared a confrontation with the United States. But this is not the complete story: America was happy to sit as an observer in the case of Manchuria, for example, and a stronger League constitution might have been able to ensure that the American absence did not necessarily signal the failure of the League, diminishing the validity of this interpretation.

The argument about nations acting selfishly is also supplemented by the actions of the other powers, such as Britain and France, who where therefore put under a great deal of pressure to police the world in America’s absence – something they were not happy to do, as the British Foreign Office consistently warned against warring with Japan, and the French sought to ally with Italy in the face of the Nazi menace. The nature of the great powers meant that they would rather operate in the backrooms of ‘old style’ diplomacy, and this is evidenced by the Silesian plebiscite, in which France manipulated the result to give Poland control of more of an industrial zone, thereby weakening Germany and strengthening the ‘Little Entente’. Morris and Murphy agree on this point, and their interpretation adds that the old Great Powers ‘were content to stick to the old selfish methods of force and power politics’. So too were the revisionist powers who, taking their signal from the seemingly arbitrary actions of Britain and France, sought to improve their own position with force. This evidence runs counter to the idea that the League’s Covenant was the main cause of its failure and states rather that it was simply too idealistic to work in a world where America and Britain and France continued largely to work in their own interests.

In summation, while the actions of France, Britain and America had an impact on the League for the worse, and the League itself could be seen to constitute an overambitious, misconceived enterprise, the fundamental issue still lies with the Covenant. Lee points out that the American absence ‘undermined the League from the very beginning ’, but this is only one element of its eventual failure.

Had the sanctions provision been stronger, for example, America would have been unable to offer tacit support for Italian aggression, as the world would have undertaken military measures against Mussolini; as it was, however, the Council could ‘only with difficulty … raise an army’, as Watson argues (the machinery of the League, similarly to its written Covenant, did not have the clout truly to enforce its will). Similarly, the tendency of Britain and France to act in their own interests could have been tamed by a more robust covenant; with more automatic military measures, for example, neither would have felt the burden of being a world policeman – and both would have been unable to undermine matters such as national self-determination in Silesia and Abyssinia if prevented from doing so. It is therefore essential to attribute at least part of the failure of the League to its constitution, which allowed great powers sufficient room to pervert the wishes of the League; gave an opportunity to revisionist powers such as Italy and Japan to seize the initiative and launch wars of aggression; and enabled the absence of America to undermine the League in essence and in practice.