Did the League of Nations Serve Only British and French Interests?

The failure of the League of Nations was not due, in whole or in part, to its serving only British and French interests. Rather, it can be seen that the League was essentially misconceived, and it was burdened with a machinery and a world order which could not live up to its idealistic mission. It is clear that the League was in essence an optimistic project, not equipped to deal with the change described by James Joll in his Europe Since 1870;  David Thompson agrees with this assessment, and highlights the point at which ‘the assumptions [of the League] were disappointed’, where ‘there remained no cohesive force’ in order to effect its objectives, in his book Europe Since Napoleon. If anything, as Joll suggests, the League over-depended on Britain and France, therefore alienating the only two member states capable of acting with enough authority to rescue the League from the volatile and revisionist powers of the 1930s.

As Joll posits, the League was deprived of a great deal of support almost from the outset with the American return to isolationism. It lost ‘a whole non-European dimension’ and that had a great number of effects. While the League did enjoy some early successes in the non-European sphere – notably the combating of the drug and slave trades, and seen in the peaceful settlement of the territorial dispute over Mosul (though this decision took the form of a positive result for Britain which the Turks disdained) – the absence of America hurt the League a great deal. Latin American states, some of which were among the most enthusiastic early adopters of arbitration and so on, were cowed by American isolation into disengaging with the League; they could not hope to reach the power of their northern neighbour, and did not want to be called upon to check American interests by the League. (Thus the idea of ‘collective security’ – in which small powers may be called upon to fight their larger neighbours and great powers to fight all over the world – had the perverse side effect of making every state feel insecure.) This decline of the League in one of the few non-colonised continents extra to Europe gave the League a more Eurocentric feel, which in essence undermined its international credibility. As Thompson states, the League’s ‘expectations were disappointed’ on many fronts, and one of these was the American rejection of its organisation. As he writes later, ‘there remained no cohesive force [to] … give the League … the vigour of action it needed’. This interpretation is strengthened when examining the case of Britain and France, who were called upon to act as de facto ‘world policemen’. This state of affairs, which coincided with the advent of what E. H. Carr ­– in his own volume, The Twenty Years’ Crisis 1919-1939 – quotes as ‘the return to power politics’, with the rise of revisionist powers such as Italy and Japan after 1931, made both Britain and France wary of acting on the League’s behalf. Both were deeply disturbed by the thought of taking Japan on militarily over Manchuria in 1931, for example. While in this instance the Americans were more likely to take an interest in matters international, the damage of American isolation had been done, and an intolerable burden was placed on Britain and France.  Hence, one of the most important causes of the failure of the League could be seen to be the isolationist policy of the US, and this was closely related to the overall idealism of the project, which could not cope with situations outside the assumptions – such as the desire for universal membership – which built and sustained the League. Thus, the League failed not through being over-directed by Britain and France but through a lack of American participation.

Joll further states that the absence of America left the power of the League ‘in the hands of … Britain and France, preoccupied above all with the establishment of a stable system … in Europe’. This interpretation concurs with the above judgement of Eurocentricism. Further, Britain and France, so far as they agreed on the benefits of peace, had different desires regarding the future shape and direction of the League. In his The Origins of the Second World War, A.J.P. Taylor suggests that there was a fundamental difference in emphasis between Britain and France with regard to the League; Britain wanted a stable Germany, ready once again to trade and participate internationally, and France wanted above all security, as emphasised by her ‘Little Entente’ of eastern European states, which was organised to serve as a bulwark against Germany. This closely resembles the argument made by Carr; he suggests that the action of Japan – which seemed to be in revision of the post-war situation – shattered this arrangement, leading to the overall failure of the League. It would therefore seem that the failure of the League was not its serving the interests of Britain and France but the opposite – as soon as the ‘monopoly on power’ is broken, the League totters. This interpretation would therefore counteract the notion that Britain and France enjoying too privileged a position was the proximate cause of the League’s failure.

As Carr notes with his tone of slight incomprehension, ‘many seriously believed that the … League meant the elimination of power from international relations.’ This idealistic vision was one which created a great deal of problems for the League. Carr furthers his interpretation with the definitive statement that ‘formal equality and open debates did not render the power factor any less decisive.’ As seen above, the shattering of the post-war world order by revisionist powers such as Japan (in Manchuria in 1931) and Italy (in Abyssinia in 1935) created a situation where the power of Britain and France – the designated ‘world policemen’ –  was undermined, leading to inaction and weakness on behalf of the League. This critique of the League goes further, however, and suggests that the organisation could have never worked in the post-war world. This suggestion is supplemented by Thompson, who argues that the League, rather than a supra-state of its own right, was ‘only a facility to be used by state governments’. While Britain and France retained primacy, they ‘k[ept] the peace’, but after the advent of expansionism in Japan and Italy, this arrangement failed, leading to the weakening of the League and its eventual failure; this is evidenced by the fact that the League mechanism did not successfully establish Japanese guilt in Manchuria until nearly a year after the fact, when the Lytton Commission reported; and even after that, there was no general appetite for action to be taken against Japan. The League mechanism had failed, and there had been a wider failure of the assumptions of the peacemakers. While this situation was nearly reversed in Abyssinia – the League swiftly attributed guilt and many were ready to institute sanctions against Italy – the ‘sanction busting’ of the United States (a corollary of the above mentioned isolationism) led to a general failure in the League’s principles, too. As Joll’s interpretation holds, though Wilson had ‘hoped’ that the League could be used for ‘peaceful revision’, it was unable to accomplish this, yielding to the war-like ambitions of nation states. Similarly, the League Covenant, though it committed the members states to defend national borders – which was rampantly disobeyed by France in Silesia and the great powers during the seizure of Vilna in 1921 – there was no requirement to work towards peace in civil wars, which led to the spectacle of Italian, German and Soviet intervention in the bloody Spanish Civil War, about which the League did nothing. Therefore, the essential failure of the League is that it was misconceived – a judgement which accords well with Thompson’s interpretation.

In summation, it appears that the League, rather than acting in the interests of Britain and France to the detriment of the world, placed a great strain on both Powers, neither of which could shoulder the burdens of being an effective enforcer of the League’s will. In this the situation was greatly worsened by the absence of America, which added to the Eurocentric bias of the League and denuded it of a power able to act in Manchuria, for example; in addition, the American promise to supply Mussolini with oil in 1935, though it does suggest that US isolationism doomed the League, also holds that the basic assumptions of the League were too idealistic and impractical to work in reality. Therefore it can be seen that the League was not doomed by the selfish behaviour of European great powers, but rather that it was simply too idealistic and optimistic in nature effectively to operate in the world in which they retained such prominence.