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May the League of Nations be considered a complete failure? Answer this question and develop a deep analysis.

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History                19/4/2011

May the League of Nations be considered a complete failure? Answer this question and develop a deep analysis.

After the defeat of the Central Powers in World War One, not only did a torn and patched up Europe assist to the signature of the rigid Treaty of Versailles, but it was also a witness to the creation of a new international body: the League of Nations. Ideated by some of the most eminent statesmen across the continent, and incorporated by the American president Woodrow Wilson in his renowned “14 Points”, it was established at a time of great economic and financial hardships, where the first global conflict in the history of mankind had left most nations unstable and on the verge of crisis. The birth of the League of Nations represented the materialization of “an expression of a widely held belief that the world was entering a new age in which international anarchy would be overcome by the creation of an effective organization that would ensure peace (Kitchen, p.47)”. Its main objectives were therefore to promote reconciliation amongst both previously existing countries and new states, and to solve all disputes through collective cooperation, in the attempt to strengthen relations and avoid the possibility of war in the future. It aimed to achieve such goals thanks to a combined action of all its participating members, which were expected to intervene together in the case of any dispute or the unreasonable violation of peaceful coexistence, through economic sanctions and military mobilization -if necessary. It is extremely difficult to determine to what extent did the organization succeed. Although during its first years the League did work within its possibilities to fulfill its mission and appeared to have reached a general consensus, not a long time was needed for its weaknesses to become more and more evident. Even if the principles upon which it was developed brought along a great surge of optimism, its strong lack of overall support and incapability to handle such a widespread situation left it powerless and inefficient. Due to a variety of factors, the League of Nations was fatally destined to failure, and in 1946 ceased to exist.

As the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations were devised and generated almost contemporarily, it is not surprising that these were strongly linked. The most logical consequence of such overlapping was that the League was bound to benefit only those victorious nations which had won the war. At the same time, it was obliged to defend the peace treaty even if by many it was considered unjust or exaggerated, and even if the terms of the settlement did not satisfy the promises which had been previously made to some nations, for example those on which Italy relied to gain new territory. On the other hand though, even if the international organization was mainly a product of what had once been American beliefs and politics, the United States refused to join the League and also rejected the agreements which had been made at Versailles, choosing to revert to a policy of isolation and preserve their own affairs. Similarly, Russia was not invited to join as it had previously retreated from the war in 1917, whereas Germany would only join later in 1926. The absence of America deprived the League of Nations of military support and of psychological motivation, in addition to causing a tangible financial loss. Russia, whose internal tension and government acted against the capitalist system in Europe, would still have been a powerful and useful ally in the case of any threat. Therefore without the support of the two countries and without the third on its side, the League would have found itself helpless if the “ambitions of an economically and militarily revived Germany were to be frustrated (Kitchen, p. 52)”. Their absence also signified that the initial aim of collective security was bound to remain unaccomplished, as it was impossible for the organization to possess an armed military force of its own. There was no possibility for a united intervention if the League of Nations was to be challenged.

The League of Nations was also founded upon the idea that the League Covenant, or its very set of rules and regulations, should be included in the peace treaties signed. In such manner, the actual existence of the League itself would not only be consolidated and operate properly, but its decisions could neither be ignored or avoided. Complications were bound to arise as the Covenant was “necessarily vague (Kitchen, p.48)” and requested the support of troops from all nations- many of which had however undergone four years of fighting and whose army had fallen apart, in addition to being unwilling to fight and die in the name of others. Furthermore, “the League had no armed forces to enforce the Covenant (Kitchen, p.48)”, creating an irresolvable cycle. In 1923 a resolution was approved which stated that each country could choose independently whether or not to take action against an aggression, if it was necessary to do so. It therefore became less and less plausible that collective security could be enacted in times of need, and that the organization could not affirm itself as a severe and decisive source of authority.

For what concerns the question of possessing a proper armed force and acting collectively against a common enemy, two of the League of Nations’ major defeats were the Geneva Protocol and the World Disarmament Conference. The first was introduced by the British Prime Minister in the attempt to convince the members of the international body to “accept arbitration (Lowe, p.47)” of the League and to pledge and commit themselves to acting, in order to protect a hypothetical victim of attack. However, the first to disagree to the protocol was the British Conservative government, which resented the idea of risking greatly to defend all the frontiers. Similarly, the World Disarmament Conference a decade later, resulted in another failure. According to Wilson’s “14 Points” and previous international agreements, it was necessary that all war armaments be reduced “to the lowest point consistent with national safety (Kitchen, p.48)”. However, all members had not proved to be greatly inclined to comply to such requests, and Germany (now included in the organization), demanded equality with the French military. France’s absolute denial and disagreements concerning the question successively lead to German retreat and revived its sense of hostility towards the League. Its inattentiveness in negotiating with the growing power later offered Hitler many possibilities to defy its impositions, and a pretext for war to start again. As “military men scoffed at the ridiculous notion that war could be outlawed by international conventions, and warned that it would create a dangerous and misleading sense of security (Kitchen, p.48)”, their predictions resulted to be true.

As the League of Nations found itself lacking a military force and incapable of reaching an unanimous decision, its inability to respond to the many delicate matters it was attempting to handle was mainly a product of the fact that the organization had simply become an affair involving only Britain and France, in addition to minor members. “The League had to function without either the United States or the Soviet Union and could therefore only guarantee the status quo as long as Britain and France were strong enough to resist.. (Kitchen, p. 50)”, yet the nations were extremely weak after the war, struggling to regain their disintegrated military and attempting to re-strengthen their fragile economy. Britain had assumed a relatively pacifist attitude, supported by the public opinion. It had also preferred to sign the Locarno Treaties avoiding the competences of the League. France, on the other hand, refused to moderate its harsh and unforgiving behavior towards Germany, and still felt threatened by the neighboring country. Such evident discordance, along with the absence of any demonstration of collective security and the rejection of the Geneva Protocol, made it so that there was an internal conflict of interests and that it was impossible to reach an entirely approved decision. It also signified that greater time was required to come to a final agreement, rendering procedures time-consuming and so slow as to fail in resolving any urgent problem. Germany profited greatly as “French intransigence and German diplomatic skill placed an intolerable strain on the Franco-British alliance (Kitchen, p.53)”, and was able to facilitate its own rise to power, while the League of Nations remained trapped in too much bureaucracy and internal discrepancies.

The authority of the League of Nations was especially undermined by the Conference of Ambassadors, which had been promoted while the organization was being properly erected. The Conference, which reunited all leading ambassadors of the countries, dealt a severe blow to the remaining power of the League, proving how it could easily be overpowered and discarded. Rather than supporting the decisions of the international body, twice did it instead contradict its official choices and, most importantly, was allowed to do so without any opposed resistance. In 1920 when Lithuania claimed Vilna, which had been grasped by Poland, the League supported the claim of the first nation, whereas the Conference of Ambassadors justified the Poles and awarded them the land anyways. Similarly, the same outcome was that of the Corfu Incident in 1923. When the Italian dictator Mussolini accused Greece of the murder of some Italian officials along the Greek boundary with Albania, Italy occupied the island of Corfu. Although the Greeks did appeal to the League of Nations, under the threats of Mussolini’s retreat from the very League, the Conference pushed them to pay compensation for the damages done. In the eyes of Europe the organization slowly began to lose respect and prestige.

The global economic crisis of 1929, commonly known as the Great Depression, although indirectly did hit the League of Nations and affect it gravely. In Eastern Europe “The Soviet Union was determined to destroy the world that the League hoped to uphold. Attempts were made to spread the revolution to Germany, Hungary, Austria, Finland, the Baltic States and Poland (Kitchen, p.49)”, whereas meanwhile phenomena such as unemployment and poverty spread widely. These also provoked the rise of “extreme right-wing (Lowe, p.48)” governments in Germany and Japan. Successively, during the Japanese invasion of the Chinese region of Manchuria in 1931, the League was merely able to propose that the territory of interest be governed by the organization. Japan retreated, yet once again the League of Nations did not possess the capability of imposing its authority over the nation, as Britain and France feared of losing their common trading possibilities and having to endure a weak economy- conditions in which war would be utterly devastating.

The final blow to the League of Nations’ reputation, which once again provided proof to emphasize its incapacity to react to the challenges of any strong power, was dealt by Italy and Mussolini. As Italian troops invaded Abyssinia in 1935, the sanctions introduced by the League were so feeble and limited that it was possible to easily conclude the conquest. Britain and France had hoped to avoid further complications if Mussolini were encouraged to confirm an alliance with Hitler and Germany, yet by being unprepared and by acting so impudently they only succeeded in losing the support of all the minor members and states. The breaking of the Treaty of Versailles became a realistic possibility for Germany, while it became obvious that the League of Nations could not function correctly, but would instead be subjugated by any aggressive challenge or attack. Although the organization would be dissolved a decade later, its downfall had definitely already begun.

However, although the League of Nations has generally been associated with the concept of failure rather than that of success, it did attempt to “solve all disputes between nations in a rational spirit (Kitchen, p.47)” and did achieve some positive results. Thanks to the development of committees and commissions, international collaboration was increased and many issues were tackled and resolved thoroughly. The International Labor Organization inspired governments to provide better and safer working conditions for employees, to appoint minimum wages and daily working hours, in addition to inducing them to adopt unemployment and sickness benefits, if not old ages pensions. The Health Organization was born to further promote the study of epidemics, and was able to prevent the diffusion of typhus in Russia, whose consequences would have been disastrous. The Refugee Organization occupied itself of former war prisoners and victims, and successively helped many Germans escape persecution under Hitler’s rule. A Mandates Commission also served to supervise and administrate regions under the control of the League, such as the Saar, whom according to the results of a plebiscite was enabled to become again an integrated part of Germany.

The League of Nations was indeed able to peacefully resolve minor political disputes, such as the discussion of the Aaland Islands between Sweden and Finland and the partitioning of Upper Silesia between Germany and Poland. It also successively managed the question of the Greeks invading Bulgaria, whom were forced to withdraw their troops, and Turkey’s attempt to grasp the province of Mosul (under a British mandate) in Iraq which remained in the hands of the latter. It acted overseas in South America by resolving tensions between Bolivia and Paraguay, and Colombia and Peru. It must also be remembered that the League of Nations was the first international organization which was created specifically with the intention of preserving global peace and resolving conflicts in a reasonable manner, and dictated the basis for similar contemporary associations such as the United Nations.

The League of Nations has been defined as “an absurd attempt to avoid the unpleasant realities of diplomacy (Kitchen, p.48)”.

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