A century ago Friday, on Jan. 25, 1919, nearly 30 countries approved a proposal to create a commission to establish the League of Nations. Meant to keep the peace in the aftermath of World War I, the League—championed by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson—was approved at the Paris Peace Conference and went into effect a year later. Though it only functioned until April 1946, it is considered a forerunner to the United Nations and its impact can still be seen today.

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chathamtownfc.net spoke to Stewart M. Patrick, senior fellow in global governance and director of the International Institutions and Global Governance (IIGG) Program at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), for answers to some basic questions about the League’s legacy:


chathamtownfc.net: What did the League of Nations do right?

PATRICK: There had been many plans throughout history, since the days of Immanuel Kant, to come up with a permanent institution to help create perpetual peace or reduce the prospects of war. The League of Nations is significant because, even though it failed, it was the first chathamtownfc.net a bunch of sovereign nations got together and said, ‘We’re sovereign nations, but we’re going to try to combine our power to try to keep the peace.’ It also had some modest successes particularly dealing with certain territorial disputes. The League was not in vain if you consider that there were lessons learned from its failings.

Why did the League of Nations fail?

There had to be unanimity for decisions that were taken. Unanimity made it really hard for the League to do anything. The League suffered big chathamtownfc.net from the absence of major powers — Germany, Japan, Italy ultimately left — and the lack of U.S. participation.

Henry Cabot Lodge, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was worried involvement in the League would hamstring the U.S. from determining its own fate and demanded all these reservations to U.S. membership. The biggest issue was Article X, which said League members are committed to protecting the independence and territorial integrity of other countries around the world, and Lodge interpreted that as an automatic decision that if a country was invaded or faced aggression, the U.S. would have to come to aid. The reality was it was more moral than an iron-clad legal commitment. And as a result the Senate rejected U.S. membership in the League of Nations.

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The League showed the inherent limitations of collective security, which is basically an “all for one and one for all” ethos; countries have to treat the outbreak of war anywhere as worrisome and a threat and we have to respond to it. The reality is doesn’t take into account countries’ other interests or the context. For instance, when Italy invaded Ethiopia in the mid-1930s, Britain and France who needed Italy as it was cozying up to Nazi Germany, chose to appease. Same thing when Hitler started gobbling up little bits of nearby countries.