Tribune Review

Birth and death of the League of Nations

The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire by Susan Pedersen (Oxford University Press, £22.99)

The First World War was not the war to end wars – if only! – but it was the war that began the end of empires: the Prussian, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian empires were all over and done with by 1918.

It was also the war that gave rise to the first serious attempt at supra-national governance in the form of the League of Nations. The US refused to join the League because it implied some sharing of sovereignty with other nations. Today’s arguments over staying in or quitting the EU are an echo of die-hard American-firsters after WW1 who could not bear to share power with anyone.

This study by Columbia professor Susan Pedersen takes us into the politics of international bureaucracy and policy-making which today still bedevil the UN and the EU as well as the Council of Europe or the OSCE. The League’s first challenge once established was what to do with those areas where imperial rule had gone but there was no nation-state ready to take over. It created what were called “Mandates”’ in east Africa, the Pacific Islands, and, above all, remnants of the Ottoman empire like Syria and Palestine.

In the end, the nation-state proved a sturdy beast and efforts to impose supra-national justice or administer with decency regions once under imperial rule collapsed before national interests. Britain was responsible for admin­ist­er­ing the Palestine mandate and faced a violent refusal from proto-Islamists at any idea of sharing power with the growing Jewish population. London shut the door on Jewish emigration to Palestine in the 1930s in order to suck up to oil producing Arab states as war loomed. As a result of this crude anti-Semitic geo-political act by the Tory Government, hun­dreds of thousands of Jews who might have es­caped the Holocaust were trapped in Europe.

The League protested against this British cruelty but in vain. Today the UN and the EU begs a Tory Government to co-operate to stop those fleeing the butchery of Assad in Syria. Again in vain. The League of Nations is all but forgotten but worth studying as we try to work how to find solutions to problems that require supra-national cooperation and agreement.

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