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1 September 2021

From the NS archive: Objections to a League of Nations

18 August 1917: History showed that states were not bound by the treaty obligations they had signed.

By New Statesman

In the summer of 1917, thoughts were turning to the postwar world and what could guarantee that no global war could happen again. The idea of a League of Nations was floated but, as critics pointed out, what guarantee was there that member states would abide by any declarations they signed up to? Weren’t promises of good will just so much hot air? The writer of this editorial saw the alternative – a future without obligations between the great states – as offering nothing but further disaster: “We see, therefore, that whether the League of Nations be formed or not, the world of States, its peace, stability, progress, and righteousness, will depend upon international treaties and agreements.” Nevertheless, critics of a league should be heard, because their objections would help point out weaknesses in the plan that could, hopefully, be rectified. Nonetheless, the proposal for a League of Nations was an enormous exercise in faith.


The idea of a League has naturally not been allowed to grow up and flourish without being subjected to criticism, objections, and attacks. In England these attacks have been chiefly confined to the monthly or quarterly reviews, those curious journalistic fields which seem to be reserved as happy hunting-grounds where Conservatism may hunt down anything new which happens to come out of Egypt or anywhere else. The supporters of a League, however, will do well to consider these criticisms and attacks carefully, for they not only sometimes indicate real weaknesses in the idea and schemes, but they show what difficulties an attempt at international construction or a movement towards a new system of international co-operation will encounter.

Now a curious and enlightening fact will very soon become apparent to anyone who reads the hostile critics with any detachment. Leaving on one side all those objections which are concerned with details of the various schemes – objections which are often valuable and instructive – and ignoring objections which are merely frivolous, ignorant, or ill-tempered, he will find that all the serious criticism centres about a single point. That point is the value of the League’s guarantee.

“You offer us,” say the critics, “a League and a Treaty. You are offering us nothing new. We have had Concerts of Europe and Leagues of Peace before, and they ended in Sevastopol, and Sedan, and Belgium. We’ve have had a hundred years of treaties, and they have ended in the German Chancellor’s wastepaper basket. We have had Hague Conferences, and they have ended in poison gas, and air raids, and the Lusitania. We agree that the world is sick, but its disease is international bad faith and broken treaties. And amid this terrible litter of broken treaties all you can do is to prescribe another treaty. Your League depends first and last upon the Nations keeping their promises. All promises are, we learned in the schoolroom, made of pie-crust, but international pie-crusts are so abnormally brittle that only a very foolish statesman will ever again put anything of any importance into the international pie. Your nations are going to bind themselves solemnly by treaty to follow an elaborate procedure for settling their international disputes, and on the top of this are to be superimposed even more elaborate principles of international policy and provisions regarding nationality, territory, and trade. What guarantee have you that Germany, if she agrees to these terms, is going to observe them? Precisely the same guarantee that you had for the neutrality of Belgium and the protection of non-combatants. And, putting Germany on one side, what guarantee have you that other nations will either carry out, or insist upon other nations carrying out, these elaborate stipulations? Suppose that Bulgaria and Serbia in 1930 have sufficiently recovered from the Great War to resume their disputes, and that one or other of them refuses to comply with the provisions of the League’s Treaty. Can anyone seriously suppose that America would send its armed forces to Europe to interfere in a quarrel which every American would feel was no concern of theirs? But once admit this doubt – it is not really a doubt at all but a certainty – and your whole elaborate Utopia comes tumbling down like a card-house.’’

We have said that the fact that nearly all serious objections centre about this point as to the guarantee is both curious and enlightening. The reason is this. The fundamental idea in the schemes of a League of Nations is itself the provision of an adequate international guarantee, and we have repeatedly argued in the preceding articles that the League would provide a new basis for co-operation among nations in such a guarantee. Thus the critics and the supporters of a League both at least agree in this, that the problem of international reconstruction turns upon the possibility of providing an adequate guarantee for international agreements. What divides the critic from the supporter is little else than the difference between optimism and pessimism or between hope and despair – for the one, concentrating upon the repeated instances of international bad faith and broken treaties, is unwilling ever again to believe in the efficacy of international agreements, while the other hopes to find in the failures of the past a lesson for the future. It is of the utmost importance that both the opponents and adherents of the idea of a League should frankly face this question of the guarantee for international agreements.

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A League of Nations would, in fact, be based upon a whole network of such agreements, and the stability and prosperity of the new world of States after the war would depend even more upon “the sanctity of treaties” than did the Europe whose fate was presided over by statesmen like Bismarck and Salisbury, Bethmann-Hollweg and Viscount Grey. Without faith and good faith the League would be the biggest sham ever set up to mask and abet the illicit and aggressive ambitions of States and their rulers. If the treaty which establishes the League is going to be signed in the old spirit of hostility, distrust, and ambiguous dishonesty in which too many of the nineteenth-century treaties were signed, then undoubtedly we must endorse everything which the most violent critic of it can say against it. That means that its efficacy as a guarantee depends ultimately upon faith and good faith. If nations within the League keep their words and can trust one another’s words it will succeed; if they do not and cannot it will most certainly fail.

It follows, and it should be admitted frankly by everyone who adheres to the idea, that no certainty of either peace or right action, no absolute or certain guarantee of international right or law, will be found in a League of Nations. Nothing can be less absolute or certain than something which depends upon a promise and the good faith of several promisors. With such words we may seem to have more effectually undermined the idea of a League than even the most trenchant of its critics. But a little deeper consideration will, we think, show that this is not the case. To leap from these rather depressing truisms to the conclusion that a League of Nations cannot succeed or is Utopian results, in the main, from two mistakes or fallacies.

In the first place the critics too often demand of a League of Nations what no conceivable international system could under any circumstances give us, namely, certainty as to the future. Let us take a concrete case. What we all desire is the certainty that in future the independence of Belgium and other small States shall be safeguarded against aggression. No League of Nations is ever going to give us that certainty, but then equally nothing else ever will. Nobody has ever suggested or can suggest an international arrangement at the end of the war which will make it certain that a successful attempt against the independence of Belgium will not be made in 1930. But the critics too often demand of the League of Nations what they cannot possibly provide themselves. “Where is your guarantee,” they ask, “that a nation like Germany will not, in defiance of the League or in contravention of treaties, do in 1930 what we have seen done in 1914?” The answer is that we have none.

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If a “guarantee” against the future be used in the sense of making it impossible for such a thing as aggression, war, and international injustice to take place, no international arrangement will provide that. Even a permanent armed occupation of Germany would not be a guarantee of that kind. The truth is that much misconception is caused by this loose thinking about the word “guarantee”. Whatever arrangement of the affairs of nations be made when peace comes, it cannot give us any certainty, it will only at most make it more or less probable that we shall attain our ends.

Now one thing only is certain, and that is that the international arrangement will in the future depend, as it did in the past, upon international agreements. The world after the war will remain a world of sovereign, independent States, and among those sovereign, independent States there will still be Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Bulgaria. In the world as we know it, relations between States can only be maintained and regulated in peace by agreements or treaties. However distasteful it may be to us, it is inevitable that the time will come when our relations even with Germany will once more be regulated by international agreements or treaties and by nothing else.

A curious instance of this has just taken place. Our faith in Germany is today well below zero; we are engaged with her in the most embittered struggle which has ever occurred in history; the war began with a flagrant violation of treaties by Germany, and subsequent events have only confirmed public opinion in this country in the conviction that the German Government cannot be trusted to respect any treaty or agreement made by them. Suddenly, in the very midst of this struggle and mutual mistrust, it becomes desirable to regulate the relations of the two States with regard to the treatment of prisoners. What happens? Immediately we see a meeting between German and British representatives at the Hague and an international agreement between Germany and Britain. And what guarantee have we that Germany will carry out the terms of that agreement? Absolutely nothing but our faith in Germany!

We see, therefore, that whether the League of Nations be formed or not, the world of States, its peace, stability, progress, and righteousness, will depend upon international treaties and agreements. And ultimately every agreement must depend upon the faith and good faith of the parties to it. The ultimate guarantee of a League of Nations, as of any other future international arrangement, must consist for us in our own good faith and our trust in the good faith of others. The whole question is a relative one, for it concerns our belief in the probability of obtaining conditions under which States will keep their promises.

Now, in this sense it can be argued reasonably that a League will create conditions which did not exist before the war, and which will increase the probability of international agreements being respected. In the first place, the treaty which establishes the League will create a permanent union of States for certain specific purposes of international co-operation. The agreement will not only specifically define the rights and obligations of the different States, but the measures to be taken to ensure that the obligations are fulfilled. Now, incredible though it may appear to persons who are not intimately acquainted with the details of international history, these elementary guarantees never existed in the case of the most important international agreements. Even where several Great States signed treaties upon which the peace of Europe obviously depended, their obligations have not been clearly defined. It is the rarest thing in the world to find any mention in a treaty of the steps to be taken to ensure compliance with, or performance of, its terms.

One example will suffice. In 1850 the Great Powers “guaranteed” the independence of Turkey by the Treaty of Paris. Considerable doubt exists as to what obligations this important provision imposed upon the signatories, but it is at least certain that it entailed no obligation on any power to take any steps to ensure its observance. At the same time Austria, France, and Great Britain signed another treaty stipulating that any infringement of the independence of Turkey would be a casus belli. Yet even here Lord Derby correctly argued that since Turkey had not signed the treaty she had no right to demand its performance. It is therefore untrue to say that the guarantee provided by the League of Nations would be no better than that provided by the guarantee of the neutrality of Belgium or by the Hague Conventions, for even in the Hague Conventions there is no joint obligation imposed definitely upon the signatories to ensure compliance with them. The League of Nations does create and define a joint obligation, and therefore it may correctly be said to create a guarantee which did not exist before the war.

Thus the difference between the critic and the supporter of a League may, as we said, be reduced to the difference between pessimism and optimism. The critic overwhelmed by the spectacle of international lawlessness and bad faith despairs over international law, and swears never again to trust to an international treaty. The other sees that the cure for lawlessness is not less law but more law, that the cure for broken treaties is more and better treaties, and that the cure for bad faith is more faith.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).