The League of Nations held its first meeting 100 years ago, on 15 November 1920. The creation of the then US president Woodrow Wilson, the League aimed to prevent wars through collective security and disarmament. Wilson’s project to make the world “safe for democracy” was a burst of idealism from the darkness of total war, a lofty vision of a new order built atop the ruins of Europe’s old monarchies and empires.
Between the autumn of 1918 and the spring of 1919, peoples across the world, from Asia to Latin America, were enchanted by this “Wilsonian moment”. The president’s defence of international peace and national self-determination earned him, as John Maynard Keynes later wrote, “a prestige and a moral influence throughout the world unequalled in history”. There were some in the US Senate, however, who opposed the League. They feared that not only would it embroil the US in European affairs in perpetuity, but that its existence posed a challenge to US sovereignty and newly won supremacy after the First World War.
Despite his poor health, Wilson toured the country to rouse support for the League, speaking throughout the American heartlands and on the west coast. “Sometimes people call me an idealist,” he declared in South Dakota. “Well, that is the way I know I am an American.” Back in the White House, Wilson suffered a paralysing stroke, and in November 1919, and again in March 1920, the Senate voted against the US joining the League.
It did enjoy some successes: as the historian Susan Pedersen, author of The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Europe (2015), has shown, it took unprecedented steps to protect minority rights in Africa, the Middle East and the south Pacific through its Permanent Mandates Commission. But the League has long been a byword for failure.
After the Second World War, the creators of the United Nations (UN) were agreed that the new organisation could not be called “the League of Nations”. Without US support, the League’s value as a deterrent evaporated, reducing it to an impotent force unable to defend the Treaty of Versailles from revision. As the historian Mark Mazower put it in his classic work Dark Continent (1998): “As the balance of power in Europe shifted, the League became increasingly marginalised, diplomacy flowed around Geneva rather than through it, and a rival ideological vision of a European order emerged in Berlin.”
We will never know what would have happened to the League of Nations, and the course of modern history, had the US embraced Wilson’s ideal of a “community of power”. What we do know is that 1919-20 marked a definitive moment in the history of American foreign-policy making, when the country rejected the virtues of alliance-building, common endeavour and world organisation in favour of global pre-eminence.
More recently, and most egregiously, the US twice renounced the chance to act in concert with others: when it breached the UN’s founding charter to invade Iraq in 2003, and when it formally withdrew from the Paris climate accord in 2020.
What does a Biden administration mean for the prospects of multilateralism today? “America is back,” the diplomat Linda Thomas-Greenfield said after Joe Biden announced her as his intended nominee for ambassador to the UN. “Multilateralism is back. Diplomacy is back.” These are heartening words, especially after four years of an administration that has pulled out of treaties, reneged on promises, alienated allies and privileged a nationalist doctrine of “America First”.
Biden has promised that, once in office, he will reverse many of Donald Trump’s controversial foreign policy decisions. He plans for the US to rejoin the Paris Agreement and the World Health Organisation, and has pledged to coordinate a global response to the coronavirus pandemic, led by the US Agency for International Development. Biden has said that his administration will also revive the 2016 Iran nuclear deal.
But the Biden White House faces significant opposition to its multilateralist ambitions. In the first instance, it will encounter an opposition party that is hostile to the very notion of multilateralism. The outgoing secretary of state Mike Pompeo denounced Thomas-Greenfield’s speech as “multilateralism for the sake of hanging out with your buddies at a cool cocktail party”.
Biden’s administration will also have to reckon with the country’s chronic sense of global ascendance. Multilateral institutions such as the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund and the UN have long been unpopular among much of the American public for their encroachment on national sovereignty. In his new book Tomorrow, the World, the scholar Stephen Wertheim writes that for US foreign policy elites since the end of the Second World War, “primacy became the only basis through which the United States could participate in the world… In other words, the only way to practice internationalism, to constrain and transcend power politics, was to dominate power politics.”
The US has been devastated by the pandemic and is facing the catastrophic consequences of the climate crisis. It desperately needs to work with the rest of the world to salvage what’s left of its moral authority to lead again.
In the spring of 1920, the US finally rejected the chance to transcend power politics and join a universal alliance for peace and cooperation. One hundred years later, the country has another chance to get multilateralism right. But the League of Nations eventually ran out of chances. There’s no reason that, at some point, the modern US won’t, too.
This article appears in the 02 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed