Case Study

International security and the legacy of the League of Nations

The key actors in international relations – states – have struggled to arrive at rules of behaviour which will reduce the chances that widespread, violent conflict will break out. During the 19th century, such arrangements were advisory and voluntary. After World War I, they became more formal and institutionalised. The League of Nations was founded after World War I to increase the chances of international cooperation reducing international conflict. Less than 20 years after the founding of the League of Nations, World War II broke out. Clearly, despite collectivist aspirations and attempts to introduce new norms of international behaviour, the League had ‘failed’. Nevertheless, the League of Nations does represent the first attempt to formalise the organisation of international order and develop a collective security mechanism in international relations. The post-World War II global security organisation, the United Nations, built on the League, especially in terms of institutions, while learning from the League’s organisational failures.

Despite its failure in preventing inter-state conflict and World War II, the League created the template for later international organisation, giving rise to international institutions that survived its own demise – most notably the International Court of Justice at the Hague (to arbitrate in disputes between states) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) established in 1933. Both are still functioning today and will be covered in later chapters.

Second, despite its failure, the Covenant of the League constituted a chart, an initial road map, for discovering and strengthening patterns of behaviour supporting a developing ideal of a world community, which reached something like fruition after World War II in the United Nations Organisation – once again the brainchild of a US president, this time Franklin D. Roosevelt.