Often referred to as the ‘father’ of the League of Nations (1920–1946), former US President Woodrow Wilson’s (1856–1924) role in the creation of this inter-continental organization remains somewhat unclear. We must recall, of course, despite the significant number of its shortcomings and apparent obstacles, the League paved the way to that organization which we now know as the United Nations (UN). The UN, certainly, as a global phenomenon since 1945, has continued to play a crucial role in international affairs, even if many are quick to point out its weaknesses, and potentially an imminent downfall much like the League before. Nonetheless, we should not forget, while History tends to dwell on criticisms and negatives, generally, it is imprudent to overlook successes and positives. The creation of an international establishment endeavoring for a better world is indisputably a success story in itself. In which case, the aim of this concise article is to furnish an understanding of the broader origins of the League, against the backdrop of such recent undertakings as Kazakhstan’s presidency of the UN Security Council in 2017-2018.
For starters, Wilson’s role in the League’s creation may be attributed to two specific endeavors of his at the time: on one hand, the many popular speeches he gave in favor of the League throughout America and Europe, and, on the other, his political and pragmatic contribution at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Both enterprises, at heart, assuredly, were conjoined by his famous Fourteen Points, which not only outlined his vision of a new world order characterized by such values as democracy, peace and security, but helped to gain the commitment of the Allied Powers, not to mention the Central Powers (as the most important condition for their early surrender) towards the League of Nations. In fact, it was really Wilson who pressed the completion of the League’s Covenant (charter) despite major differences between the nations participating within the Paris Peace Conference; including the noted instances of racial prejudice against the Japanese, as well as the French demand for an international army guaranteeing French security against a potential German aggression thenceforth. In this sense, one might contend, without Wilson’s ceaseless spurs, the League’s foundation might have been indefinitely postponed.
Relatedly, it should be emphasized, the atrocities occasioned by the outbreak of the First World War were actually significant in contributing to the already-present dissatisfaction with the traditional methods of diplomacy. By and large, the war was crucial in swaying public opinion in support of an international institution that would replace the old ways of managing inter-state relations and, ultimately, stop wars. Fortunately for Wilson, he was able to utilize these concerns in order to propose to the public, and the other decision-makers the idea of the League as an ever-present body ensuring that ‘inevitability.’
Nevertheless, it goes without saying, Wilson was assisted by others in his mission. Indeed, two distinguished players who were crucial in this respect were Lord Robert Cecil (1864–1958) and Jan Smuts (1870–1950). Lord Cecil’s major achievement, as Britain’s representative at the Paris Peace Conference, was his proposal to appoint a committee (chaired by Lord Phillimore) to devise a plan for the League through detailed drafts for its Covenant. Smuts, in turn, contributed through his practical (and technical) suggestions towards the first official plan for the League and especially the workings of its Council.
In this context, however, whether one likes to admit or not, aside from individuals, prevailing collectivities and political bodies in those days had already taken serious steps in promoting the conception of an international organization to ensure peace and security: noteworthy examples consisting the Bryce Group, and the League to Enforce Peace. Whilst these establishments organized meetings, and discussed the different ways in which a league of nations could function, religious sects, such as the Quakers were effective in advocating pacifism.
Finally, the overall historical picture seemed to indicate long-term structural developments in favor of internationalist thinking decades before the advent of the League itself. In this respect, what immediately springs to mind, quite obviously, are not just the intellectual endeavors of philosophers emerging out of the Age of Enlightenment, like Kant who espoused a worldwide ‘league of peace’ (foedus pacificum), but the remarkable advances in free trade, technology, communications and transportation, which had, in effect, already brought nations together. In some ways, international organs like the Universal Postal Union as well as the International Telegraphic Union (which extended across Central Asia) were all predecessors to the League. Similarly, in the political arena, there was the Concert of Europe, the first of numerous international meetings between Great Powers in the 19th century, attempting the formation of an international society to maintain peace amongst the Great Powers; while the two Hague Conventions in 1899 and 1907 were critical breakthroughs in the history of international law.
All things considered, it is only fair to say Wilson’s role in the League’s genesis was more than that of a leader — even as the President of a (seemingly) neutral country with enough moral weight to gain public and political support. Nevertheless, his was largely a symbolic role; a ‘messianic mantle’ whom people gladly looked up to and followed, whereas such other afore-named individuals, for their part, were responsible for that operation’s functional aspects. Accordingly, when situated in its historical context, the League’s advent can only be seen within the grand scheme of long-term structural developments towards internationalism that were already underway at that point.
Either way, it is still undeniable specific individuals comprise history itself: without them, one might surmise, there would be no historical progress. Hence, Wilson may have received honor as the League’s ‘champion’, yet it was Kazakhstan’s opportunity to head, for the first time, a global institution, whose origins could be traced back to centuries past; each a moment of pride, if not distinction. Particularly, perhaps, as Kazakhstan starts to enter international affairs’ centre stage.
Daniele-Hadi Irandoost is a second Masters candidate at University College London (UCL), a teacher of History, Founder and Curator of TEDxLambeth, as well as a commissioning editor for E-International Relations (E-IR). A Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA), Daniele is a member of British International Studies Association (BISA) and British International History Group (BIHG). He has given talks at SOAS University of London and Yunus Emre Institute, London, as guest speaker and panellist, and recently won the Ken Robertson Prize in Intelligence Studies from Aberystwyth University.
Publications: Daniele’s published articles include ‘On the Rarity of Nuclear States’ (2019, OCA Magazine), ‘Sun Tzu’s Eternal Relevance to Warfare: A Theoretical Interpretation’ (2018, Eurasian Perspective), ‘Cybersecurity: A National Security Issue?’ (2018, E-IR), ‘A Comparison of Private Security Contractors & State-Based Armed Forces’ (2017, E-IR), ‘Counterintelligence: Enduring Lessons from the Cold War’ (2017, E-IR), as well as ‘An Introductory Review’ in Herold Berger’s book, Goethe and Abay (2015, Hertfordshire Press).