The End of the League of Nations as a Precursor to the End of the United Nations?

Photograph Source: Anonyymi uutiskuva – Suomen Kuvalehti 1923 – Public Domain

Switzerland’s non-permanent membership on the United Nations Security Council (2023-2024) has focused interest here on the role of the United Nations in situations of conflict, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There is one precedent for a global international organization to attempt to deal with a similar outright aggression, and it was not successful. The League of Nations failed to stop Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930s which was a major cause of its demise. Will the failure of the United Nations to stop the fighting in Ukraine be the demise of a world institution a second time?

The United Nations has been warned about the consequences of not stopping the fighting. These are the words of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky when he addressed the U.N. Security Council on April 5, 2022: “We are dealing with a state [Russia] that turns the right of veto in the U.N. Security Council into a right to kill. Which undermines the whole architecture of global security…If this continues…Then, the U.N. can simply be dissolved.”

After 15 months of fighting between Russia and Ukraine, the United Nations has been unable to stop the fighting or even broker a cease fire. It has been unable to do more than bemoan serious breaches of human rights and grave violations of humanitarian law. Yes, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been indicted by the International Criminal Court, but this has led to no obvious consequences for his conduct of the war. Neither have various sanctions had any effect in stopping the fighting.

There is a precedent for the U.N.’s inability to stop the fighting with dire institutional consequences. The League of Nations tried economic sanctions against Italy, but they did not stop the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. In addition to the illegal aggression, Italy used outlawed poisonous gas, with little punishment, to break Ethiopian resistance just as the Russians continue to violate human rights and humanitarian laws by bombing civilian targets and deporting children.

And there were warnings to the League about its future. Following the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in October 1935, the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, came to Geneva to give a historic speech at the Assembly of the League of Nations. During his speech, Selassie affirmed that the decision the member states were confronted with had greater implications than simply supporting or not supporting his country. “I assert”, he said, “that the problem submitted to the Assembly (…) is not merely a question of the settlement of the Italian aggression. It is collective security: it is the very existence of the League of Nations.”

Despite Selassie’s warning, the members states voted to end sanctions against Italy. This decision dealt a fatal blow to the League. As Winston Churchill commented: “The League did not fail because of its principles or conceptions. It failed because those principles were deserted by those states which brought it into being, because the governments of those states feared to face the facts and act while time remained.”

Today, the Italo-Ethiopian war resonates with the conflict in Ukraine.

Although historical comparisons are always difficult, it is possible to draw parallels between the failures of the League of Nations and the United Nations to halt aggression.

One of the elements that explains the League’s failure to act during the Ethiopian crisis was the lack of political leadership. Contrary to the United Nations today which has 193 member states, the League of Nations was not a universal international organization. The United States never joined the League. Over the years, Washington adopted an ambiguous posture towards the League, which oscillated between open hostility and discreet cooperation.

Although the United States’ non-membership impacted the political credibility of the League, it was not only the lack of American leadership that caused the League’s demise. In particular, France and the United Kingdom’s lack of collective cooperation deeply affected the League’s action. During the period preceding the invasion, the League’s action was paralyzed by the decision of France and Italy to open separate talks. The friction between Paris and London undermined the effectiveness of the multilateral efforts made in Geneva. Both Paris and London gave the impression that they were willing to accommodate Italy’s requests and to find a solution outside of the League, just as today China has proposed a peace plan outside the U.N.’s authority.

The weaknesses of the League’s Covenant, the preamble and 26 articles of the charter which defined the main function of the League, have also been given as a reason to explain the incapacity of the League to act as an effective instrument in maintaining peace and security. War was not forbidden as such; the decisions of the League’s main organs were not binding, and provisions were often open to interpretation. In other words, the Covenant was weak and did not offer any certainty concerning the application of sanctions in case of violation. The fact that permanent members of today’s U.N. Security Council have veto power undermines the Security Council’s ability to act when one of its five members violates the Charter’s principles.

Despite its weaknesses, the Covenant did provide some mechanisms to maintain peace. These included the adoption of political, economic, and financial sanctions. More than 50 member states adopted economic sanctions against Rome. However, these sanctions were subject to negotiations and were inadequate to stop the Italian military operations, just as sanctions have not been effective in changing Russia’s aggression. Reform of the U.N. Charter including enlarging the Security Council or reducing Permanent Members’ ability to use the veto have also been constantly discussed, but to no avail.

In order to avoid a direct confrontation with Italy, the great powers opted for light sanctions that could only be effective in the long term. From this perspective, the experience of the League already showed the difficulties of acting when a great power was directly involved in a dispute. The current Russian veto power in the Security Council as well as the lack of a permanent United Nations operational military force have repeated the League’s institutional problems.

The demise of the League cannot be traced back to a single factor such as a lack of leadership or a “toothless” Covenant. It was the outcome of a long and gradual process. Some historians have called the decision to abandon Ethiopia the “last nail in the League of Nations’ coffin.” There were previous nails. By 1936, the League had already been largely discredited by its incapacity to act against Japan’s occupation of Manchuria in 1931. But the League was also unable to facilitate a global response to the Great Depression; economic tensions and the fragmentation of the international system generated by the 1930s economic crisis played a role in the League’s demise.

Another element in the demise was the ambiguity of the democratic powers to deal with the Italian regime in the larger European context. In March 1936, Hitler denounced the Locarno Treaties and marched into the Rhineland. In Paris and London, Mussolini was seen as a potential partner to contain Nazi Germany. From this perspective, maintaining the status quo in Europe meant avoiding alienating Italy and accepting its annexation of Ethiopia.

Similarly, recently, there was little reaction to Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008 or its annexation of Crimea in 2014 since it was feared that alienating Russia would move it closer to China, which has turned out to be the case.

Is the demise of the League being repeated today?

The United Nations today appears powerless to maintain peace and security, but that does not mean it will die. Its specialized agencies, many based in Geneva such as the World Intellectual Property Organization, the World Meteorological Organization, or the International Telecommunications Union, continue to function successfully on technical matters. Most impressively, the United Nations has been able to mainstream human rights. Moreover, no one envisions a third general international organization as was the case during the League’s collapse.

From Ethiopia to Ukraine. The U.N. will probably not suffer the same fate as the League of Nations. A level of international cooperation has been established in many areas. But the failure of the Security Council to deal with peace and security in Ukraine and elsewhere gives serious warnings about the U.N.’s future, and attention should be given to parallels with the demise of the League.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.