One hundred years ago this month, after the horrors of the First World War, participants from all over the world concluded negotiations to establish the basis for a stable, prosperous peace. The resulting Treaty of Versailles not only imposed a punitive settlement on Germany but simultaneously created the first world organization designed to preside over the postwar order. Its name? The League of Nations.
If you learned about the league in your history classes, you were probably told how it failed miserably. How President Woodrow Wilson, the league’s controversial champion, went “all in” on this Promethean effort to “make the world safe for democracy” only to lose the support of his own Congress. How the punitive peace inspired renewed nationalism, fueled protectionist trade policies that contributed to the Great Depression and perpetuated colonial empires in ways that left large global regions unstable to this day. How the league stood idle during the 1930s, as the world once again spiraled into a cataclysmic war.
But the picture is cropped. While the League of Nations may have failed, panning back out to survey its broader impact reveals at least three important, if paradoxical, legacies.
The league’s failure taught valuable lessons in what not to do
Like any good failure, the league provided valuable lessons to the architects of the post-World War II order (and President Franklin D. Roosevelt in particular) in what not to do.
In an effort to secure passage of the league, the Wilson administration had acquiesced to demands from France and the United Kingdom regarding the punitive peace, accepted a flawed institutional design and neglected to take steps to secure domestic support at home.
FDR now knew better. After all, he witnessed Wilson’s political struggles firsthand, having attended the Peace Conference and given hundreds of speeches defending the league as the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 1920.
So instead of waiting until the war was over and allowing the debate over the terms of the peace to bleed into negotiations for the league’s successor, the Roosevelt administration took a more proactive approach. Initial talks outlining a framework for a new United Nations Charter began early in the war to avoid being held hostage to the political machinations and self-interests of victorious powers.
Instead of largely ignoring domestic politics, FDR made a concerted effort to secure bipartisan congressional support for the next iteration of the league, bringing key political constituencies along from the outset.
Instead of relying on idealism to serve as the mortar for international cooperation, FDR took a more pragmatic tack. He courted Russia and other great powers, resulting in the bargain that would grant them permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council, an executive governing body that could back the organization with credible force.
Negotiating the United Nations was no easy task, but it is difficult to imagine it being created at all without the League of Nations before it.
The league and the U.N. are remarkably alike
And yet, amid all the discourse of failure, perhaps the most notable thing about the relationship between the two organizations is their striking similarity.
Winston Churchill once remarked, “The League of Nations did not fail because of its principles or conceptions. It failed because these principles were deserted by those states who had brought it into being. … There is, therefore, much knowledge and material with which to build; and also bitter dear-bought experience.”
Both the league and its successor rest on essentially the same set of ideas about what ought to constitute the basis for a durable international order: a world composed of sovereign states, international institutions to regulate relations between them and collective security, where states band together in response to aggression, like a global neighborhood watch. As debates surrounding the effectiveness of the U.N. indicate, these might not be the “right” ideas (e.g., collective security has been difficult to square with the national interests of sovereign states), but they have had a profound impact on how we continue to organize our world.
The league brought together experts who built critical international organizations still at work today
Conventional narratives surrounding the league’s failures also distract from some of its more lasting contributions beyond the realm of security.
Many of today’s international organizations charged with important missions like controlling the spread of disease (the World Health Organization), stabilizing world currencies (the International Monetary Fund) and protecting worker rights (the International Labor Organization) have roots in the League of Nations system.
As an unprecedented hub for international collaboration and the dissemination of knowledge, the league brought experts together to address transnational problems in health, economics and human rights, leaving a web of governance networks and institutional progeny in its wake.
For example, one notable study chronicles how many top economists working for the league’s Economics and Finance Organization acted to preserve capitalism after the Great Depression. Their efforts “bequeathed a shared understanding of the recent history of the world economy” and laid the groundwork for new institutions of economic development and oversight. It is not coincidental that when the rise of Nazi Germany forced the league out of Geneva in 1941, it relocated to Princeton University, where its experts would help shape the Bretton Woods system that would govern the postwar international economy.
The league experience not only proved instrumental in laying the foundations for the United Nations and other pillars of international cooperation but also in yoking U.S. power to a global order and ushering in what would become known as the “American century.”
Now, amid fears that the United States is abandoning the mantle of leadership, a rising tide of economic nationalism and tariffs, and renewed great power rivalries, scholars are again pondering the warnings from the league era and the fate of international order. In so doing, they are hoping to avoid another paradox of human creation (paraphrasing Hegel): What we learn from history is that we do not learn from history.
M. Patrick Cottrell is professor of political science at Linfield College and author of “The League of Nations: Enduring Legacies of the First Experiment at World Organization” (Routledge Global Institutions Series, 2018).