If the Paris Peace Conference marked a new beginning, the League of Nations was to provide the framework for the new world order. For the first time in history, the nations of the world would unite in a world organisation. At the time, not everybody was enthusiastic. Now this is one of the iconic photos of the Paris Peace Conference. It shows the four political leaders that determined the fate of the conference in many respects, Clemenceau from France, Wilson from the United States, Lloyd George from Britain, and the Italian Prime Minister Orlando. Now, of these four, Wilson was the main supporter of the league idea.
Wilson was adamant that there must be a league, and that this league would be the centrepiece of the Paris Peace Settlement. The British government went along, but Lloyd George was more ambivalent. And Clemenceau famously said that he liked the league, but he did not believe in it. But the momentum for setting up a world organisation was enormous. League of Nations associations had formed in many countries and they were preparing draft proposals. The great caravan of humanity is once more on the march, wrote the South African General Smuts in his Practical Proposal, a pamphlet that became the blueprint for the League. And it’s here, in the centre of Paris, where it all happened.
Most of the discussions that led to the adoption of the covenant took place over there just 10 minutes at the Place de la Concorde in the Hotel Crillon. And the first meeting of the counsel of the League of Nations took place just over there in the building with the two flags which houses the foreign office of the French government. Setting up the League was the first and primary task of the Peace Conference. Before beginning to discuss the terms of the peace, the League Commission, chaired by Wilson himself, discussed the terms of the future world order. And while the conference would wrangle for months over details of the peace settlement, agreement on the League of Nations was reached within weeks.
So already in mid-February, 1919, the League Commission presented a Covenant of the League of Nations, the founding treaty of the first world organisation. This is a copy of the covenant, printed in 1919. The covenant outlined the shape of the new organisation and defined its powers. It made clear that the league would not be a super state, but an association of independent member, but still it was something very new in international relations. There had been international organisations and arrangements before. But now for the first time, the states of the world created a permanent organisation with a broad mandate, to promote international cooperation and to achieve international peace and security, as the covenant formulated it.
This permanent organisation had permanent organs, an assembly, a council, and a secretariat. And these would give it a measure of autonomy from national governments. The League did not have, as would soon become clear, sufficient clout to achieve international peace and security. But it propelled international corporation into a new era. Within the framework of the league, committees and commissions would be set up to address social and humanitarian concerns, to codify international law, and to facilitate cooperation in scientific and economic matters. In some of this, the League built on earlier attempts at international collaboration.
But for the first time, there was now a hub for international corporation, a centre for harmonising the actions of nations, as the United Nations charter would later call it. It was clear that something very new in international politics was beginning. Lord Robert Cecil, its most ardent supporter in Britain, called the League, “a great experiment.” in many respects, that experiment did not succeed. But it had to be tried, if only so that the founders of the United Nations, the next world organisation, could learn from it. The League is widely seen as a failure today. It did not stop Hitler. And perhaps Clemenceau was right not to believe in it. But it was an exciting experiment.
And it is one worth rediscovering, as we shall see.