For centuries, internationalist thinkers have dreamed of a League of Nations. It took a global war for such a need to become a reality. The league that took shape during the 1920s and ’30s was very different from the general association of nations envisaged by Woodrow Wilson. It did not replace the old ways of interstate diplomacy. States still pursued national interests and they still negotiated in secret. In fact, very often, this was the only way for them to build trust. But the league was a new forum, a new framework for international relations. As Lord Robert Cecil, one of the league’s founders and its most ardent supporter in Britain famously said, it was a great experiment.
And it is here, at the Quai D’Orsay, that this great experiment began when the League of Nations Council met in January 1920 for its opening session. So did that great experiment fail, as so many critics confidently claim? Abyssians would surely say so, and who could fault them? The League of the mid-1930s marginalised, and unable and unwilling to check Italians’ aggression, had failed them as much as it had failed itself. In matters of peace and security, the League remained weak. The great experiment to end all wars yielded sobering lessons. But would everybody from the time agree? Perhaps Aristotle Onassis, the shipping magnate, the husband of Jackie Kennedy, perhaps he would think twice before denouncing the League as a failure.
We tend to remember Onassis as a successful businessman, but what we tend to forget is that in 1923, one of these, a Nansen passport, allowed him to leave Europe for Argentina, where he began his career. In the early 1920s when most states looked on and did nothing, it was the League led by people like Fridtjof Nansen, which understood that refugees needed international protection, and that was a great experiment, too. That experiment did not fail. It marked the beginning of decades of relief work for international refugees. And perhaps watching images from Lampedusa or from Syria, it’s worth asking whether today we could do with a bit more of this Nansen spirit.
Abyssinia, Nansen passports, but also international loans, global health, and the gradual emergence of an international civil service based in Geneva. The League has much to tell us, and many of its stories remain untold. Perhaps it’s not quite right, after all, to think of the League, as Robert Cecil did, as of one great experiment. It was a great laboratory in which a series of great experiments could be carried out. When Leon Bourgeois, the august French statesman and law professor, opened the first session of the League of Nations Council here in the Quai D’Orsay in January 1920, he felt he was witnessing the birth of a new world. These were his words, the birth of a new world.
Even judged by the standards of opening statements, that was naive. The League was not a new world. Its world retained many of the problems of the old, and yet it was a new element in the international system, a great laboratory in which the world’s first sustained experiments in internationalism could be carried out– experiments in conflict management, disease prevention, drought control, and in humanitarian work. Some of these experiments failed, some succeeded, with absolutely no reason to denounce the League as a complete failure. So this concludes the first stage of our journey and the first week of our course. I hope you’ve enjoyed it so far.
Next week, we will return to 1919 and look at other decisions taken at the Paris Peace Conference. We’ll see how statesmen carved up empires, built new states, and moved boundaries, but also how they laid the groundwork for our modern system of human rights protection. All this they did in treaties signed in palaces on the outskirts of Paris, and we’re going to visit the most famous of them. We’re off to Versailles.