A 1920 session of the League of Nations in Geneva

A 1920 session of the League of Nations in Geneva

Delving into the Chatham House archives as the institute celebrates its centenary can leave a bitter aftertaste. As an exercise, it involves taking a closer look at the elite perspective of the time that so often got it wrong, yet, at the same time, it means coming across prophetic analyses that went unheeded.

In January 1920, following the Treaty of Versailles which brought the First World War to an end, the League of Nations was founded, with an ambitious remit to maintain world peace. It was the first incarnation of a 20th century pattern whereby wars of unprecedented magnitude spurred the creation of multilateral regimes as an antidote to great-power rivalry.

History has not been kind to the Geneva-based organization, whose lofty goals proved beyond the available means to achieve them.

In November 1933, Philip Noel-Baker, a British politician and renowned campaigner for disarmament, pinpointed a key weakness of the League of Nations in ensuring international security.

‘The whole history of the League has proved that Geneva works when Great Britain leads, and Geneva languishes when she fails to lead,’ he told a Chatham House audience. ‘It is the nature of things that power involves responsibility. Our world position is unique, and we had better face the fact that unless we do lead, no results will come.’

Britain was not the main culprit, but part of a wider problem. Perhaps the most significant factor behind the organization’s collapse was the lack of interest the great powers showed in supporting the goals of the League to prevent war and settle disputes by negotiation.

Many countries did not join the League – most significantly the United States whose president Woodrow Wilson was its main architect – and some that did join went on to undermine its authority by their actions. Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935, and the reluctance of Paris and London to do anything to stop him, highlighted the organization’s weaknesses.

In 1938, the leaders of France, Britain and Italy signed the Munich Agreement that permitted Nazi Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland, in Czechoslovakia, and was greeted by the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain as bringing ‘peace with honour’.

Arnold Toynbee, a prolific writer and historian who served as the institute’s Director of Studies from 1925 to 1954, had been invited to meet Hitler in 1936 while traveling in Germany, and he seems to have accepted the Führer’s assurance that his ambitions for territorial expansion were limited.

That assessment did not last beyond Munich, which Toynbee described as ‘a disaster’. As he bluntly put it: ‘I said it a great many times over, and when that draft was submitted to a group of members of Chatham House, they all disliked it, because those who wanted still to fight Germany said: “If things are really as bad as this, we cannot fight Germany,” and those who wished now to pursue a policy of appeasement said: “If things are really as bad as this, it is no use pursuing a policy of appeasement.”’

Less than a year after the agreement, the Second World War broke out.

The post-war future

If the 1930s had revealed the weakness of collective security, the war proved to be a more fruitful time for developing policies to make the world more secure within an enlarged multilateral set-up.

Chatham House provided a home from home for academics and economists from occupied Europe who were keen to put their brains to good use to chart the post-war future.

Foremost among these was the Polish-born economist Paul Rosenstein-Rodan, leader of the institute’s wartime Economic Group.

The group’s ideas on international development and the necessity for collective economic action fed into the debates that led to the creation of the Bretton Woods system and the establishment of the International Monetary Fund and International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, now the World Bank.

In an article published in the journal International Affairs in 1944, Rosenstein-Rodan, who later worked for the World Bank, wrote: ‘If we want to ensure a stable and prosperous peace, we have to provide for some international action to improve the living conditions of those peoples who missed the industrialization “bus” in the 19th century’.

The establishment of the United Nations in 1945 promised a more secure peace than in the pre-war years. The major powers were accorded veto powers in return for their support of the organization.

In 1949, with the Cold War darkening the prospects for multilateral cooperation, Kathleen Courtney, a British peace campaigner and suffragist, recognized in a speech that whatever positive developments emerged from the United Nations, much depended on the states’ appetite
to act.

Referring to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, she said: ‘It is a very good thing that we have it, but it shows how poor is the measure of the effective results of the United Nations if we have to make such a fuss about the Human Rights Declaration. That declaration will mean nothing unless it is implemented; it will stand on record as a vague aspiration. Until it is implemented, I do not think we can say how splendid it is to have it.’

Fast-forward to 2020, the year in which the UN celebrates its 75th anniversary, the multilateral system has averted a return to the bloody horrors of the past, but it has been bruised in the process.

To some observers, aspects of multilateralism’s current crisis resemble the interwar years. Tremors of renewed geopolitical tensions and the rise of nationalism and protectionism are felt across global institutions and multilateral processes. The main players might be different, but strategic power competition is making a comeback, with the great powers of today increasingly interested in paying lip service to collective causes while using the system for their own ends.

Washington in particular, which for decades led in shaping the multilateral world order, is engaged in a strategy of retrenchment from the system, echoing US isolationism in the pre-Pearl Harbor years. Although we are a long way from the crises the world faced in the 1930s, the current system is losing its legitimacy to dilute geopolitical tensions and mitigate the great powers’ negative impulses. The public political sparring between the US and China during the COVID-19 crisis only serves to confirm this.

Of course, creating order and sustaining it are two very different exercises: especially when the pain that led to the former ceases to weigh so heavily on the calculus of the powers responsible for the latter.

However, it is not necessary to wait for warnings about the system’s longevity to get more alarming. If appropriate lessons are to be drawn from the past, a course correction is needed. This is easier said than done. But we now have the power of hindsight to assess the probability of a multilateral collapse.

Wake-up call

In a speech in 1922, George Peabody Gooch, a British journalist and historian, reflected on the inaction of the international community that led to the First World War. In his analysis he said the war’s outbreak ‘is the condemnation not only of the performers who strutted for a brief hour across the stage, but of the international anarchy which they inherited and which they did nothing to abate’.

Ninety-eight years on, multilateralism is more deeply embedded than in the time of the League of Nations or the pre-1914 ‘anarchy’ he described. But, much like then, the exhaustion of the current arrangements is exacerbated by inaction and a lack of consensus on how to address the situation.

While one needs a crystal ball to see whether this moment will spell the end of the multilateral paradigm or signal the beginning of a restorative process, 2020 should serve as a wake-up call. Pretending nothing is wrong with the system could prove once again a short-sighted strategy. Averting the system’s collapse should become a priority.

As Cassandra, the Greek mythological figure, would attest, being right in predicting the future at times of peril is not enough; action is necessary.

This article is part of a series by the Europe Programme at Chatham House marking the institute's centenary