Structural weaknesses in the League of Nations and the failure of Collective Security: 

Collective security was a concept that was developed in the 20th century (post the first world war which ended in 1918) supporting the idea that peace could be preserved by countries acting together. Specifically, the League of Nations was an ambitious yet unsuccessful endeavour to create an unbiased international organisation to maintain diplomatic relations between countries preventing a second world war from occurring. Historians attribute the failure of the league of nations to several key causes, but one of the primary causes that historians continue to discuss today for the failure of collective security are the fundamental structural weaknesses of the league. This article will discuss specific structural weaknesses of the league such as the lack of an army of its own, the absence of key superpowers, the voting system and the lack of power of the permanent court of justice to enforce decisive action against the perpetrators of the covenant (a binding agreement for all member states to settle their disputes peacefully by referring them to arbitration, judicial settlement, or to the Council of the League) .  

The League of Nations itself consisted of 5 primary governing bodies aside from the special commissions which were the General Assembly, Council, International Labour Organisation, the Permanent Court of Justice and the Secretariat. During the time, many historians and leaders from the United States and the victor countries backed this structure of the league, promoting the view that it was nuanced and would  be effective at preventing conflict. Historians such as E.H. Carr, however, for instance believed that in this structure the notable absence of an army solely to implement the verdicts of the League allowed conflicts to escalate and caused the league to excessively have to rely on intervention by powerful victor countries such as Great Britain and France. An example of a conflict which might have potentially been resolved with the presence of the League’s army is that of the Manchuria dispute which took place in 1931. Despite the the fact that during the time of the Manchuria dispute, China followed all the required steps mandated by the covenant and approached the league to act as a neutral arbitrator, the League was unable to take decisive action apart from condemning the attack via the Lytton report; this is because although Britain and USA had the naval resources to confront the league, their personal interests were off greater priority. The failure of the Manchurian Crisis and the structural absence of a league’s army prevented the league from handing out a suitable punishment to Japan, and reduced the league’s credibility as a mandator of collective security. 

The second primary structural weakness of the league that led to the eventual failure of collective security was the notable absence of prevalent countries through the league. Firstly, the absence of losing powers such as Germany and Austria-Hungary in the league along with other communist countries such as the Russia proved to undermine international perception of the league as a guarantor of collective security, and caused the league to look like a biased organisation supporting the “victors of war” or the “capitalist countries”.  It can be said that if the league’s structure therefore also took into consideration the inclusion of non-victors and attempted to remain unbiased with membership, countries would have been more open to use the league as a platform to settle disputes rather than creating treaties and security agreements outside the framework of the league. An example of this would be the Rapallo treaty which was signed by both Germany and Russia (both non-members of the league). The mutual agreement between countries on the fact that the League was created to simply protect the “victors interest” and that the league was promoting hostility against non-victors caused both these entities to sign this treaty, which gave Germany the motivation to rearm for the Second World war with Russia. It can therefore be said that if it was not for the league’s exclusionary structure excluding the losers of the war, further hostility and treaties outside the framework of the league such as the Rapallo Treaty would have not been created. This would therefore have been a far better guarantor of collective security. The notable absence of the United States as well in the security council of the league and its structure also proved to be a key factor that caused the failure of collective security. Given that the league was initially proposed by Woodrow Wilson in the 14 points and given that USA was a superpower during the time the absence of the United States in the league prevented the US from having an incentive to get involved in conflicts and issue their moral condemnation on conflicts such as the Manchurian crisis. This reduced the credibility of the league and reduced the effectiveness of measures such as moral condemnation, and therefore increased the likelihood of countries seeking to escalate tensions such as Japan. Therefore, had the United States been a part of the league, conflicts such as the Manchurian crisis could have been prevented at an early stage through effective moral condemnation of aggression. 

Another structural weakness of the league that historians such as Peter Yearwood argue caused the failure of the league of nations voting system that was constructed. For any decision to pass in the league there was a requirement for a unanimous agreement to be reached between all members of the league of nations. This system proved to be largely ineffective as even if one member in the league disagreed, discussions would get prolonged for long durations of time. Only later in the structure were the countries in the council (permanent members) such as Britain, France, etc. granted veto power which can be defined as the power to reject a decision regardless of unanimity in the general assembly or among all other member states. This veto power meant that even if the league’s general assembly which consisted of less powerful members achieved consensus on the ways in which collective security could be maintained, the essence of the power was held by the victors of the war such as Britain and France. It can be stated that if the voting system had been improved to require a majority rather than a unanimous decision and if the veto system had been imposed earlier, the league would have been more effective in delivering judgements and taking concrete and decisive actions without long wait periods for justice as was the case Abyssinian Crisis of (1935). This structural improvement could have prevented conflicts from being escalated to a stage where force was required to suppress conflict.

To conclude, although several historians believe that the league of nations through its tenure did manage to resolve certain disputes with less powerful countries such as the Aaland Islands dispute of the Greek-Bulgaria dispute of 1925 through its already existing structure, many conflicts involving the oppression of smaller powers by larger powers like the Abyssinian Crisis were not effective in being solved by the leagues structure to the above stated reasons of absence of an army, the absence of key superpowers, the voting system and the lack of power of the permanent court of justice to enforce decisive action against the perpetrators of the covenant (a binding agreement for all member states to settle their disputes peacefully by referring them to arbitration, judicial settlement, or to the Council of the League) .  Hence, for these reasons it can be strongly argued that structural weaknesses were a primary cause of the failure of collective security that eventually acted as a cause for World War 2.

Leave a Reply