What Was The League of Nations?

26 Mar, 2023Blog Articles, Humanities Articles, Law Articles, Politics Articles

What is the League of Nations?

The League of Nations was the first global institution to be established in the modern world. Set up in 1920, it heralded a new era of international relations. Significantly, it vocally denounced war as a means of achieving a state’s foreign policy. Despite noble aims, it’s commonly held as a failure, as it was unable to prevent the outbreak of World War II.

Why was the League of Nations created?


Following the end of World War I, the victorious Allied Powers met in Paris to establish the terms of the peace treaties to be accepted across Europe and beyond. These Allied Powers were led by France, Britain, and the USA, with Italy and Japan playing supporting roles. Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States, was the one to suggest an international institution which would enable its member states to keep each other accountable, and thus prevent further war. This League of Nations was incorporated into the Treaty of Versailles, the agreement between the Allied Powers and Germany signed in 1919.

A rejection of ‘old diplomacy’


The League of Nations was an important rejection of several principles which characterised so-called ‘old diplomacy’. The belief that war was a reasonable means of achieving foreign policy, and the idea that an army was of the utmost importance to a nation’s security were both rejected by the League of Nations. The unprecedented destruction of World War I was a key motivating factor in this shift. Moreover, the League of Nations was a move away from international diplomacy being a system of closed, often secret negotiations and treaties not disclosed to the public. This element grew out of the several alliances and agreements that drew countries into World War I which their citizens were previously unaware of.

Who was the League of Nations made up of?

The League of Nations was made up of 42 founding member states, including the major Allied powers of World War I such as the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Japan. Germany was not initially a member due to its role in the war, but it was later admitted in 1926. The Soviet Union was not a member until 1934. The League also had many smaller member states from around the world.

The structure of the League of Nations


The League of Nations was made up of three main bodies:

  • The Assembly
  • The Council 
  • The Secretariat


What was the Assembly?

The Assembly was composed of all member countries and its purpose was to listen to and discuss disputes. It could also assign verbal sanctions to countries seen as violating the principles of the League.

What was the Council?

The Council was the body that made a lot of the important decisions, such as the implementation of economic sanctions. It had four permanent members: the ex-Allied powers, Britain, France, Italy and Japan. The other four council members were elected every three years by these permanent members.

What was the Secretariat?

The Secretariat, led by a Secretary-General, headed the League of Nation’s humanitarian agencies, including the Permanent Court of International Justice.

League of Nations War Memorial statue

How was the League received?


Due to domestic political pressure, the US did not enter the League of Nations. Despite this, the general international response was overwhelmingly positive, with 48 countries joining the League in its first year. Several nations did leave the League of Nations as World War II approached, including Italy and Japan, both founding members. Germany joined during its Weimar period in 1926, but withdrew under Hitler. 


The League of Nations’ successes


The League successfully settled disputes in some cases, for example:

  • Its intervention to protect Poland’s territory from Russian threat in 1920.
  • Its role in the Finnish-Swedish settlement regarding the Aaland Islands in 1921.
  • Splitting Upper Silesia between Germany and Poland in 1921, ending riots.
  • Its role in settling a dispute between Bulgaria and Greece in 1925.
  • The 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibiting the use of chemical and biological weapons in war.


Why did the League of Nations fail?


  • The League of Nations was sidelined by other groups, including the Conference of Ambassadors.
  • The League failed to achieve its disarmament aim, as Germany defied the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and started rearming in the 1930s.
  • The League of Nations also failed in its attempt to prohibit war with its Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, partially because such an aim is essentially unenforceable.
  • Aggression from the Axis nations (Japan, Italy and Germany) was not prevented in the 1930s.
  • Of course, the League’s most significant failure was the outbreak of World War II in 1939, despite its mediation efforts.


The legacy of the League of Nations was that…


Despite its failure and disbandment during World War II, the League of Nations drastically changed international relations for the better, presaging a new era of global cooperation. The prestige and genuinely international nature of the League of Nations’ successor, the United Nations (UN), is its greatest legacy. The UN provides mediation services in international disputes, and promotes global peace, sustainability and justice, much like the League aimed to do.


Key takeaways


The League of Nations was a direct response to the horrors of World War I, and was motivated by the aim of preventing a repetition of such devastating conflict. While it failed in this prevention, it did establish a new standard for international institutions and replaced the outdated diplomatic strategies of the nineteenth century. Its active legacy can be seen in the aims, values and work of the United Nations.


Next steps for students interested in politics


Seriously considering a career in Politics?

Take your political understanding to the next level with the International Relations, Politics and Leadership summer school in Oxford.