Comparison with the League of Nations

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The League of Nations grew out of the catastrophe of World War I (191418). Though the idea of the establishment of a body in which the nations of the world could settle their disagreements had been put forth periodically since antiquity, the League, created at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, was the first organization of sovereign states designed to be universal and devoted to the settlement of disputes and the prevention of war. The League's failure to prevent the outbreak of World War II in 1939 did not destroy the belief in the need for a universal organization. On the contrary, it bred a determination to learn from the mistakes of the past and to build a new world body more adequately equipped to maintain international peace in the future.

The differences between the League of Nations and the UN begin with the circumstances of their creation. First, whereas the Covenant of the League was formulated after hostilities were ended, the main features of the UN were devised while war was still in progress. The more comprehensive powers assigned to the UN for the preservation of peace may owe something to the urgent conditions in which it was conceived. Second, the Covenant was drawn up in an atmosphere of divided attention at the Paris Peace Conference and was incorporated as part of the peace treaty with Germany. Although countries were permitted to ratify the Covenant and the treaty separately, the link between them was not good psychology and contributed, for example, to the unwillingness of the US Senate to ratify the Covenant. In contrast, the UN Charter was draft ed as an independent legal instrument at a conference especially convened for the purpose. Third, the Covenant was hammered out behind closed doors, first by the five major powers of the eraFrance, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United Statesand eventually in conjunction with nine other allied nations. The final text of the UN Charter, on the other hand, was the product of combined efforts of 50 nations represented at the 1945 San Francisco Conference and therefore took into account the views of the smaller nations, especially their concern to give the new organization far-reaching responsibilities in promoting economic and social cooperation and the independence of colonial peoples.


Under the Covenant, decisions of the League could be made only by unanimous vote. This rule applied both to the League's Council, which had special responsibilities for maintaining peace (the equivalent of the UN's Security Council), and to the all-member Assembly (the equivalent of the UN's General Assembly). In effect, each member state of the League had the power of the veto, and, except for procedural matters and a few specified topics, a single "nay" killed any resolution. Learning from this mistake, the founders of the UN decided that all its organs and subsidiary bodies should make decisions by some type of majority vote (though, on occasion, committees dealing with a particularly controversial issue have been known to proceed by consensus). The rule of unanimity applies only to five major powersFrance, China, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Russian Federationand then only when they are acting in their capacity as permanent members of the Security Council. The Security Council also proceeds by majority vote, but on substantive (though not on procedural) matters, it must include the concurring votes of all the permanent members. (See the section on Voting in the chapter on the Security Council.)


The Charter was designed to remedy certain constitutional defects and omissions in the Covenant that the founders of the UN believed had been partly responsible for the League's inability to halt the drift toward a second world war in the 1930s. These defects and omissions included the absence of any provision imposing a total ban on war, the provision of an overly rigid procedure for negotiating disputes between states, and the failure to vest the League's Council with sufficient powers to prevent the outbreak of hostilities or to terminate hostilities that had already begun.

The Covenant forbade military aggression but did not reject the limited right of a state to start a war, provided that it had first submitted the dispute to arbitration, judicial decision, or the Council of the League. If one party accepted the findings of the negotiating body and the second did not, the first might then resort to war legally after a "cooling-off" period.

The Charter recognizes no circumstances under which a nation may legally start a war. Article 51 does guarantee the right to individual or collective self-defense, which is a right to respond to an illegal armed attack but not to initiate one. If the Security Council decides that a "threat to the peace" exists, it has the power to order collective enforcement measures. These are mandatory for all member states and may include economic sanctions or military measures, but the power rarely has been invoked. (See the chapter on International Peace and Security.)


The League never became the universal organization that had been envisaged. Moreover, it failed to secure or retain the membership of certain major powers whose participation and cooperation were essential to make it an effective instrument for preserving the peace. Despite President Wilson's advocacy, the United States did not join, and the USSR joined only in 1934, when the League had already shown itself unable to contain the aggressive policies of Germany, Italy, and Japan. The three aggressor states themselves withdrew their membership during the 1930s to pursue their expansionist aims. The UN, on the other hand, is approaching the goal of universality, with only a few smaller countries still unrepresented. By November 2002, its membership had reached 191.


The UN Charter not only lays down specific injunctions for international economic and social cooperation, based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, but also has established a special organthe Economic and Social Councilto conduct the organization's activities in this sphere. Throughout its existence, the UN, together with its specialized agencies, has gradually assumed primary responsibility for assisting the economic and social development of nonindustrialized member nations, most of them former colonial territories that joined the world body long after it was founded. The UN's many projects have become the cornerstone of the development policies adopted by almost all these countries. Since the Covenant of the League contained no provisions for a coordinated program of economic and social cooperation, there can be no comparison between the respective achievements of the two organizations in this respect. Nevertheless, the League performed valuable work in several fields: notably, working to eliminate the illegal sale of women and children, the "white slave" trade; providing assistance for refugees; reducing traffic in opium and other dangerous narcotics; and getting nations to lessen trade restrictions.


Instead of sharing the colonial possessions of their defeated enemies as the traditional spoils of victory, the founding members of the League, with admirable foresight and restraint, regarded these territories as international mandates, and certain member states were designated to administer them on behalf of the world organization. This mandate system in a modified form was continued in the trusteeship system evolved by the founders of the UN. However, unlike the Covenant, the Charter expressly stipulates that the administering countries have an obligation to promote the progressive development of the territories placed in their charge toward self-government or independence.


The League failed in its supreme test. It failed to contain the aggressive action of the Axis powersJapan, Germany, and Italyand thus failed to halt the drift toward a new world war. Beginning in 1931, Japan, a permanent member of the League's Council, waged a war of aggression against China, in defiance of both the Council and the Assembly. Although the League did impose economic sanctions against Italy, another permanent member of the Council, when it wantonly invaded Ethiopia in 1935, support was halfhearted and the action unsuccessful. The League was unable to do anything against the illegal reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936 by Germany, still another permanent member of the Council; nor could it offer more than verbal protests against German and Italian intervention in the Spanish Civil War or the forcible incorporation of Austria into Germany in March 1938 and of Czechoslovakia into Germany the following year. The cumulative effect of these failures strengthened Hitler's belief in the impotence not only of the League itself but also of its principal remaining members. During the summer of 1939, when the world moved ever closer toward war, and even when Hitler's armies marched into Poland on 1 September 1939, not a single member called for a meeting of the League's Council or Assembly.

The League's balance sheet in political matters was not wholly negative, however. It was able, for example, to settle the dispute between Finland and Sweden over the Aland Islands, strategically located in the Gulf of Bothnia; the frontier controversy between Albania, Greece, and Yugoslavia; the potentially explosive border situation between Greece and Bulgaria; and the dangerous conflicts between Poland and Germany over Upper Silesia and between Germany, Poland, and Lithuania over Memel. Through the League's Permanent Court of International Justice, a border controversy between Czechoslovakia and Poland was settled, as were the disputes between Great Britain and Turkey over the Mosul area and between France and Great Britain over the nationality of Maltese residents in the French protectorates of Morocco and Tunisia. The League also stopped the incipient war between Peru and Colombia over territorial claims in the upper Amazon basin.

In addition to these successful peacekeeping activities, the League financially assisted the reconstruction of certain states, notably Austria, and was responsible for administering the Free City of Danzig and the Saar Territory. (The latter was transferred to Germany following a plebiscite in 1935.) It also carried out important humanitarian work. Some of its nonpolitical activities continued throughout World War II, and its secretariat did valuable preparatory work for the emerging UN. The League of Nations was not officially dissolved until April 1946, five months after the new world body came into being.


The field of activity and the responsibilities of the UN are considerably more extensive than those of the League. Of the specialized agencies in the UN system, only threethe ILO, the ITU, and the UPUantedate the UN. The League, furthermore, never sponsored any such enterprises as those undertaken by, for example, the UN Development Program, the UN Environment Program, or the World Food Program. Membership in the League did not oblige a nation to join the Permanent Court of Justice, whereas all members of the UN are automatically parties to the Statute of the International Court of Justice, which is an integral part of the Charter.

Like the League, the UN has recorded several important successes in halting local armed conflicts and the spread of disputes: for example, in the Congo, Kashmir, and, over long periods, Cyprus. However, it has often proved unable to take effective action in any situation where the interests of either the United States or the former USSR are closely involved or where the two giant powers seem committed to opposite sides of disputes involving smaller nations. Thus, it was unable to check the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and of Czechoslovakia in 1968; it was unable to take any action to halt the fighting that raged in Indochina during most of its existence; and, though progress has been made, it has not succeeded in finding a permanent solution to the prolonged crisis that has periodically erupted in Arab-Israeli wars in the Middle East.

The UN's ineffectuality in such situations caused a loss of confidence in its relevance in international political relations. Nor was it a source of consolation that there was no discernible drift toward a world war, for in most cases where the United States and the former USSR found themselves almost at the point of actual confrontation, as in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, they tended to resolve their differences bilaterally, not under the aegis of the UN.

On the other hand, if the two great powers did not always find it convenient to allow the UN to play too decisive a role in political matters, they found it equally impractical to bypass the world organization altogether.

Unlike the League, the UN is the center of a network of organizations whose activities reach into many aspects of the national life of every member state. As such, it has come to be regarded as an indispensable part of the machinery for conducting multi-level international relations. In a world transformed by the collapse of the former Soviet bloc, the UN is coming of age and may begin to fulfill the dreams of its founders. While its authority continues to be challenged by countries that remain on the fringe of the world community, the United Nations may be seen as an embryonic world government.

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Comparison with the League of Nations

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