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League of Nations 101: Methods to Enforce State Interests


The League of Nations 101 is a series that historically analyze the work of the League of Nations. The League of Nations was the first international organization that has aimed to control international affairs and, in order to achieve that, it launched its own international bureaucracy. Through its main organs (the Secretariat, the Assembly and the Council) it was able to form a new, multilateral system by the end of the 1920s.

The League of Nations 101 series' aim is to examine the system-level operations, the possible strategies used by state representations and the activities of the people that were operating the system or intended to prevail in it, as well as to find the place of the League of Nations in the history of diplomacy and international institutions.

The series are divided into the following chapters:

4. Methods to Enforce State Interests

5. Hungarian Diplomats Next to League in the 1920s

6. The League's Specialized Agencies

7. Biggest Successes of the League of Nations

8. Biggest Failures of the League of Nations

9. The League of Nations VS the United Nations

10. The League of Nations' Place in the History of International Institutions and Bureaucracy

As stated in the previous chapters of this 101 series, in principle, the League of Nations along with its bodies provided a forum for almost all issues that would affect more states to be debated. Attended by leading politicians, diplomats, and experts from all over the world, the debates and decisions taking place there were followed with great interest by the public as well. Yet, although many believed in the success of the organisation after its formation, the League was set up without a coercive power, and was forced to manoeuvre on the international stage by itself. In terms of decision-making, almost all reports mention the importance of private conversations, which is why – in addition to the locations of the League of Nations and its affiliates – hotels are also considered to be among the most important places. (MTI, 1929) In this medium, personal networking was as much a necessary element of success as qualification and aptitude. On the other hand, through a comprehensive examination of the League’s ‘playing field’, i.e., the system in which the state foreign policy goals had to be enforced, it is clear that in Drummond’s system the Secretariat played a key role, and was able to facilitate or block matters even before they would reach the Council or the Assembly. (Barros, 1983)

Through the examination of the methods and techniques enabling the enforcement of state interests, (a lot of actual cases including the strategy used by state diplomacy and the people involved both in the state representations and the League’s bureaucracy), the system-level operational mechanism of the League of Nations along with political, institutional, diplomatic, and biographical research, certain routes of advocacy can be traced. (Varga, 2021) Concerning the argument during the debates, a reference to the basic ideas accepted by the League during its formation, well founded and well-structured reasoning and expertise were inevitable. (Vladár, 1930)

International Law.

Many of the issues were related to the application of international law, which was still evolving. The main question that emerged in connection with it was how international law relates to the internal legislation of states: can international law override the states internal legislation? In the end, however, real politics overridden everything, so for a small state, finding politically strong supporters was essential.

Regarding the processes through which a state could apply influence on the League, there were 3 main possibilities: the establishment of representations alongside the League of Nations in Geneva, placing staff members in the Secretariat, and achieving the goals through the state representatives to the League’s sessions and other forums.

Concerning the establishment of representations alongside the League of Nations in Geneva, several state secretariats were set up in countries such as Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Finland, or Poland by 1922. While the Finns and Poles carried out this task through their embassies in Paris, the secretariats of the first three of the mentioned countries were led through the Bern representation of these states. (Baranyai, 1922) In the case of the Hungarian secretariat, it was Drummond and Joost Adriaan Van Hamel, the head of the legal department of the League, with whom the state representatives discussed the issue of establishing such an office; it was Van Hamel who suggested that the planned office should be kept under the embassy in Bern as a special branch of the League. (Drummond)

Joost Adriaan van Hamel in 1927.

These secretariats worked as permanent liaison bodies between the sending governments and the League of Nations. (Baranyai, 1923) They also endeavoured to obtain as much information as possible on the work of the League of Nations, to inform their states’ foreign offices, and to receive and assist state delegations to the League’s Assemblies and other forums. (Hungarian Office) However, establishing such a secretariat was only a way for politically less effective member states. It would’ve been an unnecessary step for the states which gave major bureaucrats to the League’s Secretariat. That is why they did not maintain such offices. (Baranyai, 1930) Yet this fact leads to the next opportunity for advocacy: the placement of bureaucrats in the League’s Secretariat. The Member States therefore sought to include members of their own nation in the Secretariat's staff – but British, French, and those nations they considered to be friendly were clearly overrepresented in comparison to the other nations, especially in the political departments. (Siotis, 1983) The General Secretariat was also able to influence the outcome of cases, and that the activities of its staff could include not only influencing matters but also obtaining internal information. Thus it is not surprising that – although these staff members truly had to be outstanding in their special area – during the filling of larger, key positions, political considerations undoubtedly controlled appointments in a decisive way. (Vladár, 1930)

The third, most obvious way of state presence at the League was the participation in the meetings of the Council and the Assembly. During these sessions the whole city of Geneva became a forum where the members of the representations could easily contact each other and take part in background negotiations, even if officially they were sent to different forums (e. g. Council/Assembly/conference of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, or the League of Nations Union etc.). Thus, Geneva served as a meeting point for everyone who came to join different forums, but on almost the same issues. (Parcher, 1922) In addition to the official delegation, key politicians or diplomats also often arrived to the city specifically to conduct background talks: e.g. Hungarian minister of foreign affairs Lajos Walko and Sándor Khuen-Héderváry, Walko’s deputy in March 1928. (MTI, 1928) Concerning the official delegations to the sessions of the Council and the Assembly, they either represented the sending country on a specific political issue affecting the state or took part in a general or specialised committee of the League. Participation in these committees was also important in order to increase a state’s impact as the operation of the organisation could be influenced through the general committees and informal influence could have been gained during the specialised committees.

The Malaria Commission of the League of Nations.,_192_Wellcome_V0028073.jpg

Regarding the personal composition of the state representation, governments were often represented at the highest level, but this was by no means common. The delegations had some permanent members for practical reasons such as the leaders of the state delegations. Same thing can be stated, practically a permanent membership, in the case of those who came to the meetings for years, specifically to represent only one case. Thus, these representatives weren’t only experts regarding their cases, but they also knew the procedures, the negotiation methods, tactics used during the sessions, the representatives of other states acting in similar cases along with the other international actors who were receptive to the issue by supporting or opposing the cause. In this way, the delegates had their own networks organised along certain topics (e.g., minority protection), covering the issues they represented as fully as possible: not only within the League of Nations but also in other forums (international conferences, etc.). (Vladár, 1930)


Thus, those attending to the meetings can be divided into four groups: the general "ordinary" delegates, who were well acquainted with the operation of the League of Nations, its employees, and the delegates of the other states; professionals who came to discuss a specific issue in which they were experts; or, in special cases, the Prime Minister or Minister of Foreign Affairs. The fourth group was used during sessions in which no relevant debate was to be expected: in these cases, the leader of the state’s Geneva secretariat or an ambassador familiar with the League has been entrusted with the representation. Examining the personnel composition of the representation, we can see that professional diplomats, experts from various sectors (minority affairs, military, law, etc.), and politicians also took an active part in it and helped each other's work. Their work could only be successful if they followed a coordinated strategy; their arguments were excellent, the documents submitted to the League were proper and in line with the requirements of the League.

Over the years, the governments have recognised the League’s operation, and were able to form their foreign strategies in accordance with it. On the other hand, they were also ready to elaborate proposals in order to achieve some reforms on the system level (Drucker, 1934), some of which were successfully achieved by the late 1920s.

All of the aforementioned routes could be effective ways to reach political goals – though they had to be harmonised, often strengthened by PR campaigns as well. The political goals, however, could prevail in the League of Nations if the arguments were formally and legally correct, and – in case of a weaker state – if support from a more powerful ally was gained over a cause.


1. The report of the Hungarian Telegraphic Agency (MTI). Madrid, 8th June, 1929.

2. Barros, James (1983): The role of Sir Eric Drummond. In: The League of Nations in retrospect – La Société des Nations: rétrospective. United Nations Library, Geneva. pp. 37-38.

3. Varga, Lujza (2021): Magyar képviselet a Népszövetségben az 1920-as években. PhD Thesis. Budapest-Piliscsaba

4. , 11., 14. Vladár, Ervin (1930): Mi is az a Népszövetség? Magyar Külügyi Társaság, Budapest, Gergely R. Könyvkereskedése. pp. 52-53., 54.

5. The letter of Zoltán Baranyai to Miklós Bánffy. Geneva, 27th May, 1922. Hungarian National Archives – State Archives (MNL OL) K 107 1. cs. 2. t. 303.

6. The notes of Sir Eric Drummond, and Joost A. Van Hamel. Leauge of Nations Archives R 574 (Communications with the Hungarian Government) 11/8609x/5742.

7. The letter of Zoltán Baranyai to Eric Drummond. Geneva, 19th January, 1923. League of Nations Archives R 574 (Communications with the Hungarian Government) 11/8609x/5742.

8. Files concerning the Hungarian Office in Geneva. MNL OL K 107 1. cs.

9. The report of Zoltán Baranyai to the Hungarian Foreign Ministry. Geneva, 28th February 1930. Hungarian National Archives OL K 107 64. cs. 62. t. 190.

10. Siotis, Jean (1983): The institutions of the League of Nations. In: The League of Nations in retrospect – La Société des Nations: rétrospective. United Nations Library, Geneva. pp. 26.

12. The letter of Félix Parcher to Zoltán Baranyai. Bern, 20th August, 1922. MNL OL K 107 61. cs. 54.

13. The report of the Hungarian Telegraphic Agency (MTI). Paris, 2nd March, 1928.

15. Drucker, György Dr. (1934): A Nemzetek Szövetsége reformja. Különlenyomat a „Külügyi Szemle” 1934. évi júliusi (harmadik) számából. Budapest, Királyi Magyar Egyetemi Nyomda. é. n. pp. 11.



Author Photo

Lujza Varga

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