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:
1. A New Spirit
9. League of Nations 101: The Past Versus The Future
10. The League of Nations' Place in the History of International Institutions and Bureaucracy
The League of Nations VS the United Nations
In the previous articles, the League of Nations was described from different aspects, from its establishment to its successes and failures. This article aims to examine the differences and similarities between the two large organizations that succeeded each other, and whose objective is to maintain peace: the League of Nations and the United Nations.
As stated in the previous article of the series, the League of Nations had lots of failures on a political level: as the League itself was not able to control the great powers, it also had to maneuver among them, so it could not control the serious political crises emerging one after another either. Thus, at the beginning of World War II, the League undoubtedly failed, and the idea of a new, similar organization was proposed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who started to organize a postwar planning committee even before the outbreak of World War II (Johnson, 2021).
During World War II, in 1943, Secretary of State Cordell Hull and the British Anthony Eden agreed to call for a new international organization that would be based on "the principle sovereign equality of all nations" (Charter of the UN, 1945). Later that year, Roosevelt proposed to Stalin to form such an organization and the following year the representatives of the US, Great Britain, the USSR and China met at Dumbarton Oaks (Washington) to draft the charter of the new organization. The charter was completed in San Francisco in 1945 and with that the United Nations was born (Office of the Historian, 2017).
Thus, while the League of Nations was created according to the aims of US president Woodrow Wilson, the idea of establishing a new League of Nations came from US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. However, while the US did not join the League of Nations, it did join the UN, which also featured an important turning point in US foreign policy, marked by Bretton Woods.
The League of Nations was disbanded in 1946 and while the main headquarters of the UN were established in New York, a regional office in Geneva was also created, in the same building that was built to accommodate the League of Nations. As the UN is the successor of the League of Nations, there is a strong continuity between the two: even the Archives of the League of Nations are located in the main building of the UN Headquarters in Geneva (UN Research Guides, 2022), as the ceased League of Nations handed over all its assets to the UN, and granted the new UN Secretariat full control of its Library and archives (United Nations, 2022).
Handing over the properties was not the oly continuity between the two organizations. Besides the parallel aims, a similar organizational structure also was established: the Assembly, the Council, and the Secretariat (headed by a Secretary-General) became the main bodies of the new organization as well.
Those working in or alongside the League of Nations apparently were not disillusioned with the idea of such an organization either: Zoltán Baranyai, who was the most important figure of the Hungarian representation next to the League of Nations from its establishment until its demise, also took a position with the United Nations in 1945, as did many other people.
Many of the officials of the Secretariat of the League of Nations can also be found among the first staff of the United Nations, for example, the well-known and powerful Norwegian diplomat Erik Colban, who led the League’s Minority Department for 6 years, or his successor, the Spanish diplomat Pablo de Azcárate.
These committed officials also took part in developing the structure and operation of the United Nations, and helped the organization to make lots of necessary corrections regarding the League system. Not only was the United Nations armed with the experience of the two World Wars, but the League of Nations was an example of its organization, and the states of the world were already familiar with multilateral diplomacy in practice. They learned how it worked, saw its benefits and pitfalls, and had solutions for the latter.
Thus, one of the most important differences between the United Nations and the League of Nations is that the UN has a military force: its military personnel are the famous Blue Helmets, who serve as peacekeepers and are deployed according to the decisions of the UN Security Council. They are also far from having an army of their own, and their duty is to protect civilians and UN personnel, monitor disputed borders, peace processes in post-conflict areas, provide security across a conflict zone, etc. (United Nations Peacekeeping, 2022) Although their presence is usually effective, there are some sad examples of total failure as well, such as the case of Srebrenica.
Although almost everyone has joined the UN, it is not likely to prevent armed conflicts – see e.g. the case of Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020. (UN News) Yet, there is a continuity regarding the biggest successes of the League of Nations as well: its specialized agencies. The International Labour Organization (ILO) still exists, while the International Committee for Intellectual Cooperation was succeeded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1945. New bodies were created as the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), and programs were launched as the UNDP (Development Programme), the WFP (UN World Food Programme). The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was set up in 1947 to be able to control the huge refugee crisis following World War II, and is currently working hard to help refugees around the world.
Thus, the United Nations is not only the successor of the League of Nations, but lots of similarities and continuities exist between the two organizations. These analogies are used by US public discourse as well as it is examined by specialists in order to draw the inference and help to avoid failures. (Grigorescu, 2005) However, the noble idea of the originators and the personnel of the two organizations and its agencies has huge act on world affairs: mostly with the support of its specialized agencies, the UN undoubtedly help to successfully act on different global issues.
• Charter of the United Nations. Chapter I — Purposes and Principles. UN Codification Division Publications. Retrieved from https://legal.un.org/repertory/art2.shtml
• Grigorescu, Alexandru (2005): Mapping the UN–League of Nations Analogy: Are There Still Lessons to Be Learned from the League? Global Governance (11) 25-42.
• Johnson, Ian (2021. December 27.): Creating the United Nations. Warfare Wednesday – a Podcast hosted by James Rogers (Interviewer) [Podcast]. Podtail. https://podtail.com/en/podcast/the-world-wars-1/creating-the-united-nations/
• Office of the Historian, 2017: The Formation of the United Nations, 1945. Milestone 1937-1945. Retrieved from https://history.state.gov/milestones/1937-1945/un
• Peacekeeping: United Nations Peacekeeping. Retrieved from https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/military
• UN News. Global perspective Human stories. United Nations. Retrieved from https://news.un.org/en/tags/nagorno-karabakh
• UN World Food Programme Retrieved from https://www.wfp.org
• UNDP Retrieved from https://www.undp.org
• UNESCO Retrieved from https://en.unesco.org
• UNHCR Retrieved from https://www.unhcr.org
• UNICEF Retrieved from https://www.unicef.org
• United Nations Research Guides. Retrieved from https://libraryresources.unog.ch/leagueofnationsarchives/Digitized/LeagueArchives
• United Nations. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/en/about-us/history-of-the-un/predecessor
Johnson, Ian (2021. December 27.): Creating the United Nations. Warfare Wednesday – a Podcast hosted by James Rogers (Interviewer) [Podcast]. Podtail. https://podtail.com/en/podcast/the-world-wars-1/creating-the-united-nations /
• Achilleas Zavallis (n.d) An Afghan asylum-seeker helps his father wash the hands of his younger brother at the Kara Tepe emergency site on Lesvos, Greece. [Photograph] UNHCR https://www.unhcr.org/news/press/2020/9/5f6c89454/unhcr-alleviating-suffering-overcrowding-greek-islands-reception-centres.html
• Marco Dormino. (n. d.) UN Blue Helmets. [Photograph] UN Photo. Richard Gowan (2018): MACROSCOPE: Should Germany Push for UN Blue Helmets in Eastern Ukraine? Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. https://ny.fes.de/article/macroscope-should-germany-push-for-un-blue-helmets-in-eastern-ukraine
• Pablo de Azcárate in Jerusalem as part of the UN Truce Commission on 1st June, 1948. [Photograph] Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pablo_de_Azcárate#/media/File:Azcarate_in_Jerusalen,_Jun_01,_1948.jpg
• Palace of Nations, Geneva. [Photograph] Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_Office_at_Geneva#/media/File:Palace_of_Nations_Geneva_20102014_02.jpg
• UN flag. [Photograph] Wikipedia. https://hu.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fájl:Flag_of_the_United_Nations.svg
UN flag. [Photograph] Wikipedia. https://hu.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fájl:Flag_of_the_United_Nations.svg