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The League of Nations 101: A New Spirit in International Affairs


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

2. The Establishment of the League of Nations

3. Sir Eric Drummond and his System

4. Methods, Techniques, Operational Mechanisms, and Advocacy Opportunities

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 Past Versus The Future

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

The establishment of the League of Nations in 1919 was a new step in the history of international relations, which was based on the trends the international affairs started to follow during the previous decades. (1) Given that the International Red Cross or the Inter-Parliamentary Union has already been founded at the end of the 19th century, the League of Nations was not the first international organization. However, it was the first international institution that has aimed to control international affairs. In order to achieve this aim, the institution has launched its own international bureaucracy. (2)

Birth Of Hope 1919: A cartoon depicting the formation of the League of Nations after the First World War. The caption reads; 'Will the stork make good as to this infant?' (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Birth of hope 1919: A cartoon depicting the formation of the League of Nations after the First World War. The caption reads; 'Will the stork make good as to this infant?' (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

During the exciting first phase of the interwar period everything was changing, and a new era based on multilateral organizations has started to operate. In the 1920s, the world had to learn how to run this newly established multilateral system, in which the first attempts for maintaining peace on a wide scale was an internationally accepted need partially based on the fourteen points constituted by US president Woodrow Wilson. The League of Nations along with its institutions provided a place for joint operations through different policies and intercultural dialogue as well. With the help of its specialized bodies, the organization legitimized the role of cultural and scientific cooperation in the political sphere and international relations, and led to the emergence of well-known concepts like cultural peace (3) or soft power. (4)

The rapidly growing organization brought together states from different regions of the world, creating a completely different environment than before. The international playing field suddenly became global which posed new challenges to its member states. (5)

People of the era faced the real nature and possible pitfalls of this newly constructed scheme: the difficulties of creating the international bureaucracy, and problems of applying international law, (6) and – as for the national/state foreign policies – the question of how to follow foreign policies in this new medium and what methods of representation can be used. The keywords of the aims the League was willing to achieve were world peace, disarmament, collective security, international arbitration, autonomous development, and the right to self-determination. With this motivation, the League of Nations sought to dominate world diplomacy from its headquarters in Geneva. It was an attempt to replace private international understandings and wars as a method of conflict management by monitoring international relations. Thus, the organization provided a public forum for almost all issues affecting more states - even if they were not or not yet members of the organization. However, applying a system-wide analysis that focuses on methods, techniques, operational mechanisms, role of networks and advocacy opportunities; it is clear that the theoretical operation diverged from that of implemented in practice causing multiple contradictions between the two as the League of Nations was an organization established and mainly run by the winners of the First World War. The death of the alliance’s great patron, Wilson, and the absence of the United States from the League resulted in a clear British and French supremacy within the organization. (7) Later the British, who also provided the first secretary of the League of Nations, successfully took the lead. The alliance, which was built without coercive power, was itself forced to manaeuvre on the international stage and the system created by the first Secretary-General Sir Eric Drummond was formed accordingly.

The organization has become a part of the crisis management system of the era, thus it could not make its own decisions without or against the will of the great powers. Many of the decisions made on these issues were made according to the will of politically influential states. Whereas many of the issues discussed in the sessions were managed within the League of Nations, and many decisions were even made formally outside it: in bilateral agreements or during other conferences. Thus, although many people around the world believed in the success of the organization after its formation, it ceased to fulfill the role expected of it. This failure led to the actual birth of multilateral diplomacy, and by the end of the decade, the national representations of the League of Nations had adapted perfectly to this new system. In the medium of the League of Nations with its own mechanism of operation, the political will of the great powers was as much a necessary element of success as the actual capabilities of the state delegates: personal network, qualification, and aptitude.

As a consequence, Geneva where the headquarters of the League of Nations were located suddenly gained a central role in international affairs. The delegates who joined the sessions were prepared and trained politicians, diplomats, and professionals who were familiar with the issues in question. The personal presence of the Member States' prime ministers, presidents or minister of foreign affairs at the sessions was generally not common but it was relatively frequent when the key issues were discussed. The arriving top management negotiated not only at the sessions but also at private meetings as well. (8) The city quickly became a true negotiating and information gathering center at which requesting meetings and initiating negotiations was much easier than anywhere else. Leaders, prime ministers, ministers, or top diplomats were hosted by the Grand Hôtel Beau-Rivage (9) or the Grand Hôtel de la Paix, (10) and they could easily have discussions over a cup of coffee with almost anyone whether the issues they have discussed were also being discussed by the League of Nations or not. During these informal meetings, it has quickly become common to structure the scenarios which should be followed during the open sessions of the Council or the Assembly of the League. This naturally caused the continuation of secret diplomacy and left the forums of the League still important, yet by no means the only one.

By the end of the 1920s, a new multilateral system had been formed. Regarding its forums customary diplomacy, bilateral and multilateral conventions as well as international conferences remained just as important as the main bodies, specialized agencies, and funds of the League of Nations.

The League of Nations can therefore be considered successful in the political sphere in no way. Yet it was significant in many ways and brought something new to the international dialogue: it embodied the former direction towards international organizations as the first truly large and significant international organization. By its structure and operation, it has set an -often warning- example for today's organizations such as the United Nations or NATO. (11,12) Its headquarters and its location, Geneva, has become and remained as one of the world’s main political meeting points and information centers, appreciably facilitating international contacts.


  1. Guieu, Jean-Michel (2012): La SDN et ses organisations de soutien dans les années 1920. Entre promotion de l’esprit de Genève et volonté d’influence. Relations Internationales 3. pp.11-23.

  2. Inventing burocracy project (2021). The University of Aarhus (Denmark)

  3. Galtung, Johan (1990): Cultural Violence. Journal of Peace Research 27/3. pp. 291–305.

  4. Wilson, Ernest J. III (2008).: Hard Power, Soft Power, Smart Power. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 616. köt. pp. 110–124.

  5. Zeidler Miklós (2012): Praznovszky Iván: Diplomáciánk elhelyezkedése a magyar közéletben. Tanulmány (1934. november). A Monarchiától Trianonig. Egy magyar diplomata szemével. Praznovszky Iván emlékezései. pp. 290–297. OlvasóSarok, Budapest. pp. 290-297.

  6. Ortega y Gasset, José (2003). A tömegek lázadása. Nagy Világ [H. n.]. pp. 230.

  7. 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.

  8. Vladár, Ervin (1930): Mi is az a Népszövetség? Magyar Külügyi Társaság, Budapest, Gergely R. Könyvkereskedése. pp. 39-40.

  9. The letter of Frigyes Korányi to Kálmán Kánya. Paris, 30th July 1925. Hungarian National Archives - OL K 64

  10. Booking confirmation from the Grand Hotel de la Paix. Geneve, 24th November 1927. Hungarian National Archives - OL K 107

  11. White, Nigel D. (2019): The Legacy of the League of Nations. Revista Española de Derecho Internacional 71. (2019) 2. pp. 277–284.

  12. Shapiro, Ian–Lampert, Joseph (2014): Charter of the United Nations. Together with Scholarly Commentaries and Essential Historical Documents. Yale University Press, New Haven–London.


  1. Birth of hope 1919: A cartoon depicting the formation of the League of Nations after the First World War. The caption reads; 'Will the stork make good as to this infant?' (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

  2. The logo of the League of Nations.


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Lujza Varga

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