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Essay: Did the formation of the League of Nations and U.N. represent at the same time both a radical and conservative trend in world affairs?

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by Nicholas Klar

The statement "The League of Nations represented both a radical and conservative trend" is fairly apt for both the U.N. and the League of Nations. Both organizations have been paradoxical in their outlooks, structures and goals. In this paper a brief discussion will consider their conservative trends as compared to some of the more radical elements. This will be done because of the very terms 'radical' and 'conservative'. 'Conservative' appears as an ideology defending the status quo, hence its meaning remains fairly constant over the years. 'Radical' is a label often applied to those forces seeking fundamental change in structures or society. Therefore what may have been considered radical in times past may now even be part of the status quo, particularly so in our rapidly changing world. The text and conclusion with deal with these notions of radicalism.

Bennett asserts that the U.N. " a balance of conservatism and change", likewise with the League of Nations.[1] The conservative influence is easily discerned. The victorious Allies dominated in the formation of both organizations. Both were imbued with nineteenth century notions of world regulation and trade, along with the liberalist ideals of Kant and Locke. Imperial relations were still considered important, especially in the League of Nations, where some states were unwilling to dismantle the machinery of 500 years still favorable to Eurocentric interests.[2]

Even then, as today, states continued as the dominant political unit and would not confer any real power onto another entity.[3] Even during the dark days of WW II,"...negotiators were unwilling,and perhaps unable, to think in terms other than those of nationalism, national sovereignty, national interests, and established patterns of international relationships."[4] This is the major reason that the world tends to change the U.N. rather than vice-versa. Conversely this kind of thinking brought forth the notion that all free and sovereign states were to be considered equal, something previously unthinkable.

Why then was much of this new thinking considered radical? Although the founding of the League of Nations was unique in international relations, there had never before been a set of conditions which were conducive to the establishment of such cooperation. Prior to the twentieth century there had been few cases of multilateralism. The ‘Concert of Europe’, forged after the defeat of Napoleon, may be considered the first such attempt. Industry and science had begun to forge a world of decreasing distances, increased trade and closer communication. At the turn of the century other international organizations had also begun to rise, therefore the actual establishment of the League can not be seen as radical. However, some of the ideas and groups brought forth could be viewed as such. The major emphasis of the new covenant related to the promotion of peace and the prevention of war. The League was used to facilitate the hearing of at least 30 disputes in its first ten years, many of which were solved successfully.[5]

Unfortunately the Leagues ability to moderate declined in later years, and was one of its downfalls. A permanent International Court of Justice was established, although theoretically separate from the League. The notion of collective security was first mooted around the same time as the League and many saw them as inextricably bound.For the first time some recognition was given to the need for cooperation on international social and economic problems. These were reported as,

"(1) just treatment of non-self-governing peoples,(2) supervision of traffic in women and children,(3) supervision of traffic in dangerous drugs,(4) supervision of the arms trade,(5) freedom of communications and transit,(6) equitable treatment of international trade for all states, and (7) the prevention and control of disease." [6]

In these it saw some of the root causes of war, which if rectified, would lead to greater peace and security.

The U.N., built on the foundations of the collapsed League, too displayed many radical characteristics. In the new cold war climate the world had politically divided into three - Western, Communist and Latin America. In fact the Latin American states, only then commencing a role on the world stage, played an important role. Many of their nationals had vast experience in dealing with multilateral situations, and in certain cases reins of control were handed to leaders of the developing world. As if to stress their equality the Latin American representatives were able to establish five points needed for change. These were,

"(1) stress on universality of membership,(2) amplification of the powers and role of the general assembly,(3) expansion of the jurisdiction and competence of the international court,(4) an expanded role for international organizations, and (5) adequate representation of Latin America on the Security Council". [7]

The small states were now able to push through the 'Declaration Regarding Non-Self-Governing Territories' which was seen as a bill of rights for all subjugated states and colonies. It was seen that in,"...such territories the interests of the inhabitants are paramount, and it obligated the colonial powers to advance the inhabitants' political, economic, social, and educational welfare."[8] Later, organizations such as the P.L.O. were able to be heard, or even gain special 'observer' status.

In regard to their radical nature Bennetts assessment of the League seems to fit both units,"It was radical because, for the first time, the ideas and ideals of several philosophers who had advocated a universal organization for promoting peace and cooperation among nations were incorporated into state policy...because it dared to encompass...the means for dealing with a wide range of problems on which international action was desirable if not imperative...because it was innovative in creating the political, judicial, economic, social, and administrative agencies that would serve basically as a model for the U.N."[9]

In conclusion, both organizations radicalism or conservatism can depend on ones viewpoint. They could be seen on one hand as an exercise in futility, or on another, one step from world government. Nonetheless, the U.N. and its agencies have proved of worth in providing communication and accommodation through multiple and continuous contact points.[10]


[1] A. LeRoy Bennett 'International Organisations : Principles and Issues' Prentice Hall : N.J. 1991 pp.37,40

[2] Ibid p.6

[3] Ibid pp.3,22

[4] Ibid p.40

[5] Ibid p.33

[6] Ibid p.27

[7] Ibid p.47

[8] Ibid p.49

[9] Ibid p.37

[10] Ibid p.3

©1992-2007, Nicholas Klar, PO Box 280, Brighton SA 5048, AUSTRALIA 

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REF: Nicholas Klar, 1992, "Did the formation of the League of Nations and U.N. represent at the same time both a radical and conservative trend in world affairs?", + date accessed

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