Mapping the UN-League of Nations Analogy: Are There Still Lessons to Be Learned from the League?

By Grigorescu, Alexandru | Global Governance, January-March 2005 | Go to article overview

Mapping the UN-League of Nations Analogy: Are There Still Lessons to Be Learned from the League?


Grigorescu, Alexandru, Global Governance


In recent years, the United Nations-League of Nations analogy has been used in U.S. public discourse with increased frequency. A major implication of the analogy is that if the UN does not undergo substantive changes it will become as ineffective as its predecessor. This article asks if the example of the League of Nations can still offer important lessons for the future of the UN. It assesses the validity of the analogy by "mapping" the similarities and differences between the recent events involving Iraq and the events preceding World War II. It further compares the structures, principles, rules, norms, and decisionmaking procedures of the two organizations and argues that several apparently minor differences have allowed the UN to be more effective and survive much longer than its predecessor. The study concludes that the analogy is not only inaccurate but also potentially damaging to the credibility of the UN and, implicitly, to the organization's usefulness. KEYWORDS: UN, League of Nations, analogy, international organizations, Iraq.

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One year and one day after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, President George W. Bush addressed the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). He used the opportunity to garner international support for a tougher stance on Iraq. To make his arguments more convincing, the president made a reference to the failures of the League of Nations: "We created the United Nations Security Council, so that, unlike the League of Nations, our deliberations would be more than talk, our resolutions would be more than wishes. After generations of deceitful dictators and broken treaties and squandered lives, we dedicated ourselves to standards of human dignity shared by all, and to a system of security defended by all." (1)

Although the UN-League of Nations analogy is a tempting one--after all, they are the only global international organizations (IOs) to have ever dealt with security issues--it is significant that it had not been used in official U.S. government speeches for some time. (2) Yet, after the 2002 UNGA speech, President Bush used the same analogy more than forty times over the following two months. Moreover, several key figures in his administration, members of Congress, and several foreign officials also began to use it. Around the same time, the analogy also emerged in the press.

The fact that the League of Nations example has been used intensively over the past few years implies that it is a "useful" one. But is that the case? Is it useful only for rhetorical reasons, or can the UN still learn important lessons from the failures of the League?

I address these questions in this article, discussing first how the analogy has been used, especially by top-ranking officials in the Bush administration. Then drawing from the political science literature on historical analogies, I "map" the similarities and differences between the events to which the analogy makes reference as well as the similarities and differences between the two organizations themselves. This exercise leads to the conclusion that important procedural and norm-related differences between the two organizations have made the UN much more flexible and effective than the League. Because the UN has generally been able to serve its members well, especially its most powerful ones, it has survived longer than its predecessor.

The discussion of this analogy is not only relevant for theoretical reasons, but I argue that it may also have important practical consequences. The comparison with the League of Nations may have a lingering impact on the UN's perceived legitimacy and, implicitly, on its potential usefulness for all its members--including the United States.

The Use of the Analogy and Its Implications

In 2002-2003, the UN-League of Nations analogy was used in several different ways by many international leaders, from the British prime minister (3) to the former Iraqi foreign minister. …

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