Academic journal article Texas International Law Journal

Nationalism, Development and the Postcolonial State: The Legacies of the League of Nations

Academic journal article Texas International Law Journal

Nationalism, Development and the Postcolonial State: The Legacies of the League of Nations

Article excerpt


The relationship between culture and sovereignty, as it has emerged in the history of international law, may be broadly conceptualized in two distinct ways. Firstly, nationalism, starkly asserts that every distinctive culture is entitled to its own state. Nationalism is a major problem in multiethnic societies, and the ongoing civil wars that have afflicted not only Asia and Africa, but also Europe itself, in the Balkans, indicate that it is a problem that poses a major and enduring challenge to international community and stability. Secondly, as a study of the history of nineteenth century international law makes clear, imperial, European international law decreed that only certain "civilized" cultures and societies were capable of becoming sovereign. Simply, civilized states were sovereign members of the family of nations, and uncivilized states were not. In this context, it was only by making all the transformations deemed necessary to become civilized that such states could aspire to entry into the family of nations. These two very different conceptualizations of the relationship between culture and sovereignty were embodied in the two regimes created by the League of Nations (the League)-the minority treaty system and the Mandate system-which developed distinctive techniques, doctrines and institutional mechanisms for giving effect to these contrasting visions of the sovereign nation-state. The lawyers of the League had to address the problem of nationalism in the new states of Eastern Europe. Here, the problem of cultural difference involved the problem of how international law and institutions could ensure that different ethnic groups within the one territory could live in peace. Second, the League had to confront colonial problems, which involved managing relations between two disparate cultural groupings understood as being the civilized Europeans and the uncivilized non-Europeans; this had to be achieved in the context of all the changes that had occurred in international thinking and relations following the First World War. The problems of cultural difference acquired a particular significance because, as the following discussion attempts to suggest, issues of culture were intimately connected with issues of sovereignty. In attempting to resolve these two major problems, the League lawyers created two different regimes which embodied two different understandings of the character of the nation-state. The problem of nationalism and minorities was to be addressed by the Minority Treaty System of the League. Colonial problems were to be addressed by the Mandate System of the League of Nations. My interest here lies in sketching the connections between the League's understanding of the particular character of the problem of difference in each of these regimes, the technologies developed by international law and institutions for addressing the problem, and how these regimes conceptualized the relationship between culture and sovereignty.

My purpose in this article is to sketch the basic characteristics of the minority and mandate systems, and to then trace how the repertoire of technologies developed by each system to address cultural differences was used in the United Nations period to establish and consolidate the postcolonial state. This in turn enables an assessment of the advantages and disadvantages of these techniques.

Within the traditional history of international law, it is understood that one of the major innovations of the Treaty of Westphalia was the inauguration of a system in which religion was displaced as a basis of authority. My article argues that a similar development occurred within the internal realm of sovereign states. In effect, states that perceived themselves as secular attempted to manage "culture"-understood here as religion, language, ethnicity, whatever it was that might provide a basis for nationalism.


Nationalism, of course, poses dual threats to the system of international law. …

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