Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

The League of Nations: Practicing Diplomacy

Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

The League of Nations: Practicing Diplomacy

Article excerpt

The League of Nations: Practicing Diplomacy Beyond Geopolitics: New Histories of Latin America at the League of Nations, edited by Alan McPherson and Yannick Wehrli (University of New Mexico Press, 2015, 293 pages)


The League of Nations (LN) was founded on January 10, 1920, at the initiative of President Woodrow Wilson who, at the Paris Peace Conference the year before, had put forth a proposal to create an international organization to maintain and promote world peace. The scars of the First World War were deep and painful. The League's initial goals were to promote collective security as a means to prevent wars, and to establish new alternative methods for dispute resolution such as negotiation or arbitration. The League of Nations also concerned itself with issues related to labor laws and conditions, human trafficking, arms trade, and health, among others. Its governing bodies were a council and an assembly, with a secretariat to handle all administrative matters. Various of its organizations such as the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Health Organization, the Committee for the Protection of Children and Young Persons and the Organization for Communications and Transit were entrusted with economic, social and cultural issues.

The central tenet of LN was cooperation among its members. Since it lacked an army, it was dependent on the so-called Great Powers to use diplomacy or other means to enforce sanctions or comply with resolutions. This was a departure from previous forms of conducting international business.

Yet the Great Powers were reluctant to support sanctions or provide an army if needed for fear of unsettling the status quo. The League's greatest failure by far, aside from other minor mishaps during the 1920s, was preventing aggression by Ger- many and Italy against other member countries. Some of its members withdrew gradually, and World War II ensued. Yet the system put in place by the LN was an important precedent for the United Nations at the conclusion of the war. The World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the UN Children's Fund all had their roots in the LN.

For Latin American countries, participation in the League of Nations offered an experience akin to an "apprenticeship in international economic cooperation," helping to establish multicultural debates and exchanges through regular international meetings. Beyond Geopolitics takes a detailed look at how these experiences helped shape the practice of diplomacy, grounded in the new values that characterized the 20th century. It allowed member countries to articulate their particular visions on the international stage vis à vis the United States and Europe, something that had not been possible with such clarity before. Some proposals sometimes clashed with the priorities of Washington and Geneva, but the stage allowed Latin American countries which were often ignored in diplomatic circles to lead in many LN-related activities. The book's essays on Latin American participation are mostly the result of a 2011 international symposium in Geneva.

The chapters are grouped in four areas: sovereignty and conflict resolution, labor, intellectual and conflict resolution, and economic and social activities. During its existence (1920-1946), all Latin American republics belonged to the organization at one time or another-about one third of all member states in the first years. This was significant, as the LN was deemed to be more of a European than a global organization. Most of its activities were focused on European matters as it pursued the restoration of peace on the continent after the effects of the world war. Yet the "one country, one vote" policy afforded the Latin American countries a chance to wield some power within the organization. …

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