A "Great Experiment" of the League of Nations Era: International Nongovernmental Organizations, Global Governance, and Democracy beyond the State

By Davies, Thomas Richard | Global Governance, October-December 2012 | Go to article overview

A "Great Experiment" of the League of Nations Era: International Nongovernmental Organizations, Global Governance, and Democracy beyond the State


Davies, Thomas Richard, Global Governance


This article aims to shed historical light on the contemporary debate concerning the role of international nongovernmental organizations and intergovernmental organizations in the democratization of global governance through an assessment of the experience and political thought of the League of Nations era. After introducing the interactions of international nongovernmental organizations and intergovernmental organizations in the present day and in the League of Nations period and the contemporary debate on their role in the democratization of global governance, the article discusses how democracy in global governance was conceived in the League of Nations era, with particular reference to the work of Alfred Zimmern. The analysis highlights not only the considerable continuities between interwar thought and that of the present day, but also the potential problems identified at the time that remain pertinent today. KEYWORDS: democracy, global governance, international nongovernmental organizations, League of Nations, Alfred Zimmern.

IN THE OPENING ARTICLE OF THE FIRST ISSUE OF GLOBAL GOVERNANCE, THE sixth UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, discussed how, through the United Nations and other actors, including international nongovernmental organizations (ING0s), "the people of the world can work together to improve and strengthen democracy." (1) His words echoed those of Eduard Bene, president of the sixteenth assembly of the League of Nations, who claimed half a century earlier that "the League of Nations was the expression of a general democratization of the postwar world and an organ of international democracy." (2) In the present day it remains commonplace to claim, as Barack Obama wrote in his second book, The Audacity of Hope, that in World War I, "making the world 'safe for democracy' didn't just involve winning a war. ... Wilson proposed a League of Nations to mediate conflicts between nations." (3) However, the practice of the League of Nations and INGOs in contributing toward the democratization of global governance in the 1920s and 1930s--despite being a popular subject of discussion at the time--has not since been given academic attention.

My purpose in this article is to shed light on the democratization of global governance through the experience of the UN's precursor, focusing in particular on the relationship between the League of Nations and INGOs. That the interaction between INGOs and intergovernmental organizations (IG0s) may be important in the development of democracy beyond the state has become a crucial issue in the study of global governance in the present day. (4) However, the literature has tended to focus on recent experience at the expense of a longer-term perspective.

There have been advances in recent years in the exploration of the historical roots of global governance, including the role of INGO interactions with IGOs. (5) In addition, in the study of the theory of international relations, there is a growing body of literature drawing insights into international politics from the major thinkers of the period between World War I and World War II. (6) These literatures, however, have tended to overlook the work of scholars and practitioners from this period on the issue of democracy in global governance. (7) Even recent studies of thinkers of the interwar era such as Alfred Zimmern, who put the role of INGOs and IGOs in the democratization of international affairs at the core of their work, have tended to neglect this aspect of these thinkers' work. (8)

In this article, I aim to address an important gap in existing literature. Drawing from archival as well as published sources from the interwar years. I will begin by outlining the ways in which INGOs and the League of Nations interacted. Then, I will analyze the arguments in the practice and literature of the interwar period concerning the contributions of such interactions to the democratization of global governance at the time. …

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