The League of Nations: Practicing Diplomacy

A review by Pedro Reina Pérez

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 Germany 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. Nevertheless, the issue of representation in the secretariat, council and assembly was at the center of an intense debate as some questioned the burdens of its financing. Those who favored participation stressed the benefits it provided Latin American republics in terms of access to
a global forum, expertise on economic and social matters and a chance to lobby European diplomats directly. This was significant as it diminished
the United States’ influence on certain international matters.

The authors strive to fill a void in the League’s historiography, as they consider Latin American participation in it a neglected subject. Two questions are central to their quest: Is the participation of peripheral states of Latin America in the League worthy of attention? Why does the region merit special treatment? They claim that special measures were put in place by the secretariat and other bodies to take care
of Latin American interests, since their participation gave credence to the LN’s claim of universality. Efforts were made to improve communication and a special office was established in 1923.

The book is anchored by five major themes. The first is the region’s interaction with world powers. Participation in the LN gave the Latin American members a way to better understand the relationship between universalism and regionalism and the tension it harbored. Given that the LN was their first experience in a multilateral organization, it served to point out the complexity of the exercise of diplomacy. The second theme is international cooperation. The region’s countries gained access to a source of global knowledge on economic, social and scientific issues that allowed them to learn and expand their horizons. The third is cultural distinctiveness. The League created a forum to better understand Latin American idiosyncrasy and the way it was perceived. A fourth theme is the tension between universalism and regionalism as expressed in disagreements over security, trade and food, among others. The fifth theme is the relationship between Latin America and the United States. While the LN recognized the validity of the Monroe Doctrine, it provided a forum to denounce U.S. interventions.

The book undertakes its objective with a plurality of topics, approaches and methods
to focus on the complexities ignored in previous publications. Sovereignty and conflict resolution, for example, are examined in the context of the U.S. interventions in Nicaragua, Haiti and the Dominican Republic; one chapter addresses the limitation of economic sanctions against Italy after Ethiopia’s invasion; and another describes Mexico and its support of the LN covenant during the Spanish Civil War. The International Labor Organization is examined to clarify how Latin American concerns were integrated without compromising the body’s conventions and agreements, and how it inspired the creation of the Confederación de Trabajadores de América Latina in 1938. On intellectual and scientific cooperation the book considers individual
cases related to the writing of history, as well as debates about the Pan-American Institute of Intellectual Cooperation and scientific development. Finally, the League’s social and economic activities are examined such as taxation and public policies.

Scholars and practitioners of foreign affairs will find plenty to discuss in the book. It is a provocative and eclectic introduction to the complexities of early Latin American diplomacy and its history.

Pedro Reina Pérez is a historian and journalist who was the 2013-14 Wilbur Marvin Visiting Scholar at DRCLAS. He is a Professor of Humanities at the University of Puerto Rico. More of his work at www.pedrorein-aperez.com Twitter: @pedroreinaperez