m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

O C T O B E R   1 9 2 0

The League of Nations as an Instrument of Liberalism
by Raymond B. Fosdick

I

THE attack on the League of Nations in the United States comes, oddly enough, from two widely separate points of view. According to one of these, the League is anathema because it is supposed to represent the denial of nationalism -- 'the repudiation of the time-honored principles of Washington, Jefferson and Monroe,' to use the words of the Republican platform. The disciples of this theory, therefore, would willingly adopt the Treaty of Versailles except for the fact that it contains the Covenant of the League; and they are frankly embarrassed because the inextricable relationship between the Treaty and the Covenant makes impossible the conclusion of peace with Germany on the basis of terms which they generally approve.

According to the other point of view, any plan of international cooperation is a step forward, and the Covenant of the League of Nations is a consummation devoutly to be wished, except for the fact that it is interwoven with the Treaty of Versailles, which is held to be wholly vicious. The followers of this theory, therefore, are opposing the League because its adoption means the adoption of the Treaty.
Discuss this article in The Body Politic forum of Post & Riposte.

Return to Flashback: Nations of the World: Unite!

In a word, one attack upon the League is from the standpoint of conservative nationalism; the other is from the standpoint of liberal internationalism. The first group would willingly keep the last 414 articles of the Treaty, if the first 26, on the League, could be eliminated. The second would willingly accept the first 26 articles, on the League, if these were not inextricably associated with what they regard as the iniquities of the last 414.

It is the purpose of this paper to discuss the second of these two attacks. Less attention has been paid to the dissatisfaction of the liberals than the seriousness of their criticism deserves. For it cannot be denied that, when the political furor created by the issue of nationalism versus internationalism subsides, and the desire of the United States becomes evident to cooperate in some relationship with the League of Nations, a question of momentous importance will still stare us in the face: quite apart from the reservations which it may attach to its approval of the Covenant of the League, shall the United States accept the Treaty of Versailles, with all the gross injustices which its enemies charge against it?

That many of these injustices are real, that the Treaty is marred by clauses of supreme unwisdom, cannot be denied by anyone who followed the work of the Paris Conference and who knows the forces that are moving in Europe today. It is foolish to blink at the facts. Instead of pursuing a healing policy of reconciliation, of 'charity for all,' which alone was worthy of the vast agony of war and of that great army of dead who fought for a better world, the Treaty of Versailles and the other treaties of liquidation reflect too much the spirit of vengeance. They mirror the bitterness, the passion, and the exaggerated fears of those trying months which immediately followed the Armistice. The bill of particulars for this general indictment has been presented too often to need repetition. Shantung is by no means the only item. The Fourteen Points, on the basis of which the German nation agreed to lay down its arms, and to which the Allies were bound by promises of a solemn character, were in part distorted and in part ignored. The Reparations clauses -- taken in conjunction with similar clauses in the other treaties -- represent a deliberate attempt to strangle the industrial and economic life of Central Europe, reducing her to servitude for a generation. They leave the hundred million people of the beaten races, including Magyars and Bulgars, with no real hope for the future except through revenge, and no inducement to become willing members of a new system of peace. Austria, indeed, is reduced to impotence and penury, and a specific barrier is erected against the only measure that can save her from dissolution -- union with Germany. The Saar Valley settlement is an experiment of questionable validity, containing the seeds of probable future strife. The annexation by Italy of the Southern Tyrol has nothing to justify it except military expediency. The inclusion within the limits of Czecho-Slovakia of three million Germans is a measure which, like the partition of Hungary and the international control of the rivers of Germany, cannot easily be defended. There are many points in the treaties which can be explained only on the basis of vindictiveness, bad judgment, and unwise compromise.

Perhaps the most amazing fact about the Senate debate during this last fall and winter is that in all that welter of discussion scarely a single voice was raised in condemnation of these reactionary sections of the Treaty. Shantung, to be sure, figured occasionally in the controversy -- more perhaps as a result of latent anti-Japanese feeling in America than as an expression of outraged liberalism. But as to the other sections that merited disapproval, there was no senator who dared to condemn them. Indeed, the two outstanding instances  -- Fiume and Thrace -- in which President Wilson made a determined fight against national selfishness and imperialism brought him and have continued to bring him, nothing but abuse and censure from the Republican senators. Some of them even condemned his successful efforts in thwarting the French design to hold the left bank of the Rhine in perpetuity. Theirs was a creed of vengeance. To the victors belonged the spoils. Germany and her Allies deserved their medicine and the Treaty was none too strong -- that was the accepted philosophy of the Senate, and it vied with the Paris Conference in glorifying the Carthaginian peace. It was only in regard to the 'internationalism' of the League of Nations and the conduct of the President in relation to their own body that they raised their voices in protest. The liberalism of Lincoln's second inaugural, of Wilson's 1918 addresses before he went to Europe, and of Smuts's valedictory in Paris, they threw contemptuously aside, even if they understood what it meant.

II

Out of this situation arises a dilemma for which there is no easy soiution. If we accept the Treaty of Versailles, we accept all its weaknesses; if we reject it, we reject the League of Nations. Confronted with this choice, a relatively large and infiuential body of American liberal opinion has elected to oppose the Treaty and all its works. The men and women representing this decision feel that upon such a document no sound or permanent peace can be built, and that the present inextricable relationship between the Treaty and the League will drag down the latter to an inevitable doom. Indeed, these liberals -- I use the designation which they give themselves -- believe that the League is, or will shortly become, merely the agency for enforcing the vicious terms of the Treaty -- a twentieth-century Holy Alliance -- a creature of European imperialism to carry out its sinister purposes. The League will not wag the Treaty, but the Treaty will wag the League -- this is their proclaimed belief. They therefore advocate a new international conference and a new peace, with a League of Nations on more solid and more enduring foundations. Only as final peace is based on justice can a society of nations hope to succeed. Therefore, let us be sure of our basis before we begin to build.

A considerable degree of plausibility attaches to this point of view. If the Treaty is not right, why not make it right? If the substructure is faulty, why not correct it now? If mistakes were made in the heat and confusion of 1919, why is it not the part of wisdom to rewrite the whole treaty in the calmer atmosphere of 1920? To Americans, this point of view comes with peculiar force.

But the suggestion is utterly without practicability, and those who advocate it are chasing a rainbow. Decisions between nations, involving the settlement of vast social and economic questions, cannot be undone at a moment's notice; nor can the complicated machinery of the Treaty of Versailles, with all the impetus which it has gained in the last eight months, be scrapped at the nod of a group of statesmen. For it must not be forgotten that the Treaty of Versailles is now in effect; its roots have already struck deep into the life of the world; in large measure its provisions have been executed. It has been directly ratified by twenty-seven nations and indirectly endorsed by thirteen others, embracing in all hundreds of millions of people. A score of commissions which it created are now engaged in tracing boundaries, in holding plebiscites, in governing new territories, in establishing international courts, and in settling claims to river-craft, rolling-stock, mines, and other properties. The new nations for which the Treaty is the charter of independence have set up their governments, and are now in full operation, with their parliaments, their laws, and their officers. Thousands of square miles of territory have changed hands and are flying new flags. Four great autocracies have been disarmed, and the menace of Central Europe, so far as physical force is concerned, has been dissipated. A great labor tribunal has been set up, and new conventions and standards have been adopted which place international labor relations upon a wholly novel footing; and through this machinery the workers and labor-groups have secured an advantage they will never willingly surrender.

Moreover, as Mr. Hoover has pointed out, the Treaty embraces a vast network of economic relations which in the eight months of its existence has become the chart and compass for industrial Europe -- not only for the former belligerents, but for the neutrals as well. The Treaty forms the basis of tariff and customs regulations, trade-agreements, international communications, and all the interwoven, complex detail of commercial relations. It is not an academic question relating to the future. It is a vital element which has become the very life of Europe. To attempt to get the world to retrace its steps back to the Armistice of 1918, and begin all over again, is the height of absurdity. The clock cannot be set back. The slate cannot be wiped clean. No sponge can erase the record which has been written since the Armistice in letters of fire.

Particularly unhappy is the suggestion of these liberals that America should take the lead in summoning a new conference. They do not realize that America long ago forfeited her leadership -- that months ago she lost all the influence that she had gained by her splendid achievement in the war. The insulting character of the Senate debate; the provocative tone of the reservations, our belief that the obligations contracted by Mr. Wilson on behalf of the United States could be lightly repudiated, because they represented 'the mistaken voice of America, spoken in unheeding haste,' -- to use Senator Harding's phrase; our repeated assertions that Europe would have to take us on our own terms or not at all; our willingness to trade on Europe's necessity; the continuous taunts at Europe's helplessness by such men as Senators Johnson and Reed; our easy assumption of 'moral superiority,' and our willingness to back it up with 'the biggest navy in the world' -- such things as these have cut deep into the consciousness of Europe and have left a bitterness which cannot be measured. The countries of Europe are by no means agreed in their opinion of each other, but they are united in their opinion of America. The United States is therefore the last nation whose suggestion for a new conference would be acceptable to the other nations of the world.

But even if our influence were to-day as potent as it was in 1918, do our liberal friends imagine that at our behest forty other nations, representing three quarters of the people of the globe, would reverse their action in ratifying the Treaty of Versailles and accept the kind of peace which we particularly desire? Even if the economic and social currents of the world made such a step possible, would the other nations stultify themselves to please America? Would they willingly undo a settlement which, whatever else it was, constituted at least the liquidation of a condition which threatened the break-up of civilization? Would they consent to let loose upon the world the savage forces which the Treaty of Versailles has, temporarily at least, held in check? These practical questions, in regard to those answers there can be no possible doubt, have escaped the attention of our liberals in their determined hunt for Utopia.

But, assuming that the other nations were willing to scrap the Treaty of Versailles and send representatives to a new conference, what warrant is there for believing that the product of their deliberations would be any improvement on the document that was drawn up in Paris? It is here that our liberal friends show the lack of a sense of history. Reactions have followed all great upheavals. Liberalism is the inevitable aftermath of war. The Hundred Years' War, the Thirty Years' War, the Seven Years' War, the Napoleonic wars, all were succeeded by waves of bitter conservatism in which forward-looking ideas were drowned. To this general rule this last great war has proved no exception. In England, in France, in Italy, in the United States, the forces of reaction are in the saddle. The condition of our political parties in America and the character of the present campaign are indications enough of the liberal trend of current public thought and of the tremendous swing of the pendulum toward conservative extremes.

In such a world-wide environment, what chance would liberalism have at a new peace conference? Rather, such a conference would play into the hands of tory influences everywhere. The nations which feel, as France does, that the Treaty of Versailles robbed them of legitimate spoils, would make sure in this new gathering that no Wilson and no Fourteen Points, impotent in many cases as they had proved to be, should stand between them and the fulfillment of their imperialistic ambitions. Out of such a conference would come no forward-looking idealism such as prompted the labor clauses of the Treaty of Versailles; no principle of mandates as the basis of a new colonial policy; no consideration for small nations; no plebiscites; no guaranties to minority peoples; no League of Nations -- nothing, indeed, but sinister purpose and unashamed greed, riveted by a treaty in which all pretense of liberalism would be swept aside.

III

Our liberal friends have chosen the wrong horn of the dilemma. Their proposed solution is an impossible one. In building for the future we must start with what we have, unless we hope for some cataclysm to clear the ground for us. In the absence of revolution, evolution is the inevitable method of social change. Let us, therefore, be honest with ourselves: the only approach to international order is through the Treaty of Versailles; the only hope for the future is in the modification of that treaty. With the liberal forces of the world behind it, the League of Nations can become the instrument of modification.

At this point the liberals smile derisively. 'Look at the League of Nations,' they cry. 'It is in leading-strings, held by such reactionaries as Lord Curzon in England and Millerand in France. And look at the condition of silent impotence in which it is placed by the Supreme Council. Its imperial masters allow it to do nothing important or say nothing worth while. It evades all the critical issues with which, by the terms of its Covenant, it should grapple. It is helpless, spineless, and contemptible -- the embodiment of official cant.'

Part of this indictment is unfortunately true. The League is overshadowed by the Supreme Council, and the deliberations at Hythe, San Remo, and Spa have had far more influence on international relations than the polite and shadowy gatherings at St. James's Palace. There seems to be a reluctance on the part of the Elder Statesmen of Europe to part with the Supreme Council -- a disposition to maintain for its exclusive consideration the more important of the political problems. Under this influence the League has missed two or three golden opportunities for establishing itself as a potent factor in the world's affairs. It stood idly by when the French seized Frankfort-on-Main. Although open war was waged between Russia and Poland for months after the League came into being, it took no step to define or reconcile the quarrel. The attack of Russia upon Persia won only the reluctant and timid consideration of the League's Council; and in a meeting in which the Persian representative was the butt of Lord Curzon's pompous arrogance, a 'formula' was discovered which offended and profited nobody.

On the other hand, the argument of Mr. Lloyd George is not without some weight. 'We must not imagine,' he said in a frank talk with a protesting labor delegation, 'that the League is dead because it has not in its babyhood suddenly become a full-armed giant, holding down all the forces of disorder and the monster of militarism. To attempt now to force it into the full fruition of all its hopes might destroy it.' More persuasive was Mr. Balfour in his recent speech in the House of Commons in which he pointed out that the indirect weapons with which the League is equipped -- delay, discussion, public opinion, commercial boycott, and arbitration -- are designed to meet crises in a world normally at peace rather than to rescue a world in chaos. They constitute an admirable equipment with which to weather a squall or a storm, but they afford little opportunity for headway in a hurricane. The machinery that could have averted the tragedy of 1914 has a limited application to the world-upheaval of 1920.

However, when all the arguments are in, it will have to be admitted that the League has not got away on as good a start as its friends had hoped for, and that, to some degree at least, it has been elbowed aside to make way for the trading and dickering of the Supreme Council. The consequence, as might be expected, is a growing cleavage between the two bodies and their respective lines of policy. This is a point of deep significance. While the personnel of the two councils is to some extent interlocking, the environment of the two bodies, the points of view from which they carry on their work, and their ultimate sanctions are widely different. The Supreme Council is the creature of the reactionary governments that are now ruling the destinies of Europe. Its motive is vengeance rather than reconciliation, punishment rather than redemption. It gives the impression of wanting to exact its pound of flesh though Europe be pulled to pieces. It is too largely the instrument of Millerand and Foch, with Lloyd George acting as a curb on their aggressive militarism, not from stern principle, it must be admitted, but chiefly because the liberalism of the English Labor Party is strong enough to compel his careful attention. In a word, the Supreme Council is dominated in large degree by national selfishness and egotism. The League of Nations, on the other hand, has its roots in a popular support far deeper and firmer than shifting governments. To the peasant in France, with the horror of the war seared in his memory, it represents the symbol of a new hope. To the worker, its labor office, under the leadership of Albert Thomas, is the promise of a better fortune. The League stands for disarmament, for peace, for international justice, for the protection of backward peoples, for a better standard of living, for the relief of suffering, for the fight against disease, and for all the other forward-looking policies bound up in the longings of mankind for a better world-policies which the people everywhere in Europe, as distinguished from their governments and leaders, are unwaveringly supporting. The people understand the League; at least they know what it aims to accomplish. They do not understand the Supreme Council, and they are suspicious of its motives.

While the Supreme Council, therefore, has the support of conservatism and reaction, the liberal forces of Europe are on the side of the League, and from them the League has taken its tone and color. Only one who has been intimately associated with the League's affairs can know how real has been the struggle, not only to keep it free of vicious entanglements, but to make it the instrument of those cooperative policies which embrace the welfare of peoples. The Secretariat, which is the League's permanent body of experts, and which naturally has a deep influence in the determination of its course, is pledged to the principle that the League shall not become merely the agency for enforcing the Treaty of Versailles; and in all the plans of the League and in the creation of the machinery through which it works, it has consciously endeavored to cut itself loose from association with the mistakes and the politics of the Paris Conference. It has fought, and thus far successfully, the attempt of a section of the French party to foist on it the responsibility for managing the Reparations Commission. It has resisted the proposition that its machinery should be used to try Germany's 'war-criminals.' It has declined to employ its facilities in establishing title to conquered territory or in fixing new boundaries. It has evaded many another task in connection with the enforcement of the treaties which would have given it irrevocably the character of an alliance of victorious powers.

More than once the present writer represented the interests of the League of Nations at the later conferences in Paris, as a sort of 'lobbyist,' to make sure that particular clauses which would have saddled the League with undesirable responsibilities were not inserted in the Austrian and Bulgarian treaties. Where the treaties have conferred definite tasks upon the League, notably the governing of the Saar Basin and of Dantzig, the work has been undertaken in a spirit and with a personnel that should win the approval of liberals everywhere. It has been clean-cut and impartial, divorced from all attempts to make it serve the selfish interests of particular nations. In brief, the League has been fighting for its own soul, for its own integrity; and while thus far, because of the over-shadowing importance of the Supreme Council, it is chargeable with sins of omission, no sins of commission mar its record. Its achievement in influencing the tides of political events may not as yet bulk large, but the work it has undertaken has been honest and sincere.

This work is far more extensive, too, and far more vital than most people imagine. The progress which it is making toward a rational plan of disarmament is real and positive, as shown by the recent conferences at San Sebastian; and the time is not far distant when a programme of disarmament will be ready for the consideration of the nations of the world. The San Sebastian conference, moreover, saw a substantial advance in the application of the principle of mandates to the territories and peoples freed from German and Turkish rule. The fulfillment of the terms of these mandates, and the launching of these great areas under the administration of nations serving as 'the trustees of civilization,' are now only a matter of time and detail.

Much of the League's present activity is related to tasks that are distinctly humanitarian. Single-handed on the eastern frontier of Europe, with financial support provided by its thirty-three members, the League is fighting the epidemic of typhus. It has thrown itself into the breach to protect mankind everywhere from a horror which only those who know Poland and Esthonia can appreciate. Similarly the League has undertaken, through Dr. Nansen, the repatriation of the hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war who, two years after the Armistice, are still detained in enemy countries. In Russia and Siberia alone there are 275,000 such men, isolated from their homes and families only because facilities of transportation are lacking. It is estimated that, before the arrival of winter, the League will be successful in returning 100,000 of these men to their own countries, having fed them and clothed them in transit. The League, moreover, has taken up an active campaign against the opium traffic on the lines laid down in the Covenant. This campaign and the similar campaign which it is waging against the traffic in women and girls are of international concern and can be fought to a successful conclusion only through international cooperation.

If anyone wonders why the League of Nations should give its attention to this kind of non-political activity, the answer is that it is precisely in line with the purposes for which the League was established. Its primary function is to lead in the fight on the common enemies of mankind. Its duties will inevitably be more non-political than political, more creative than negative, with greater emphasis upon the welfare of peoples than upon the rivalries of states. In fighting typhus in Poland and in returning thousands of war-prisoners to their homes, the League is harnessing international cooperation, to further, not the selfish interests of classes or countries, but the common good.

Moreover, in all this supplementary activity to which the League is giving so much of its present attention, it is establishing the precedents -- 'getting the feel' of international cooperation in the pursuit of a common object. Every step that it takes, however halting, every decision reached as a result of frank discussion, is a definite advance toward ultimate world-peace. Just as the government of the United States after 1789 felt its way forward slowly and cautiously, gaining in strength and confidence with each new step, so the League of Nations is developing its abilities and powers on matters which may appear to some observers comparatively inconsequential, in the hope and belief that when the great problems of the future press for solution, and the issue is a world at peace or a world at war, it may meet its responsibilities with weight and stature fully matured.

What have the self-styled liberals of America been doing to assist in this forward-looking programme? What measure of help have they given the League in its first struggles? To the shame of those who call themselves by this name, let it be recorded that they joined forces with the reactionaries in the Senate, and because the League was not as perfect as its best friends could have wished, they gave aid to those of its enemies who would strangle it because of its 'internationalism.' They condemned it in advance, without a hearing, without waiting to see whether it could or would be a progressive instrument of human welfare. They gave their whole attention to the obvious flaws in the treaties which underlay it, obstinately shutting their eyes to the possibilities of correcting them. They have spent their energies in futile lamentation over the past, in morbid analysis of the Paris Conference, in critical discussion of the conduct and temperament of Mr. Wilson. And now, having done their utmost to wreck the League by preventing the United States from joining it, they point fingers of scorn at its limping gait, and prophesy for it an evil end.

The inconsistency, indeed the presumption, of this last attitude is little short of amazing. More than any other single factor, the failure of the United States to join the League has handicapped its first months. Mr. Balfour spoke the exact truth when, in a recent utterance in the House of Commons, he said that the countries which used the League as an instrument in their own party warfare 'must bear the responsibility of destroying the most promising effort in the direction of the renewal of civilization which mankind has yet made.' We are the only great, disinterested nation that could have brought detachment and vision to the League's deliberations. With America sitting at its council board, the reactionary elements of Europe would never have cared or dared to trifle with it. Long before this we could have stabilized it and made it the one great impersonal force in the adjustment of international relations. With our aid, particularly with the liberal spirit which America generally displays in foreign affairs, and which she invariably shows when a situation is fully understood, many of the decisions that in these later months have fallen under the influence of the Supreme Council could have been made to follow the course of wisdom and common sense, with some consideration of the future consequences of to-day's selfish and vindictive policies. What our liberals apparently have not grasped is the fact that American liberalism has the same burden of responsibility in humanizing the new arrangements of the world as the liberalism of any other country. If we insist on leaving the game, we have no justification for criticizing the participants.

And yet this figure gives the exact position of America to-day. From considerations of self-interest, we have declined to add our resources and our peculiar abilities to the settlement of the world's affairs. We have drawn the skirts of our virtue about us to avoid contamination. We have imperiled the existence of the League by making it a mere tool in our party warfare, an excuse for political differences. In the name of good taste, therefore, and for the sake of what little remains of the respect in which other nations hold us, let those who speak for America or American liberalism speak from a contrite heart and keep their moral precepts for themselves!

IV

Meanwhile, it is interesting to note the plans of European liberalism as to the use and future of the League of Nations. He would be a bold prophet who would forecast with assurance the course of events in Europe. There are many who hold that the disruptive political and economic influences which the war has released and which now loom so threateningly and ominously will in the end prove more powerful than any cohesive forces which can be marshaled in opposition, and that revolution and chaos on a wide scale are inevitable. If this is an accurate forecast, a league of nations that had learned at least the rudiments of international co-operation and had behind it some measure of confidence, some tradition of common action, and some ideal of disinterested public service, would seem to be indispensable if the world is to be saved from utter collapse. In such a period a league of nations might well be the staff with the aid of which a mired civilization could reach firmer ground. Surely in such a contingency some method or practice of international or interracial cooperation will be the only way out. What nations cannot do together they cannot do separately.

But one is not obliged to take so pessimistic a view of the future. While by no means exempt from decay and extinction, our civilization has an extraordinary virility, and has survived many a shattering blow before now. The tradition and habit of order are tough and hardy. Although the next five years will sternly test its powers of recuperation, one may believe with reason that society withstand the present shock. To this period of adjustment and adaptation the League of Nations is bringing its plans for peace and reconciliation. Not only must it humanize the new arrangements as they mature, but it must see that no festering sore in the old arrangements remains. Too little attention has been given to Article XIX of the Covenant, which places upon the Assembly the responsibility of advising 'the reconsideration by members of the League of treaties which have become inapplicable and the consideration of international conditions whose continuance might endanger the peace of the world.' This article was inserted to avoid rigidity in the final settlement; to leave the door open to change as change became desirable. It was prompted by the thought that the light of the post-Armistice period might seem darkness to a succeeding generation. Its effect is a permanent challenge to the status quo; it requires that international engagements shall continually justify themselves by contemporary standards. In other words, the arrangements of the world are not fixed for all time by the Treaty of Versailles. The errors of the Paris Conference are not handed down as a permanent legacy of hate to our children's children; 1925 can escape from the bitterness and passion of 1919, and the dead hand of the past is robbed of control.

But our liberal friends are not satisfied. They point out that the Assembly can only 'advise' as to changes in treaties, and that presumably any nation could refuse to accept the advice. The potency of Article XIX, they claim, is initiated by the unanimity requirement of Article V. Consequently there is no possibility change, for the reason that the nations whom it disadvantageously affected would not consent to it. The grip of Italy on the Tyrol, of France on Germany through the Reparations Commission, and of Japan on Shantung, will therefore not be shaken.

It is true that the unanimity requirement as regards voting in the Council and the Assembly (without which the sovereignty of the member-states would have been jeopardized and the Covenant rejected by every nation of the world) impairs to some extent the operations of the League in effecting change in treaty arrangements. Certainly it reduces the speed with which such changes can be brought about. But what the liberals have failed to appreciate is that the League of Nations has harnessed a new force in human affairs, far more potent in the long run than armies and navies. International public opinion, working through the definite machinery of a league, can command a prestige and an authority which no single nation would dare long to defy.

Hitherto we have lacked machinery. We have had no way of focusing world wide attention on specific wrongs and concrete remedies; no method by which the representatives of nations in common council could dramatize the existence of particular situations which threatened the good understanding of the world. With the opinion of mankind behind the League of Nations, and with the steadily increasing prestige which that body will attract, even difficulties like Shantung and the Tyrol can eventually be reconciled.

That unanimity of opinion and harmony in action are possible even when conflicting political and economic interests are involved is shown by the recently inaugurated Imperial conference of the British Empire, made up of the representatives of Great Britain and her dominions. Here no decisions are taken unless by unanimous agreement, but positive results are constantly reached because the members have grown accustomed, even when their interests are diametrically opposed, to come to conclusions that are based on mutual understanding and common benefit. A similar illustration of solidarity was given in the meetings of the International Labor Conference of the League of Nations, held in Washington in October, 1919. Here were gathered the representatives of government, capital, and labor from forty nations, to discuss such controversial questions as the eight-hour day, the employment of women before and after childbirth, and the minimum age for the admission of children to industrial undertakings. Although the Conference was marked by heated and often bitter discussion as the interests of the different groups clashed, unanimous votes were ultimately obtained for a series of progressive proposals and conventions which are destined to have a profound influence on the labor relations of the world.

No one pretends that the machinery of the League of Nations is without flaw. But with intelligent support it can be made immeasurably serviceable to the welfare of men. It can be used for whatever ends the peoples of the world agree in thinking desirable. With the forces of liberalism behind it, it can become an outstanding instrument of human progress, a new way of life for the world, instead of the old way of slaughter. The fathers of 1787 made no claim of perfection for the product of their deliberations. They took the Constitution with all the concessions to sectional prejudice which it contained, and with devotion and patience they turned it into a mighty engine of progress. 'This instrument,' said Alexander Hamilton in 1788, in words singularly applicable to the present league, 'has some grievous defects, but it has also the possibilities of vast human usefulness. It would be idle to reject it for what it omits; rather let us accept it for what it promises.'


Copyright © The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October, 1920; The League of Nations as an Instrument of Liberalism; Volume 126, No. 4; pages 553-563

m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture