Why Did the League of Nations Fail?

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Jari Eloranta, Ph.D Assistant Professor of Comparative Economic and Business History, Appalachian State University, Department of History, Whitener Hall, Boone, NC 28608, USA Phone: +1-828-262 6006, email: elorantaj@appstate.edu Paper to be presented at the Sixth European Historical Economics Society Conference, 9-10 September 2005, Historical Center of the former Imperial Ottoman Bank, Istanbul.


The economic and political instability of the interwar period and the rise of authoritarian regimes are often seen as extensions of World War I and the Great Depression. The League of Nations, in turn, is usually seen as an organization that failed to act adequately during the various political crises of the period, beginning with the Japanese aggression in Manchuria. But, I would argue that its failure has to be seen in the larger context of the failed disarmament processes of the interwar period.

Why did the League of Nations ultimately fail to achieve widespread disarmament, its most fundamental goal? Maurice Vaïsse (1993) has summarized the explanations in the following manner: 1) It failed because it was an imperfect instrument for achieving disarmament; 2) It failed because the League was not universal; 3) It failed because of the confrontation between Great Britain and France; 4) It failed because there were domestic forces inside the countries hostile to disarmament; 5) It failed because the Disarmament Conference was convened too late, under hostile conditions; 6) It failed because of the confrontation between France and Germany at the Disarmament Conference; 7) It failed because of the overly ambitious aims and the practical problems involved in the reduction of armaments.1 And, as Frederick Northedge has argued, the League failed because it was seen as the defender of the status quo, the infamous Versailles settlement.2 As argued here, all of these explanations have merit, yet the list

1 2

Vaïsse 1993. Northedge 1986, 288-289.


is hardly exhaustive. First, contrary to Vaïsse, I would maintain that the disarmament that took place contemporaneously in the 1920s and the early years of the Great Depression did not offer a real window of opportunity for disarmament.3 Second, the role of the “weak” states was not as constructive as is often perceived, since they could not offer a unified front on most issues. Nor were they all pacifistic in the vein of the Scandinavian countries. Third, as argued in Eloranta (2002b), the domestic opposition among economic interest groups to, for example, arms trade regulation was quite formidable. Finally, the rigid negotiation stances of the key states in the disarmament process prevented a more favorable outcome, since far-reaching compromises were required from all participants. Thus, the states tended to pursue their own interests, which were not the same for each state nor were the means that they were ready to use to achieve their aims. The way that these interests emerged in the foreign policy of a particular state was a combination of external (systemic, alliance-specific, dyadic) and internal (economic, political, actor-specific) factors.4

I would argue that the failure of the League of Nations had two important dimensions: 1) The failure to provide adequate security guarantees for its members (like an alliance), thus encouraging more aggressive policies especially by the authoritarian states and leading to an arms race; 2) The failure of this organization to achieve the disarmament goals it set out in the 1920s and 1930s, such as imposition of military spending constraints. These dimensions, including the aggregate explanations of the weaknesses of the League of Nations, have not been explored adequately by the extensive literature on the interwar economic and political turmoil. I would argue that analysis of these failures by the League of Nations can increase our understanding of the military rivalries,...
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