This article titled “The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire by Susan Pedersen review – the legacy of an unlikely hero” was written by Mark Mazower, for The Guardian on Friday 6th November 2015 16.00 UTC
Bureaucrats make unlikely heroes, and they do not come much more unlikely than Sir Eric Drummond. An Old Etonian from the Scottish aristocracy, he had pursued an unglamorous career in the Foreign Office before the first world war, and his conversion to Catholicism shortly before his marriage may have further damaged his prospects. He was third or fourth choice to run the newly established League of Nations in 1919, but he made a brilliant job of it on a shoestring budget, and in the process he created something new in world affairs – an embryonic international civil service. The relatively small staff that worked under Drummond inspired the 1945 formation of the United Nations, a larger and more lavishly funded international body, and thus in some measure created the world we know today.
Susan Pedersen’s strikingly original book puts Drummond and those around him in the spotlight, and in the process transforms our understanding of the League of Nations. For many years after it was disbanded in 1946 the league was a byword for failure, a graveyard of hopes. Even during the war, about the only thing the architects of the UN could agree on was that their new world organisation should have a different name. Given the considerable continuities in function and personnel, this re-branding worked surprisingly well – even as the league was being unceremoniously wound up, the new UN was welcomed with high hopes.
The main charge leveled at the league was that it had manifestly failed in its principal purpose – to prevent another global conflict. The rise of fascism and the outbreak of the second world war seemed to indicate its bankruptcy. Only occasionally did dissident voices suggest that this was a little unfair, pointing out that the league might have succeeded, had it not been coupled so tightly to the fundamentally unsustainable post-1919 peace treaties.
Over the past 20 years, there has been a real reassessment. It began with a rethink of the league’s efforts for minority rights. Much more ambitious than anything the UN has ever attempted, the organisation’s work to protect minorities through international law was a prescient attempt to encourage states to treat all their citizens fairly, and to prevent the huge flights of refugees that took place in the interwar years and that are with us again today. Historians also took a closer look at the league’s pioneering interventions in global welfare and healthcare: many of its public health professionals and economists went on to put their experience into practice in the World Health Organisation, the UN’s statistical services and the International Monetary Fund.
Now Pedersen, a colleague of mine at Columbia University, has added an important missing piece to the jigsaw. The focus of her book is the Permanent Mandates Commission, a body created out of the first world war settlement. Its role was to supervise the victors in their administration of the captured enemy colonies – one of Drummond’s most sensitive responsibilities. Former German possessions in Africa and the Pacific went to South Africa, Belgium, Australia and others. Britain and France got large chunks of the formerly Ottoman Middle East. The commission gave Samoans, Rwandans and Syrians an organisation in Geneva to which they could address complaints, and appeal for greater autonomy. And address it they did, sending hundreds of petitions outlining their grievances and demands for reform.
Critics will point out that the commission’s powers were, not surprisingly, highly circumscribed from the very start. It could not compel the mandate governments to change their methods: even when France bombed Syrian nationalists and destroyed much of the centre of Damascus in 1925, they were scarcely penalised. So from that point of view the commission functioned as a kind of figleaf to legitimise the reality of continued European imperial domination.
Yet Pedersen shows it was more interesting than that, by focusing her attention on Drummond and the other members of the commission. While some of them could never escape the sense that they were representing their countries, that was certainly not true of them all. In fact a view emerged within the commission that it was necessary to rise above nationalism and defend the greater good. There was a Victorian highmindedness about this which was inseparable from empire – but it could be turned in other directions. In practice, the commission applied discreet pressure on mandatory governments to pay more attention to what they were doing in their territories.
In moments of crisis, a real battle for international public opinion took place over whether governments should be answerable to an international body. Many officials in the mandated territories breathed a sigh of relief when Hitler took Germany out of the league in 1933, because they knew that without the backing of such a major power the Permanent Mandates Commission would be weakened. And so it was.
Pedersen outlines some of the commission’s less well-known achievements. She shows that Britain decided, quite unilaterally, to give Iraq its independence in 1932 because Whitehall argued that the country would be better controlled if it was nominally independent – and free of commission scrutiny. This is an important insight into just what imperial logic understood by independence in the Middle Eastern context. In Palestine, in contrast, Whitehall policymakers felt by the 1930s that the mandate was tying its hands by forcing it to follow a more pro-Zionist line than really suited British interests.
In the end, Pedersen shows that the Permanent Mandates Commission served neither the imperial powers nor the inhabitants of the colonies themselves. While it didn’t give colonial subjects any real power, it did give them a voice – but this didn’t seem that significant in the 1930s. Over the next 20 years, however, the contribution of Drummond and his colleagues helped to spread the ideal of independence much faster than anyone had ever imagined.
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