So George Bush Jnr is now an expert on the League of Nations, is he? Across America, he’s been telling the folks that the United Nations is in danger of becoming no more than the old pre-Second World War organisation. A “talking shop” is how he’s been referring to the League. Would that he looked at a history book now and again. He might find that the League failed the world because of the same cynicism and disregard for morality by the major powers that the United States shows today.
The League was formed in the aftermath of the 1914-18 war. President Woodrow Wilson of the US was one of its midwives. He wanted to protect minority rights, to give peoples independence. His “14 points” were an inspiration to all the would-be nations of the world. He demanded a new international order â€“ shades of George Bush Snr â€“ and an equality of nations. “Europe is being liquidated,” General Smuts announced in 1918, “and the League of Nations must be the heir to this great estate.”
And so came into being a new Poland, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, a reshaped Europe and, of course, a new Middle East. The modern state of Iraq (President Bush, please note) owes its creation to the League, whose British and French mandates gave us for better or worse â€“ probably worse â€“ Palestine and Syria and Lebanon. Others wanted states, too. The Kurds wanted a state. The Armenians wanted to reverse their genocide by the Turks and return to homes in Turkey.
But President Wilson fell ill. The US Congress declined to join the League and the US turned to an isolationism from which it would only be driven after Pearl Harbor â€“ and after (President Bush, please note again) two very profitable wartime years of neutrality. The Americans wanted no part of the League. The future superpower, whose influence for peace would have been so beneficial to the world â€“ and whose growing economic and military might could have made Hitler revise his plans â€“ turned its back on the League. The Kurds got no state. The Armenians never went home.
The other great powers joined the League. The French wanted it to be powerful, to have a multinational military force â€“ not unlike today’s UN peacekeepers â€“ but the British, who wanted to remain the world’s first superpower, turned the idea down. The first real test came from Japan. Our future Second World War enemy proposed a clause in the League’s covenant embracing the concept of racial equality. Wilson’s own adviser â€“ for the Americans were still keen to join the League at the time â€“ turned his back on the idea. It would “raise the race issue throughout the world,” he wrote.
In the end, the “race” issue was only allowed to intrude when the League wished to demand the protection of minorities in the small and new states created after the First World War. Minorities in Poland and Czechoslovakia came under the League’s care. Major states did not have to worry about such provisions. Hence when Hitler started persecuting the Jews of Germany after 1933, the League was powerless. In 1923 â€“ without British support for a League army â€“ the French occupied the Rhineland to force Germany to pay wartime reparations. So individual states began to ignore the League. Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 and the Spanish civil war which began in 1936 proved its worthlessness. Under Hitler â€“ who was certainly not interested in an “equality of nations” â€“ Germany abandoned the League. The Soviets, surprisingly, continued to support it. Sanctions on Spain did not end their civil war. America stayed out of it.
Little nations tried to sway the giants. When he was president of the League’s council â€“ the forerunner of our present-day Security Council â€“ Eamon de Valera of Ireland proposed a League multinational force to stop Italy’s 1935 aggression. He was prepared to commit his own new and tiny Irish army to such a project. The major powers were not interested. “We have been unable to bend our wills to sacrifice selfish advantage when it conflicts with justice to others,” de Valera later complained. By 1939, he was accurately referring to the League as “debris”.
Now Bush Jnr implies that the UN will also be debris if it doesn’t come to heel and follow America’s demand to invade Iraq. He wants to use it for his project of “regime change” â€“ which will change the map of the Middle East, produce a tide of oil wealth for US companies and reduce Israel’s enemies to impotence. We are supposed to believe that this is about weapons of mass destruction â€“ and forget that the US sold botulinum toxin, anthrax and vials of West Nile virus to Iraq between 1985 and 1989. For most of that time, Iraq was fighting Iran â€“ a war which the UN had tried to end.
So why should Saddam have any respect for the UN? Why, when Israel flouts Security Council resolutions â€“ even today â€“ should Iraq play by the book? The Americans care no more about Israel’s failure to adhere to UN resolutions than Germany cared about the League when it re-entered the Rhineland, or when Italy invaded Abyssinia. It is the major powers that govern the UN and they will use it or abuse it as they see fit. In an odd way, the US administration â€“ which for years failed to pay its dues to the world body â€“ is right to raise the ghost of the League. For it was the cynicism and arrogance of the major powers that destroyed it â€“ just as America can destroy the UN today.