What it is: An international organisation of member countries ‘to promote international cooperation and to achieve international peace and security by the acceptance of obligations not to resort to war’. It was founded in 1919 and met once a year until 1941. It was replaced by the United Nations in 1946.

What it means: Before the First World War many people were looking for ways to achieve peace by imposing order on the world. This, they believed, could be done by international agreements, international laws, and arbitration of disputes. Some had long argued for a formal association or 'league' of states. It was also the dream of America’s president Woodrow Wilson. In his famous ‘Fourteen Points’ speech in 1918, the president listed what he thought were basic requirements for a world without war.
  1. Peace agreements, open and honest diplomacy, and no secret treaties.
  2. Total freedom of the seas outside territorial waters.
  3. Removal of barriers to trade.
  4. Universal disarmament ‘to the lowest point consistent with public safety’.
(Nine other ‘points’ concerned the future of colonies, the withdrawal of occupying forces, and the end of the Ottoman Empire.)
14. ‘A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.’

The League’s general assembly first met in 1920, but by then president Wilson had become ill (he died in 1924). The US Senate voted against signing up to the League, and the USA never became a member; this, like the USA’s other withdrawals from international agreements, seriously undermined the League's work. The UK failed to sign an agreement about peaceful settlement of disputes. Other member countries came and went (or were expelled). The League’s planned conference on disarmament was not held until 1932 – and by then the Soviet Union had re-armed and Germany was about to start. Though the League agreed on economic sanctions against aggressor states, it had no way of enforcing them. It could not stop Japan invading China, Italy occupying Abyssinia, or Germany occupying Czechoslovakia. However, it did create organisations to deal with important issues such as refugees, successfully arbitrated in several disputes over territory, and established a Permanent Court of International Justice.

Think about it: Woodrow Wilson realised that the League was only a first step towards world peace. For a start, it depended on international co-operation – which needed time and trust. Ideals sound fine, but people find it hard to put them into practice. Some, but not all, of the lessons learned from the League’s failures were taken into account when creating the United Nations organisation in 1946, but still commitment to world order was hard to come by. So what is needed? How can the world’s countries be persuaded – encouraged – to work together for ‘international peace and security’?
One man who worked hard to support the League was the politician Jan Christiaan Smuts, who became prime minister of South Africa. He, like Wilson, understood that a practical world organisation had to be able to grow and adapt over time. This is what he said about war and peace:
‘It seems to me that some people expect too much from the new machinery of arbitration and conciliation. War is a symptom of deep-seated evils. It is a disease or growth out of social and political conditions. The new institution of peace must not be something additional, external, superimposed on an existing structure. It must be an organic change. It must be woven into the very texture of political organisation.’ What do you think? How could that change be made? Could it depend on what people, not leaders, believe and want?