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The League of Nations Redux?


By Duncan M. Currie

The lessons of the 1920s and 1930s seem lost on certain members of the United Nations—in particular, France and Germany, two countries that should remember them all too well. Saddam Hussein’s noncompliance with weapons inspectors and repeated transgressions of Resolution 1441 are accepted by some U.N. representatives with a level of insouciance that should deeply concern all who are serious about prosecuting the war on terror. Indeed, with each passing day of inaction and uncertainty, the U.N. comes a step closer to resembling the ephemeral League of Nations that existed from 1920 to 1946.

Formed after World War I, the League epitomized President Woodrow Wilson’s stated commitment to building a new world order that would preserve democracy and prevent international conflict (even though the United States, because of domestic political bickering, never actually joined). Yet its feebleness and inability to deter violent aggression quickly became apparent. In 1923, Fascist Italy shelled and occupied the Greek island of Corfu. There were protests in the League against the Italian bombardment, but no credible response was authorized. Then, in 1931, Japanese armed forces took over the Chinese province of Manchuria and subsequently established the puppet state of Manchukuo. Once again, despite a chorus of denunciations, the League was unable to thwart the vicious imperialism of an autocratic regime.

This same pattern of weakness and ineffectiveness was repeated throughout the mid-1930s, as Hitler’s illegal rearmament and militarization of the Rhineland were sadly tolerated. While the League was compelled to act when Mussolini invaded Abyssinia in the summer of 1935, the result was only limited “sanctions”—(sound familiar?)—on the Fascist government. Britain and France, charged with formulating the League’s punishment of Italy, had economic and geo-political interests that discouraged them from taking a stronger stance.

Each of these aggressors—Italy, Japan and Germany—was a permanent member of the League when they chose to flout its conventions. And, in virtually every instance, the bloody expansionism of Rome, Tokyo and Berlin went completely unchecked by the organization that had been created, ostensibly, to end war. Of course, the tragic result of the League’s futility was World War II.

What the experience of the inter-war years demonstrated, therefore, was this: Lasting peace in a world of aggressive totalitarian states does not come from treaties themselves, nor does it necessarily come from endless attempts at diplomacy. An international body dedicated to preserving harmony among the nations of the world must be willing to exercise force if one of its members repeatedly contravenes its rules and resolutions. the threat of military action must be believable in order to deter tyrannical leaders; otherwise, the organization will make itself immaterial and irrelevant, as the League of Nations ultimately did.

Iraq’s continued evasion of its responsibility to the U.N. is no different, theoretically, than Hitler’s and Mussolini’s persistent repudiations of the League. But just like in the 1930s, several countries today appear perfectly willing to let the world’s leading international organization be mocked and disobeyed. For the French government, securing lucrative oil contracts is apparently more important than removing the threat posed by Saddam’s weapons of mass murder. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, meanwhile, rode to victory in September’s national election on an anti-war platform, and he has insisted that he will not support military action to topple the Iraqi regime. Those hoping France and Germany would be swayed by Secretary of State Colin Powell’s influential address to the U.N. on Baghdad’s lethal technology and connections to al Qaeda have been disappointed. The French and the Germans purport to have the most high-minded of motives, yet in reality their policies are driven by factors no less crass and practical than those that compelled London and Paris to appease Mussolini in 1935.

Supporters of regime change in Iraq may be tempted to call the behavior of French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder embarrassing—but then, this is the U.N., where the bar for embarrassment is seemingly raised higher every day. Indeed, with Libya assuming the chairmanship of its Human Rights Commission, the U.N. has already slid beyond parody. That commission also includes such freedom-loving stalwarts as Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Syria, China, Vietnam, Sudan and Zimbabwe. How does one caricature an organization that allows some of the world’s most brutal, repressive dictatorships to lecture the West on human rights? It isn’t easy.

That being said, multilateral organizations can definitely be forces for good in the world—NATO being the most prominent example—and America would obviously be better served if more U.N. leadership roles were held by liberal democracies, instead of dictatorships and anti-American tyrannies. Reforming the U.N. is thus a worthwhile goal. However, it may prove unnecessary, for the U.N. is in danger of consigning itself to the dustbin of insignificance. Should the Security Council decide not to enforce its own resolutions for disarming the regime in Baghdad, it will be forfeiting all its remaining credibility.

The international body so revered by those in Paris and Berlin is at a crossroads, with two possible courses to take. If the U.N. does decide to formally back a U.S.-led campaign to eradicate Saddam and liberate the Iraqi people, it will reclaim at least some type of moral framework; if it doesn’t, it will become totally irrelevant. With America, Great Britain and Spain submitting a new resolution declaring Iraq in “further material breach” of previous resolutions, the stage has been set for one final diplomatic showdown. All told, these next three weeks may well constitute the U.N.’s moment of reckoning.

Duncan M. Currie ’04 is a history concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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