The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire by Susan Pedersen review – the legacy of an unlikely hero

The Guardian – November 6, 2015

by Mark Mazower

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 rebranding worked surprisingly well – even as the league was being unceremoniously wound up, the new UN was welcomed with high hopes.

The main charge levelled 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.

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