I apologize in advance for the length of this post
Most people should be at least familiar with the events that led to the demise of the League of Nations in the 1930’s. As a refresher, the League failed to stop the Japanese from occupying Manchuria in 1931 then invading China in 1937, the Italians from absorbing Abyssinia in 1935, Franco’s Nationalists from rebelling and seizing control in Spain in 1936, and the Germans from forming their Groess Deutschland in 1939. There are two common explanations for why the League proved unable to stop these aggressions. The first theory says that the League had no real enforcement powers. Since the League could not pass any binding agreements, the aggressors need not stop and no one need stop them. The second theory (the one I learned in grade school) is that isolationist Republicans killed U.S. participation in the League and without the U.S. it was unable to properly function.
Both of these theories miss one important factor, that despite what the United Nations thinks of itself, international organizations are nothing in and of themselves. All such organizations are a conglomeration of different nations who have different interests and different abilities. Regardless of its structure, no international organization can do more than its most powerful members are willing or capable of doing, and no such organization can command more authority than its most powerful members are willing to give it. Simply adding more unwilling nations or establishing rules they supposedly must “obey” does not change this fact.
In the League’s case, its most powerful members were clearly France and Britain. Despite post-war protestations of impotence, they were more than capable of dealing the rise of the dictators had they wanted to. At the end of 1930’s the British and French economies were in the neighborhood of $55 billion, Japan’s was around $6 billion, Italy’s $10 billion, and Germany’s $30 billion (Britain, France, and Italy saw little growth during the decade while the German and Japanese economies roughly doubled). So from an economic standpoint, France and Britain were twice as big as the three dictatorships in 1930 and still around 20% bigger just before the war. Further, the French and British were largely self-sufficient in raw materials due to their large empires. The few resources they didn’t possess, like Turkish chrome, they could easily purchase with their large currency and gold reserves.
In 1930, the year before the Manchurian Incident, The Japanese spent about $380 million on defense. The French and British spent a combined $1,750 million on their militaries. In 1934, the year before the Abyssinian Crises, the Italians spent $730 million on defense. The French and British spent around $2,430 million that year. Though the Germans surpassed the British and French military spending totals in 1935, it must be remembered that Germany was rearming from a terribly weak position. In 1932 the German military had 7 weak divisions, 6 small and 6 large cruisers, no heavy artillery, no tanks, no aircraft, and no submarines. Even by 1936 this had merely expanded to 36 weak divisions, the same navy, little heavy artillery, a few tiny tanks, a handful of aircraft, and a smattering of experimental submarines. The British and French at both times had some 90 active and reserve divisions available for Europe, all fully equipped with heavy artillery, thousands of modern tanks, and with thousands of aircraft to support them. Either navy could sortie a dozen squadrons as powerful as the entire Germany navy. Even as late as the Fall of France in June 1940, the Allies fielded 116 divisions vs. 148 German divisions (though many were recently raised infantry divisions of poor quality), more and better tanks (2,700 vs. 2,400 of which half were no match for the allied tanks), and a far greater force of 14,000 artillery pieces vs. 7,400 for the Germans. The only advantage at that point for the Germans was the superiority of the Luftwaffe with its 5,400 planes matched against 3,100 Allied aircraft.
Another area of weakness for the dictators that France and Britain were perfectly capable of exploiting was their isolation. All three were by themselves in their areas of conflict. Germany was alone in Central Europe, Italy alone in the Mediterranean, and Japan the most isolated of them in East Asia. They were further isolated in time, with Japan acting 3 years before Italy who acted 3 years before Germany. Until 1939 it was possible to deal with each of these nations separately and primarily with naval forces. Each was heavily dependant on imports of raw materials to keep their economies humming. None of them was capable of resisting the might of the Royal Navy much less the combined might of the Royal and French Navies. This was not unknown to the British military. The Royal Navy told the civilian government after World War II has started that in its estimation it was preferable that Italy stay neutral, but should she enter the war it was better she do so as a German ally.
Clearly then, at no time were the allies limited by economic, military, or strategic factors. Ergo, the League was not limited by any of those factors. What limited the British and French, and thus the League, was the moral factor. The French and British did not have the stomach for another war less than 20 years after the First World War. This was a time when appeasement had a positive connotation. It meant you were smart and negotiated with the dictators, giving a little to prevent another bloody war. During the 1930’s the French were living through the “hollow class” years when conscription fell due to the loss births during World War I. Though it didn’t seriously inhibit French military power, it was an all too living reminder of the price of war. The British, meanwhile, were all-consumed with the mundane administration and protection of empire. Risking a naval and colonial war in Africa and East Asia, no matter how much the odds favored the British, was out of the question.
These are all valid reasons to avoid war and they answer the question of why the League didn’t do much of anything to stop the dictators. Its greatest powers, though they had the capability, were simply exhausted and didn’t have the will to do anything. Since an international organization’s only power to enforce its authority is by the use of its members’ power, no nation had to respect its requests. The inclusion of a disarmed, isolationist, and even more unwilling United States would not have magically made the League any more capable of handling these problems. A dictator does not abide by a document simply because of how many signatures are on it; rather he does so because of how many warships, soldiers, and bombs that will visit him if he doesn’t. Had Britain and France been willing to act, they could have used the League as a sort of cover body and thereby made it a legitimate force to be reckoned with in international affairs. It was because they were unwilling to act, and not because of the League’s structure or make up, that the League was incapable of dealing with the problems of the 1930’s and eventually ended its disbandment.
The United Nations pretends to be better, but it is little different. Though it is technically organized on a more permanent and legal basis, its authority also only runs as far as its members are willing to enforce it. For much of its history the U.N. was merely a stage for Cold War posturing between America and Russia. Because of our respective vetoes, neither side had to worry about the U.N. doing anything against its interests. The only times the U.N.’s will has been enforced were in 1950 with the Korean War when we took advantage of a short Soviet boycott to essentially have the U.N. rubber stamp our decision to save South Korea (at the time China’s veto was wielded by Taiwan), in 1991 when Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was something that clearly threatened the interests of all five permanent Security Council members, and in 2003 when the United States and Britain dragged the U.N. kicking and screaming behind us as we enforced the Security Council’s many Iraq resolutions. At no time has the U.N. ever acted on its own nor has it at any time fixed a problem without it being A) in the interest of a major power, and B) not in the interest of any major power to prevent.
The life of the United Nations has only been prolonged by its usefulness to both sides in the Cold War, the vetoes allowing the major powers to see that their interests are never actively threatened by the U.N., and the need for something to fill some of the functions of this organization. However, as we are seeing today its ability to do anything is severely limited for all the same reasons that the League was. On Iraq, Iran, and North Korea the United Nations can come to no consensus. Only with Iraq did we try to force the organization to live up to its purpose and I seriously doubt we will ever go through that again. With Iran and North Korea there is no great demand in the West for more wars to deal with those problems. When combined with the desire of two of the veto powers to see both those countries continue acting as a thorn in the side of the West it means there is no chance of the U.N. resolving either problem on its own. The only reason either nation has to listen to the demands of the United Nations is because America and Europe will use their power to make them listen. Since we are not likely to start a war with North Korea and since Iran is led by the left and media in the West to believe that we won’t go to war, there is no chance of either abiding by any agreements; despite the U.N. letterhead. We are the only country in the world with the power to act, so long as we go through the U.N. and trust it to do what’s best for the world we will not be able to.
The belief of some Americans (primarily on the left) that the U.N. can alone solve the world’s problems is also problematic. Should the American people ever agree and give such people political power, it will be similar to the 1930’s with the left in Britain and France believing in an international organization whose only power is there own, and in signed documents with dictators who have no desire and no need to observe them. After all, they will say Ahmedinejad is a man we can deal with. In 2010, should Hilary Clinton hold in her hand a piece of paper with his signature on it for the world to see, we will have peace for our time and we can finally all go home and get a nice quiet sleep. Only leftists and fools won't realize what will await us in the morning.
All facts and figures are from Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers and J.F.C. Fuller's A Military History of the Western World: Volume III, both excellent books.