Saturday, July 08, 2006

Whether in a League or United, it's the Nations that matter

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.

16 comments:

  1. I hate to admit this, but this is something I didn't think of before. I just bought the whole "the League of Nations didn't work because the US wasn't a member" argument. I am American, so I'm happy with that answer. When you think about it like this however, it's pretty obvious that even if the US was a member nothing would have been done to prevent WWII because the US didn't want to get involved in another war either. Do you agree?

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  2. Essentially that is what would have happened. Even as late as 1940 President Roosevelt was campaigning on a platform of keeping us out of Europe's war. The American people also had good reason for not wanting to get involved in the world, we were the hardest hit relatively by the Great Depression. Better to focus on our ow problems than on the world's. A different President than Roosevelt,and different Prime Ministers than Chamberlain and Daladier could have doen things differently, but those are who led the 3 big democracies.

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  3. This may be a strech, but bear with me here...In looking at the failures of the U.N. and league of nations, We can see flaws of liberal thinking as they apply to families and the court system. Basicly , a society without corporal punishment and punitive action will not hold together. God in His wisdom knew that a law without real, physical, tangible ,consequences is powerless. If you have children you learn this real fast. Don't make a rule unless you're willing to get off your duff and enforce it!

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  4. Not too much of a stretch I wouldn't say. Good points, I always like comparing the world to a family or a classroom, with Europe playing the role of the doting mother (or teacher) and the tinpot dictators the role of spoilt out of control brats. I was going to include an example about how a courts ruling does not itself serve justice but the armed men willing to risk their lives seizing and then detaining an individual who serve it. How many terrorists running around Lebanon or Pakistan have we convicted? Yet those pieces of paper haven't arrested them. But I figured it was long and boring enough already.

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  5. Intersting, informative and very a important piece you have composed. I enjoyed reading your blog.

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  6. Thanks Amanda, glad you didn't find it long and boring like I did. (I'm just kidding of course)

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  7. I must agree that Fuller's volumes on military history are excelent. My late grandfather, a Major Gen., gave them to me years ago and I use them anytime I need to brush up on my history.

    I have a question for you about your profile. Why does it go without saying that you are a Republican? I did not know that what I would consider 'classical liberal' view of the world made you obviously a supporter of a particular political party. I would be grateful if you would explain.

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  8. Cool, someone who knows who Fuller is. He's my favorite military historian, it's a shame his books don't go past the end of World War II. As far as the obviously being a Republican, it's something of a hyperbole and refers to me being a young, christian, veteran, white male not so much due to a classical liberal worldview. I wouldn't say that is the exclusive domain of either party. Though they don't seem to exist in Congress there are plenty of Democrats who still have a realistic worldview.

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  9. I just wanted to comment on Fuller; however since I am a young, christian, active duty, white male much like yourself and not a Republican I could not resist the urge to ask why you must be republican. I invite you actually look at your point of view and beliefs and look at the two major parties, and then reconsider your loyalty to a particular party. Please excuse me from deviating from the main thrust of your blog.

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  10. No problem at all, as I said it is a bit of an exaggeration (though not by much). I know the Republican Party isn't entirely in step with my views, but I am a huge believer in the two-party systeml; I intend to eventually explain the reasons for that(short answer: stability that a Great Power requires). Of the two parties the Republicans are much closer to my views (or more importantly the Democrats are much further away) so that's where I am.

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  11. It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.

    Sir Winston Churchill
    British politician (1874 - 1965)

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  12. Did you know that America was not meant to be democracy but rather a republic ruled by law. Just some food for thought...

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  13. Yeah I'd agree though I think the argument over whether we are a Republic or Democracy is just a semantics one. Theyre both democracies, just different types.

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  14. I'm looking forward to reading a post about why you support the two party system. I like a good argument every now and then. :P

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  15. Hey, whats the political process without a good useless debate over semantics. :) Just this past week my home state spent their precious time drawing-up an equal rights bill for cross-dressers in the work place.

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  16. Semantics are also important since they can tell you how a person thinks. I don't know that it applies that much in this case, but it's most strikingly evident in the terrorist/martyr debate. Clearly the terminology is not all that seperates the two sides in that debate.

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