Guarding Empire, Mandating Statehood: A Conversation with Susan Pedersen on the League of Nations, Internationalism, and the End of Empire

Travel to the shores of Lake Geneva, disembark from your ferry or catamaran onto the narrow streets of bourgeois Geneva, and take one of the Swiss city’s speedy trams up the hill to your north, and you won’t be able to miss it: there, at the end of one of the tram lines, sits the massive compound of the United Nations Office in Geneva (UNOG), housed in the majestic Palais des Nations (Palace of Nations), one of the largest buildings in Europe. Fluttering in front of it (next to the gate for UN employees passing into the complex) are the 193 flags of all members of the United Nations, from founding members like the United States, Great Britain, or France, to newer member-states like South Sudan or Kosovo–all flying at equal heights and equally spaced out along four grand rows.

And yet this current arrangement of things in Geneva–and international order writ large–is quite new. The Palais des Nations, today home to meetings for UN organizations, was originally built as the headquarters for the now-defunct League of Nations, the interwar system of international governance that today (where it is remembered) is probably most associated with failing to keep the peace of Versailles and not having the United States of America as a member. Had one flown the flags of the nation-states of the day in front of the Palais following its opening, however, the number of flags would have been much, much smaller, with Africa and Asia barely represented. And as the maps that hang in the elegant Reading Room of the League’s Archives (themselves in a wing of the Palais) remind us, most of the world’s population then who was not Chinese lived not in nation-states, but in empires–in the British and French Empires, to be specific.

During our brief stroll around Geneva and the Palais des Nations, in short, we find traces of two very different international systems of statehood–empires and nation-states–that nonetheless intersect at this particular piece of very pricey real estate above the waves of Lake Geneva. But how could one tell this story in a more specific way? What was the processual glue between the world of empires that the League of Nations belonged to, and the world of normative statehood, political decolonization, and nation-states that we inhabit today? More than that, to what extent was the League of Nations not only captive to, or affected by these shifts in international order, but actually facilitative of those shifts themselves?

The cover of Susan Pedersen's new book, "The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire"
The cover of Susan Pedersen’s new book, “The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire”

These are just some of the questions treated in Susan Pedersen‘s recent book, The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). In it, Pedersen, the James B. Shenton Professor of the Core Curriculum at Columbia University, explores the history of the League of Nation’s Permanent Mandates Commission, the body assigned to oversee and monitor territories from Burundi to Baghdad and from Tanganyika to Togo.

While most readers’ perceptions of the League of Nations may still center around the presumptive “failure” of that international organization to prevent war in Europe, Pedersen takes a different tack in The Guardians, focusing on the League of Nations mandates system and its effects on international order during the interwar period. As she shows, following the First World War, new international norms of Wilsonian self-determination–and the Bolsheviks’ critique of capitalist war–made it difficult for the victorious British and French Empires simply to swallow territories like ex-Ottoman Iraq, Syria or Palestine, or ex-German territories in Africa or Oceania. Given “the strenuous conditions of the modern world,” as Article 22 of the League of Nations’ Covenant explained, less developed peoples needed tutelage from the more advanced European powers. Captured German or Ottoman territories would have to be governed according to international and humanitarian norms: managed by the powers that were occupying them at the end of the War, but subject to international oversight in the form of a Permanent Mandates Commission in Geneva (itself staffed mostly by white men from imperialist powers).Mandated territories could be treated as provisionally independent nations (Class A–the Middle Eastern territories), in need of more tutelage but not to be administered as part of the Mandating Powers’ colonial territories (Class B–German Africa, other than South West Africa), and territories “best administered under the laws of the Mandatory as integral portions of its territory” (Class C–South West Africa, plus postcolonial Oceania).

Yet the question of what, exactly the difference was between a mandated territory and a colony would haunt the system throughout the interwar period. If the Mandates were explicitly something other than colonies, when, exactly, would they be ready for independent statehood, or at the very least open to international competition for goods and services? As the British and French violently suppressed revolts in the Middle East, and the South Africans treated South West Africa more or less like a colony, the legitimacy of the system grew shakier. And when Germany was admitted into the League of Nations in 1926, Berlin joined a chorus of protestors and petitioners from around the world who claimed self-government as preferable to trusteeship. In some cases, like that of Iraq, the Mandating Powers found that the “internationalization” of their administration of these post-colonial territories so burdensome that declaring them fit for statehood (as happened to Iraq in 1932) and “merely” contenting oneself with economic and military hegemony over a pliant client state was preferable to facing nagging charges in Geneva.

Decolonization avant la lettre it was not: the French and British Empires remained in control of their colonial holdings, and the entrance of states like Iraq into the League of Nations on British terms was an affair quite different from the mass entry of former British and French colonies into the UN’s General Assembly decades later. But the mandates system–designed as an alternative to cutthroat imperialistic competition and expansion–had ironically opened up new concepts of normative statehood that would take on a life of their own. A system originally designed to help colonial empire collaborate over the spoils of war became the site of new kinds of claims for government after empire. Replete with both conservative defenders of norms of civilization and tutelage, like Frederick Lugard, and the thousands of petitioners from Samoa to Palestine who sought to claim some version of self-government for themselves, The Guardians presents not only a rich tableau of the new kinds of international actors that sprung up during the interwar years; more than that, it uncovers a hitherto-hidden story of the battle over international norms about sovereignty and statehood that continue, from South Sudan to Kosovo to Ukraine, to play a fundamental role in international politics today.

The Toynbee Prize Foundation’s Executive Director, Timothy Nunan, was fortunate to have the chance to sit down with Professor Pedersen during a very hot summer day in Berlin and to discuss her path to writing The Guardians, some of the key findings of her work, and her intellectual plans for the near future.

TN: Typically in these interviews, we begin with discussing your road to the project, before going more substantively into some of the arguments you present. If I might ask, then, how did you become interested in the League of Nations?

SP: It’s true that looking back on it now, I’m struck by what a huge project it was. So how did I come to take on something of this size? I had gotten interested in the League of Nations’ archives out of my last project, which was a biography of the British social reformer and feminist Eleanor Rathbone. Among many causes, Rathbone was involved with the Social Section of the League, which dealt with child welfare and trafficking, and which was headed by Dame Rachel Crowdy, who oversaw British voluntary nursing in the First World War. Crowdy was the only woman appointed head of a League section in the Secretariat in Geneva. And she was very clever, in the way that she set up her section.

TN: At a time that we still have this very bourgeois, gentlemanly, and, obviously, male-dominated Geneva, though, right?

SP: That’s right. Crowdy did want to integrate women into the apparatus of the League, but she understood it would be hard to do so. A lot of people working in the Secretariat came from the diplomatic services, which did not admit women, and committees also tended to be composed of government representatives, largely men. But Crowdy very imaginatively gave voluntary organizations working in particular fields the right to appoint experts or “assessors” for various committees. This gave a statutory role to what we would now call NGOs, and also brought in women, including Rathbone. So I first went to Geneva, ages and ages ago, tracking Eleanor Rathbone.

Even at that stage, I found the League of Nations’ archive itself fascinating. You could see the conflicts between international activists and governments. You could see how governments were forced into negotiation. You could see how issues raised in Geneva became more public and visible.

Dame Rachel Crowdy, one of the figures who brought Columbia professor and historian Susan Pedersen to the League of Nations Archives in the first place
Dame Rachel Crowdy, one of the figures who brought Columbia professor and historian Susan Pedersen to the League of Nations Archives in the first place

TN: So you had some familiarity with the archives out of your earlier work. Yet child welfare and mandates seem to be rather different. What was it that took you to mandates and these questions of international order more generally?

SP: As I was writing the Rathbone book, I was also researching a set of humanitarian crises in the British Empire. These issues were also taken up by the League. So I went to Geneva, I think for the second time, tracking how governments and humanitarian organizations came into conflict over child slavery in Hong Kong. I discovered, reading the League records and the British colonial office records side by side, that League actions were genuinely affecting British policy. Not that the Colonial Office was simply acceding to League norms; it’s more that it was trying protect its own right to set policy. So partly for propaganda reasons, partly to fend off League interference, the British moved to introduce legislation on child slavery.

Uncovering that trajectory made me really interested in the dynamic of the League. I wanted to see what impact internationalism had on imperial politics, and I chose to work on mandates as a good place to examine that. I wrote a first piece on three British Mandates for a book I co-edited with Caroline Elkins, and returned to the Geneva archives, I think for the third time, when working on that. I found the research really gripping, but I also knew that the kinds of questions I was asking couldn’t really be addressed only through one empire. That’s when I decided to take on the whole thing!

TN: Which is a huge territory. Syria and Iraq, Palestine, the islands in Oceania, much of Africa.

SP: Yes, that was the tough decision. But, having started to read quite deeply on different territories under mandate, it became clear to me that while there was a rich historiography on many of them, that work rarely paid much attention to the role of the League. On the other hand, works that did look at the mandates system tended to treat either the African or the Middle East mandates, not both, and rarely the Pacific at all: even Michael Callahan’s two very good and detailed books treat only the B African Mandates. But, simply on methodological grounds, it seems clear that to make generalizations about a system as a whole, one has to look at the whole thing. A comparative approach wouldn’t work: the territories are too different; there are too many variables.

That meant I had to write about the whole thing – all of the Mandated Territories (and there are fourteen of them), and all of the Mandatory Powers (and there are seven of them). To do this work properly, I also thought I would have to look at three levels: the territories, the mandatory power, and the apparatus in Geneva. So that’s what I decided to do, but I had to make it manageable in some way. I needed a selection principle. Because I wanted to figure out what difference international oversight made, I “selected” those issues involving mandated territories that became of interest to, or blew up in, Geneva.

So, the heart of the book is a history of how imperialism was made subject to international contestation and international oversight. The work of the Permanent Mandates Commission – the League body that examined reports, received petitions and investigated crises in the territories – is really the red thread. The book starts and ends with the members of the Mandates Commission and the issues they dealt with. The driving question of the book is, always, “what difference did the mandates system make”?

An "anachronous map" of the League of Nations' members and its mandates. On this map, mandates such as Southwest Africa, Palestine, and New Guinea are colored in orange.
An “anachronous map” of the League of Nations’ members and its mandates. On this map, mandates such as Southwest Africa, Palestine, and New Guinea are colored in orange.

TN: Perhaps we ought to specify on this phrase of “what difference did it make”–when we say this, what difference are we talking about, and to whom?

SP: Right. I should be clear about this. At the time, and even to some extent in scholarly literature, the assumption has been that the system did or should make a difference to the well-being of the people living under mandate. Obviously that’s what it claimed to do, but I concluded that was not the central “difference”. Mandates were not governed as a rule differently or better than colonies; there was much variation. Instead, the real “difference” the system made was that it shifted aspects of governance into the international realm – and that, in turn, had an impact on the international legitimacy of the imperial order and on international norms. We need to understand those international dynamics themselves, and not think of them only in terms of their impact within individual states or territories.

TN: You know, as you mention in the acknowledgments of people like Patricia Clavin, the entire subfield of League studies has really blossomed in the last ten years or so. When you were beginning to spend time in Geneva and meeting other scholars in this field, can you describe how this field of League of Nations studies re-emerged? What were other people’s journeys like to the League of Nations as a subject of study? What were the sorts of conversations you had after the day at the archive?

SP: The real answer is that when I started out there weren’t many people in the archives! Being kind of nosy by nature, what I did first was just flip back through the register where you signed in to see who was spending serious amounts of time in those archives and what they were working on. I realized scholars were working very hard on the history of international and European regulatory mechanisms – economics, communications, air traffic, banking, and so forth; there were also lots of people working on international humanitarianism or on the League’s handling of particular issues.

How I did I get to know those people? Well, in 2005 and 2006 I spent a year’s leave reading about the League in general, and about mandates in particular. I first thought I might write a single, one-volume, new study of the League as a whole, but that project seemed too enormous. It also wasn’t the right time to do it, since so much new work was just coming out.

TN: So, not writing the general history of the League of Nations–you had decided that. What were your initial pieces on, then?

SP: The first piece was “The Meaning of the Mandate System.” I published that in Geschichte und Gesellschaft because I thought it was a really good journal and wanted to establish contact with European scholars working on similar questions. So I published that piece, and it sort of died for five years, but then at some point, Geschichte und Gesellschaft starting digitizing, and then I suddenly saw that piece cited everywhere. The second piece was a review essay, “Back to the League of Nations,” that I published in the American Historical Review. I wrote this piece because, while I had decided against writing a new history of the League, I wanted to draw attention to the wonderful new work being written on the League. The piece just grew: the AHR had wanted about 5,000 words, and it ended up being 13,000.

TN: 13,000 words?

SP: I know. So I cut and cut, but it was really hard to shorten it. In the end, the AHR published what was, for them, a very long review essay. But that piece was the other vehicle – besides just reading, and spending time at the League archives – by which I came into contact with lots of other scholars. There was a weird side to this, because for a while my email inbox became the Meet and Greet space for League researchers. People would write to me asking for practical advice about doing research at the League Archives or about hotels in Geneva. But one of the great benefits was meeting Professor Patricia Clavin at Oxford, who started working on her book on the Economics Section around the same time I started working on mandates. Patricia had also written a piece on transnational government, and some people clearly picked up those two pieces, hers and mine, to discover what was happening in this new field. Patricia was already embedded in a network of scholars of international organizations, among them some wonderful students of Zara Steiner; we also both joined a network of international historians working on the League, the ILO, international development, humanitarianism, scholarly and legal networks. I had the good fortune to meet Corinna Unger, Amalia Ribi, Katharina Rietzler, Daniel Maul, Anne-Isabelle Richard and a whole host of other young international historians.

TN: Corinna will be our next interview for the Global History Forum.

SP: So this little band of us met each summer in Oslo or Bergen or Trondheim, some half dozen so-called “senior scholars” and perhaps thirty younger ones. But this was only one of a number of such ventures going on. Patricia, Davide Rodogno at the Geneva Institute, Corinne Pernet and I then began talking about bringing people together for a conference on new work on the League. We held a workshop at Oxford in the summer of 2010 and then the conference itself in Geneva in 2011.

That’s when I realized that something was really happened to this field. We had invited people we knew were working on the League, but then all these other people got in touch with us. People we had never heard of. People who said, “Here’s my paper, I’m working on this, too.”

So it ended up being this really big thing. We had as many supplementary papers posted to the website as we had on the actual program, and so many graduate students wanted to come that we ended up organizing a graduate workshop the day before. The Mellon Foundation kindly gave me a small grant to fund American students’ participation and give them a bit of time in the League archives, so ten US graduate students working on great projects came. This group included Ananda Burra working on the transition from mandates to trusteeship, Natasha Wheatley working on petitions and international law, Steffen Rimner working on international opium control, Stephen Wertheim working on US internationalism and the League, and a great many others; there were dozens of students from different UK and European institutions as well. Doing that conference was a lot of work, although Davide heroically bore the brunt of it. It was wonderful to see all that energy and particular all those younger scholars, but after that was over, I thought, “oh my god, I just have to get my book written.”

So then I concentrated on writing. Whatever was happening was well and truly launched by then. Now, it seems that every time I turn around, there’s another conference on the League or on mandates. There was one on the League’s social work shortly after ours, and then one on the League and the UN at the European University Institute, run by graduate students, some of whom had been at the Geneva conference. Just this spring, I went to one on expertise and the mandates in Paris and another on internationalism in Lisbon; I think there was just another in Jerusalem on law and the League – and that’s just a few.

I’m astonished by the speed with which this field has developed; it’s also made me feel quite old, since this is really a young person’s field. If you pause and think about it, it’s obvious why it took off. The League was the predecessor to the United Nations, but it was also the predecessor to the European Union; it was also the incubator of a lot of intergovernmental organizations of crucial importance right now – the bodies dealing with everything from child trafficking to international public health to refugees to arms. So it makes sense that historians are looking back to recover a kind of genealogy of international negotiation, international regulation, and international activism.

The Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, home to the League of Nations during its lifetime. Today it houses the UN Office in Geneva as well as the League of Nations' archives.
The Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, home to the League of Nations during its lifetime. Today it houses the UN Office in Geneva as well as the League of Nations’ archives.

TN: For someone who’s come to this subject with the impression of the League as, as primarily a security failure, how would you make the case, or what is the strongest case to be made for important linkages between the League of then and our institutions today?

SP: I personally think the strongest continuity is institutional. The League proliferated international regulatory bodies and non-governmental organizations and networks, and that has changed decisively how we “work” globally. There’s an obvious diplomatic thread from the League to the European Union too in that the first United States of Europe proposal comes from Aristide Briand in the late 1920s and is worked on at the League, even though it doesn’t go very far at this stage. But, as Patricia’s book explains, one can see how people in, say, the Economics or Transit and Communications sections are already developing a much more expansive idea of security – one that includes fostering economic security through economic integration. There are obvious continuities in personnel, too: after all, Jean Monnet is the first French Under Secretary-General of the League. He leaves, of course – ostensibly to run the family wine business but quite possibly because he was disappointed in the way the organization was developing.

But the continuity is absolutely there. This is not the way that we think about the League. We do think about it as a security arrangement. But the League took on many other issues, partly because there wasn’t another apparatus that had similar capacity. The crucial point isn’t that it did so successfully; it is that how it dealt with them ended up setting norms and institutional practices for the future. States and NGOs start orienting their work toward Geneva; a bureaucratic apparatus emerged to facilitate that work.

TN: More broadly, one thing we focus on in these interviews is for graduate students and post-doctoral fellowship, is–when you look back to when you were starting the project, starting the experience, would you have advice for people starting a new project? Obviously, you don’t want to pick something that’s already a fad, but as you look at your own experience moving from European history to something more explicitly global, was there anything more than a gut feeling, or the archives that gave you the confidence to begin this work and start the movement at the right time?

SP: You know, I’ve been asked this a few times, and it’s a tough question because this book took me ten years and it also required a great deal of travel and, frankly, financial support. It was supported by a lot of research fellowships from different places. I’m very aware of how privileged I was, since I had both the financial support and (having tenure) the time to do this project properly. I don’t think this is a practical model for everyone, much less for a dissertation.

But if I had to offer a bit of advice, I guess I would urge people to pick projects that can be explored through multiple source bases, so as to develop arguments that can withstand what one might call “perspectival pressure”. Think of the task as not just to dig out the gems a particular archive has to offer, but also to find another source base that throws the biases or character of that first source base into relief. All I’m saying, in a way, is to be aware of the constructed nature of the source base, something postcolonial historians have been telling imperial historians for a long time. But this applies to international history as well.

Take the League Archives, for example. The League Archives are rich, but they’re also deceptive, and I don’t think that they’re a good foundation for a project unless you constantly force them up against other sources. Why is this? Well, first because they’re often unrevealing about the internal politics of the organization. With European government archives, you tap into a culture of officials working together, more or less all committed to the national interest, and able to maintain secrecy. The League, however, wasn’t like that. Secretariat members were supposed to be loyal to the League alone, but the institution was much too “leaky” – and officials under too much pressure to share information with their own governments – to keep secrets well.

As a result, the records have some strategic silences. There’s a lot of documentation of public debates, but you don’t see much of the kind of internal strategizing about how to handle issues that you see all the time in government archives. I’m speaking of marginalia, right? Marginalia are your best friend in the British Archives: you can see civil servants figuring out how they’re going to manage a particular issue. That is very hard to shake down in the Geneva archives. Those conversations happen, but often off the record, and you might be more likely to find traces of them in private papers or national archives than in Geneva.

TN: But what does it mean when you do come back to the Geneva Archives? And what does it mean when one is planning a project?

SP: Well, this means you need some other source base to get some perspective on what you’re finding in Geneva. If you don’t do that, you’ll just mirror the deceptions of the archive. So I always think it’s best to pick an issue and then make sure to find what might be called competing archival narratives: state records to check organizational records; personal papers to check the official line; voluntary bodies to see what the officials miss. If one does that, you can take a more circumscribed subject and really open it up.

TN: So, with a project like that, your value-added is not purely in Geneva. It’s in this archival grind, the cogs and the gears of, say, Rhodes House, the Bodleian Library, the National Archives, and then Geneva, too.

SP: That’s right. And I guess the other important point is to be very careful about what “the international” is that you’re talking about. It can’t be just your particular corner of the world with large claims attached. I don’t mean that you can’t work on the international effect of local groups, or the way local history is international. That’s all great. But you can’t let your subject’s own self-understanding of the project become your own understanding. This was, for me, why it was so important to capture critical perspectives – the criticism from nationalists, or the German position – on the mandates regime: because it kept me from simply replicating Anglo-American or Anglo-French understandings.

TN: Yeah, I wanted to come to this. I agree that narratively, it does work in getting out of this bind of “the British Empire was international, therefore British history is global history.” So, thus far our discussion has revolved around the 2000s-era scene. When you were doing the research, was the role of Germany here visible? Not as a wrecker of the system in the 1930s, but as a party that plays a creative role, this kind of creative elasticity?

SP: No, I don’t think it was. Patricia was aware of this thread, since she is partly a German historian. For her, and for anyone researching the economic side, Germany comes in all the time. German absence from Geneva doesn’t mean that Germany doesn’t matter in Geneva: as with the Americans, even their absence structures the debate in the room. When it came to imperial questions, however, people were less aware how important Germany was to the story. One of my main aims in the book was, then, to bridge this divide between a historiography about European security focused on the German problem and a historiography of empire that treats Germany as marginal. I wanted to say: this incredible focus that we’ve had and continue to have on the German problem is not something separate from this question about imperial order, which is always seen as a Franco-British imperial thing. These two questions come together.

TN: So how did the German focus come into play for you, then?

SP: I think a lot of life is fortuitous. I love doing research, trying to see what’s out there by tackling new archives. It was clear to me – and Michael Callahan rightly picked up on the significance before me – that Germany was very resentful about the loss of its colonies. Now, I was living in Berlin every summer, essentially because my husband runs the summer program for NYU in Berlin; we also spent a couple of years here with him running the NYU Berlin program and me at the Wissenschaftskolleg or the American Academy. All of a sudden I thought, you know, I’m here: I should start using German archives. My German isn’t great, but I can manage [laughs].

TN: This was very much my adventure in Swedish–doing interviews, thank God, in English, but then sifting through NGO archives in Swedish. I remember speaking with Ken Weisbrode last week, whom you cite as one of your early research assistants in the acknowledgements. He was recalling a conversation with [Harvard Professor] Ernest May. Ken said he wished he had a year or two more in some language; Ken would complain he didn’t know, say, Italian well enough. And May would ask: “Have you ever tried?” And as I think you’ve accomplished here, you do have to try. You do.

SP: Sure! I mean, we were living here in Mitte, a ten-minute bike ride from the Foreign Ministry Archives. So I thought: I’ll just try. It’s true that you do need some amount of determination, but even archives where people have said the archivists are unfriendly and unhelpful, that has not been my experience. The archival staff at the German Foreign Ministry was very helpful, and that at the Belgian Colonial Archives, the Archives Africaines, was helpful too. I had been told that the Belgian archives were hard to deal with, but when I told them I’d already seen all the published material they had pulled out for me, and just asked, “Can I just look at your index and I’ll tell you what I want and you can bring it to me,” they agreed. The chapter in the book on Belgian rule in Rwanda was only possible because they let me see those files. Of course, I made sure not to go into specialist archives, like the Belgian or Namibian archives, until I knew that I knew more about a specific subject than the archivists were likely to know. Usually, I worked up the basic story of some issue that reached Geneva (famine in Rwanda, the Arab Revolt in Palestine, the Bondelswarts rebellion in Namibia, indentured labour in New Guinea, whatever) and then did a deep dive into national or private records.

Making sense of the German involvement was a bit more complicated than that. There has been good work on Nazi planning for Africa and on German global economic strategies in the interwar period by Dirk van Laak and others. I had begun reading that work, and working my way through the German Foreign Ministry files on the Mandates Commission (which they followed obsessively), and some things fell into place. I started realizing the real difficulty Germany’s absence, entrance, exit, and then sniping from outside posed for this organization on every level. It became clear to me that the twin geopolitical struggles of the interwar years, that is the struggle to manage Germany and the struggle to manage imperial relations, were not separate stories. That may be the most significant argument or finding of my work. People have not paid enough attention to how sharp a shock German entry was for the League of Nations and what Berlin’s presence meant.

Having lost its colonies (pictured here in light blue) as a result of the Great War, Berlin proved to be a disruptive and creative influence on the League of Nations Mandates system after it entered the organization in 1926. Tracking the battle between German, British, French, and other parties' views of normative statehood is one of the major tasks, and accomplishments, of Pedersen's "Guardians."
Having lost its colonies (pictured here in light blue) as a result of the Great War, Berlin proved to be a disruptive and creative influence on the League of Nations mandates system after it entered the organization in 1926. Tracking the battle between German, British, French, and other parties’ views of normative statehood is one of the major tasks, and accomplishments, of Pedersen’s “Guardians.”

TN: There are two separate directions I’d like to go in from this point. One is perhaps more selfish in that it fits with my own interests in Russian and Soviet history. Looking through these files, we’ve talked about the German entry. But do you see much interest in the Soviet Union, in the Soviet model of national republics and federation? And the second question is, is American hegemony in the Caribbean or Latin America a reference point to these discussions about the imperial framework?

SP: First, I should be honest and say that I’m not sure if I can answer this. There are things I wanted to do but couldn’t, given the already excessive size of this project. So, I didn’t really look at this. The Soviet line was always that the Mandates were just a fig leaf for imperialism and they didn’t want to be involved. The Soviets never wanted a member on the Mandates Commission, for example, unlike Germany. That said, the mandatory powers did worry about Communist subversion all the time, and both Communists and anti-imperialists launched powerful criticisms of the League system and helped build up nationalist or independence movements. The Pan-Africanists, though, were probably more influential than the Communists, although of course groups overlapped.

Let’s not forget, though, that for this last period of the League, the period when the USSR joins, the institution is really hobbled. After the German exit and even more after the Italo-Ethiopian conflict, the oversight regime was on autopilot. Until 1934, the reports of the Mandates Commission were discussed in the full League Assembly, which made for a lot of press coverage and debate. But once the Germans left, the PMC’s work was kept out of the Assembly and just reviewed by the Council. Some issues exploded anyway. British handling of the Arab Revolt in Palestine, for example, and the PMC’s criticisms of that, couldn’t be contained.

The American issue is different. To say that the US was not a member of the League is, well, not quite accurate. It’s more that the Americans could act like a member state when they felt like it and not when they didn’t. But the Americans were never absent. There were prominent American members of the Secretariat; Prentiss Gilbert, who was US Consul in Geneva, was kept appraised on sensitive issues. American liberals, intellectuals, and philanthropic organizations were also closely involved with League bodies and policies – David Ekbladh and Katharina Rietzler have written on this. Those ostensible “non-state” actors sustained a kind of alternative US foreign policy, with close relations to the League. The Health Section of the League was dependent on American foundations for a good chunk of its budget.

Through this combination of philanthropy from Carnegie and Rockefeller, and involvement by lawyers, reformers, intellectuals and NGOs, the Americans played an important role in Geneva – in the committees on drug trafficking, child welfare, economics. The Americans also had a huge influence on the mandates system – which was, after all, set up on Wilson’s insistence. Wilson’s colonial advisor George Louis Beer was actually supposed to be the first Director of the Mandates Section in the Secretariat, and the man who took the job when the Americans failed to join, William Rappard, was actually a dual Swiss-US national. Rappard had spent some time as an Instructor in the Government Department at Harvard and kept in close touch with a large US network.

Moreover, when Rappard left the Secretariat to return to academia in 1924, another American policy wonk, Huntington Gilchrist, was brought into the Mandates Section. Gilchrist wasn’t formally the Director of the Section – that went to an Italian for various political reasons – but Gilchrist played a large role shaping policy and also kept in close touch with American supporters. This was important, because the League leadership was obsessed with the effort to bring the US in. Drummond didn’t succeed, but he kept channels very much open, including by sending American secretariat members on speaking tours across the US. Even a fairly low-ranking secretariat member like Mary McGeachy (about whom there’s a good biography) ended up meeting and briefing important politicians on trips to the US.

TN: I suppose that I just have one more substantive question about the book, then we’ll transition out at the end. We have the Germans, we have this sense of the Mandates being problematic, let’s say. But this isn’t the same vision of self-determination that we find in the United Nations of, say, the 1960s, of total independence.

SP: Right.

TN: So I was curious: a major focus of the book is an entry point to the visions of self-determination on offer during this period. And reading this book, the figure of Leopoldo Palacios comes up, someone whom you mention as offering a more maximalist vision of where nation-states will be in this world that’s still imperial. Could you talk more about his specific vision, or how the maximalist positions of the 1920s and 1930s differ from those of the 1960s or 1970s?

SP: Palacios was the Spanish member of the Mandates Commission, with a background in academia and social reform. He really did think of the mandates system as a vehicle for promoting self-determination. It’s important, though, to realize how unusual that was: he was the only member of the Commission, except possibly William Ormsby-Gore, who thought like that. Palacios found the ubiquitous dismissal of nationalists as ungentlemanly and seditious ridiculous. He tended to think “agitators” would turn into ordinary politicians if you just put them in office. He had a pragmatic and capacious understanding of politics.

William Ormsby-Gore, British Conservative politician and British representative to the Permanent Mandates Commission from 1921-22.
William Ormsby-Gore, British Conservative politician and British representative to the Permanent Mandates Commission from 1921-22.

Ormsby-Gore, too, deserves another look. He was the British member of the Mandates Commission before Lugard, and while he served only briefly, he and Rappard really shaped the system. He didn’t leave many papers, though, and they’re in Aberystwyth, worse luck. When I was at Oxford a couple of years ago, though, I tracked down his correspondence with Lugard and some international reformers, and concluded that he too was quite unusual for his time. He was another rare person among white European politicians who saw the League regime as a roadmap for self-government. He was with the Arab Bureau during the war, and was the British liaison for the Zionist Commission’s visit to Palestine in 1918, and was sympathetic to both Jewish and Arab national aspirations. He thought there would be a Jewish state, and would be Arab states, and that all that would happen sooner rather than later.

TN: Regardless of, or because of, British aims?

SP: Well, he thought the British should use the mandates system to build states. Ormsby-Gore wanted an independent Iraqi state, even if it were in some senses a British client state, set up immediately after the war; he also saw no reason why Tanganyika couldn’t be an independent African state.

But he’s unusual. For it is impossible to discount how absolutely central racial thought was during this period. That’s why Ormsby-Gore was unusual. For whatever reason, and I honestly don’t know why, he just pulled back when confronted by arguments – and they’re ubiquitous – that basically boiled down to: “these people aren’t ready for self-government because they’re African.”

TN: Sure.

SP: He was very interested in development while at the Colonial Office, and thought there was a lot of educational and infrastructural work to be done. But if you look at his speeches, when faced with claims about Africans’ inability to govern themselves, he tended to say, “How do you know?” He’s interesting, he’s odd, he’s out of sync with his time. Because, commonly, when it came to the Middle East, African and Pacific Mandates, racial language came up over and over. Western Samoa, for example, had a representative structure, a functional economy, near universal literacy: this was clearly a place that could govern itself. It might not be Luxembourg, but still.

But the Mandates Commission couldn’t imagine that. Ormsby-Gore was off the Commission by then, and Palacios was the only member able to see that the Samoan Mau movement wasn’t much different from national movements in, say, the Baltic states or the Balkans. Why couldn’t the others see this? Why did they insist that the Samoans were simple people led astray by agitators? It’s because of race. Take Lugard. He was obsessed with the mixed-race population and thought it inherently degenerate. Only when that racial language is discredited are new possibilities opened up. If anything, I didn’t give enough space to the centrality of racial thinking in the book. I have since read Robert Vitalis‘ book on race and international relations.

TN: On Aramco? The book about Saudi Arabia?

SP: No, this is a book he’s writing – I read it in manuscript – on the history of the field of international relations in the US (White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations, forthcoming from Cornell). He argues, very persuasively, that the field’s understandings and purposes were racial and racist from the start. From the outset, the aim was less to manage relations between nations than to manage relations between – and preserve hierarchies among – races.

It also recovers the centrality and importance of the African-American scholars at Howard University as the main critics of this frankly racist field. I found the book really illuminating, because Howard’s political scientists and historians are involved in my story from the beginning. Rayford Logan, Alain Locke, and Ralph Bunche all researched and wrote on the mandates system. It’s so revealing that as a young man studying political science at Harvard, Bunche chose to write his dissertation on the mandates system – that is, to compare French colonies with French mandates in order to pin down what difference the League regime made. Locke went to Geneva to research mandates; Bunche went to Europe and West Africa. Of course, Raymond Leslie Buell opened up this question: he was the first to try to see how the mandates system worked on the ground; no-one undertook more ambitious research travels. But Buell was “Lugardian” in that he really was most interested in stable and humane imperial government. The African-American scholars kept their eyes fixed on the road to independence.

Ralph Bunche, American political scientist, scholar of the League of Nations, and Chair of the Political Science Department at Howard University–not to mention recipient of the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize
Ralph Bunche, American political scientist, scholar of the League of Nations, and Chair of the Political Science Department at Howard University–not to mention recipient of the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize

TN: Well, to begin to transition to the end of the interview. Other than trying to stay well-hydrated, what’s on your agenda?

SP: What am I doing?

TN: What are you reading, what are you researching. This is obviously a major research project, but are you thinking of what’s next? A couple of smaller one-off projects, or something big?

SP: That’s a hard question. I’ve been going back and forth. I’m committed to writing a few small pieces related to this project for conferences, handbooks and so forth, but after that I’m not going to do any more specifically League-related writing. I like to do projects that are really absorbing and new, and this is beginning to feel like a rather crowded field.

So, what’s the next big project? There are some possibilities that did arise out of this book. I’ve become very interested in Anglo-German scholarly and intellectual contacts between the wars. I’m also drawn to study the Italo-Ethiopian War, because that encapsulates some of the issues about the relationship between the European order and the imperial order that I’ve dealt with here. And then, you know, I do still think that there should be a new history of the League, although that would need to be a multi-volume collective project. But I don’t know if I’ll do any of those things.

Instead, I’d like to write a book on the Balfour family and the women’s suffrage movement. I think this would be really, really, fun. I’m conceiving of this as, in rough terms, a book about the shift away from dynastic politics to a different kind of politics – a shift that is seen really well through the women’s suffrage movement. There were a lot of women whom I would think of as “dynastic women”, highly involved in politics because they were born and married into political families; the Balfour women fit into this perfectly. Several of them – Frances Balfour, Betty Balfour – were intensely involved in various political causes, including suffrage. Because this was a tight-knit group, they wrote to one another all the time, so it’s possible to tell the story of the argument over women’s suffrage from the inside. I’m attracted to this subject, too, because I’m interested in history as a craft, and this book would be full of vivid personalities. So that’s a possibility. I’d quite like to go back to British history, which is my main field. I’m not really an international historian for life.

TN: Comparative, in other words, but with a strong focus on the British material.

SP: Yes. I’m on leave in the spring [of 2016], and am going to spend part of that time in Edinburgh, with the Balfour papers.

TN: A final quick question. What books are currently on your nightstand, or what are the books that you’ve read in the last three or four months that have made the biggest impression on you? Especially in the fields of international or global history.

SP: I’ve actually been returning to British history. I just read Philip Murphy‘s good book on the use of the monarchy within the British Commonwealth (Monarchy and the End of Empire), and right now I’m reading William Whyte’s Redbrick, a history of the civic universities from their founding to today. But in terms of international history, I think the book I found most intellectually stimulating recently is Isabel Hull‘s A Scrap of Paper: Breaking and Making International Law in the Great War, which I reviewed for the London Review of Books. I think that’s a really excellent book. It makes the case for the centrality of international law to arguments and policies during the war, and for the exceptional nature of German doctrines and practices. Hull argues that historians were too quick to adopt the position that everybody trampled on international law during the First World War, all states were culpable, and that we can’t therefore make distinctions.

She says, “Actually, it’s possible to write seriously and comparatively about that question,” and looks at arguments within Foreign Ministries about international law. She is asking, basically, whether law was treated only as something to be used instrumentally when it suited, or was treated as the context determining what was politically possible. There were, she says, sharp differences among states. All broke international law at some point, but not to the same extent and with the same level of eagerness and comfort. It’s an important book.

For the moment, however, the book that both we at the Toynbee Prize Foundation and other audiences are enjoying reading is Susan Pedersen’s The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire, out with Oxford University Press. We would like to thank Professor Pedersen for joining this installment of the Global History Forum and wish her the best of luck in her future research projects.

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