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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.

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gordinbabel

Michael Gordin’s latest book, “Scientific Babel: How Science Was Done Before and After Global English”

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