Federal Union and The League of Nations

Richard Law

By Richard Law MP

Most people learn by experience, but not everyone learns the right lesson. In 1919 we thought that we were going to promote freedom in Europe, banish war and replace anarchy by the rule of law in international affairs. We failed on every count. And because we failed there are some who think to-day that we were too ambitious. If only, they say, we had been content to walk before we tried to run, if only we had not put such a burden of responsibility upon the narrow shoulders of our stripling League, then we might have preserved peace and our ideals together.

I wonder whether that is the moral to be drawn from the story of the League of Nations and from the failure of the most hopeful experiment in modern Europe? I cannot believe that it is, or that we should fare any better after this war, without the League idea, than we fared before. I can find no evidence to suggest that anarchy will give better results in 1950 than it gave in 1930. It may be that we were too ambitious twenty years ago. But it may be that we were not ambitious enough, and that it was our timidity rather than our recklessness which betrayed us. Perhaps we should have done better if we had been braver and if, instead of creating a League of Nations, we had made a Federation of Peoples.

There is, of course, no conflict between the idea of the League and the idea of Federal Union. The one is only the extension of the other; and had it not been for the devoted labours of the League’s supporters over the past twenty years there would be little enough hope for a United States of Europe to-day. Nor is it really the case that it would be more difficult to create a Federation than a League; in some important respects it would be easier. But there are differences between the League idea and the Federal idea. And it is by the study of these differences that we may be able to find the real cause of past failure and the true foundation for future success.

First of all, then, what do we mean by a Federal Union, and how does it differ from a League of Nations? Broadly speaking, a League of Nations is an association of sovereign states, each one of which maintains complete freedom of action for itself over the whole field of politics, subject only to such limitations as it may agree to be binding upon itself and other sovereign states. The unit of the League is the state, and the central authority of the League deals only with governments and not at all with the peoples whom those governments represent.

In a Federal Union, on the other hand, the states which are constituent members do not have unlimited freedom of action over the whole field. In a part of that field, normally foreign policy, defence policy and currency policy, they surrender their power to the federal authority; in the remainder they retain complete control. In purely domestic matters the federal government has no authority, but within the field of federation the state governments have none and the federal government is responsible not to the state governments but directly to the peoples themselves. A Federal Union, therefore, is an association not of governments but of peoples, and the unit is not the state but the citizen.

In the light of this definition, not perhaps an altogether satisfactory one, let us examine the failure of the League of Nations. The common explanation is that it was not the League which failed but only the governments which operated the League. Is that really an adequate defence? The League, after all, was intended to operate through governments; and a political institution like the League ought to be able to cope with politicians. It is probably true that governments everywhere were lagging behind the peoples whom they represented. It is almost certainly true of successive governments in this country. And that is precisely the crux of the problem. There is no machinery in the constitution of the League by which the League can be brought into direct contact with the people, or by which the people can have direct access to the League. That is not a difficulty which can be overcome by any amendment of the League’s constitution. It is a difficulty which is immanent in the very idea of a League of sovereign states. For obviously no state could allow direct contact between its people and an outside authority without abandoning sovereignty.

Look at the same difficulty from another angle. Why did the League fail so signally over Abyssinia? The easy answer is that it was not in earnest. That may be so. But surely the main difficulty was that there was no contact between Geneva and the Italian people. There was certainly a body of opinion within Italy which was opposed to the Abyssinian adventure. It may have been the majority opinion. But there was no way of mobilising it. All that the League could do was to alienate it, and consolidate the Italian people behind its government. The federal agents of the United States Government would have had some difficulty in getting rid of the gangsters of Chicago if they had identified A1 Capone with the inhabitants of Illinois. But that, in effect, was what the League of Nations did to Italy. And it was all that the League could do, because the League’s dealings were not with the people of Italy but with the Italian Government.

But it is not only that a League of Nations deals with governments. It is dealing with sovereigns. The Covenant of the League tried to limit sovereignty. But it is impossible to limit sovereignty because if sovereignty is limited it ceases to exist. You cannot have qualified sovereignty. You can have sovereignty, which is absolute power; or you can have something less than absolute power, which is not sovereignty. But a limited sovereignty is a contradiction in terms.

The Covenant of the League does not really face this dilemma. It assumes both the abolition of sovereignty and the continued existence of sovereign states. The Covenant, it is true, is backed by sanctions, but what is the sanction behind sanctions? There is only a Gentleman’s Agreement. In the light of recent history what confidence can even the most honourable government have in a gentleman’s agreement between sovereign powers? And what government can afford to rely only upon honour?

If the League failed mainly for these two reasons, that it dealt with governments and not with peoples, and because it tolerated the continued existence of national sovereignty tempered only by considerations of honour, have we any reason to suppose that a federation would be more successful? I think that we have. For a federal government is in direct relationship to the people whom it is governing; and within the federal field divisions of opinion would not be on nationalistic lines (as in the case of Abyssinia) but on political lines. And in the federal field there could be no national sovereignty because any state which joined the federation would by the very act of accession abandon its sovereignty.

Is it too big a step for man to take? It may be that there are peoples in Europe who are too immature politically for such an experiment. But it is certain that there are other peoples whose culture, whose traditions and whose material interests are sufficiently akin for them to provide a basis for a genuine federation. And it may be that there is no other method of solving what we are all beginning to recognise as “the German problem.”

Richard Law was a Conservative MP from 1931 to 1954. This article was first published in 1939.

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