A World Made Safe for Empire


Review of The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire, by Susan Pedersen

Oxford University Press, 2015

What is the point of international organizations? The United Nations, the International Criminal Court, the European Commission: why do they exist, and why do they always seem to be so rife with contradictions? The more they grow in size—with a stream of task forces, special committees, and official reports—the more they are mocked for their inability to stop poverty, atrocities, and genocide. The more countries rely on them for dealing with international crises, the more leaders and scholars question their legitimacy. At the heart of this puzzle stands a glaring tension between these institutions’ alleged mission to treat all nations equally and the fact that they are managed by the powerful. It is no accident that the ICC has forced mostly weak (especially African) states to compromise their sovereignty, but never China, Russia, or the United States. Yet if these organizations ultimately function to veil the raw interests of powerful states (as so-called “realists” routinely claim), the magic seems to be lost on its intended audience. Take the recent example of the Greek bailout: for all the European Commission’s proclamations of European solidarity, opponents still dismissed it as a puppet of German economic imperialism. What purpose, then, do these organizations serve? If both the weak and the powerful are unmoved by their conduct, why do they continue to exist?

In her exciting new book, Susan Pedersen explores these fundamental questions by returning to the most controversial experiment of global governance, the League of Nations. But instead of re-telling a well-worn story—how the League emerged from World War I only to fail in preventing World War II—she focuses on one of its forgotten but more curious organs: the Permanent Mandates Commission (PMC). This Commission was in charge of managing the huge swaths of German and Ottoman colonial possessions in the Middle East, Africa and the Pacific that the Allies occupied during World War I. The League declared these territories to be “mandates”: rather than annexing these territories as formal colonies, the French, British, Japanese, and other victors were supposed to administer them on behalf of the League and under its supervision. This revolutionary arrangement was intended to tame the imperial competition between Europeans, which many believed had caused World War I. It sought to replace selfish nationalism with an “internationalist” political constellation. Officially, the mandates were also supposed to benefit their indigenous populations: rather than exploiting them for military service or forced labor, the local imperial authorities were to follow the PMC’s instructions and prepare them for eventual independence, though the timing of this freedom remained quite vague.

While the mandates appear to many—especially to the millions of furious Africans, Asians, and Pacific islanders denied self-determination—as colonialism by another name, the PMC took its supervision task very seriously. The scholars and diplomats who staffed it—exclusively European, all but one male—regularly convened in Geneva, in the League’s permanent palace. In their decorated hall, they organized countless hearings, spent months poring over reports, and published lengthy reports on mandate policies in countries ranging from Namibia to Syria to Palestine to Samoa. Possessed by a sense that the world’s future rested on their shoulders, the PMC members intervened in all matter of colonial policies, large and small. Pedersen charts in great detail their information gathering efforts and lengthy reports on French bombardment of Syrian rebels, sexual exploitation by Australians in New Guinea, Belgian management of famine in Rwanda, white settlers’ expansionist ambitions in South West Africa, and religious tensions in Palestine. In its scope, ambitions, and staggering research, The Guardians is international history of the highest order. It is a landmark study that without a doubt will spark much attention and discussion.   

Aside from the global scope of its work, the PMC is intriguing because of the insights it provides into the weird duality of international governance. On the one hand, Pedersen repeatedly reminds the reader that the PMC was clearly and unabashedly the product of the powerful. Indeed, her work is part of a scholarly wave (such as Mark Mazower’s No Enchanted Palace and Martti Koskenniemi’s The Gentle Civilizer of Nations) that traces international governance to European imperialism, racism, and notions of superiority. Most of the PMC functionaries were veterans of colonial rule: its most prominent member, Frederick Lugard, was the former Governor-General of British Nigeria, and other officials joined the PMC after ruling French West Africa, Portuguese Mozambique, and other colonies. All of its members—including those who came from countries bereft of empire, such as the Swede Anna Bugge-Wicksell—ascribed to the paternalist European ideology of “a civilizing mission.” They firmly believed that non-Western peoples were languishing in a state of under-development, and needed white guardians to rule and guide them towards progress. Indeed, this racist ideology was inscribed in the PMC’s very charter. Article 22 of the League’s Covenant, which established the mandate system, officially empowered Europeans, who held “the sacred trust of civilization,” to rule “peoples not yet able to stand by themselves.”

On the other hand, the members of the PMC were anything but simple apologists for their countries’ appetite for expansion. Many of them sincerely believed that if Europe’s mission to civilize the “barbarians” was to succeed, it required rigorous international oversight; it was their job to expose any colonial misconduct, including that of their own governments. Some of the book’s most memorable sections describe how PMC members drove colonial authorities to despair in their efforts to curb the brutality of colonial administrations. Jan Smuts, the white supremacist leader from South Africa and one of the League’s main architects, was astonished to learn that the body he had helped to create now vocally condemned white settlers’ economic dispossession of black Africans. The French High Commissioner of Syria, Maurice Sarrail, was similarly enraged to hear from the PMC that he had no right to massacre Arabs who rose up against his rule. Colonial officials around the globe regularly decried the PMC and its challenges to imperial sovereignty. For them, its internationalist agenda was the source of considerable frustration.

Pedersen’s main insight, then, is that the PMC—and the League as a whole—was not intended to achieve global equality, nor was it a mere rhetorical façade for British and French imperialism. Rather, the PMC and the many internationalists who supported it were animated by a vision of collective, pan-imperialist cooperation. They took upon themselves a broader mission to forge an international Western “civilizing” force: to peacefully globalize the political and cultural norms that Europeans already held. This in essence meant articulating acceptable and agreed-upon rules by which the powerful were to educate—and if they resisted, punish—the weak. The Commission’s supervision mechanisms were designed accordingly: it relied primarily on official government reports and the testimonies of Europeans, while severely limiting the scope of colonial subjects to express their hopes and protest their abuse. To be sure, not everybody was equally committed to this Western-centric internationalist vision. The German delegates who joined the League and the PMC in 1926, for example, sought to bolster global supervision mostly out of a selfish desire to constrain French and British global dominance. But these nationalist motivations were not the norm in the Commission. Its delegates spent weeks writing tedious reports that explained why all countries—including their own—had to follow the League’s instructions in running their mandates. This, then, was the face of international legitimacy in the 1920s and 1930s: a set of rules devised by and for the powerful as they sought to better impose themselves on the rest of the world.

The sensitivity of many Europeans to the opinions of other “civilized” (i.e., white) countries explains the PMC’s real function in global affairs despite its obvious impotence. As everybody recognized, the Commission lacked any economic, military, or political power, and could not enforce its will. Much like human rights activists today, the crux of its business lay in exposing atrocities and shaming governments. Its functionaries could hope for little more than sparking public outrage in the imperial metropole, which in turn would coalesce into political protest and lead to a change of policy. Such indirect mechanisms were (and remain) at best flimsy, and much of The Guardians documents the PMC’s depressingly limited influence on the actual governing of the mandate territories. Despite the Commission’s protests, colonial officials largely continued to pillage natural resources, rape women, and burn down villages as they saw fit. Even when they did pay some attention to Geneva, governors and diplomats learned to play what Pedersen calls “the mandate game” (74), explaining how their oppression actually served the civilizing mission. The Belgians, for example, perfected this habit, sternly arguing that their practice of brutal forced labor in Rwanda—which led to horrifying famine and death—instilled in the locals the discipline required for self-rule. But because empires set great store in their prestige among other Europeans, they were quite irritated by the PMC’s damning reports. They dispatched their most senior politicians to Geneva to defend their record and explain to the Commission their outstanding benevolence. On occasion, imperial governments even tweaked some policies to fit what the Commission demanded, as Belgium did when it finally provided some food relief to its starving subjects. As it turns out, imperial regimes were never satisfied with knowing they were “advanced” or “civilized.” Their greatness counted only if recognized and officially acknowledged by other white powers. This was why imperialists found the PMC so useful despite its occasional condemnation: it could never force them to change their policies, but it could provide them with legitimacy in the eyes of fellow Europeans.

Yet because it spends so much time exposing the yawning gap between diplomatic talk and colonial practice, The Guardians leaves a nagging misgiving about whether all the drama surrounding the Commission’s work really mattered. Diplomats may have worked hard to gain the PMC’s approval for their policies, but were the performances they staged for Geneva ultimately important? What difference did it really make if their shifts in rhetoric—from the language of national imperialism to international cooperation—mostly masked the continued use of violence and oppression on the ground? If they were not so racist, there would be something almost heartbreaking in Pedersen’s portraits of the PMC delegates. It is hard not to cringe, for example, when reading about the Dutch jurist Daniel Van Rees, who spent months establishing the PMC’s legal authority over the mandates, while colonial officers blithely ignored his communications and continued to ravage and kill as usual. Because Pedersen is more interested in ideological legitimacy than in power and governance, her book sometimes provokes the same grim feeling one has upon hearing diplomats from brutal autocracies such as Saudi Arabia proclaim their commitment to human rights while routinely torturing and arresting dissidents. They may speak the language of international law and morality, but beyond a few anxious diplomats, who actually cares?

The book’s most powerful sections, therefore, explore the rare cases in which the PMC and its principles played a crucial role in shaping imperial policies, most notably the end of direct British rule in Iraq. This Ottoman province was occupied by Indian British troops in 1917, and London ruled it as a mandate. By 1929, however, British policymakers had grown impatient with the PMC’s oversight (and with the rising costs of maintaining this occupation), and sought to evade it by moving to a new form of indirect rule: granting the country official independence (under the local king Faysal Al-Hashimi, whom the French deposed from Syria in 1925) while maintaining British military bases and control over oil production. Yet this endeavor set the British government on a collision course with the PMC, which deplored the emancipation of Arabs. The Commission deemed them barbarians unready for self-rule, and doubted whether Britain had the right to abandon its “sacred trust” in Mesopotamia. Thus, in order to achieve international approval for their scheme and to persuade the League to admit Iraq as an official member, the British were obliged to amend their plans. They agreed to share their oilfields with Germany and Italy, and devised a complex (albeit weak and ultimately un-enforced) legal status for religious minorities, such as the Assyrian and the Kurds. While the British ultimately got their way and the League approved Iraq’s independence, the pressure of international legitimacy—the British desire to receive the support of others for their global policies—helped shape the outcome. Negotiated among several international players, the new country’s sovereignty was now compromised by multiple European powers. This was a rare case: no other country was granted official independence by the League. But it is one in which the PMC’s footprint was significant.

While Pedersen does not systematically reflect on her story’s relevance to contemporary politics, the Iraqi episode nevertheless hints at the mandate system’s most lasting legacy. As she shows, in Iraq and elsewhere, the PMC aspired to transform the mandates from colonial possessions into spheres without sovereignty, spaces that no one nation could control. The result was often a system of indirect—though no less intense—domination: Europeans moved to manage former colonies through a web of international corporations and complex administrative agreements, and left the business of political management to local strongmen. Though these mechanisms had existed before, the PMC unintentionally helped popularize them. It encouraged colonial elites to begin ruling “through administrative and economic means and outside the legal umbrella of sovereignty” (260). The increasing appeal of this informal hegemony helps explain why the wave of decolonization and the proliferation of global organizations after World War II did not mitigate global inequality. As many scholars and politicians have maintained for decades, Western power in Africa and Asia often did not wane with the advent of national sovereignty (or membership in the UN), but merely transmuted into informal military and economic control. Indeed, Iraq became the model for many postcolonial arrangements. Rather than inaugurating pan-European colonial cooperation, the PMC helped to foster a new, informal, but no less oppressive form of subjugation. Perhaps, as Pedersen implicitly suggests, we still live in The Guardians’ world. Even in its failure, the League of Nations still guides the dynamics of power around the globe.

UDI GREENBERG is an associate professor of European history at Dartmouth College. He is the author of The Weimar Century: German Émigrés and the Ideological Foundations of the Cold War (Princeton University Press, 2014).