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The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire

by Susan Pedersen

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623362,711 (4.4)1
"A sweeping global history of the League of Nations' mandates system and the limits of imperial order"-- "At the end of the First World War, the Paris Peace Conference saw a battle over the future of empire. The victorious allied powers wanted to annex the Ottoman territories and German colonies they had occupied; Woodrow Wilson and a groundswell of anti-imperialist activism stood in their way. France, Belgium, Japan and the British dominions reluctantly agreed to an Anglo-American proposal to hold and administer those allied conquests under 'mandate' from the new League of Nations. In the end, fourteen mandated territories were set up across the Middle East, Africa and the Pacific. Against all odds, these disparate and far-flung territories became the site and the vehicle of global transformation. In this masterful history of the mandates system, Susan Pedersen illuminates the role the League of Nations played in creating the modern world. Tracing the system from its creation in 1920 until its demise in 1939, Pedersen examines its workings from the realm of international diplomacy; the viewpoints of the League's experts and officials; and the arena of local struggles within the territories themselves. Featuring a cast of larger-than-life figures, including Lord Lugard, King Faisal, Chaim Weizmann and Ralph Bunche, the narrative sweeps across the globe--from windswept scrublands along the Orange River to famine-blighted hilltops in Rwanda to Damascus under French bombardment--but always returns to Switzerland and the sometimes vicious battles over ideas of civilization, independence, economic relations, and sovereignty in the Geneva headquarters. As Pedersen shows, although the architects and officials of the mandates system always sought to uphold imperial authority, colonial nationalists, German revisionists, African-American intellectuals and others were able to use the platform Geneva offered to challenge their claims. Amid this cacophony, imperial statesmen began exploring new means--client states, economic concessions--of securing Western hegemony. In the end, the mandate system helped to create the world in which we now live. A riveting work of global history, The Guardians enables us to look back at the League with new eyes, and in doing so, appreciate how complex, multivalent, and consequential this first great experiment in internationalism really was"--… (more)
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The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire by Susan Pedersen is a detailed account of the organization that formed after World War I as part of Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points. Pedersen is a historian and James P. Shenton Professor of the Core Curriculum at Columbia University. Pedersen focuses on 19th and 20th-century British history, women's history, settler colonialism, and the history of international institutions. She received both her B.A. (1982) and Ph.D (1989) from Harvard University.

In the late 1980s, I worked in Geneva, Switzerland and every day walked past the League of Nations Building on my way to work. I thought of it as a grand experiment and a building that represented hope for the future as well as the seed that the UN and international organizations grew. It felt special to be that close to such a piece of history.

The League of Nations is probably best known for its inability to prevent the second world war and is seen by the Realist thinkers as the failure of the Liberal Theory of International Relations. Europe was able, for the most part, to keep the peace through a balance of power. Peace was not kept because nations decided to be peaceful, but because the cost of war was too high. The idea of the League of Nations is that enlightened nations want peace and that diplomacy and international law could solve any problems that arose. In reality, this was more complicated. Nations that joined were not required to stay members. Germany, Italy, Japan, The USSR, and most of South America left. What is surprising, however, is how many nations actually joined, or were brought in as commonwealths, colonies, or mandate. I was truly a worldwide organization with only The United States (and it territories), Tibet, Mongolia, Nepal, and present-day Yemen and Saudia Arabia absent.

Pedersen looks at the formation of the League of Nations and, in particular, the area that many people do not associate with the league -- the mandates. The League took over German colonies and non-Turkish Ottoman lands. Although the League members made efforts to appear as being all inclusive and all equal in public, it was essentially the white European nations that held power. France and England openly struggled for power and land. Those countries that did not like the results simply left the organization.

Some blame the failure of the League on the United States' refusal to join. It is true that American involvement would have likely countered European desire for empire and the expansion of empire. The problem, however, was much deeper. European powers saw colonial lands and the mandates as unable to rule themselves. This attitude was also held by Wilson especially in Latin America. Ironically, after almost three hundred years of balance of power politics the sudden shift to a democratic league left the European powers unable to function beyond their own interests. Europe, from the perspective of a stable continent, was far worse now than it was with alliances.

The mandates proved to be a problem that Europe was unable to handle. They are still a problem today with Palestine being at the forefront of the news. Rwanda made the news in the 1990s for genocide from strife going back to the mandates and one would be hard-pressed to find a success story in the mandates.

Pedersen provides a deep, well-researched history of the League of Nations. The work is very well documented and uses a variety of source material. Just as there is more to the origin of World War I than many people understand, there is much more to the League of Nations than simply its failure to prevent WWII. Even with holding a master's degree in international relations, I learned a great deal from this book. I now have piles of notes and new information to be used when discussing and writing about international relations. The Guardians provides an excellent history of the beginnings and unfortunately the failure of the Liberal Theory. An excellent book for students of foreign affairs and the history of foreign affairs.
( )
  evil_cyclist | Mar 16, 2020 |
The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire by Susan Pederson fills a sparsely covered historical moment, namely the opportunity to attempt an organized international governing organization. Its failure is certainly important yet is also the reason it receives minimal attention. Pederson admirably provides a detailed, well-researched yet very readable analysis of the League of Nations.

Of particular importance here is the mandate system by which the victors of World War I sought to maintain and grow their empires through mandates to oversee territories that had once belonged to the losing nations. Many factors contributed to this failure but a major part was certainly the continuation of imperialism, even if given a new name and effective spin control. The ramifications of this mandate system are still being felt today.

Though Pederson certainly devotes a great amount of space to the key figures this is not a biographically driven work, unless one wants to consider it a "biography" of the League of Nations. Like any piece of scholarly research written for a popular audience The Guardians can at times seem a bit like a textbook. These instances are few and for the most part the book flows nicely.

In addition to readers who are interested in either or both World Wars this will also be valuable for those seeking to understand some of the longstanding conflicts in current events. The notes offer many points from which to take off if a particular area piques your interest. For those students (formal or informal) who may be interested in a different area or period of history which might be enriched by a better understanding of the creation and failure of the League of Nations will find this to be a fine way to fill that gap.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley. ( )
1 vote pomo58 | Apr 13, 2016 |
A close analysis of a near-forgotten institution, Pedersen gives you a narrative explaining how the mandate system of the League of Nations existed less as a means of political uplift for the inhabitants of those territories, but was meant to be a means of conciliating conflict between the victors of World War I. The unpredictable aspect of all this is that while this system was mostly intended to preserve the rights of the imperial powers without spilling over into open war, it also provided an avenue by which public dissent and criticism could be brought to bear on the imperial powers. In addition, Pedersen also provides you with a group portrait of the individuals who administrated the system and they're an interesting study in and of themselves. ( )
1 vote Shrike58 | Mar 22, 2016 |
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"A sweeping global history of the League of Nations' mandates system and the limits of imperial order"-- "At the end of the First World War, the Paris Peace Conference saw a battle over the future of empire. The victorious allied powers wanted to annex the Ottoman territories and German colonies they had occupied; Woodrow Wilson and a groundswell of anti-imperialist activism stood in their way. France, Belgium, Japan and the British dominions reluctantly agreed to an Anglo-American proposal to hold and administer those allied conquests under 'mandate' from the new League of Nations. In the end, fourteen mandated territories were set up across the Middle East, Africa and the Pacific. Against all odds, these disparate and far-flung territories became the site and the vehicle of global transformation. In this masterful history of the mandates system, Susan Pedersen illuminates the role the League of Nations played in creating the modern world. Tracing the system from its creation in 1920 until its demise in 1939, Pedersen examines its workings from the realm of international diplomacy; the viewpoints of the League's experts and officials; and the arena of local struggles within the territories themselves. Featuring a cast of larger-than-life figures, including Lord Lugard, King Faisal, Chaim Weizmann and Ralph Bunche, the narrative sweeps across the globe--from windswept scrublands along the Orange River to famine-blighted hilltops in Rwanda to Damascus under French bombardment--but always returns to Switzerland and the sometimes vicious battles over ideas of civilization, independence, economic relations, and sovereignty in the Geneva headquarters. As Pedersen shows, although the architects and officials of the mandates system always sought to uphold imperial authority, colonial nationalists, German revisionists, African-American intellectuals and others were able to use the platform Geneva offered to challenge their claims. Amid this cacophony, imperial statesmen began exploring new means--client states, economic concessions--of securing Western hegemony. In the end, the mandate system helped to create the world in which we now live. A riveting work of global history, The Guardians enables us to look back at the League with new eyes, and in doing so, appreciate how complex, multivalent, and consequential this first great experiment in internationalism really was"--

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