The Economic Death of Collective Security
The League of Nations, the world’s ambitious attempt at collective security after World War I, was an idealistic notion that eventually failed after a series of international failures and an apparent inability to cooperate. It attempted to introduce international peace “in a hostile environment characterized by a growing emphasis on rearmament, the use of force, and the breakdown of international order”[1]. When observing the territorial disputes, lack of enforcement and contrasting legal systems that preceded the League’s demise, it may seem that purely political issues were to blame. However, the effects of the Great Depression, combined with many countries’ post-war financial crises, contributed spectacularly to the collapse of the League of Nations. Collective security ultimately became a major victim of severe and widespread economic turmoil between the two world wars.
The onset of the Great Depression seriously affected the success of the League of Nations. Because several countries’ economies depended largely on loans, trade, and general relations with the United States, the stock market crash of 1929 provided a huge blow to the global economy. For example, Japan, Asia’s primary industrial power, relied on exporting to the United States as well as other countries.[2] The Depression also had its roots at the end of WWI. Many nations had been severely economically weakened, particularly the United Kingdom and Germany[3]. Germany depended on loans from the United States in order to pay war reparations, an unstable condition that was worsened by the aforementioned stock market crash. Also following the war, dissent in Russia and Eastern Europe had destabilized world trade and global markets.[4] Even disregarding its cause, the Great Depression was “the single greatest reason for the collapse of international peace”[5].
The Depression insinuated a semi-Darwinist global atmosphere: in the struggle to survive, every country was primarily concerned with itself. Leaders and citizens refused to support a war that would give them no benefit in return for their limited economic assets.[6] Obviously, this attitude did not support the idea of collective security, which calls for “the peaceful settlement of disputes by arbitration”[7], and which is based upon the idea that all nations should protect others against aggression, no matter if they themselves are directly involved or not. Further contradicting the ideals of international peacekeeping, many nations cut off nearly all ties with other countries as a result of the Great Depression. They raised tariffs, cut trade as well as virtually all contact, and focused on the economic turmoil and domestic issues within their own borders [8]. This new isolationist attitude caused by the Depression destroyed the optimistic “Locarno spirit”[9] from years before, and greatly undermined the League’s previous achievements. In the midst of the bleak economic state, the faults of the League were emphasized, while doubts were “reinforced by budgetary difficulties caused by failing membership”[10].
Some countries saw force and aggression as a way to escape the hardship of the depression, leading to an end to the hope for world peace and several major failures for the League of Nations. Often seen as one of the key elements in destroying the League’s credibility, the Japanese takeover of Manchuria was largely due to the country’s economic strife. Although it was a colossal industrial power, Japan’s success relied on exports to foreign countries, causing the Depression to deliver a most unfortunate effect[11]. Unemployment terrorized the country, as well as general economic and domestic downfall. The idea of taking over the Chinese province of Manchuria was fueled by the prospect that the land contained rich natural resources as well as numerous other economic benefits[12]. The global economic panic not only caused this takeover – it prevented the League from taking any effective action. China’s cry to the League for help received little response besides the establishment of the Lytton Commission[13]. The Depression had caused cuts in armaments in the Western world, leaving Japan with little to no opposition[14]. Members of the League disappointed hopeful supporters by instead continuing to make domestic issues their priority. Even the League’s most powerful and able nations, the United Kingdom and France, weren’t able to support opposition because of a lack of sufficient bases. In particular, the United Kingdom’s navy was facing a mutiny over proposed pay cuts, which prevented the nation from being able to assist China in fighting against Japan[15]. Therefore, this use of force, which was a key factor in disproving the ideals of the League of Nations, was not only fueled by economic problems, but was unable to be quelled for many of the same reasons. This further demonstrates the theory that the end of collective security in the inter-war period was caused by the economic strife of individual countries.
The Abyssinia Crisis, which was another significant show of force that brought the principles of the League of Nations to shame, similarly originated from mainly economic issues. Mussolini’s belief that the region would hold oil deposits and other valuable financial resources provided further motivation for aggression[16]. Again, the League of Nations appeared to be powerless and indifferent to Abyssinia’s cause, presumably because the economic distress of their own nations were the main concern of the moment. The two aforementioned displays of aggression are largely considered to be two prominent contributing factors to the “downward spiral toward war and the League’s eventual demise”[17]. However, rather than being purely political or military disputes, both of them originated from the severe global economic tragedy occurring between the two world wars. In a time of financial desperation and in the “struggle to survive”[18], the leaders of these two nations resorted to violence and force, even at the cost of the collective security to which they had contributed so significantly.
While the League of Nations was a valiant attempt at collective security and the appealing ideal of international peace, it had several key weaknesses that led to its eventual downfall. Although many of these could have perhaps been avoided with a greater sense of global cooperation and effort, its major downfall came to be mostly out of pure bad timing. Because the League originated during a stunningly economically insecure period in history, nations were ultimately unable to achieve and commit to the goals for which they had originally aspired. Many nations involved, particularly Britain and France, began “acting more out of a sense of duty than of conviction”[19]. The fact that the League was born in the wake of a world war which affected the economies of all nations spurred both isolationism and aggression, eventually leading to the dreaded outbreak of a second war and the dissolving of the idealistic League and its once hopeful principles of collective security.


[1] Beck, Peter J. “The League of Nations and the Great Powers, 1936-1940.” Student Research Center. EBSCOhost, 2001. Web. 9 Dec. 2009. <http://web.ebscohost.com/‌src/‌detail?vid=1&hid=4&sid=bc82baca-0f19-453f-aa6c-293d049c8d35%40sessionmgr10&bdata=JnNpdGU9c3JjLWxpdmU%3d#db=ulh&AN=9505306067>.
[2]Cannon, Martin, et al. 20th Century World History Course Companion: International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.
[3] Ibid. 66
[4] Ibid. 66
[5] Ibid. 66
[6] Ibid. 66
[7]League of Nations.” History Study Center. Proquest, 2009. Web. 9 Dec. 2009. <http://www.historystudycenter.com/‌search/‌studyunitIntro.do?introPage=460.htmhttp://www.historystudycenter.com/‌search/‌studyunitIntro.do?introPage=460.htm>.

[8] Cannon, et al. 66
[9] Ibid. 67
[10] Beck 177
[11] Cannon, et al. 68
[12] Ibid. 68
[13]League of Nations
[14] Cannon, et al. 68
[15] Ibid. 68-69
[16] Ibid. 72
[17] Beck 175
[18] Cannon, et al. 66
[19] Beck 177