Murkier beginnings of League of Nations – White Man’s Burden

From William Easterly’s masterly “Tyranny of Experts”

The negotiations in Versailles for a treaty to end World War I occupied the first half of 1919, until the participating nations signed the treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919. Although twenty-seven nations participated in the Versailles talks, the dominant powers were the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.

The first decision was to transform former German colonies into “mandates.” The mandates were places, not commands. They were regions whose trustees answered to the League of Nations (the precursor international organization to the United Nations) that was also created at the Versailles conference. This was the context for Woodrow Wilson’s inaugural address quoted above about how “the first time in history the counsels of mankind are . . . concerted” to improve “the conditions of working people . . . all over the world.” Wilson spelled out the idea of the mandates further “with regard to the helpless parts of the world”: “All of those regions are put under the trust of the league of nations, to be administered for the benefit of their inhabitants—the greatest humane arrangement that has ever been attempted—and the rules are laid down in the covenant itself which forbid any form of selfish exploitation of these helpless people by the agents of the league who will exercise authority over them during the period of their development.”

The mandates were not directly relevant to China, which was not a colony. However, the idea of development as a neutral enterprise in some territories “for the benefit of their inhabitants” would indeed be relevant in China. It was one of the first statements of technocratic development, in which the focus is on the development of the “helpless” and not on who is doing the developing. It displays either naïveté or indifference to who actually holds the power.

In practice, the mandates were hard to distinguish from colonies. The League of Nations awarded the former German colonies to other colonial powers, notably Britain (e.g., Tanzania) and France (e.g., Togo). The League had no enforcement power to prevent “exploitation” by those colonial powers who “will exercise authority over them during the period of their development.” So the mandates just became British or French colonies in all but name. Cynics could dismiss the whole exercise as a power grab by the British and French.

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