The Failure of International Organizations to Prevent War

World War I was supposed to be the “war to end all wars.” And the League of Nations and the subsequent United Nations were designed to keep countries at peace. But unfortunately, wars are still part of the international landscape, including the emerging threat of cyberwarfare.

As the UN prepares to celebrate its 69th anniversary October 24, let’s take a look at how it and the League of Nations have tried — and often failed — to prevent conflict between nations.

The League of Nations

The League of Nations was founded in 1920 at the Paris Peace Conference at the end of World War I. It was the first international organization whose principal mission was to maintain world peace. Indeed, its primary goals, as stated in its Covenant, included preventing wars through collective security and disarmament, as well as the settling of international disputes through negotiation and arbitration. At its peak, the League had 58 member states in the 1934-35 timeframe.

The League of Nations lacked its own armed forces and relied upon the great world powers to enforce its resolutions. Unfortunately, however, the the great powers often were reluctant to step up. Ultimately, the League proved incapable of preventing aggression by the Axis powers in the 1930s. And Germany withdrew from the League, as did Italy, Japan, Spain, and others.

Interestingly, the United States never joined the League of Nations, notwithstanding the heroic efforts of President Woodrow Wilson, for which he earned the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919. Wilson faced insurmountable opposition in the Senate from politicians who objected to Article X of the League’s Covenant, which called for assistance to be given to members that experience external aggression.

The onset of World War II essentially proved that the League of Nations failed its core purpose to prevent future wars. The League lasted only 26 years, and was then replaced by the United Nations at the end of World War II.

The United Nations

The United Nations was created with the hope of creating international cooperation and to prevent another such conflict as World War II. When founded, the UN had 51 member states; today the UN boasts 193 member states. The UN does not maintain its own military, and UN peacekeeping forces are drawn from volunteers provided by member states.

The UN’s mission to preserve world peace was challenged and complicated in its early days by the Cold War. At the end of the Cold War, the UN took on military and peacekeeping missions across the globe with differing degrees of success (or not).

Indeed, even though the UN Charter was written mainly to prevent aggression by one state against another, in early 1990s, the UN faced a number of simultaneous crises in places like Mozambique, the former Yugoslavia, Haiti, and Somalia.

More recently, UN peacekeepers have intervened in crises such as the war in Darfur (in Sudan) and the Kivu conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As of September 2013, UN peacekeeping soldiers were deployed on 15 different missions around the world.

While the UN certainly has not prevented wars around the globe, it definitely has been beneficial in terms of various humanitarian efforts through agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Bottom Line

The United Nations, like its predecessor League of Nations, of course has not caused warfare to cease. The UN at times has been greatly criticized in this regard, including the failure to prevent genocides in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Rwanda, and the later Srebrenica massacre. And UN peacekeepers have been accused of rape and other forms of sexual abuse during peacekeeping missions in more than a handful of countries.

Regrettably, war still is a present fact of international life. But the goal of peace is still a very important one, and while the UN and the prior League have not been perfect, they have had some positive effects, especially when it comes to humanitarian efforts.

Eric Sinrod (@EricSinrod on Twitter) is of counsel in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris LLP, where he focuses on litigation matters of various types, including information technology and intellectual property disputes. You can read his professional biography here. To receive a weekly email link to Mr. Sinrod’s columns, please email him at with Subscribe in the Subject line. This column is prepared and published for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author’s law firm or its individual partners.

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The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and are not to be construed as legal advice.

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