Taming Wilsonianism: The League of Nations and Territorial Conflict after Versailles
From its inception, the League of Nations faced a dilemma: created in the spirit of national self-determination, its primary role was to guarantee the status quo of the Paris peace treaties. In its urge to maintain peace and provide for international stability, the new international organisation quickly became, at least with regard to territorial conflicts, a conservative force. This conservative role, however, was at odds with the high expectations that the League had raised in the wake of the First World War, and it would soon undermine both its credibility and its leverage in challenging revisionist forces.
This paper discusses the role of the League of Nations in the international system of the interwar period by examining the work of the League’s Minority Section (MS) in the new ‘minority states’ of Poland and Romania. The paper argues that the experts of the MS, driven by the aim to guarantee the minority clauses of the Paris peace treaties and limited in their coercive power, transformed the explosive Wilsonian principle of self-determination into the safer and more manageable idea of cultural minority rights. By rejecting any claim of national minorities to self-determination and border changes, however, the MS did not stabilise the international system. Instead, it effectively excluded territorial revisionism from the official channels of international politics, contributing only to the frustration and growing radicalisation of revisionist forces.
Moreover, the MS’s approach of informal negotiations with the ‘minority states’ brought only minor improvements to the lives of national minorities. Informal negotiations primarily served the purpose of safeguarding the prestige of ‘minority states’, as the MS only rarely brought violations of minority treaties to the attention of the Security Council. The informal character of the MS’s work, the paper argues, tended to undercut ongoing efforts to make the League’s structures and enforcing mechanisms more robust and effective.
The paper thus challenges the more recent view of the League of Nations as an organisation that was kept afloat by benign and informal transnational expertise that operated underneath a largely dysfunctional public or official structure. Ultimately, this paper holds, the League’s border conservatism coupled with its reliance on informal expertise undermined not only the organisation’s credibility but also its leverage in managing territorial conflicts.
Capitulations redux: The Imperial Genealogy of the post-WW I “Minority” Regimes
The post-WWI peace talks saw the introduction of a new term to the lexicon of
international diplomacy: minority rights. Defined and encompassed by a series of
“minorities treaties” with various Balkan and Eastern European states, the concept of
collective rights for national, religious, or ethnic minorities in majoritarian nation-states
rapidly became a primary feature of the postwar political order, with multiple
international agreements modeled on the original Polish minority treaty and the
establishment of a “Minorities Section” within the new League of Nations to enforce them.
This paper explores how the idea of international protection for minorities, far from
representing the beginnings of a modern human rights regime, arose primarily as a way to
recast much older imperial categories and relations in the postwar language of ethnic
As the Information Section of the League of Nations noted in 1927, the minorities treaties
were not intended to establish “a general jurisprudence applicable wherever racial,
linguistic or religious minorities existed…. [but to offer assistance where] owing to special
circumstances, these problems might present particular difficulties.”1 In other words, the
new appellation of minority was not intended to describe every ethnic, national, or
religious group outside the majority; it applied only to groups with an already-established
history of national or proto-national consciousness developed in the European diplomatic
exchanges of the late nineteenth century. Similarly, the minorities treaties were limited to
the new states of Eastern Europe and the Balkans (that is, former Ottoman and Habsburg
territory), where they were to serve as reminders of the limitations of these new states’
autonomy. The minorities treaties, then, represented a new iteration (and in some ways
an expansion) of an imperial vision that had marked relations between the Ottoman
empire and the European powers of Britain, France, and Russia since the late eighteenth
century: the idea, enshrined in the so-called “capitulations” treaties, that non-Muslim
communities within the Ottoman sphere could represent a site of European economic,
political, and military intervention and redefine the Ottoman state as possessing a lesser
form of sovereignty.
Scholars have long considered the post-WWI minorities regime as a basically well
intentioned, if ultimately misguided, first step towards the concept of internationally
guaranteed human rights. This paper argues that in fact, the legal regime surrounding
“minorities” that emerged out of the peace agreements should be understood not as part of
a nascent universal human rights regime, but as one of many postwar re-castings of
nineteenth century imperial practices as expressions of twentieth century ethnonationalism.