Before assessing the historical significance of the Balance of Power system in the formation and function of the League of Nations, it is important to first understand what the system was. Balance of Power simply means state of equilibrium. That is, a peaceful world system with no state intervention in another. There was perfect balance of states especially between 1648 and 1914. The system is significant as Europe achieved a fair degree of stability not based on conquest or domination by a single power. It was uniquely accommodative, plural and embraced great powers in conformity with modern ideas of state nationalism. Factors that led to the Balance of Power include: no dramatic technological innovation in war industry that exists today like nuclear weapons, plenty of room for economic development and overseas expansion used as a safety valve enabling states increase power without endangering rivals at home. However, the balance of power was soon put to test.
Among the first great leaders was Peter the Great (1689-1725) whose aim was to ‘build a bridge between Europe and Asia’ and to make Russia a modern country. To gain outlets to sea for landlocked Russia, he fought the Turks and Swedes successfully. France under Louis XIV (1643-1715) aimed at mastery or Europe. She fought and gained Alsace, reached the Pyrenees and aimed at reaching the Rhine through Flanders. Indeed, Louis XIV, as an absolute King claimed ‘L’etat c’est moi’-‘I am the state’. In Prussia, Frederick the Great (1740-1786) believed in military power, so Prussia began war with Austria after flinching the province of Silesia. France and Austria allied themselves to resist Prussia, resulting in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). Later, Napoleon Bonaparte arose and led French armies all over Europe (1795-1813), defeating Austria, Russia, and Prussia before being defeated at Waterloo in 1815. Equally, King William 1of Prussia (1861) reorganized his army and under Chief Minister Bismarck, fought and won Alsace and Lorraine and became the founder of modern Germany. (Ikin, R.G.1964:180-240). What caused all this aggression?
Industrial revolution in Britain had spread in Europe and therefore competition for raw materials and markets had increased. For 50 years and more, the, major European nations had been gaining power-economic power, colonial power and military power. They had used this to obtain trade and territory throughout the world and still were not satisfied. They wanted more power so they had to fight each other. France was angry with Germany about Alsace and Lorraine taken from her in 1871, Austria and Russia both wanted to gain control of land in South-east Europe where the power of the Ottoman Empire was collapsing while Germany and Britain were quarrelling about which of them should have the bigger navy. (Sherman, M.1982:146-147).
The peace of Europe (Balance of Power) was broken by the Great World War in 1914 traced to profound changes, political and industrial that had happened in the world since the time of Napoleon. (Ikin, R.G, 1964:239). Emperor William II (1888-1918 of Germany seeking to “bestride the narrow world like a colossus” like Philip II, Louis XIV and Napoleon ended up bringing Britain, United States and Japan into the circle of his enemies. War started. President Woodrow Wilson of the United States declared it a war “to make the world safe for democracy”. The immediate cause of the war was murder of Austrian Archduke by Serbs who hated Austrian rule and desired to become a free nation united with other Serbian peoples. Poles, Czechs, Hungarians also desired freedom therefore murder sprang from the keen desire for national liberty. (Ikin, R.G, 1964:240).
In the war Germany supported Austria, Russia supported Russia, Britain supported Belgium, Japan supported Britain, Italy fought Austria, Romania, United States and China were at war with Germany. In November 1918, Germany asked for an armistice and fighting ceased and at a conference of victors-The Treaty of Versailles was signed. The First World War is important as it hastened the decline of European leadership throughout the world. The 4 empires: Austro-Hungarian, Germany, Russia and Turkish empires collapsed and 11 republics were established. (Ikin, R.G, 1964:242). In January 1919, representative s from over 30 nations gathered in Paris to decide the fate of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria. The talks were dominated by the ‘Big Three’, United States President Woodrow Wilson, French Prime Minister George Clemenceau and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. (Kelly, N.1989:62). A League of Nations was to be established.
As part of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was forced to give up its colonies in Africa and the Pacific as mandated territories of the League of Nations founded in 1920. It meant that the League was going to look after these territories until the local people could rule themselves. (Pearce, F.G, 1970:149). Germany was forbidden to unite with Austria. Her army was cut to 100,000 men and the navy limited to 6 battleships. Germany had to agree the war guilt clause (Article 231) accepting full blame for starting the war. It would have to pay reparations to cover the cost of the damage. (Kelly, N. 1989:62). The Balance of Power and its failure had led to the eventual establishment of a League of Nations in the Treaty. Its object was “to promote international cooperation and to achieve international peace and security.” (Ikin, R.G, 1964:243). The League had many of the World’s leading states and was supposed to be an assembly for discussing and solving international problems.
What were the League’s functions? One of the League’s committees was the Mandates committee that dealt with the yearly reports of the powers that had taken over the former German colonies and certain ex-Turkish provinces as “Mandated Territories” for which Mandatory powers were to act as trustees until these territories should be ready for self-government. (Ikin, R.G, 1964:244). The League was also useful in bringing representatives of the various nations together, to discuss common problems and difficulties. Through the International Labor Office of the League and other organizations working under it, many agreements were made regarding improvements in conditions of labor, prevention of the spread of diseases among countries, dealing with the relief of prisoners and refugees and with various social evils such as drug trafficking. More importantly though, nations would not go to war without first consulting together to see whether their disputes could be settled peacefully. (Pearce, F.G, 1970:163).
However, the League did not survive for long. Why? The weakness of the League was, first, it had no power to compel nations to settle their quarrels peacefully. Each nation-member of the League wanted to decide its own case, and was unwilling to let it be decided by others. Another weakness was that not all nations were included in it. Although the President of the U.S.A proposed its creation, its government refused to join the League, while Germany was not allowed to join until several years after the end of the War. Nations could also resign from the League if they did not like its decisions, so that the League became like a judge who decided that a prisoner is guilty of a crime but could not punish him. The prisoner just walked out of the court laughing!
When Japan invaded Manchuria, the League told her to withdraw but she took no notice, in fact, she left the League in 1933. In 1935, after invading Ethiopia, the League imposed sanctions on Italy, but these, failed and she left the League. Worst of all, Germany under Hitler withdrew from the League and in 1936; she made treaties with both Japan and Italy that had defied the League of Nations. The International Organization had failed and from 1936, no one took much notice of it. The stage had been set for the Second World War.