Eric Drummond and his Legacies. The League of Nations and the Beginnings of Global Governance, written by David Macfadyen, Michael Davies, Marilyn Carr and John Burley. 2019

In: Diplomatica

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Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Pp. xxix + 361. €99,99 Hardback. isbn 9783030047313.

The last decade has seen a veritable explosion in research on the League of Nations. Since the early 2000s, we have seen studies of the League’s role in everything from international health to economic cooperation. With Eric Drummond and his Legacies. The League of Nations and the Beginnings of Global Governance, we now also have a fresh take on the League’s first Secretary-General and administrative mastermind, Sir Eric Drummond and his professional legacy. However, this volume sets itself apart from current mainstream League of Nations historiography in several regards. First and foremost, by the fact that it is not written by historians but by four former UN civil servants.

The aim of the book is to reassess Drummond and his legacy and to demonstrate that he was ‘A Great International Civil Servant’ (p. xxix). The book is organized into three main sections: Part 1, ‘A Great International Civil Servant’ is a biographical study of Drummond. Chapter 1 outlines Drummond’s early life and draws a portrait of a gentle, tolerant, pragmatic and modest leader. Chapter 2, ‘Leadership’ partly overlaps with Chapter 1, as it expands on Drummond’s leadership style but also considers his diplomatic role in managing various international conflicts and points to the professional qualities that he possessed and which are still, according to the authors, required of Secretaries-General today: “integrity”, “moral courage” and “fairmindedness” to mention a few (p. 43). The last chapter of the section, ‘After Geneva’ explores Drummond’s departure from the League and his – contested – work as Ambassador to Rome and his late career as a British liberal politician. The authors point out in the acknowledgments that they have had access to the Drummond family’s private papers (p. vii) but this section, where such documents would be most immediately relevant, draws heavily on published literature and previously used sources and does not bring about substantially new insights into Drummond’s personality and leadership.

Part ii, ‘Creating an Enduring International Civil Service,’ takes a different, institutional, approach and explores the “ethos” (Chapter 5), middle management (Chapter 6) and activities of the different sections of the Secretariat (Chapter 7). This part also contains what is the most interesting chapter of the book: Chapter 4, which traces Drummond’s reflections and considerations in setting up the Secretariat revealing him to be a highly reflexive and nuanced thinker about international politics. Less convincing is the closing chapter (Chapter 8), which purports to explore Drummond’s ‘Commitment to Universality,’ defined by the authors as “membership of all countries of the world” (p. 159), but which presents a rather confusing mix of information about Drummond’s work to broaden League membership, the League’s public diplomacy efforts and cooperation with ngos. In contrast to the anecdotal and essayistic Part I, this section is written in an encyclopedic style with structured run-downs of the different Directors, Sections and member states. As the first section, this part falls short when it comes to analytical depth and direction.

The third and final section of the book explores Drummond and the League Secretariat’s legacy for 20th century global governance. Here the first two chapter (Chapter 9 and 10) offer some interesting facts and observations about the personal contacts and movements between Drummond and his League networks from the League to the United Nations. The last three chapters (11–13), on the other hand, are perhaps the book’s least convincing. Based almost exclusively on secondary literature, they contain a broad and general synthesis of the continuities and transformations in international humanitarian, political, social, economic and technical cooperation across the 20th century.

There is no doubt that a reassessment of Drummond as an important figure in early 20th century administration and diplomacy against James Barros’ neorealist and highly critical 1979 biography is both timely and relevant. Given that the authors are not historians by training, it also commands genuine respect that they have embarked on such an ambitious research exercise in order to trace the historical roots of their profession. However, judged by conventional academic standards the book is lacking in several critical regards. I will point to four problems in particular.

Firstly, the book is trying to do too much. Writing Drummond’s personal and professional biography, exploring the Secretariat’s organization, activities and development, tracing the transformation from the League to the UN Secretariat and exploring the long-term advances in 20th century international cooperation as well as Geneva’s development as an internationalist hub is simply too much for one book and the result is an account that lacks analytical depth and coherence.

Secondly, the structure of the book makes it a challenging read. The tripartite structure with each main part being written in a different style (perhaps by different writers?) and with a number of overlaps and iterations of information and interpretations across the different section is disorienting. Also, the text is interspersed with a large number of text boxes – interchangeably containing biographical vignettes, background information on political issues and summaries of points presented in the main text – the function of which is not entirely clear.

Thirdly, the book is highly normative. While reassessments may be fruitful, this book at times is more of a moral fable about Drummond’s virtues than a levelheaded historical analysis of his thinking, achievements and structural enablers and constraints. Throughout the book, we encounter sweeping statements about his superior moral and political qualities (e.g. p. 309). This leads to a systematic analytical bias. It would have been interesting, for instance, to know whether and how Drummond’s internationalism served as a vehicle for British interests. Likewise, critical reflections on who were marginalized by his particular brand of internationalism (socialists and non-Europeans for instance?) and how his formal dedication to gender equality squared with the under-representation of women in leading positions in the Secretariat would have been welcomed.

Fourthly, the book does not position itself in existing historical research. Most striking is the absence of any acknowledgment that the book is fundamentally re-describing issues that have already been studied in-depth in several monographs, most notably Barros’ Drummond biography and Egon Ranshofen-Wertheimers 1945 classical study The International Secretariat – A Great Experiment in International Administration (Washington 1945). The book has some remarkable similarities with Ranshofen-Wertheimer’s positive, didactic take on Drummond and the Secretariat as examples we can and should learn from. MacFayden et. al.’s writing also has the same intimate tone of close professional kinship with the League officials that characterized early works on the Secretariat published immediately after the Second World War. To this reviewer, therefore, the book reads less like a modern history book and more like a deep professional reflection on the moral and political roots, norms and problems of international civil service.

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