Harumi Goto-Shibata, 2020. The League of Nations and the East Asian Imperial Order, 1920–1946

Karen Gram-Skjoldager, Haakon A. Ikonomou, and Torsten Kahlert, 2020. Organizing the 20th-century World: International Organizations and the Emergence of International Public Administration, 1920–1960s

Deepak Mawar, 2021. States Undermining International Law: The League of Nations, United Nations, and Failed Utopianism

Bob Reinalda, 2020. International Secretariats: Two Centuries of International Civil Servants and Secretariats

In: Diplomatica
Quincy CloetPwC Polska, Warsaw, Poland,

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Harumi Goto-Shibata, 2020. The League of Nations and the East Asian Imperial Order, 1920–1946. London: Palgrave Macmillan. 307 pp. €106.24 Hardback isbn 978-9811549670.Karen Gram-Skjoldager, Haakon A. Ikonomou, and Torsten Kahlert, 2020. Organizing the 20th-century World: International Organizations and the Emergence of International Public Administration, 1920–1960s. London: Bloomsbury. 336 pp. £76.50 Hardback isbn 978-1350134577.Deepak Mawar, 2021. States Undermining International Law: The League of Nations, United Nations, and Failed Utopianism. London: Palgrave Macmillan. 250 pp. €112.49 Hardback isbn 978-3030647889.Bob Reinalda, 2020. International Secretariats: Two Centuries of International Civil Servants and Secretariats. London: Routledge. 216 pp. £120 Hardback isbn 978-0367369293.

Tracing the origins of international order and the emergence of present-day global governance has brought a number of international and diplomatic historians back to the League of Nations. Perhaps aided by its centenary anniversary in recent years, the inter-war League organization and its system of international public administration have been ascribed a central role in the transition from a conventional form of inter-state diplomacy, with conferences and ententes, prevalent in the nineteenth century to a more internationalized system of inter-state relations based on international law, collective security, inter-governmental administration (with supranational elements), and technical work that sought the social and welfare improvement of nations and individuals.

While scholars continue to differ regarding the timeline and the degree to which the League epitomized this transition, or being at the origin of future developments, perceptions of the organization have shifted again after a long post-war period characterized by deep ambivalence concerning its achievements and legacies. Rather than focus on dichotomies, recent generations of historians have used the League – particularly its rich archival resources – as a vehicle to question what types of internationalism(s) were prevalent in the inter-war period, who were the internationalists vocalizing a desire to preserve peace and demand closer cooperation between states, or the diplomatic agents who pushed for change from within and sought to restrain, moderate, and perhaps accommodate a world still on the whole dictated by national and interests, great power politics and civilizational hierarchies.

The outcome of this sustained questioning has been a fragmented but multi-layered understanding of the international system in the first half of the twentieth century, with its growth, functioning, and decision-making processes perceived as complementary to existing practices of diplomacy rather than necessarily imposing new ones. As a consequence, there are fewer clear-cut distinctions between old and new diplomacy, imperial and international actors, and political and technical work; while the context and the multiple spatial units of analysis in which the League and its agents operated now matter a great deal more than before.

The four books under review cover a broad range of publishing formats, including a monograph based on a doctoral thesis, a collection of a single author’s years of research output, a multi-author volume showing an array of perspectives and approaches, and a handbook that traces the evolution of one particular international phenomenon. While each of these works takes a very different approach and brings a singular perspective to their subject matter, they are all grappling with similar questions about the very nature of international order and how to “organize” peace through inter-governmental institutions. Where they connect and show overlap – retracing the development, evolution, and legacies of international order, the use of internationalism(s) as a frame as well as the role of individual agency and leadership – there is room for a fruitful discussion. Equally, in their differences as to how the role of expertise or the (relative) absence of the United States is treated, there is a useful interaction to be had.

Although each of the four books has a number of limitations, given the width and breadth of the subject, three out of four are recommended as key readings on international order in the first half of the twentieth century. To structure the discussion and the different aspects of the works, this review is organized by three thematic arches, covering in consecutive order the development of international order and the institutional growth of supranational administration; the means of dealing with state interest and challenges to the international system; and, finally, questions of institutional legacy and global governance (from the League to the United Nations).

Deepak Mawar considers international order and its development in the twentieth century from the angle of legal and political philosophy, particularly a concept he identifies as “emancipatory idealism,” to understand the way in which international organizations such as the League of Nations and the United Nations (UN) relied on international law to achieve utopian aims (6). The monograph’s narrative is built around the works of individual philosophers such as Hegel, Schmitt, and Foucault and uses the League and the UN chiefly as case studies, seeking to demonstrate how well-intended utopianism clashed with the primacy of the state in the international legal system. In contrast, Harumi Goto-Shibata is rather interested in the practices and the actors constituting the fabric of international order, including the work of international civil servants, cooperation with national authorities, and the importance of conferences and forums. As the title of the collection suggests, Goto-Shibata focuses on how the League of Nations promoted international cooperation in East Asia; she stresses the importance of “social and humanitarian works,” among others in China, which have been neglected by other historians working on the region (3).

In their edited volume, Karen Gram-Skjoldager, Haakon A. Ikonomou, and Torsten Kahlert direct their attention to the League and its successors during the “formative” years of international public administration, and their importance for today’s international order, arguing the importance of the period between the 1920s and 1960s, with practices, processes and actors transforming international relations into global governance (7). Bob Reinalda, who also makes an appearance in the previously mentioned volume, is the author of a handbook on international secretariats that clearly opts to trace the origins of international administration back to the post-Vienna conference system and the river commissions of the early nineteenth century. His handbook offers brief explanations as well as a conceptual toolkit to analyze and understand institutional change and the role of agents such as “frontier persons,” a label applied to people with a pioneering role in international organizations (3).

In the development of international order, experts are perceived differently in each of the four books. Mawar mentions their role uncritically in the context of the League, also noting that the Secretariat “assured confidence due to its knowledge, efficiency and impartiality” (104), while Reinalda does not directly deal with experts in the context of international secretariats. Goto-Shibata scratches beneath the surface and charts the relationship between international expertise and local or national authorities, and perceptions of imperial intervention and foreign tutelage (195–96). Contrary to Goto-Shibata, the weight in Gram-Skjoldager et al. is shifted toward the norms, practices, and rules of international civil service, although authors such Amy Sayward, Martin Elfert, and Christian Ydesen use expertise as a frame in their chapters to problematize activities in areas such as food and education.

In geographical terms, the international order is chiefly understood in Eurocentric terms (with the exception of Goto-Shibata, although this is less evident in the book’s source material) with a number of authors identifying the United States as an engaged outsider, especially in the early twentieth century. Mawar mentions the United States only because of its formal absence from the League while Goto-Shibata shows greater awareness of how US participation in various agencies and sections of the League Secretariat drove the organizations activities in opium and international trafficking of women in East Asia (54, 113). In International Secretariats, Reinalda is attentive to the importance of regional organizations across the world in eighth chapter of the handbook while the geographical scope is of the volume not intentionally defined in Gram-Skjoldager et al. As a consequence, readers seeking to understand international order’s relationship in the inter-war period with an outside player such as the United States should instead direct their attention to the scholarship of Ludovic Tournès or ongoing discussions about isolationism and internationalism.1

The interaction of states and empires with international order and their consequences for diplomacy and peace are given careful consideration in all of the reviewed books. Whereas Reinalda succinctly juxtaposes the work of the League Secretariat with a context of inter-imperial rivalries (57) and stresses the importance of imperial experiences of administrative systems, Goto-Shibata reveals at a more granular level how an international system could co-exist with an imperial order. “Technical work” is the prism through which she demonstrates that institutions and actors could both support internationalism and cooperation while seeking to protect and preserve national or imperial interests (196). As such, Goto-Shibata points towards a bigger argument concerning the international system when claiming that the League unintentionally “came to challenge” empires with its promotion of cooperation in East and Southeast Asia (4).

Nevertheless, the continuity of opium supply and demand throughout the interwar period despite several international agreements also suggests imperial interests were handily served through the League (69–70), somewhat destabilizing Goto-Shibata’s overall argument that challenging the remaining imperial order “was by no means the intention of the founding fathers of the League” (249). The book provides examples of benign imperial support (166) as well as friction the result of the League’s technical cooperation in China (93), thereby demonstrating competing interests between state actors and disagreements between ministries (53). Even though these complexities are brought out in great detail, Goto-Shibata draws heavily on British archives in a number of chapters and her primary focus on relations between Great Britain and East Asia should have been stated more clearly in the introduction.

For his part, Mawar misses the mark by repeatedly invoking “civilizational development” in his narrative about emancipatory idealism and the quest for human dignity (15). The absence of any critical examination of the term is remarkable given the prepondering effects the idea of a civilizational standard and its related hierarchy had on the development of the international system (17, 168). His usage of the term risks a continuation of the same narrative. More problematic is arguably the fact that emancipatory idealism is imposed as an ahistorical concept on historical processes and developments in the book, without considering that alternative concepts contemporaries would have used. Events such as the Locarno Treaties (112–14) and the Kellogg-Briand Pact (118–22) are labeled as examples of emancipatory idealism, but it is left unexplained how the concept underscores the legal documents. At times, Mawar draws stark contrasts between periods such as the 1920s and the 1930s (99), reproducing an idealist-realist dichotomy while using the state as a black box actor that is opposed to utopian goals in international law (10–13).

Gram-Skjoldager et al. take a more nuanced approach towards these questions by noting early on the entanglement of imperial, international, and national practices and politics (3). For instance, Haakon Ikonomou draws out the imperial context in the individual background, networks and recruitment practices in a chapter focused on League civil servant Thanassis Aghnides (40). While there are interesting hints to the issue of breaking down barriers between spatial units – exploring how the League Secretariat may have been modelled on the British civil service (219) or how nato memorandums and record keeping drew upon Foreign Office experiences (203) – an overall reflection is missing as the volume is primarily concerned with the creation of international civil servants and the shaping supranational loyalty as opposed to national interests and instructions from the country of origin (47–48).

When it comes to international organizations and their institutional legacy, Mawar sticks to a classic portrayal of the League and the UN in terms of success and failure, drawing strong distinctions between the international and the national instead of provoking questions about the interaction between international law and global governance (104, 107). In comparing the two organizations, he notes that the League “was driven by a synthesis of morality and law” while the UN “adopted a more scientific approach to international law,” which reads as a reductionist conclusion despite the author’s attention to the evolutionary nature and institutional replacement of organizations (183). In tackling questions of legacy, Goto-Shibata draws more visibly on the work and framing of the League by Susan Pedersen and Patricia Clavin (2). In particular, the notion of three different Leagues and the need to bring the third one (regarding technical work) into the conversation, is prevalent throughout the collection. Yet, to some extent this overlooks the substance of the chapters where Goto-Shibata shows how difficult it is to disentangle the technical aspects of cooperation from the politicized nature of opium and trafficking in an imperial-internationalist context (69–70, 122).

Gram-Skjoldager et al. offer the clearest attempt tackle difficult questions related to institutional transfer and legacy by showing the importance of the League Secretariat’s model for second-generation international organizations and global governance. While this is adequately argued and demonstrated with the analysis of networks and career trajectories, one issue with the volume is perhaps the justification of the time-frame, which could have used a more detailed explanation. While internal factors related to the League justify the starting point in the 1920s, the justification to end in the 1960s is largely driven by external conditions related to economic paradigms and the global economic situation in the 1970s (6). Katja Seidel’s chapter on post-war European integration would have benefited from underlining the role of allied cooperation during the Second World War rather than focusing only on rupture. In another chapter by Ellen J. Ravndal, a comparison of secretary-generals could have been expanded to deal both with the League and the UN.

Even though the volume addresses a larger number of international organizations, Gram-Skjoldager et al. are predominantly interested in the “foundational” nature of the League (5) while co-editor Torsten Kahlert identifies the League Secretariat as “first large-scale experiment in international public administration” (49). Such claims perhaps sit oddly with the arguments put forward by Reinalda both in a chapter of the aforementioned volume (25–28) and in his handbook (1) suggesting that the origins of international administration go back to 1815 rather than 1919. In International Secretariats, Reinalda posits a long-term perspective on the development of international organization, secretariats, and global governance, however, one that largely avoids a teleological fallacy by emphasizing the role of identifiable causalities and crises, the agency of individuals as well as the diversity and wide-ranging developments in- and outside of the European continent.

In sum, although the four reviewed books offer hints of revisionism vis-à-vis the histories of internationalism, the book by Gram-Skjoldager et al. is the only one that visibly singles out any recent “turns” in the historiography of international organizations, particularly related to the role of transnational networks and the daily practices of international officials. As such, the editors’ interest in the use of analytical concepts from social science and the active discussion of auxiliary methods such as prosopography or group biographies, make it a volume that is most clearly targeted to researchers and post-graduate students working on the history of international organisation, which to some extent is true as well for essays of Goto-Shibata, while Reinalda’s book may cater primarily to a broader group undergraduate students in need of a concise overview of the subject.


Tournès, L. Philanthropic Foundations at the League of Nations: An Americanized League? (London: Routledge, 2022); H-Diplo Roundtable xxiii-23 on Kupchan, C. Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World,

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