Moving Towards South Asian Confederation
Ideal of Human Unity - Chapters

Chapter XXIX Part V

The Idea of a League of Nations

Towards a League of Nations

Would a free world-union in the form of a global commonwealth be feasible? Would it be acceptable to the older mentality of conventional empires that employed dominant centralization to counter strong nationalistic upsurges? Sri Aurobindo muses that perhaps the English Parliamentary model with modifications could be adopted. He however raises another pertinent question. In a free world-union, what would be the relation between empires and ‘non-imperial nations or republics’? How could they be protected from imperialistic advances by overshadowing empires? In that nebulous hour of 1918 at the end of World War 1, the American idea of the League of free nations seemed to offer a justification in principle though realistically, it was ‘difficult to know what exactly this idea would mean in practice’. (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg.530-531) This was because the utterances of the original spokesman, President Wilson, ‘were marked by a magnificent nebulous idealism full of inspiring ideas and phrases, but not attended by a clear and specific application’. (Ibid, pg.531)

Sri Aurobindo analyses President Wilson’s advocacy of the League of Nations in the light of the history and temperament of the American people. The United States was ‘pacific and non-imperialistic in sentiment and principle’ but its ‘undertone of nationalistic susceptibility’ could take an imperialistic turn. This unique characteristic led to two or three wars ‘ending in conquests whose results it had then to reconcile with its non-imperialistic pacifism’: (Ibid)

(a) Thus, the USA annexed Mexican Texas by war and made it a ‘constituent State of the union, swamping it at the same time with American colonists’. (The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo led to Mexico’s loss of the State of Texas and inspired great patriotism in USA. Ironically, several American intellectuals including Emerson later viewed that the war with Mexico had its bad karma in bringing punishment on the United States in the form of the American Civil War fought between 1861to 1865)

(b) The USA ‘conquered Cuba from Spain and the Philippines first from Spain and then from the insurgent Filipinos and, not being able to swamp them with colonists, gave Cuba independence under the American influence and promised the Filipinos a complete independence’. (Ibid)

Opportunism and Idealism

It is interesting to note how American idealism was interspersed with intrinsic opportunism. As it could swamp Texas with colonists, it had no problems in annexing it while it could afford to be liberal in granting independence to Philippines only because it could not swamp its territory with American immigrants. Sri Aurobindo commented: ‘American idealism was always governed by a shrewd sense of American interests, and highest among these interests is reckoned the preservation of the American political idea and its constitution, to which all imperialism, foreign or American, has to be regarded as a moral peril’. (Ibid) Thus American pacifism coupled with the qualified aim of its World War 1 allies (Britain, France, Russia and Italy) could support a League of Nations that would be simultaneously opportunistic and idealistic:

(a) ‘The opportunist element was bound to take in its first form the legalisation of the map and political formation of the world as it emerged from the convulsion of the war’. (Ibid, pg.531-532)

(b) The ‘idealistic side, if supported by the use of the influence of America in the League, could favour the increasing application of the democratic principle in its working and its result might be the final emergence of a United States of the world with a democratic Congress of the nations as its governing agency ‘. (Ibid, pg.532)

Law and Harmony

Sri Aurobindo opined that a legalization emanating from a real League of Nations could minimize chances of war but would also have a negative effect in stereotyping ‘a state of things which must be in part artificial, irregular, anomalous and only temporarily useful’. (Ibid)

Law cannot be the sole base for world-unity. ‘Law is necessary for order and stability, but it becomes a conservative and hampering force unless it provides itself with an effective machinery for changing the laws as soon as circumstances and new needs make that desirable. This can only happen if a true Parliament, Congress or free Council of the nations becomes an accomplished thing.’ (Ibid)

Could the democratic American ideal in the proposed League of Nations or British Parliamentarianism foster a universal harmony? That would be doubtful as a world-order would have to satisfy influences interested in preserving the status quo as well as influences still interested in imperialistic ambitions. Sri Aurobindo, writing in early 1918, opined that the Russian ideal which made a headway in the October Revolution of 1917 was also an anti-imperialistic movement which could be applied and made a force ‘to reshape the human earth-mass for a yet unforeseen purpose’. (Ibid)

It is interesting that the same month (January, 1918) when this write-up by Sri Aurobindo was published in the Arya, American President Woodrow Wilson’s peace proposals appeared (outlined in his January 8th speech) as the famous Fourteen Points of which the 14th point read: A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike’.

The League of Nations was finally formed on 10th January 1920 but had to be dissolved on 20th April, 1946. Its credibility was not maintained as the USA never joined it officially and the Soviet Union joined late for a brief period. Sri Aurobindo commented three decades after his initial write-up: ‘The League was eventually formed with America outside it and as an instrument of European diplomacy, which was a bad omen for its future’. (Ibid, footnote)

[It is also interesting to note that President Woodrow Wilson’s eldest daughter and erstwhile First Lady of USA, Margaret sought refuge in Sri Aurobindo’s Ashram and was named by her as Nistha (meaning dedication). She arrived in the Ashram in 1938 and remained till her demise in 1944.]


Date of Update: 22-Mar-19

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu