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From Beirut to Berlin (via Geneva): The New International History, Middle East Studies and the League of Nations


The global politics of sovereignty that developed after the Cold War, together with the catastrophic United States led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq after 2001, have furnished international, imperial and diplomatic historians with good, grim reasons to return to the interlocked histories of empire, internationalism and international institutions. A torrent of work on the Geneva based League of Nations (LON) has been one result, alongside writing on the United Nations (UN). In particular, scholars such as Susan Pedersen, Patricia Clavin and Glenda Sluga, already well versed in the archives and literature of European empires and their gender and economic politics, have led a systematic reappraisal of internationalism and international institutions after the First World War. They brought to this campaign heuristic tools sharpened in the 1990s, in the cultural historiography of empire, and they aimed broadly to understand the League's workings and variety, rather than to reassert its political failures. The parallel – and often intersecting – rise of historiographies on the modern and contemporary histories of economic development, human rights and humanitarianism, with their frequent attention to the role of international institutions, has further catalysed this renewal.

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1 Pedersen, Susan, ‘Back to the League of Nations’, The American Historical Review, 112, 4 (2007), 1091–2. On the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq see Jackson, Simon and Moses, A. Dirk, ‘Introduction: Transformative Occupations in the Modern Middle East’, Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development, 8, 2 (2017), 231–46.

2 On the League and the UN see Jackson, Simon and O'Malley, Alanna, eds., The Institution of International Order: From the League of Nations to the United Nations (Routledge: 2018); on the UN see for example Mazower, Mark, No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

3 Pedersen, Susan, The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015); Clavin, Patricia, Securing the World Economy: The Reinvention of the League of Nations, 1920–1946 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Sluga, Glenda, Internationalism in the Age of Nationalism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013); see also Satia, Priya, ‘The Defense of Inhumanity: Air Control and the British Idea of Arabia’, The American Historical Review, 111, 1 (2006), 1651. On the context of US empire in this period see Kramer, Paul A., ‘Power and Connection: Imperial Histories of the United States in the World’, American Historical Review, 116, 5, (2011), 1348–92; and Maier, Charles S., Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).

4 Cooper, Frederick and Stoler, Ann Laura, eds., Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Schayegh, Cyrus and Arsan, Andrew, eds., The Routledge Handbook of the History of the Middle East Mandates (London: Routledge, 2015), 13.

5 See, representatively, Hodge, Joseph Morgan, ‘Writing the History of Development (Part 1: The First Wave)’, Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development, 6, 3 (2015), 429–63; Hodge, Joseph Morgan, ‘Writing the History of Development (Part 2: Longer, Deeper, Wider)’, Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development, 7, 1 (2016), 125–74; Moyn, Samuel, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010); Davey, Eleanor, Idealism beyond Borders: The French Revolutionary Left and the Rise of Humanitarianism, 1954–1988 (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

6 For surveys of the respective historiography see the introductions to Pedersen, The Guardians, as well as Schayegh and Arsan, Handbook.

7 The ‘B’ Mandates were: British and French Cameroon and Togo, Tanganyika and Ruanda/Urundi, and the ‘C’ Mandates were South West Africa, Western Samoa, New Guinea, Nauru and the Japanese Mandated Islands. On the construction of this hierarchy see Pedersen, Guardians, 17–44.

8 Khalidi, Rashid, ‘Concluding Remarks’, in Méouchy, Nadine and Sluglett, Peter, eds., The British and French Mandates in Comparative Perspectives (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 704.

9 Schayegh and Arsan, Handbook, 7–14.

10 Rogan, Eugene L, The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East (New York: Basic Books, 2015); Jacobson, Abigail, From Empire to Empire: Jerusalem between Ottoman and British Rule (Syracuse, N.Y: Syracuse University Press, 2011); Aksakal, Mustapha, ‘The Ottoman Empire’, in Gerwarth, Robert and Manela, Erez, eds., Empires at War: 1911–1923 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); Rodogno, Davide, ‘The American Red Cross and the International Committee of the Red Cross: Humanitarian Politics and Policies in Asia Minor and Greece (1922–1923)’, First World War Studies, 5, 1 (2014), 8399; Watenpaugh, Keith David, Bread from Stones: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015); Allen, Lori, ‘Studying Human Rights in the Middle East: Lingua Franca of Global Politics or Forked Tongue of Donors?’, International Journal of Middle East Studies 48, 2 (2016), 357–61.

11 S. Pursley, ‘“Lines Drawn on an Empty Map”: Iraq's Borders and the Legend of the Artificial State (Part 1)’, Jadaliyya, 2 June 2015, available at (last visited 1 Apr. 2016).

12 Wyrtzen, Jonathan, ‘Colonial War and the Production of Territorialized State Space in North Africa’, in Rud, Søren and Ivarsson, Søren, eds., Rethinking the Colonial State (Political Power and Social Theory, Volume 33) (Bingley: Emerald, 2017), 151173; Ginio, Eyal, The Ottoman Culture of Defeat: The Balkan Wars and Their Aftermath (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016); Gerwarth, Robert and Manela, Erez, ‘The Great War as a Global War: Imperial Conflict and the Reconfiguration of World Order, 1911–1923’, Diplomatic History, 38, 4 (2014), 786800; Gerwarth, Robert and Horne, John, eds., War in Peace: Paramilitary Violence in Europe after the Great War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

13 Gerwarth, Robert, The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016).

14 For the Covenant of the League of Nations text see (last visited 1 Oct. 2016).

15 Schayegh, Cyrus, ‘The Many Worlds of ‘Abud Yasin; Or, What Narcotics Trafficking in the Interwar Middle East Can Tell Us about Territorialization’, The American Historical Review, 116, 2 (2011), 305–6.

16 Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, N. J.; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008).

17 Khalidi, ‘Remarks’, 696.

18 On regional articulation generally see Schayegh, Cyrus, The Middle East and the Making of the Modern World (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2017) and for a pioneering study of a border area, Samuel Dolbee, ‘The Locust and the Starling: People, Insects, and Disease in the Ottoman Jazira and After, 1860-1940’, Ph.D. thesis, New York University, 2017.

19 Pedersen, The Guardians, 4; for an example of this argument deployed in another, very particular variant of the French colonial system (Algeria) see Rosenberg, Clifford, ‘The International Politics of Vaccine Testing in Interwar Algiers’, The American Historical Review, 117, 3 (2012), 671–97.

20 , Claude Didry and Wagner, Peter, ‘La nation comme cadre de l'action économique. La première guerre mondiale et l’émergence d'une économie nationale en France et en Allemagne’, in Zimmermann, Bénédicte, Didry, Claude and Wagner, Peter, eds., Le travail et la nation: histoire croisée de la France et de l'Allemagne (Paris: Éd. de la Maison des sciences de l'homme, 1999). See also Tooze, J. Adam, ‘Imagining National Economies: National and Inter-National Economic Statistics, 1900–1950’, in Cubitt, Geoffrey, ed., Imagining Nations (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1998).

21 Tooze, J. Adam., Statistics and the German State, 1900–1945: The Making of Modern Economic Knowledge (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Mitchell, Timothy, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); Davis, Muriam Haleh, ‘Restaging Mise En Valeur: “Postwar Imperialism” and The Plan de Constantine’, Review of Middle East Studies, 44, 2 (2010), 176–86.

22 Thompson, Elizabeth F., Colonial Citizens: Republican Rights, Paternal Privilege, and Gender in French Syria and Lebanon (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000); Pedersen, Susan, Family, Dependence, and the Origins of the Welfare State: Britain and France, 1914–1915 (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

23 Pedersen, The Guardians, 4.

24 Priya Satia, for example, argues regarding the PMC's connections to British colonial rule in the Middle East, that ‘Pedersen is able to explain how it [the League and the PMC especially] worked – the dynamics it unleashed, the institutional logic by which it forced people to talk about colonial rule in a different way. But the why eludes her: what cultural work did the mandate system do?’ Satia, Priya, ‘Guarding The Guardians: Payoffs and Perils’, Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development, 7, 3 (2016), 497, emphasis in the original. See also the contributions by Elizabeth F. Thompson and Meredith Terretta in particular to Thomas Maddux and Diana Labrosse, eds., E. Manela, V. Dimier, S. Pedersen, M. Terretta, E.F. Thompson, T. Throntveit, A. Webster, ‘Roundtable’, Review Volume XVIII, 2 (2016), Susan Pedersen. The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire’, H-Diplo, 12 Sept. 2016, available at (last visited 21 Apr. 2017).

25 For a new attempt to think through such frontiers see Bourmaud, Philippe, Verdeil, Chantal and Neveu, Norig, eds., Experts et expertises dans les mandats de la Société des Nations: figures, champs et outils (Paris: Presses de l'INALCO, forthcoming).

26 Thompson, Elizabeth, Justice Interrupted: The Struggle for Constitutional Government in the Middle East (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2013), 3.

27 Sohrabi, Nader, Revolution and Constitutionalism in the Ottoman Empire and Iran (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011). My thanks to Cyrus Schayegh for helping me on this point.

28 Gelvin, James L., Divided Loyalties Nationalism and Mass Politics in Syria at the Close of Empire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

29 Pedersen, The Guardians, 68.

30 White, Benjamin Thomas, The Emergence of Minorities in the Middle East: The Politics of Community in French Mandate Syria (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), 3.

31 For successive waves of historiography consider MacMillan, Margaret, Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World (New York: Random House, 2002); Manela, Erez, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); Goebel, Michael, Anti-Imperial Metropolis: Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 149–76.

32 Ginio, The Ottoman Culture of Defeat; McMeekin, Sean, The Russian Origins of the First World War (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011); Ekmekcioglu, Lerna, ‘Republic of Paradox: The League of Nations Minority Protection Regime and the New Turkey's Step-Citizens’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 46, 4 (2014), 657–79.

33 Norris, Jacob, Land of Progress: Palestine in the Age of Colonial Development, 1905–1948 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 28–9.

34 Seikaly, Sherene, Men of Capital: Scarcity and Economy in Mandate Palestine (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016), 16.

36 On millets see van den Boogert, Maurits H., ‘Millets: Past and Present’, in Longva, Anh Nga and Roald, Anne Sofie, eds., Religious Minorities in the Middle East (Brill, 2011), 2545.

37 White, The Emergence of Minorities in the Middle East, 56–7. On Egypt and Iraq see Satia, ‘Guarding the Guardians’, 484–5; on Ottoman Egypt's role as a legal model for the Middle East Mandates see Aimee Genell, ‘Empire by Law: Ottoman Sovereignty and the British Occupation of Egypt, 1882–1923’, Ph.D. thesis, Columbia University, 2013.

38 Thompson, Justice Interrupted, 121.

39 Pedersen, The Guardians, 45.

40 Ibid., 52–3.

41 Thompson, Justice Interrupted, 9.

42 Ibid., 94.

44 Khuri-Makdisi, Ilham, The Eastern Mediterranean and the Making of Global Radicalism, 1860–1914 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010); Banko, Lauren, The Invention of Palestinian Citizenship, 1918–1947 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016).

45 Watenpaugh, Keith David, ‘Between Communal Survival and National Aspiration: Armenian Genocide Refugees, the League of Nations, and the Practices of Interwar Humanitarianism’, Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development, 5, 2 (2014), 159–81; Fahrenthold, Stacy, ‘Transnational Modes and Media: The Syrian Press in the Mahjar and Emigrant Activism during World War I’, Mashriq & Mahjar, 1, 1 (2013), 3054.

46 Schayegh, ‘The Many Worlds of ‘Abud Yasin’. For a comparative approach see Hilary Falb, ‘Pedagogical Paradox Education and Internationalization in the Mandates for Palestine and Mesopotamia (Iraq)’, Kufa Review/ , 3, 2 (2013), 53–72.

47 See usefully here Sawyer, Stephen W., ‘Ces nations façonnées par les empires et la globalisation’, Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, 69, 1 (2014), 117–37.

48 Meiton, Fredrik, ‘Electrifying Jaffa: Boundary-Work and the Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict’, Past & Present, 231, 1 (2016), 202–3; Judson, Pieter M., ‘Marking National Space on the Habsburg Austrian Borderlands: 1880–1918’, in Bartov, Omer and Weitz, Eric D., eds., Shatterzone of Empires: Coexistence and Violence in the German, Habsburg, Russian, and Ottoman Borderlands (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2013), 123–4; see also Landry, Marc, ‘Environmental Consequences of the Peace: The Great War, Dammed Lakes, and Hydraulic History in the Eastern Alps’, Environmental History, 20, 3 (2015), 422–48.

49 Arsan, Andrew, Interlopers of Empire: The Lebanese Diaspora in Colonial French West Africa (C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd, 2014), 215.

50 Ibid., 12–3.

51 Norris, Land of Progress, 99–139.

52 Fletcher, Robert S. G., ‘Running the Corridor: Nomadic Societies and Imperial Rule in the Inter-War Syrian Desert’, Past and Present, 220, 1 (2013), 185215.

53 Norris, Land of Progress, 105.

54 Ibid., 102.

55 Seikaly, Men of Capital, 5. Although the granting of independent mandatory power status within the mandate system to the British settler colonies of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, in the context of their move to legislative independence from London in 1931, represents a nuance to this point. See Satia, ‘Guarding the Guardians’, 495.

56 Ibid., 45–9, 124.

57 Ibid., 101.

58 White, The Emergence of Minorities in the Middle East, 152–3; see also White, Benjamin Thomas and Gorgas, Jordi Tejel, ‘The Fragments Imagine the Nation? Minorities in the Modern Middle East and North Africa’, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 43, 2 (2016), 135–9.

59 White, The Emergence of Minorities in the Middle East, 74–8, here 77, quoting a September 1932 article from the newspaper Alif Bā; Shields, Sarah D., Fezzes in the River: Identity Politics and European Diplomacy in the Middle East on the Eve of World War II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Nelida Fuccaro, ‘Minorities and Ethnic Mobilisation: The Kurds in Northern Iraq and Syria’, in Méouchy and Sluglett, Mandates, 579–95.

60 On petitioning the League see the trail-blazing Anniek H.M. Van Ginneken, ‘Volkenbondsvoogdij: Het Toezicht van de Volkenbond op het Bestuur in Mandaatgebieden, 1919–1940’, Ph.D. thesis, University of Utrecht, 1992; Rajagopal, Balakrishnan, International law from Below: Development, Social Movements, and Third World Resistance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Alkhazragi, Hussein D., ‘Un petit prince à la SDN: La lutte du roi Hussein du Hedjaz pour l'indépendance des provinces arabes de l'Empire Ottoman’, Relations internationales, 146 (2011–2), 723; Wheatley, Natasha, ‘Mandatory Interpretation: Legal Hermeneutics and the New International Order in Arab and Jewish Petitions to the League of Nations’, Past & Present, 227 (2015), 205–48; Jackson, Simon, ‘Diaspora Politics and Developmental Empire: The Syro-Lebanese at the League of Nations’, Arab Studies Journal, 21, 1 (2013), 166–90; Hoffmann, Friedhelm, Die Syro-Palästinensische Delegation am Völkerbund und Šakīb Arslān in Genf, 1921–1936/46 (Berlin: Lit, 2007); Dedering, Tilman, ‘Petitioning Geneva: Transnational Aspects of Protest and Resistance in South West Africa/Namibia after the First World War’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 35, 4 (2009), 785801.

61 Pedersen, The Guardians, 93–4.

62 Pedersen, ‘Back to the League of Nations’; Clavin, Securing the World Economy; Sluga, Internationalism in the Age of Nationalism; older accounts include Oyono, Dieudonné, Colonie ou mandat international: la politique française au Cameroun de 1919 à 1946 (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1992); Wright, Quincy, Mandates under the League of Nations (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1930).

63 Wheatley, Natasha, ‘Mandatory Interpretation: Legal Hermeneutics and the New International Order in Arab and Jewish Petitions to the League of Nations’, Past & Present, 227, 1 (2015), 206–7; and generally, Pedersen, The Guardians, 95–103.

64 See note 24 above.

65 See here Thompson, ‘H-Diplo Roundtable’ 11-15, available at (last visited 21 Apr. 2017).

66 Thompson, Justice Interrupted, 134.

67 Seikaly, Men of Capital, 10–1.

68 See for example Norris's use of Bruno Latour's sociology of science to understand the granting of mining concessions in Palestine: Norris, Land of Progress, 155–6; see also Arsan's deployment of Clifford Geertz's work and its appropriations in African history: Arsan, Interlopers of Empire, 137.

69 Seikaly, Men of Capital, 75–80; Anghie, Antony, Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Mitchell, Rule of Experts; J. Adam Tooze, Statistics and the German State, 1900–1945.

70 Meiton, ‘Electrifying Jaffa’, 232.

71 Norris, Land of Progress, 168–71.

72 Arsan, Interlopers of Empire, 137–40.

73 Pedersen, The Guardians, 234–9.

74 Ibid., 259–60. ‘Development on the cheap’ refers to the French and British quest to cut imperial spending on their Mandates and to transfer administrative costs onto the populations of Mandate territories in the hope that they would become self-financing net contributors to the wider imperial economy. Priya Satia sees this as also permitting a form of ‘covert’ imperial rule, in Iraq for instance: Satia, ‘Guarding the Guardians’, 485.

75 On this periodisation in global context see Tooze, J. Adam, The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916–1931 (London: Allen Lane, 2014).

76 On the question of periodisation here see Cyrus Schayegh, ‘The Mandates as/and Decolonization’, in Schayegh and Arsan, Handbook, 412–8. For an innovative discussion of the impact of French budget cuts in Mandate Syria see Ouahes, Idir, Syria and Lebanon under the French Mandate (I.B. Tauris, 2018) and on connections between reparations, European cooperation and colonial development see Bohling, Joseph, ‘Colonial or Continental Power? The Debate over Economic Expansion in Interwar France, 1925–1932’, Contemporary European History, 26, 2 (2017), 217–41.

77 Martin, Jamie, Experts of the World Economy: European Stabilization and the Transformation of Global Capitalism in the Era of Total War (Cambridge; Mass; Harvard University Press, Forthcoming).

78 Pedersen, The Guardians, 235; White, The Emergence of Minorities in the Middle East, 134–43.

79 Pedersen, The Guardians, 234–5.

80 Thompson, Justice Interrupted, 222; Ziad Munif Abu-Rish, ‘Conflict and Institution Building in Lebanon, 1946-1955’, Ph.D. thesis, University of California, Los Angeles, 2014. See also Simon Jackson, ‘Mandatory Expertise after the League of Nations Mandates: Interconnections and New Directions’, in Bourmaud, Verdeil and Neveu, Experts.

81 Cyrus Schayegh, ‘The Mandates and/as Decolonization’, in Schayegh and Arsan, Handbook, 418.

82 Judson, Pieter M., The Habsburg Empire (Cambridge; MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016); Zahra, Tara, The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World (New York, N.Y: W.W. Norton & Co, 2016); Zahra, Tara, ‘The “Minority Problem” and National Classification in the French and Czechoslovak Borderlands’, Contemporary European History, 17, 2 (2008), 137–65; Karch, Brendan, ‘Regionalism, Democracy and National Self-Determination in Central Europe’, Contemporary European History, 21, 4 (2012), 635–51.

83 Anscombe, Frederick F., State, Faith, and Nation in Ottoman and Post-Ottoman Lands (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Ginio, Eyal, Kaser, Karl and Arad, Pnina, eds., Ottoman Legacies in the Contemporary Mediterranean: The Balkans and the Middle East Compared (Jerusalem: The European Forum and the Hebrew University, 2013); Blumi, Isa, Rethinking the Late Ottoman Empire: A Comparative Social and Political History of Albania and Yemen, 1878–1918 (Istanbul: Isis Press, 2003).

84 Syro-Palestinian Congress to Assembly of League of Nations, 8 Nov. 1921, Doss. 15122, Carton R. 39, Mandates Correspondence, Volume 1, 1919–1927, League of Nations Archive, Geneva. My italics. See also Jackson, ‘Diaspora Politics’; Hoffmann, Die Syro-Palästinensische; Pedersen, Guardians, 83–6.

85 James L. Gelvin, ‘Was there a Mandates Period? Some Concluding Thoughts’, in Schayegh and Arsan, Handbook, 420–1.

Warm thanks to Nathan Marcus, Jamie Martin, Claire Morelon, Cyrus Schayegh and the editors of Contemporary European History for their helpful criticism on previous drafts of this essay. I'm grateful to the Leverhulme Trust for the support of Early Career Fellowship 2013-457. Finally, my thanks to Josie McLellan, who encouraged this essay at its inception.

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