Sir Eric Drummond: when a Scot ran the world

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Prof. Christian Tams

95 years ago, a Scot was selected to run the world. It is a curiously overlooked fact. One that seems not to be a matter of much debate – and that to my knowledge was not at all mentioned during the indyref exchanges about an independent Scotland’s role in world affairs. But it is a fact, and perhaps it is one that deserves some attention. If you agree (or if you are perhaps even intrigued, just a little), continue reading.

To be honest, it is a ‘fact’ of sorts only – but we are all post-modern, so facts are a matter of perspective. And relevant parts of the story are true: In the summer of 1919, the nations of the world agreed on the appointment of Sir Eric Drummond. Sir Eric was born in 1876 in North Yorkshire, but to a Scottish family; eventually he would become the 16th Earl of Perth in the Scottish peerage. Unlike the Dalai Lamas of Tibet, he was not found by a group of elders, but selected by the great powers at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. When selected, he was 42 years old, a British diplomat, and had served as Balfour’s private secretary. So all things considered, I think the first part of the introductory sentence (’95 years ago, a Scot was selected…’) is true.

So what was Sir Eric selected for? His job description was not ‘to run the world’. But still: he was to lead the new ‘world organisation’, the League of Nations, established at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, as a framework for a better world order. As the League is the predecessor to the present-day United Nations, we might perhaps think of Sir Eric was an early-day Ban-Ki Moon. As his successors, he would be called ‘Secretary-General’, and as them – but unlike Communist party leaders bearing the same title – he would typically be more Secretary than General. Sir Eric was in office from 1919 to 1933, and at least international lawyers and historians of international relations view him relatively favourably.

In his fourteen years in office, Sir Eric Drummond oversaw the establishment of the new organisation, the League of Nations. This was a monumental task, but one to be carried out on a shoestring budget. The League marked a new era in the world’s (gradual, incremental, cumbersome) march towards global governance and international organisation. As is well known, it lacked clout to reign in the aggressive nationalism of countries like Japan, Germany and Italy. Having been set up to ensure peace and security after one Great War, it spectacularly failed to prevent an even greater one. In 1946, it was unceremoniously wound up, and the assets that remained of it was transferred to the United Nations.

And yet, as is gradually been acknowledged, the League was quite an exciting experiment – the first attempt at organised internationalism, in areas such as peace and security (where it did not deliver the desired results), but also, with more success, in global health governance, in drug control, in minority protection and in economic cooperation. It was certainly an important first attempt to organise world affairs within a general organisation.

Given the limitations of his office, and the novelty of the task, as the League’s Secretary-General Sir Eric performed remarkably well. He did not overplay his (or the League’s) hand, but sought to keep the League’s main supporters, Britain and France, on board – perhaps indeed, as his biographer James Barros notes, because of his “cautious Scottish nature“ and “sound practicality“. But within those limits, he resolutely argued for the establishment of a genuinely international civil service – one whose members were not just seconded from national government, but owed loyalty to the world organisation.

Since the early days of the League, this international civil service has grown into a relevant factor of international cooperation. Where Sir Eric and his first generation of staff had met in a makeshift London office, today’s UN has 44,000 staff and over 100,00 peacekeepers whose work touches lives in every corner of the globe. The UN often remains woefully inadequate: but it is a relevant factor in world affairs, and in areas such as international development, fighting poverty, and global warming, one wonders where we would be without it. In the 95 years since Sir Eric’s appointment, the world organisation has come a long way.

And perhaps it would be nice if every now and then, we remembered that it all began with a Scot.

Christian J. Tams is Professor of International law at the University of Glasgow. He currently runs a free online course on the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and the League of Nations, entitled ‘Paris 1919: A New World Order?’.

On 22 October 2014, 5pm, the Law School organises a A New Approach to Ending Wars. (Melville Room, University of Glasgow). All are welcome.

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