In Eric Drummond and his Legacies: The League of Nations and the Beginnings of Global GovernanceDavid Macfadyen et al show how the emergence of an international bureaucracy of civil servants and their role in the development of the League of Nations rested on Eric Drummond and the early internationalists around him. This book provides a much-needed historical and biographical perspective on the builders of modern multilateral institutions and demonstrates how their ideas continue to influence global governance today, writes Jan Lüdert.

Eric Drummond and his Legacies: The League of Nations and the Beginnings of Global Governance. David Macfadyen, Michael D.V. Davies, Marilyn Norah Carr and John Burley. Palgrave. 2019.

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Eric Drummond and his Legacies cogently shows that the emergence of an international bureaucracy of civil servants and their role in developing the League of Nations had everything to do with Eric Drummond and those early internationalists around him. The book, whose timely publication coincides with the League’s centenary, was authored by former international bureacrats David Macfadyen, Michael D.V. Davies, Marilyn Norah Carr and John Burley. The authors judiciously dissect early experiences in building global governance structures that define the functioning of the United Nations (UN) system today. They equally underscore how realpolitikal tensions inherent to multilateral cooperation are not new but hamper global governance initiatives 100 years on. The book, as such, will be of interest to academics, international civil servants, diplomats and practitioners alike.

While centrally concerned with assessing Drummond’s legacy as first Secretary-General (SG) of the League of Nations, the volume offers a historical perspective on a range of influential – yet overlooked – actors responsible for building the first wave of global institutions and their role in laying the foundations for a century of multilateralism. The book essentially delivers an agency-focused biographical assessment of how the League of Nations was ‘conceived and operated, and to appreciate the talents of its architects’, while stressing how these individuals came to shape the UN system not as a replacement, but as ‘a continuation of the earlier body’ (xxviii). Apart from underscoring the actions of early internationalists in building intergovernmental organisations (IGOs), their bureaucratic systems and rules of procedures, the authors stress how the values and moral convictions of these actors presented a counterweight to the pressures of power politics that, as is widely acknowledged, impeded an effective League in the interwar period and until it was succeeded by the UN at the end of World War Two.

The volume is divided into three parts and thirteen concise chapters. Part One contextualises Drummond’s life between 1876 to 1951. Chapter One presents fresh insight on Drummond’s upbringing in a Scottish aristocratic family, partly derived from new biographical sources which include family papers made accessible by Viscount Strathallan, great-grandson to Sir Eric. Apart from covering Drummond’s education, at which he excelled yet stopped short of a university degree, Part One offers a sense of how qualities Drummond later exhibited as Secretary-General were rooted in an ‘ever-present consciousness of family honour and personal reputation […] characterized by fierce loyalty to kin and causes’ (3). This section also illuminates that in 1916, after joining the Foreign Office (FO), Drummond championed multilateralism by proposing a ‘League of Peace’ in a paper fusing ‘British security, international organisation and legal norms into one grand synthetic view of the future international order’ (8). Three years on, Drummond bolstered his reputation at the FO as a delegate to the Paris Peace Conference where he advised US President Woodrow Wilson. Serving for fourteen years as the first SG of the League, Drummond returned to the diplomatic service as Italy’s Ambassador, ‘the most difficult British embassy posting after Berlin’ (62). After retiring from the FO at 63, Drummond took a seat in the House of Lords and spent his retirement in Sussex before succumbing to lung cancer on 15 December 1951.

Image Credit: Sir Eric Drummond (Library of Congress, No Known Copyright Restrictions)

Chapter Two emphasises Drummond’s inclusive leadership, based on extensive functional delegation that encouraged creativity and technical innovation, and which established ‘an esprit de corps that permeated the entire League’ (23). Drummond, in his farewell speech to the League’s Secretariat staff, put it this way:

The Secretary-General alone can do very little, indeed nothing. It is on you, each of you, that a great responsibility rests for the maintenance and consolidation of an organisation which is an essential organ of the League [carrying] with it the hopes of many millions of men and women, who see in the League the future salvation of the world (32).

Part One more generally clarifies, with subsequent chapters substantiating, that Drummond instituted principles for an international civil servant culture that still persist. These principles, as UNSGs Javier Pérez de Cuéllar and Dag Hammarskjöld later affirmed, embraced ‘an innate belief’ in universality and understood the Secretariat’s role as impartial mediator, standard bearer, moderator, guide, conciliator and arbiter (36-45).

Part Two draws attention to the creation of an enduring international civil service. It also provides brief portraits of other influential League staff (e.g. Jean Monnet (115); Inazo Nitobe (120); Erik Colban (196); Ludwik Rajchman (146)), whose varied impact contributed to building global governance foundations. Of interest here is that the League reflected Wilsonian policies, but a bureaucratic framework that was British. Moreover, this section draws attention to non-governmental actors’ attempts to base the organisation’s work on norms of gender as well as racial equality (73). Another crucial decision that Drummond took was that the League’s International Secretariat ‘must not be national ambassadors, but civil servants under the sole direction of a non-national Chancellor’ and aimed at evolving an international common purpose beyond state interests (74). The Secretariat’s operations extended these principles through a gradual accumulation of functions, via a process of ’defining by doing’, and in the attempt not to turn into a locus for politics but a body that served state members with objectivity and the provision of facts (80). Once established in Geneva, the League’s groundbreaking practices came to include in-country presence of technical staff; organising financial rescue packages; impartial international scrutiny; supporting the development and implementation of international norms; and bringing together experts and specialists to tackle international problems (105).

However principled the first decade of the League under Drummond unfolded, this section shows that these ideals were replaced with governments grinding particular axes and taking a firmer role in staffing decisions. Chapter Seven will be of particular interest to those studying the history of human rights by highlighting how League practices laid the groundwork for norms of human rights that were later inscribed in the UN (135-138). Chapter Eight focuses on Drummond’s commitment to a fully universal League despite this goal being ‘torpedoed by the realities of great power politics’ (159). It, for instance, draws attention to the US informal engagement over the League’s entire existence, steps towards reconciliation with Germany by securing German participation in the Secretariat and questions over the recognition and membership of Latin American states. The chapter furthermore highlights how the League came to embrace democratic values by ensuring that meetings were open to the public and the press, that members could raise any subject of concern and that a limited number of influential non-governmental organisations had access and could interact with official delegations to advocate for their causes.

Part Three assesses the League after Drummond’s tenure. Chapter Nine focuses on how Drummond’s successor Joseph Avenol betrayed ‘notions of neutrality and independence’ which, consequently, foreclosed the League revival at the end of World War Two (187). Despite this, the book shows that procedures first instituted by Drummond offered a blueprint for a new UN bureacracy (195). Indeed, while the UN’s institution builders ‘were at pains to distance themselves from the League’, the new intergovernmental organisation embraced a myriad of League values and ideas that, as Hammarskjöld later observed, needed replication (199).

Chapter Ten traces the foundations of 100 years of an unbroken international civil service to League of Nations’ rules of procedures and day-to-day management structures. Chapter Eleven discusses these continuities in the UN’s work, including humanitarian legacies, refugee protections and trusteeship functions with Chapter Twelve explaining their migration to UN agencies. Chapter Thirteen focuses on League staff that transitioned to the new IGO, compares the life of the international civil service then and now and examines Geneva’s evolution as a centre for multilateralism.

In the book’s epilogue, the authors reflect on how the League builders sowed the seeds for global governance today by attending to the parallel evolution of an international civil service. Here the authors offer a critical insight: IGOs are neither unitary organisations nor epiphenomenal agents acting solely on the behest of states; rather, through a focus on Drummond and his contemporaries, they highlight that global governance institutions are heterogenous sites which are shaped by purposeful agents confronting political and structural constraints.

Eric Drummond and His Legacies provides a much-needed historical and biographical perspective on actors responsible for building multilateral organisations. Emphasis on Drummond and the early internationalists around him is central to the work, which goes the distance in assessing the relevance of the League of Nations. While such a focus is welcome, some sections tend to be overly descriptive at the expense of providing analytical takeaways. Despite this, the authors offer a novel perspective on the builders of modern multilateral institutions and how their ideas continue to influence global governance today. As such, the book gives a counterpoint to those who contend that multilateral institutions are ineffective or but a mere extension of powerful states. Eric Drummond and his Legacies, on the contrary, emphasises that multilateral institutions, although imperfect and frustrated by state interests, remain essential in tackling complex issues of global concern.


Jan Lüdert is an Associate Professor at City University of Seattle and current World Affairs Council Fellow. His research extends into international relations theory with an emphasis on intergovernmental organisations, global governance and international norms.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

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