New Zealand's membership of the League of Nations--independence or something else? Malcolm McKinnon notes the centenary of New Zealand joining the first world security organisation.

AuthorMcKinnon, Malcolm

New Zealand's participation in the founding of the United Nations in 1945 has long been regarded as a mark of the country's capacity and willingness to conduct an independent foreign policy. Yet that participation was foreshadowed, a quarter-century before, by New Zealand's membership of the League of Nations, the international organisation established to manage and keep the peace after the First World War.

Membership in the League was a product of the key role played by the British Dominions, among them New Zealand, in the Allied victory in war. Britain's Imperial War Cabinet was set up in 1917 to give the Dominions a prominent voice in deliberations and they participated as part of the British Empire Delegation in the peace negotiations in Paris in the first half of 1919, culminating in their signing of the Versailles peace treaty, albeit as members of that delegation. No surprise then that they were also accorded full membership of the League, which came into being in January 1920.

These changes in status in 1919-20 have a strong claim to be the moment at which the Dominions, among them New Zealand, gained the capacity to conduct foreign policy independently, just as membership in the United Nations remains the most unequivocal measure of independent statehood-one that eludes, for example, the state of Palestine.

Nonetheless, such independence, however substantive, posed a conundrum for imperial relations. In a thoughtful editorial on 1 September 1919 Wellington's Evening Post observed that that 'the nationhood of the Dominions should have received this international recognition is highly gratifying to their pride'; the change 'only serves to increase the anomaly of their position in the Empire... the fundamental problem of giving the Dominions an equitable share in the control and the responsibilities of the Empire's foreign policy has really been complicated.' The more conservative New Zealand Herald indeed argued on 27 October 1919 that the Dominions were 'members of the League of Nations by virtue of their membership of the British Empire ... in international relations ... [they have no] other role than that of British colonies'.

New Zealand's participation in the League itself, modest though it was for the first fifteen years, could not, however, but embed the notion that the country had the capacity, if not always the willingness, to conduct its own external relations.

Each year the High Commission in London reported to Parliament...

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