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“The Great Powers’ conscience” or “a small fish in a big pond”? Norwegian notions of moral exceptionalism in the years of the League of Nations

Marta M. Stachurska-Kounta (PhD UiO - University College of Southeast Norway)

Norway’s engagement in the League has often been held forth as evidence of Norway’s traditional commitment to peace. This perception is usually related to an idea about a particular Norwegian peace tradition which has deeper roots than the recent efforts to brand Norway as a “peace nation” or a “humanitarian great power.” Among the most frequently highlighted roots of this assumed tradition are the peaceful dissolution of the union between Sweden and Norway in 1905; the fact that the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded in Norway; Nansen’s humanitarian work in the wake of the World War I; and the Norwegian support and promotion of arbitration treaties from the end of the nineteenth century.[1]

The vaguely expressed idea that Norway had a particular interest in and duty to promote peace was also widely shared by the Norwegian foreign policy establishment in the interwar years, though there was less agreement over whether the League was a suitable venue for pursuing such a mission. In this blog, I discuss how Norwegian notions of moral exceptionalism were (re-)conceptualized in confrontation with the international system which evolved after 1918.[2] I argue that Norwegian foreign policy in this period should not be understood exclusively in terms of either support for internationalist ideals or national interests. The main question is rather how different strands of internationalist thinking were represented, and how the League accentuated different perceptions of the specific foreign, economic and security interests of the Norwegian state. The underlying perspective is that Norway’s vision of international peace, shaped as it was by commercial interests, in reality hinged on Britain’s imperial order.

A new forum to pursue old ideals

Norway joined the League of Nations as one of the founding members in 1920. From the very beginning, however, the League’s provisions for sanctions and territorial guarantees caused uneasiness among members of the Norwegian foreign and security policy elite – as well as more broadly in the political milieu. The challenge and, at the same time, the subject of strenuous efforts, throughout the whole period, was how to escape certain obligations stipulated by the League without undermining the country’s reputation as a leading peace advocate.

The balancing act originated in the country’s traditional policy of non-alignment in peace and neutrality in war, which aimed at safeguarding both security and economic interests. Yet, Norwegian leaders refused to view their position as a rejection of the principle of solidarity, choosing instead to frame it as part of a broader conception of moral superiority other states would do well to emulate. Thanks to the League of Nations, according to this understanding, Norway, together with other small states, gained “an opportunity to be the great nations’ conscience.”[3]

Despite this, the idea that a peace policy should go hand in hand with an active membership of the international organization did not enjoy uncontested support. First of all, the Norwegian Labour Party had until 1935 rejected the League’s mandate in favour of the socialist vision of the international order. Criticizing Norway’s engagement in the League under the banner of “the so-called peace policy,” the Socialists argued that “a small state like Norway will never be anything but a small fish in a big pond.”[4] This sceptical attitude towards Norway’s role in bringing about a more peaceful world had, however, more to do with mistrust of a League dominated by the great powers than doubts about Norway’s commitment to peace.

The Norwegian delegation to the Assembly meeting in 1921

In reality, there were not that many on the Norwegian political scene who embraced the League of Nations as the foundation of a new world order. Even the Norwegian Liberal Party, led by Johan L. Mowinckel, which in the 1920s could rightly be regarded as the most pro-League of the Norwegian political parties, saw the Geneva organization as little more than a new platform from which to spread the traditional peace message inspired by the Cobdenite version of liberalism. Together with a policy of non-commitment with regard to the League’s collective security system, the main elements of this policy were support for arbitration and economic disarmament understood as a cooperation to reduce tariff barriers.[5] 

The Secretary of the International Parliamentary Union, Christian Lous Lange appeared to be the only Norwegian willing to recognize the consequences of the changing international system, calling for a reconfiguration of Norwegian foreign policy towards a more flexible attitude. In his opinion, Norway’s foreign policy outlook provided “the most natural basis to carry out an active and positive peace policy.”[6] He envisaged, therefore, a more internationalist approach, and was continually urging Norwegian governments to work actively for international disarmament and display a more accommodating stance with regard to collective security.

Framing an idea of a Norwegian peace tradition

In the 1920s, one of the primary foreign policy goals of the Liberal Party was to conclude all-encompassing arbitration treaties with as many countries as possible. The country’s arbitration policy, however, can be interpreted as an effort to establish a system of international dispute settlement which could function independently of the Geneva organization. In addition, we should not ignore the importance of arbitration to the solution of commercial issues. Alongside support for more liberal commercial relations, then, the arbitration policy has to be seen in terms of the self-interest of the world’s fourth largest shipping nation and a highly trade-dependent country. 

Johan L. Mowinckel (1870-1943), a three-time Prime and four-time Foreign Minister in the interwar years, managed to construct a consistent foreign policy based on traditional liberal ideals

Norwegian activity in these areas was realistic and the rhetorical flourishes served primarily to boost Norway’s image as a peace loving country. Yet the Liberals presented this policy as proof and expression of Norway’s particular commitment to peace. Indeed, in the 1920s they were especially explicit and eager to point out the continuity between the party’s liberal tenets of 1890s and support for arbitration treaties. However, when the Labour Party came to power and accepted Norway’s membership in 1935, the new Foreign Minister, Halvdan Koht, emphasized this linkage with equal resolve. 

How Norwegian support for peace became a tenet of faith not just in the Liberal Party, but more or less across the board, is difficult to disentangle. It seems that Koht, the Liberal Party and, not least, the Norwegian peace movement based their views of international peace and stability on the same ideological premises and mutually reinforced each other’s belief system. The most significant difference lay in their attitudes towards the question of disarmament. Whereas Mowinckel and the Liberal Party favoured unilateral reduction of armaments, Koht, in line with the ideas promoted by the peace movement and shared by Lange, promoted a more active support for international disarmament.

Under Britain’s imperial umbrella

With all its declarations of support for peace between nations, Norway remained extremely cautious about taking a clear stance against breaches of international law in ongoing conflicts, particularly during the deteriorating situation of the 1930s. These efforts to maintain a low profile did not go unnoticed in Geneva. Eric Colban, appointed by the government to represent Norway on the Council, even got the nickname “the silent Norwegian.”[7] This annoyed the other Nordics, since the Norwegian delegate, according to an unwritten agreement, also acted as a representative of Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands. The criticism surfaced especially during the Council meetings on the conflict in the Far East.

The text under the carricature says: “A helping hand. Yesterday, Danish friends presented minister Colban with a radiogramophone with a loudspeaker and complete equipment for use during the Council sessions.”

Although the Covenant of the League of Nations did not allow members to maintain neutrality, Norwegian foreign policy leaders, in line with a group of the ex-neutral states, never abandoned the policy that Norway should and could stay aloof from any conflicts. Moreover, subsequent cabinets favoured political solutions even if it implied recognizing de facto territorial annexations by aggressor states. Such an attitude was first of all dictated by economic interests and political considerations of security. It also demonstrated that the Norwegian political establishment never fully embraced the new internationalism and the idea of collective security.

In 1936, Koht popularized his foreign policy ideas as “active peace policy,” evidently to distinguish it from the policy of his predecessors.[8] Its main pillars were general disarmament and prevention of conflicts by systematically implementing the provisions laid down in the Covenant. The League, universal and reinforced, should provide the institutional framework to accomplish its objectives. But Koht also saw a need to deal urgently with economic and financial problems and to revise the Versailles Treaty’s provisions regarding Europe.[9] In this regard, he shared the underlying assumption that the settlement of colonial problems, aimed at placating Germany in particular, might help preserve peace in Europe. 

The apparent gap between Norwegian foreign policy leaders’ promotion of idealistic visions of international order, on the one hand, and the pragmatic policies they pursued in the face of the international conflicts, on the other, may be attributed to an inevitable confrontation of ideals with reality. Yet it is also possible to see Norwegian policy in terms of the commitment to the traditional liberal values. The League’s purpose, according to Mowinckel, was to “build the world’s and the future’s hope on British liberalism.”[10]

Indeed, Norway’s engagement for peace was rooted in ideas about stability based on an international order still dominated by Great Britain. Despite being a small state without colonies, Norway had profited economically from the relatively open imperial world order. The British Empire’s protective umbrella was fundamental in fulfilling Norway’s security needs and commercial advantages. The empire served, therefore, as a model for Norwegian foreign policy leaders on how to secure peaceful relations between nations. Accordingly, the role of the League of Nations was to establish an international order modelled after Pax Britannica.

With regard to the conflicts between Japan and China and Italy’s aggression in Ethiopia, Norway’s forbearing attitude to the aggressors was therefore also influenced by the notion that the civilizing intentions of the aggressor trumped the rights of the lesser nations. By casting the aggressions in the form of a civilizing mission, it was easier for Norwegian politicians to accept what they believed were the concessions necessary to establish peace. In Koht’s words it was important to find “a solution which will do real justice to both parties and will consequently satisfy our hopes for a lasting peace followed by real progress along the path of civilization.”[11] Norway’s attitude to the distant conflicts and Koht’s affirmative attitude to the idea of colonial appeasement, so popular in British liberal circles, demonstrate that Norway’s attitude towards the League’s efforts to promote peace can hardly be understood except in the context of the country’s dependence on Britain’s global leadership. Britain’s more exclusive turn towards its own empire in the early 1930s implied, however, the ultimate breakdown of the foreign policy programme based on British liberalism.

Moral exceptionalism in new clothing

The League’s inability to deal with aggressors in the 1930s only aggravated Norwegian divisions on foreign policy issues. Whereas Lange’s view that Norway should strengthen the collective security system rather than repudiate its obligations was shared only by a small group of young Labour Party activists, the rest of the political establishment turned to isolationism. For those identifying with the traditional liberal approach, the League’s crisis posed a challenge: could they still uphold the rhetoric of Norway’s commitment to peace? Any sudden change in rhetoric could have provoked a serious image crisis, especially for the Liberal Party. As the League’s political significance dwindled and the world marched towards a new conflagration, neutrality re-emerged as an key element of the Norwegian peace tradition.

Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930) was a prime mover of many of the League’s humanitarian missions. He also served as a Norwegian delegate to the Assembly 

When the war ended, however, the new premisses for international cooperation led Norwegian foreign policy leaders to re-think Norway’s role in making the post-war world more peaceful. On the eve of his resignation as Foreign Minister in favor of a new job as the first Secretary General of the UN, Trygve Lie vowed that Norway would follow in footsteps of Fridtjof Nansen’s humanitarian work.[12] The linkage between Nansen’s activities and Norway’s engagement in the League may be somewhat dubious: In his most famous internationalist endeavours, he acted in a private capacity, and Nansen often supported policies that were at odds with official Norwegian policy. Nonetheless, there was a strong belief among Norwegian politicians that his work was a manifestation of the moral power of the small, and in particular Scandinavian, states. Most importantly, however, Lie’s statement indicated that although the references to Norway’s commitment to arbitration, used frequently in the past, may have lost their earlier appeal, the perception of Norway as having a special mission to fulfil had certainly not become weaker.




[1] H. Pharo, “Den norske fredstradisjonen – et forskningsprosjekt,” Historisk tidsskrift 84, no. 2 (2005): 240.

[2] This blog is based on my PhD thesis Norway and the League of Nations 1919-1939. A Small State’s Quest for International Peace, defended at the University of Oslo in September 2017.

[3] St. tid. (1927), 1518.

[4] St. tid. (1924), 2754.

[5] Compare J. L. Mowinckel, Venstres syn og venstres opgaver (Oslo, 1927), 30-1.

[6] Ch. L. Lange, “Den internasjonale situasjon efter Verdenskrigen,” Supplement 1, Innstilling I fra Forsvarskommisjonen av 1920, (Kristiania: Industritrykkeriet, 1920), 30-31.

[7] “Et ondartet svensk angrep på minister Colban,” Tidens Tegn, 18 February 1932.

[8] See “Pressemelding. Noti frå den norske utanriksministeren til generalsekretæren for Folkeforbundet frå 29. august 1936,” RA, UDA, Box 6140, File 16a/20. The same document in English “Application of the Principles of the Covenant of the League of Nations. Communication from the Government of Norway,” 1 September 1936, LON, Box R5731, File 50/ 25380/8871.

[9] St. tid. (1936), 69.

[10] Interview with Mowinckel in Verdens Gang, 1 April 1921, quoted after: T. Øksnevad, Joh. Ludw. Mowinckel (Bergen: Grieg, 1963), 63. 

[11] Société des Nations, Actes de la Seizième Session Ordinaire de l’Assemblée, Séances Plénières, Journal Officiel, Supplément Spécial 138 (1935), 57-59. 

[12] Referred in O. Riste, Norway’s Foreign Relations – A History (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 2004), 256.




- http://www.indiana.edu/~league/photo/image_gallery/large/d-630.jpg (20.02.2018)

- http://www.indiana.edu/~league/photo/image_gallery/large/p0254.jpg (20.02.1018) 

- Nationen, 23 February 1932, Riksarkivet, Norway.

- http://www.indiana.edu/~league/photo/image_gallery/large/p0261a.jpg (20.02.2018)