The greater good

The greater good

This hook suggests how the First World War led to the creation of the League of Nations and then the United Nations: two organisations formed to promote world peace

Signatory page of the 1942 United Nations Declaration.

Signatory page of the 1942 United Nations Declaration. Photograph by United Nations Photos #327496/VH.


The concept of collective security is based on the idea that peaceful resolution of conflicts is beneficial for everyone and that states should act collectively to address threats to peace. Many people today consider that working towards “the greater good” is self-evidently worthwhile. However, at the time of the First World War, nationalism often took precedence over international issues. Countries could work together but only to further their own goals, and often alliances were tenuous. The idea of helping another country in a conflict that didn’t affect New Zealand was not as strong as it is today, although sentiment towards “poor little Belgium’” inspired large fundraising efforts throughout the country. 

The League of Nations, created in 1919 as part of the Treaty of Versailles, represented a huge shift in such mindsets. The league was established with the goal of preventing another great war. Its main aims were: disarmament; global welfare through improved working conditions and reduced disease; diplomacy; and an end to war. The League of Nations was revolutionary for its time because it emphasised global peace rather than national advancement. League mandates were put in place to help govern new countries or countries that had been under German control in an attempt to ensure collective security. For example, Samoa was given to New Zealand under a league mandate to reduce the German influence in the Pacific. However, the league struggled. Not all countries were members, and the United States, Germany, Japan and Italy left in the 1930s. It was disbanded in 1946, mainly because it had failed to prevent the Second World War. The League of Nations had several weaknesses, which were addressed in the creation of the United Nations.

The United Nations was created in 1945. New Zealand was one of the original 51 member states, and there are currently 193 members. The most recent addition was Southern Sudan in 2011. The United Nations takes action on international issues such as peace and security, climate change, and humanitarian emergencies. It also enables dialogue between its members through various assemblies, committees, and councils. New Zealand continues to have an important role within the United Nations, including winning a non-permanent seat on the Security Council in 2014 and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark is head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). 

Possible discussion questions 

What factors may have influenced the timeline of when different countries joined the United Nations? 

What weaknesses might have made the League of Nations unable to prevent the Second World War? How did the United Nations address the problems that the league could not? 

The First World War was fought between great powers. Who are the great powers of today, and what role do they have in the United Nations? Is this fair? Is this useful? 

If the United Nations had existed in its current form in the 1910s, do you think it could have prevented the First World War? 

If the United Nations had existed in its current form in the 1930s, do you think it could have prevented the Second World War? 

What do you know about various countries’ perceptions of the United Nations currently? How might these perspectives impact the United Nation’s ability to prevent war? 

Do you think the United Nations can prevent a third world war? 

What other international organisations work to promote peace? How successful do you think they are? 

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