Joan Beaumont reviews James Cotton’s The Australians at Geneva: Internationalist Diplomacy in the Interwar Years, (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2022). ISBN 9780522878998 (paperback) 9780522879001 (e-book).


The League of Nations has been something of a poor relation in the historiography of Australian foreign policy. Traditionally, it has been tarred with its utter failure to check the aggression of Germany, Italy and Japan in the 1930s. In the inter-war years, too, Australian diplomacy was in its infancy and, while Australian governments had a powerful sense of distinct national interests, they still looked to London for leadership in defence and global affairs.

In recent years, however, the League of Nations has enjoyed a more positive reassessment, with historians exploring its many roles other than the doomed collective security: for example, its management of the post-war mandates system. The associated organisation of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which survives to this day, has also stimulated innovative scholarship. In the case of Australia, the classic 1980 study of the League by the late W.J. Hudson has been joined by studies of discrete movements and individuals, including women’s internationalism.

James Cotton’s The Australians in Geneva is a welcome and valuable addition to this literature. Cotton, formerly a scholar of international relations in Asia, has emerged in recent years as a dominant historian of Australian foreign relations in the first half of the twentieth century. He has edited two monumental volumes for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s series of Documents of Australian Foreign Policy, covering the years 1901-36, and he is currently writing the early volume of the history of the Departments’ predecessor, External Affairs. Cotton revels in the historian’s detective work of trawling archives, winkling out previously unknown detail and rescuing little known actors from obscurity.

Former Prime Minister James Scullin, New South Wales, 10 December 1931 (National Library of Australia)

This book focuses on those Australians who worked at, or visited, the League of Nations and the ILO. Tellingly, Australian governments did not appoint a permanent representative to the League, and never managed to send a full four-member delegation (two from government, one employer and one worker) to the annual conferences of the ILO. In some years it failed to send any one. There was thus no continuity of representation. Australia’s presence in Geneva was commonly delegated: to Australians already in Europe, for business or political reasons, and whose trip to Geneva would not incur expense for the government; or to those men and women who had a particular interest in internationalism and the international labour movement. Only once did a prime minister attend at the League: this was James Scullin in 1930, en route to London where he argued the case for Australia’s financial support during the Great Depression.

We are already familiar with the role played by Stanley Melbourne Bruce, the divisive conservative prime minister of 1923-29 who after being dismissed by the Australian electorate went on to a more illustrious career as high commissioner to London, 1933-45. Bruce represented Australia at the annual assemblies of the League, holding a (temporary) seat on the Council from 1933-36 and becoming a leading advocate of its role in economic and social affairs.

But Bruce was only one of many Australians active in Geneva. Some chose to make their careers there. Among them, Cotton tells us, was William Calwell, a committed internationalist devoted to the cause of improving labour relations, who worked for the ILO from 1921 to 1953 (although serving in the 2nd AIF during World War II). Then, there was Raymond Kershaw whose primary role was in the League’s Minorities Section, a sensitive area that monitored compliance with the guarantees in the Treaty of Versailles of the civil and cultural rights of minorities in newly founded states. Kershaw, incidentally, went on to work in the Bank of England and accompanied Otto Neimeyer on his notorious visit to Australia in 1930. In contrast to the punitive deflation preached by Niemeyer, Kershaw was more focused on the rehabilitation of the Australian economy.

A third key actor for Cotton is H. Duncan Hall, who worked primarily in the League’s section concerned with controlling the production of and trade in narcotics, as well as the traffic in women and children.  Duncan Hall also became regarded as the League’s chief resource on Australian, Pacific and Dominion Affairs.

Beyond these three men, Cotton tracks a host of ‘non-official’ visitors, delegates and Australians working in Geneva. He offers a collective biography of a heterogeneous group: of scholars, educators, journalists, League of Nations’ enthusiasts, administrators and secretaries, all of whom shared a commitment to the international cause while generally adhering to the prevailing faith in the British Empire.

Of particular interest are the internationally activist women, such as Bessie Rischbieth, Ethel Osborne and Freda Page, to name only some. Women were included in Australia’s national delegation only as substitutes rather than full delegates. One woman, on asking the leader of her delegation what her special duty was to be, was told, ‘Your business is to hold your tongue’ (p. 115). Nonetheless, with either official support or of their own initiative, women made their way to Geneva. Most were not directly aligned with partisan politics; seven were university graduates (a rare qualification at the time); many were members of the Lyceum Club. Commonly, Australian female delegates were allocated to the Fifth Committee of the League Assembly which was devoted to ‘general and humanitarian questions’—supposedly women’s issues.

It is hard to track what difference all this made to Australian foreign-policy making and public attitudes towards international affairs. The leaders of delegations to the League and the ILO submitted reports on their return from annual assemblies. Australians who were based in the League made regular trips home where they proselytised on the League’s behalf. Half of the female delegates undertook tours to state capitals. All gave interviews. Some wrote articles on the League.

But it is hard, as always, to trace any direct policy influence. The individuals in Geneva had no natural intellectual intersection with successive Australian governments, whose main interests were the preservation of tariff autonomy, the inviolability of the White Australia Policy and the absence of obstacles to the export of primary materials. So far as the ILO was concerned, government engagement was constrained in the interwar years by the Australian federal system which left many labour matters to the states. The Commonwealth, too, was reluctant to use the external affairs power to bind the states without their express consent.

We are left, then, with the (perhaps predictable) impression that the story of ‘Australians’ in Geneva—those proactive, committed and passionate men and women to whom Cotton pays tribute—was not necessarily the history of ‘Australia’ in the League and the ILO.

Joan Beaumont
Joan Beaumont

Joan Beaumont is Professor Emerita at the Australian National University and visiting fellow at Deakin University. She is author of Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War (2013) and Australia’s Great Depression (2022).