Drummond, James Eric, sixteenth Earl of Perth 1876-1951, first secretary-general of the League of Nations, was born in York 17 August 1876, the son of James David Drummond, later Viscount Strathallan, by his second wife, Margaret, daughter of William Smythe, of Methven Castle. He succeeded to the earldom on the death of his half-brother in 1937.
Educated at Eton, Drummond entered the Foreign Office in 1900. He was private secretary to the under-secretaries Lord Fitzmaurice (1906-8) and T. McKinnon Wood (1908-10), to the prime minister, Asquith (1912-15), and to the foreign secretaries Sir Edward Grey (later Viscount Grey of Fallodon) (1915-16) and Balfour (1916-18) [qqv.]. He accompanied Balfour to the United States in 1917 and in 1918-19 was attached to the British delegation to the peace conference where his knowledge of procedure and grasp of detail, with a certain detachment and sincerity evident to all, won him a high reputation. It was recognized that the choice of the first secretary-general of the new League of Nations was of exceptional importance. After tentative proposals of political personalities such as M. Venizelos or Lord Robert Cecil (later Viscount Cecil of Chelwood) [qv.] had been dropped, Balfour suggested Drummond to Clemenceau and President Wilson and the appointment was agreed.
The new secretary-general needed qualities which would enable him to acquire the confidence of the ministers of the member States and be available to them for consultation and advice. He needed also to be exceptionally qualified for his primary task of building up and directing the new secretariat, conceived as an expert organization for drawing up objective statements on issues confronting the League. This responsibility was the more important because the major member States would have no resident representatives in Geneva and would only have direct control over the League's current activities through ministers meeting in the Council for a week three or four times a year and in the Assembly meeting annually for about a month. In the remaining ten months the task of securing the execution of policy decisions and preparing the presentation of issues for future decisions would fall primarily on the new secretariat, with such contact as might be necessary with the different Governments in their respective capitals.
In selecting and directing the members of the new secretariat Drummond had a rarely equalled opportunity. The war had discovered, developed, and tested special talent in many men in many countries. With the end of hostilities the ardent and general hopes in the new League of Nations made an appointment to its secretariat attractive. From a wide and promising field he chose carefully and personally, each being acceptable to the Government of his own country but not selected by it. His first team of principal officers was one in which all were soon proud to be serving. He was no less successful in making the best use of talent. He rode with a light rein, delegating generously to those he trusted. Within the secretariat he was the ultimate authority on the policy which must guide detailed executive action, and he was ready to intervene where controversial political issues were involved. But, subject to that, he left the greatest possible initiative to the principal specialized heads of the various departments. He was always available for consultation and ready to give his guidance when sought, but he preferred to leave to them the primary responsibility of deciding whether his assent was required. This had the double advantage of bringing out the best in his officers and making his own influence more effective than if it had been imposed by more authoritative methods.
The secretariat was brought to its full development and established in its new headquarters in Geneva by 1920. The limits to the action of an inter-State (not supra-national) institution such as the League are, of course, set by the nature of its governing political authority. These limits were necessarily narrowed by the absence, throughout its existence, of the United States, and during its early period also of Germany and Russia. After a few years, however, the rather inimical abstention of post-war America was replaced, particularly while Mr. Stimson was secretary of state, by friendly consultation and a substantial measure of co-operation; and the membership was afterwards enlarged by the entry as full members of both Germany and Russia. With the later advent of Hitler, the gradual alienation of Italy after the Stresa period, and the League's inability, in the absence of the United States, to restrain Japan's aggression in China, followed by her resignation, the League became impotent to avert the second world war. Its ultimate failure should not, however, be allowed to obscure its achievements in its earlier period, especially in the later twenties when it had the requisite political authority for its European tasks. For several years the ministers at every Council meeting included the foreign ministers of Great Britain, France, and Germany; and Geneva during this period was the principal political centre for negotiations on European problems. The League was instrumental in settling some dangerous political conflicts. It quickly stopped a war between Bulgaria and Greece, reconstructed Austria and Hungary, re-established a mass of refugees in Greece and Bulgaria, directed the mandate system in former German colonies, and carried through a vast mass of technical tasks. That it was so far successful was in no small measure due to Drummond's guidance of this first great international institution of its kind. He acquired the confidence of the many countries he served by the detachment and impartiality which he had shown in his work in Paris. At Geneva his real influence with the member States was the greater because he seemed always more concerned to help the Governments to find an agreed solution than to push any specific policy of his own.
In 1933 Drummond resigned from the League and became British ambassador in Rome. In spite of the gradually increasing alienation of Mussolini from the League and all that was associated with it, he established a good personal relationship both with him and with his foreign minister Grandi; and he was probably as successful as an ambassador could be in discerning and reporting the changing political attitude of Italy and in making his own Government's policy clear. The course of events, after the Stresa period of rapprochement had been followed by the Italian Abyssinia venture, was determined by developments outside the power of a British ambassador to influence.
Perth retired in 1939 and in 1941 entered the House of Lords as a representative peer of Scotland; in 1946 he became deputy leader of the Liberal Party there, and adequately discharged the not very exacting duties involved.
Of medium stature, Drummond had a presence and manner which reflected his personal qualities. With a wide acquaintance only rarely extending to intimacy, he took pleasure in such sociable relaxations as bridge and golf (as well as, more rarely in his active period, the less social sport of fishing). He had a pleasant sense of quiet humour, reflecting the general poise of his temperament. But he had no temptation to the dangers of the witty and memorable epigram. Nor had he the kind of uncompromising precision of thought and language which sometimes handicaps a chairman or a negotiator who is seeking a solution through compromise.
Himself a convert to the Roman Catholic faith, Drummond married in 1904 into a Catholic family, his wife being Angela Mary Constable Maxwell (died 1965), the youngest daughter of the eleventh Baron Herries. He had one son, John David (born 1907), who succeeded him in his titles when he died at Rogate, Sussex, 15 December 1951, and three daughters. Apart from his inherited titles he was appointed C.B. (1914), K.C.M.G. (1916), G.C.M.G. (1934), and was sworn of the Privy Council in 1933. He was an honorary Doctor of Civil Laws of Oxford and Doctor of Law of Liverpool, and was awarded the Wateler peace prize in 1931.