SINCE the British cabinet decided that sanctions against Italy should be dropped because (as the Foreign Secretary admitted) the purpose for which they were imposed had not been realized, the change of attitude towards them has been rapid. The House of Commons supported the cabinet; France agreed to take a like position at the League; Poland definitely gave up the sanctions; and finally the Assembly at Geneva voted to advise its members to abandon them—the voice of the Union of South Africa alone being heard strongly in opposition.

The resolution adopted by the League as it adjourned on July 4 was as follows:

The Assembly,

(1) Having met again on the initiative of the Government of the Argentine Republic, and in pursuance of the decision to adjourn its session taken on October 11th, 1935, in order to examine the situation arising out of the Italo-Ethiopian dispute;

(2) Taking note of the communications and declarations which have been made to it on this subject;

(3) Noting that various circumstances have prevented the full application of the Covenant of the League of Nations;

(4) Remaining firmly attached to the principles of the Covenant, which are also expressed in other diplomatic instruments such as the declaration of the American States, dated August 3rd, 1932, excluding the settlement of territorial questions by force;

(5) Being desirous of strengthening the authority of the League of Nations by adapting the application of these principles to the lessons of experience;

(6) Being convinced that it is necessary to strengthen the real effectiveness of the guarantees of security which the League affords to its Members:

Recommends that the Council:

(a) Should invite the Governments of the Members of the League to send to the Secretary-General, so far as possible before September 1st, 1936, any proposals they may wish to make in order to improve, in the spirit or within the limits laid down above, the application of the principles of the Covenant;

(b) Should instruct the Secretary-General to make a first examination and classification of these proposals;

(c) Should report to the Assembly at its next meeting on the state of the question.

The Assembly,

Taking note of the communications and declarations which have been made to it on the subject of the situation arising out of the Italo-Ethiopian dispute;

Recalling the previous findings and decisions in connection with this dispute:

Recommends that the Co-ordination Committee should make all necessary proposals to the Governments in order to bring to an end the measures taken by them in execution of Article 16 of the Covenant.

Except for the giving up of sanctions against Italy in the last paragraph, this has left everything uncertain until the next meeting of the Assembly in September; and reflects, as did the preceding debate, the lack of any coherent plan on the part of the delegates. Under these conditions it is natural for one who was active twenty years ago in the League to Enforce Peace to review the past and speculate about the future; for it seems to be assumed that a turning point has been reached at Geneva—another turning point if you will, but one where a definite, and perhaps final, policy should be settled.

That the members of the League of Nations did not in the cases of Japan and the Chaco put into effect the sanctions of the Covenant was obvious enough, but their failure to do so was hardly such as to indicate an intention not to do it thereafter, especially if the question should arise nearer home. In each of these cases the conditions were at first puzzling. Japan complicated the issue by insisting that her action was not war, and by stating that she would withdraw her forces into the railroad zone in Manchuria as soon as the country was pacified; while in the Chaco an attempt to apply sanctions to the full extent between two South American nations would have raised uncomfortable questions, involving not improbably the Monroe Doctrine. In the case of Japan, the Assembly did, indeed, finally declare in substance that she had violated the Covenant; and although no member of the League acted in accord therewith, their abstention was not universally regarded as an abandonment of the principle. Within the present year a clearer test case came, where a great European Power attacked another member of the League in such a way that the Council did not hesitate to declare that it had resorted to war; where its intentions were known beforehand; and where sanctions were actually used, but without effect. What can the world learn from this experience? May we not safely draw two conclusions that have a bearing on the future of the League and of the American attitude thereto?

The first is that deterrents from aggression must be brought to bear before a country goes to war, and not after it has actually become engaged in hostilities. When a nation has made its preparations, when the campaign is going on, when the blood of the people is up, it is well-nigh impossible for the government to back down, or for the people to be so intimidated as to demand a withdrawal. To be effective, a deterrent must be applied before the rulers have committed themselves, and therefore they must know definitely what the penalties for aggression will be, and that they will surely be carried out. After war has begun, a meeting of nations to consider what shall be done is obviously too late. It is wiser and safer to keep a dog from getting a bone than to take it out of his mouth afterwards.

The second conclusion that can be drawn with reasonable certainty from the Ethiopean war is that sanctions should be strong enough to effect their object, or they are likely to do more harm than good by irritating the aggressor without restraining him. They may leave bitterness enough to tip the balance the wrong way on some delicate occasion, sowing seeds of ill-will that may germinate when they will do the most harm. Moreover, they encourage in other rulers contemplating aggression a feeling that sanctions are after all rather a demonstration than a danger, and will not be carried far enough to require hesitation on their part. In the case of Italy the League is said to have reckoned on Ethiopia’s holding out until the rains, when the pressure of the sanctions would become effective. That would not be preventing war, but making it unsuccessful.

If these two conclusions are correct inferences from the events of the past year they suggest some reflections about the future of sanctions under the League of Nations—provided the League does not through resignations fall into decrepitude, but remains really active. It would seem that sanctions ought either to be made more rapid, stringent and decisive, or else abandoned altogether; and in fact much current talk seems to lead in one or other of these directions. There are, indeed, vague suggestions of some middle course, leaving the present conditions mainly unchanged, and therefore uncertain; but that does not settle the future policy which must be determined before long on a definite, permanent and workable basis; for to retain in the Covenant obligations that cannot, or will not, be carried out, or that are unlikely to produce the result for which they are designed, is to deprive the League of moral weight, and ultimately of the respect of mankind. To retain its significance, the League must fulfil the functions it professes to perform, and must be relied upon to do what it undertakes, be that more or less.

To many people the alternative of making sanctions drastic enough to be really effective or abandoning them will appear unreasonable, for it means that either extreme is better than the moderate course the League has been trying to pursue. Yet a choice of this kind is often presented in the conduct of life. In every profession and occupation there are times when a man is compelled to follow one or the other of two very widely different paths, because anything between will lead to inevitable failure. Cases of that kind present the most difficult questions to decide, for they require clear thought and courage which try men’s souls; and many people, lacking boldness, slip into a middle course that is much easier to enter, but leads at best nowhere, at worst to a calamity.

The first of these alternatives—that is, making the sanctions instantaneous and drastic—would be to go back to the Covenant, which in the first section of Article 16, as originally drafted, and as it still stands, provides:

Should any Member of the League resort to war in disregard of its covenants under Articles 12, 13 or 15, it shall ipso facto be deemed to have committed an act of war against all other Members of the League, which hereby undertake immediately to subject it to the severance of all trade or financial relations, the prohibition of all intercourse between their nationals and the nationals of the covenant-breaking State, and the prevention of all financial, commercial or personal intercourse between the nationals of the covenant-breaking State and the nationals of any other State, whether a Member of the League or not.

This, of course, meant a strict blockade by sea and land, and there can be no doubt that the framers of the Covenant intended it to be carried out as written. In fact, the very proposals made in the reports and deliberations of the Assembly, for delaying and reducing sanctions, were in substance rejected by the Committee that devised Article 16 in Paris. David Hunter Miller tells the story in his “Drafting of the Covenant,” where he begins by referring to the remark in the first draft by Lord Phillimore’s committee that they have desired to make the sanction as weighty as possible and therefore have made it unanimous and automatic.[i] Miller himself did not agree with this point of view, but thought there should be a decision by the League or the Council before sanctions were applied,[ii] and the draft which he and Hurst prepared read: “Should any of the High Contracting Powers be found by the League to have broken or disregarded its covenants,” etc. But Lord Robert Cecil proposed to substitute for “be found by the League to have broken or disregarded” the words “break or disregard,” which was passed without comment, although Miller remarks that “The question as to what State is the aggressor,” etc., was again left open.[iii] Also, in the obligation to apply sanctions the words “so far as possible” were struck out, making it more rigorous; and to a question by Baron Makino whether Article 16 contemplated the suppression of all private intercourse between individuals, Lord Robert Cecil answered that experience with the blockade had demonstrated the need of putting an end to relations of every kind with a blockaded country.[iv]

As in the case when the Constitution of the United States was under discussion, the smaller bodies were at first the most reluctant, and later the most willing, to accept strong measures. Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands proposed again that the use of sanctions should be decided by the League, that the smaller countries should be specially treated; and Sweden, going farther, that the economic ones should be applied progressively. But these suggestions were not adopted, Bourgeois remarking “that economic action would be automatic, but military action would require separate ratification” [v] —and so it was provided in Article 16. In presenting the draft to the full committee, President Wilson said: “Armed force is in the background of this programme, but it is in the background, and if the moral force of the world will not suffice, the physical force of the world shall.” [vi]

These references are surely enough to prove that the founders of the League of Nations intended the sanctions to be immediate, automatic and complete.[vii] The assumptions underlying their belief in the efficacy of Article 16 to prevent war clearly were that the fact there had been resort to war, and the aggressor who did so, would in practice be obvious; that the members of the League would fulfil strictly the obligations they undertook; that in combination they would form such an aggregate of force as no nation would venture to resist; and thence that the probability of ever putting the sanctions into effect would be extremely small. But the League was hardly organized before obstacles in the way of enforcing sanctions appeared, and there began a process of paring them down which has never ceased. A full history of the discussions and votes on this matter would require too much space to be given here; but enough may be told to indicate the general trend of thought among the members, and the substitution of a gradual limited pressure, after consultation and agreement, for the original plan of immediate, universal, automatic action.[viii]

The assumption by the framers of the Covenant that war, the aggressor, and the consequent duty to act forthwith under Article 16 would be self-evident, was by no means accepted by the members of the League, and at the very outset the Council and Assembly concurred in appointing an international Blockade Committee on the procedure to be adopted in such cases. It made an elaborate report with recommendations tending to reduce the effect of sanctions. It suggested that any alleged violation of the Covenant should be referred to the Council which should express its opinion on the matter; and although everyone recognized that this would not be binding upon the members it was thought that the moral effect would be decisive with them. But, of course, to await the opinion of the Council meant delay until the aggression was well under way, and the war temper of the aggressor inflamed. The Blockade Committee further suggested that the Council should fix a date for joint action to begin—another postponement involving the same ineffectiveness. Even more important was its recommendation for a gradation of economic sanctions by the Council, beginning perhaps with the recall of diplomatic agents, and increasing in severity as the methods tried failed to deter the aggressor. The result of such a policy cannot be better expressed than by M. de Brouckère in a report on disarmament five years later:

To say that ambassadors only will be recalled under an article which definitely requires the breaking off of all personal relations; to say that certain commercial relations will be gradually severed when the text demands that they should all be broken off forthwith is to make an almost ridiculous use of a clause in which the peoples most exposed to aggression see their supreme safeguard. It means weakening it dangerously and at the same time weakening the whole League.[ix]

In 1921 and again in 1924 the Assembly proposed amendments to the first clause of Article 16, modifying and softening its provisions; and although neither of them was adopted by the members of the League, the reports, the discussions and the resolutions in the Assembly revealed its attitude toward sanctions, and in fact governed the only serious attempt to apply them against a great nation. In the cases of Japan and the Chaco, as no use was made of them no precedent was created and no experience gained. The first real trial came in the war of Italy against Ethiopia; and although Article 16 has remained unchanged the procedure followed was substantially that proposed in the report of the Blockade Committee endorsed by the resolutions of the Assembly thereon—in short, postponing action until the campaign had begun, and then applying sanctions progressively. The result was not to deter, or prevent, Italy from carrying on the war until Ethiopia was crushed. Indeed, the League’s action is said to have increased martial fervor among the Italian people; and certainly it left ill feelings among some of the nations concerned that do not help the general cause of future European peace. Sanctions as thus applied seem to be a staff on which if a man lean it will go into his hand and pierce it. Nor is there any reason to suppose that as thus used they would have a greater effect on any other powerful aggressor.

Now, is it possible for the League of Nations to reverse its own history, to go back to the policy of a complete blockade by sea and land to be put into effect on the outbreak of hostilities by all the members? Would they be willing to make such an agreement? Would the fear that when made it will be strictly carried out be strong enough to deter a Great Power from aggression, or the confidence in it sufficient to prevail on other Powers to reduce their armaments? And, finally, is there any other form of compulsion that would achieve these results?

Few people who have watched the course of the League since the World War will be inclined to answer any of these questions in the affirmative. The smaller members would, no doubt, be glad to have their protection increased; but the Great Powers, on whom the weight of the obligations must rest, having shown no overwhelming eagerness to execute in full their obligations under the Covenant as written, where their own interests were not involved, would be highly unlikely to renew them in the stringent form originally designed. They are beset with new cares, and especially with new fears, that engage their attention more than do undertakings to preserve the general peace of the world. Moreover, the League’s action, or failure to act, in the past has not, in the minds either of prospective aggressors or of countries dreading attack, strengthened the faith in what any such organization will actually do, and hence a renewed Covenant for sanctions would have even less effect now than at first in preventing war or promoting disarmament. Finally, so far as the Great Powers are concerned, the League has virtually become an affair of Europe and its dependents. Is it not safe to say that although Russia is a European Power, yet if war broke out between her and Japan, with no other nation in Europe taking part, the League would not attempt to interfere?

The question remains whether any other form of compulsion than the action of the League can be devised with any chance of its adoption. None appears on the horizon, and there is no probability that any will for many long years to come. The vision of a universal league of nations acting with harmonious vigor to enforce peace over the world has faded into the light of common day, and Europe seems to be going back to the old system of separate treaties for mutual protection. A compact among European nations to repel aggression by one of their neighbors—Germany for example—may well be made; but that is very different from a universal league to prevent war by sanctions.

But suppose that, contrary to all probability, the provisions of the Covenant should be revived in their integrity to prevent the outbreak of war anywhere in the world, and that Italy and Russia should agree to play their part, would it be wise for the United States to join? In the present attitude of public opinion in this country she certainly would not; and in view of the history of the League on the subject, of the reluctance hitherto shown by the members to act in concert and with effect, of the compelling force of urgent particular interests, the chance of our exerting any serious influence would be so small that to join would be a mistake. Still less should we be willing to join in a reformed League, whatever its formal provisions, the real object of which was in fact limited to dealing with aggression in Europe. Any general war there would be a calamity to civilization that would drag us downward with that part of the world from which we sprang; but in the present aspect of affairs we cannot help to prevent it, for it rests upon conditions there which we cannot change, upon the inability of European nations to act with harmony enough to settle their dissensions by peaceful means. We should not, let us hope, by insisting upon a right of neutral trade, interfere with whatever steps a League so reformed might take to forestall hostilities or hinder their extension; for we should not lose our sympathy with genuine efforts in any part of the world to rid itself of the horrors of war.

But the question whether we should join a resurrected organization to prevent war by the use of effective sanctions is, in fact, hardly worth discussing, for, in the existing state of feeling in most of the European countries, a well-nigh universal revival of the League with teeth to rend any aggressor—as distinguished from a military alliance for mutual protection—is virtually impossible.

The other horn of the dilemma, the contrary alternative, that of frankly abandoning altogether the sanctions that, as applied, have proved delusive, raises a very different question. In some form this course is not improbable, either by express amendment of the Covenant, or by a tacit understanding that Article 16 has become obsolete, not to be put into effect again. If so, the League would cease to be an instrument for the forcible prevention of war; for threats directed at nations meditating a breach of the peace; for sanctions or compulsion of any kind. But that by no means implies futility. Quite apart from its manifold services to the world in those international relations which have no bearing upon war, and therefore are less spectacular and less generally known, such a means of constant consultation is far from valueless. European congresses, notably that at Berlin in 1878, have thwarted the outbreak of war, or have negotiated peace; and many people believe that if such a meeting could have been held in time the World War would not have taken place. A congress of this kind meets under no previous obligations on the part of its members, no concerted means of compulsion, and yet it is not ineffective.

A League of Nations reorganized without sanctions would be such a congress, assembling at definite times, and also whenever the international clouds darkened. The consent of any nation to hold the meeting would not be needed, as that of Germany was in 1914, and hence none could prevent its taking place. No member would be wisely absent from such a gathering, held when war seemed to impend but had not broken out; nor would any be likely to stay away, because even an aggressor wants to state its case while the world can hear, and will listen to it; and in fact Japan, and later Italy, preferred to retain their membership in the League until their immediate objects were achieved.

Much as some people may regret to have the League become a purely consultative body, shorn of teeth and claws, there is no intrinsic reason why any peaceable nation in Europe, and perhaps elsewhere, should not join it. Does this apply to the United States? Even while the League involved serious obligations by its members, our government has deemed it worth while to “listen in,” to keep a man at the keyhole to talk with delegates as they went in and out. We have feared contamination by commitments which members made, but did not carry out, even if we did not assume them ourselves. But if there are to be none in the future, certainly none that we undertook, why should we hesitate to enter the hall? There is much to be gained by having an accredited diplomat at any international conference, to consult and exchange views with other nations. We do it constantly with individual governments, and sometimes with three or four together. Why should we be alarmed by imaginary entanglements if the same thing is proposed on a larger scale? A League so stripped of power is by no means what some of us had hoped for, and others dreaded—a fellowship of many nations bound together to enforce peace on the world. That has proved a dream. As a mere body for consultation it should have a different aspect for friends and foes. It could cherish no great aspirations, and should involve no risks; but it would be a useful place for international conference in which it could do us no harm to take our seat.[x]

[i] Vol. 1, p. 5.

[ii] For his opinion cf. v. I, p. 177-78, 180-81, 366-67; v. II, p. 81.

[iii] v. I, p. 180-81; v. II, p. 551.

[iv] v. I, p. 261; v. II, p. 322.

[v] v. II, p. 616-18, 629-30, 641-43.

[vi] Ray Stannard Baker, “Woodrow Wilson and the World Settlement,” v. I, p. 285.

[vii] Certainly the League to Enforce Peace—the principal organization in this country then advocating a league of nations to prevent war—so understood the provision, as may be seen in “The Covenanter,” a series of articles written by some of its members.

[viii] The writer described the history of this matter at length in a Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard in June 1934, printed in The Atlantic for July of the same year.

[ix] League of Nations Reports and Resolutions on the Subject of Article 16 of the Covenant. A. 14. 1927. V. p. 70.

[x] Nothing has been said here about adhering to the World Court, not because of any lack of importance in the issue, but because it is a wholly separate question. To accept the Court does not involve joining the League, participating in any of its actions, or submitting to any orders it may, as reconstituted, have power to make.

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  • A. LAWRENCE LOWELL, President Emeritus of Harvard University; author of "The Government of England" and other works
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