THE Conference of Paris dissolved on October 15. "La Conférence de Paris," rasped M. Bidault, "est close." For 79 days had the representatives of 21 nations been discussing the terms of peace to be imposed upon their five minor enemies -- Italy, Rumania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Finland. It is the way of every conference to begin like a tortoise and to end like a greyhound. But no conference that I have ever attended showed a greater disparity of progress between the commencement and the finish. During the first six weeks the Conference dragged itself along painfully at the rate of an inch an hour; during the last four weeks there was a breathless scramble to conclude. In frantic haste the delegates rattled off their final speeches, the concluding votes were registered in an indecent rush, and so anxious were the statesmen not to miss the Queen Elizabeth that there was no time at the end for the customary courtesies and farewells. After all those days and nights of tension and clamor a sudden silence descended upon the Palace of the Luxembourg: the microphones and the loud-speakers were dismantled; the hundreds of small gilt chairs were returned to the basement; and in the courtyard of the palace, which had been the scene of so many arrivals and departures, five army lorries were loaded with the tons of paper which remained unconsumed. The inhabitants of the Luxembourg quarter, who night after night had been kept awake by the loud-speakers calling the delegation cars from their parking places, resumed their accustomed somnolence. The police were withdrawn; the flags were taken down; and the galleries and saloons of the palace, which for ten weeks had echoed to the sound of many languages, heard only the voices of children playing in the gardens below.

In the last days of the Conference, an unofficial poll was taken among the journalists of 27 countries who had followed the proceedings. They were asked three questions. Did they regard the Conference as having been, (a) a success; (b) a failure; or (c) a farce? Of these journalists, 31 replied that it had been a success, 56 that it had been a failure, and 33 that it had been a farce. The proportion of criticism as against approval was therefore more than two to one. What were the reasons for this adverse opinion, and upon what considerations was it based? On October 23, in the House of Commons, Mr. Winston Churchill expressed the opinion that the Conference of Paris had been "bad diplomacy but valuable education." The implication of this cryptic remark was that the Conference had accomplished nothing but had taught us many lessons. What are these lessons? As one who was present throughout the Paris Conference, and who has devoted his life to the study and practice of diplomacy, I may perhaps be permitted to record my considered opinion. Was it a success? No, it was not a success. Was it a failure? No, it was not entirely a failure. Was it a farce? Only if the lessons which it taught us are in future disregarded.


Much of the disappointment which the Conference engendered was due, of course, to a general ignorance of the purposes for which it was summoned. The discussions which took place at the Luxembourg Palace were, so to speak, contained in a bag tied at each end. The Council of Foreign Ministers had for more than a year been discussing these five treaties among themselves. They had already reached agreement upon a large number of clauses and there were only some 26 points left over upon which the Council, or the "Big Four" as they were called, had not been in accord. The terms of reference of the Conference of 21 Powers were thus strictly limited. They were not supposed to change those clauses on which the Big Four had already agreed; they were not supposed even to suggest a solution of the 26 points on which the Council of Foreign Ministers had failed to reach an agreement. All they were supposed to do was to make "recommendations" which the Big Four would consider among themselves at some subsequent private meeting. It is reasonable to ask whether there was any point in holding a public conference on matters which had either been agreed to already, or which could only finally be decided by private negotiation between the four Foreign Ministers. But it is not reasonable to reproach the Paris Conference for having failed to decide on issues which, under its terms of reference, it was never expected to decide. Yet the initial question remains: "What was the point of holding any conference at all?"

The Anglo-Saxon group, and notably Mr. Byrnes, felt that it would not be in accordance with western democratic theory for the Big Four to draw up the final terms of these treaties without the smaller Powers being at least permitted to state their opinion. It was felt also that, if this peace settlement were to be differentiated from the dictated settlements imposed in 1919, opportunity should be given to the five enemy Powers publicly to state their case. There may also have been some idea in the mind of Mr. Byrnes and his associates that it would be a useful thing to confront the Slav group with an expression of joint allied opinion and to suggest to them that their own conception of a peace settlement was not at every point in accord with "the conscience of mankind." The lesser allies were certainly given every occasion to voice their opinion; the five enemy Powers were certainly given a courteous opportunity to plead their cause. But it is doubtful whether the Soviet delegation interpreted the votes which were so constantly given against them as an expression of human conscience; they interpreted them as evidence of an organized opposition bloc. Being convinced of the righteousness of their own dogma, they were unable to credit the capitalist world with any ethical purposes whatsoever. For them the conscience of the heretic world was nothing more impressive than bourgeois inhibitions and diplomatic manœuvre. It cannot be said, therefore, that the attempt to confront Soviet realism with liberal-democratic principles was a success; it did not arouse a sense of guilt; it merely confirmed previous suspicions.

The Soviet Government for their part, formed as they are in the authoritarian conception of human governance, had never desired a public conference at which the smaller Powers might wish to criticize their betters. They agreed to a conference unwillingly, and hoped only to render it a platform for anti-capitalist propaganda. They and their associates took every occasion to demonstrate at great length, and often in exaggerated language, the hypocrisy and malignity of the western Powers. Yet they also failed to achieve their objective. The Conference listened with bored indifference to their tirades; their adversaries did not even bother to reply; and the constant reiteration of stock Communist epithets had no other effect than to inflate the currency of Soviet polemics.

In so far, therefore, as the purposes of the Conference were concerned, it may be said that it did afford the smaller Powers and the enemy Powers a free opportunity to state their views. But so far from shaking the faith of the west in the liberal-democratic theory, or the faith of the east in the Marxist dialectic, the 10 weeks of discussion and oratory merely emphasized the gulf between them. The Conference failed either to diminish Russia's contempt for our intentions or our perplexity in regard to their fanaticism; it did not increase either the existing distrust or the existing perplexity; it merely gave to each a sharper outline. We came to understand that the Russians not only spoke a different language, but possessed dissimilar minds. And that, perhaps, was a valuable lesson.


The avowed purposes of the Conference may therefore have been achieved; the unavowed purposes were not achieved either by one side or the other. But there are other, and more immediately important, lessons which this Paris Conference should have taught us. I propose to examine the actual functioning of the Conference under two headings, method and principle.

It is a frequent experience that coalitions which have been formed to resist a common danger tend to dissolve once that danger has been removed. The Quadruple Alliance, which had secured the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, very nearly dissolved in 1815 into a war between Great Britain and France on the one hand and Russia and Prussia on the other. The United Front which had been formed during the First World War became sadly disunited during the Peace Conference of 1919. It is because of this danger that the partners to any coalition tend, when victory has been assured, to deal very tentatively with the problems which victory has created. The academic critic of the present peace proposals may argue that it was unwise not to recognize from the outset that the essential problem was not so much to impose peace upon our defeated enemies as to reach a solid basis of agreement between the Allies themselves. Obviously, if the making of the present peace had rested solely in the hands of the United States, Great Britain and France, an agreed peace, not only with our minor enemies, but also with Germany and Japan, would have presented no extreme diplomatic difficulty. The reason why the present settlement is one of such immense complexity is that Russia's territorial, political, economic and social objectives are in complete variance with those of her allies.

The academic critic might argue therefore, and with some justice, that we should from the outset have recognized squarely that the central problem was that of reaching agreement with the Soviet Government; that for this purpose it was a mistake to deal with separate items separately; and that it would have been preferable to examine the whole range of Russian objectives at the same time. Such a critic would contend that we should have said to Russia: "Now tell us exactly what you want everywhere. What do you want in Germany, in Austria, on the Baltic, in the Adriatic, in the Danube Basin, in the Straits, in the Middle East, in China, in the Pacific?" By grouping all Russia's claims together, it might have been possible, by a system of give and take, to reach a sensible, if not wholly acceptable, agreement. But by separating the various problems into different categories, by beginning with those which appeared the easiest and by postponing those which were known to be acutely difficult, you restricted your own bargaining capacity and exposed yourself to the danger that in each separate category Russia starts, as it were, with a fresh hand. To approach this central problem tentatively, and from the easiest end, was to be stung by each of the nettles without firmly grasping a single one.

I have referred to this line of criticism as an "academic" criticism, since, although justifiable in theory, it does not take sufficient account of the practical impossibilities involved. A minor, and more pertinent, version of this criticism is that it was a mistake to risk a head-on collision with Russia over our five minor enemies so long as the central problem of Germany remained unsolved. Even those who realize that it would in practice have been impossible to bunch all Russia's claims, whether in Europe, Asia or even Africa, into a single discussion, might contend that to take the five minor treaties first, before the German and Austrian problems had been tackled, was to adopt a wrong order. If this be a correct criticism (and I am not saying that it is incorrect), then the fundamental error in method was to hold the Luxembourg Conference before the Big Four had been able to establish at least the principles of a German settlement.

Let us assume none the less that the Big Four were justified in summoning the Conference at the time it was summoned and let us examine whether the procedure then adopted was suitable or unsuitable. There are three main criticisms to be made. The first bears upon the lack of coördination, which seems to be a defect inherent in all conferences. The other two bear upon two remarkable innovations in diplomatic practice, namely the system of recording votes and the publicity given to the discussions. I shall deal first with the lack of coördination.

It is the custom, and the inevitable custom, of all conferences to split up into commissions. The advantages of this custom are obvious; its disadvantages are repeatedly forgotten. At the Peace Conference of 1919 the mistake was made of nominating commissions to deal, not with the several enemy countries (Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and so on), but with the claims made against these countries by what were known as "the Successor States" (Jugoslav claims, Greek claims, Rumanian claims, Czech claims, and so on). The problems, for instance, created by the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were examined, not in terms of what that Empire would lose, but in terms of what the Successor States would gain. The commissions, working in water-tight compartments, each recommended certain cessions of territory, but it was only when these cessions were added together that it was found that, although the parts were justified, the whole was not. Similarly, at the recent Conference, each commission made recommendations which, although justified in themselves, were less justifiable when added to the other recommendations made by the other commissions. A General, or Coördinating, Commission had in fact been provided for, in the hope that it would be able to see that the several parts did not add up into a bad whole. But this Commission was for some strange cause regarded with disfavor by the Slav group, and it failed to function. The recommendations of the Conference were, as a result, not properly coördinated; this was a serious defect in method which ought to have been avoided.

More interesting and more important were the two innovations in established diplomatic practice which were introduced. The first was the system of voting. In previous conferences the theory had obtained that all decisions should be taken unanimously. Long and confidential negotiations were entailed before a compromise could be agreed to, or a settlement reached to which every party was prepared to give its consent. The advantage of the established system was that in the end you had a unanimous decision to which all parties had voluntarily acceded; the disadvantage was that those who felt the decision to be disadvantageous or unjust had no other means open to them of making known their disapproval than the extreme measure of refusing at the last moment to sign. It was believed that, since the Paris Conference had been summoned, not for the purpose of reaching decisions, but only for the purpose of making "recommendations," it would be a good idea if the views of the several delegations were recorded by vote. Innumerable votes were therefore taken on the several clauses of the five treaties. Had these votes been in fact "free votes," in the sense that the several delegations recorded on each occasion their true opinion upon the issues involved, this system would have provided the Big Four with a valuable indication of what the 17 minor allies really thought. But the fact that on almost every issue of any importance the votes fell in the proportion of 14 to 6, with one abstention, convinced all unbiassed observers that the delegations were voting, not upon the merits of each case, but according to the group to which they belonged. For although some variations occurred in the votes recorded by the non-Slav group, "the Soviet Six" (Russia, White Russia, the Ukraine, Jugoslavia, Poland and Czechoslovakia) almost invariably voted as one man. Thus the effect of the voting system was to emphasize the division between the two groups, rather than to furnish any true indication of majority opinion.

This innovation, which to my mind was unfortunate in its inception and farcical in its result, created further suspicion in the Soviet mind. I am convinced that Mr. Byrnes really did believe that by this method the Conference would be able to register the views of the smaller allies. He and Mr. Bevin had in fact made it clear in the Council of Foreign Ministers that the Conference when it assembed would be free to adopt its own rules of procedure. But Mr. Molotov, with equal sincerity, was convinced that the Anglo-Saxon Powers had inserted this device in a spirit of cunning for the purpose of "ganging up" against the Soviet Union and its associates, and even with the ultimate and most nefarious purpose of using these voting figures for the purpose of evading pledges already entered into as between the Big Four. It must be confessed that neither the British nor the United States delegations did much to disabuse the Soviet Government of these suspicions; and Mr. Byrnes' frequent statements of his purposes and intentions in regard to the relation between Big Four agreements and majority recommendations were not always either tactful, lucid or consistent. Thus the voting system, which might have proved a useful innovation, became a hindrance and not a help.

The second innovation in established diplomatic practice was that of complete publicity. I am a firm believer in open covenants, but I am quite sure that they cannot be openly arrived at: it is not possible to negotiate in front of the microphone. It is no exaggeration at all to say that the introduction of "open diplomacy" into the Paris Conference meant that there was no negotiation, almost no discussion, at all. Each delegate was aware that his words would be broadcast throughout the world and that his every sentence would be scrutinized by political supporters or opponents in his home country. As a result, delegate after delegate would ascend the tribune, or rise in his place in a commission, for the purpose of addressing his public opinion at home and not for the purpose of addressing his colleagues at the Conference. We had a succession of propaganda speeches which took no account of the merits of the issue under discussion, which committed the several delegations to positions from which it would be difficult to retreat, which aroused some resentment, and which filled the assembled delegates with weariness and despair.

I cherish the hope that the patent failure of the Paris Peace Conference to conduct discussions in public will furnish a salutary lesson to future negotiators. It is possible even that it will have indicated the lines of a reasonable compromise between open policy and confidential negotiation. People may learn that when national interests or ideological passions are involved it is best to lay down the principles of agreement in confidential conclave; and that thereafter it is wise to explain those principles publicly and before all the world. I am far from regretting the publicity under which the Paris Conference suffered, since the impossibility of such methods has thereby been demonstrated without much serious harm having resulted. But if the educative value of this experiment is ignored, and if the future discussions on Germany are exposed to similar stultifications, then indeed it will be difficult to reach the agreed settlement which the world so ardently desires.


And what about principle? It would of course be foolish to underestimate the effect upon the whole tone and course of the Conference of the ideological contrast between the Communist and the liberal Powers. It impeded understanding, it bred often groundless suspicions, it hampered all personal intimacy or even confidence, it created incompatibilities of temper. The rigid doctrinal orthodoxy of the Russian delegation, and their immediate associates, rendered them dogmatic in the assertion of their own opinions and impervious to the opinions of others. Their mechanical repetition of the same catchwords and phrases, the fixity of their vocabulary, precluded that elasticity of intercourse through which alone conflicting national interests can be brought within the area of compromise. There were moments, as during the final sessions of the Italian political commission, when it seemed as if this rigid tension might relax: but on the morrow would come fresh instructions from the Politburo in Moscow and the ice would form again. There were moments, as when Marshal Stalin made his conciliatory statement to a British journalist, when it seemed that a fresh start might be made: but always the same polemics would begin again in plenary session or in commission, and the flow of anti-American and anti-British propaganda upon the Soviet wireless was not for one moment modified or deflected. At the Paris Conference of 1919, in spite of the many differences which arose between the Allied and Associated Powers, there did exist a certain uniformity of principle, in that all the participants at that date desired to create the same sort of world. At the Paris Peace Conference of 1946 there was no such uniformity of desire; the worlds which the two groups wished to create were not different only, but inimical. It was this conflict of principle which underlay and which embittered the divergences that arose.

Yet it was not only a difference in economic and social theory which sundered the western from the eastern group; there was also a fundamental, if unexpressed, divergence between the two conceptions of the proper use of power. The Russians tended to regard the two world wars as one, and to assume that their victory in 1945 gave them the right not merely to regain the old Tsarist frontiers but also to require such extensions of territory or influence as Russia could have claimed from her allies had she shared with them the victory of 1918. Nor was this all. Again and again did one derive the impression that the Russians interpreted the many polite assurances given to them during the course of the war as definite recognitions on the part of the western Powers of a wide Russian zone of influence in central and southeastern Europe. Under this imaginary partition each side was to have a free hand within its own allotted zone and no questions asked. It appeared to many Russians that the attitude of the western Powers in regard to such subjects as the free navigation of the Danube, the status of Trieste, reparations in Russian-occupied countries, or the composition of the Bulgarian, Polish or Rumanian Governments, indicated a desire to evade this supposed agreement. Even as birds mark out their feeding territories and resort to threat-displays when other birds encroach upon them, so also did the Russians react to any attempt on our part to open a chink in the iron curtain by making counter allegations and by fomenting trouble in the western zones.

The two streams of Soviet expansion -- the Communist stream and the Pan-Slav stream -- showed at moments a formidable congruity. Albania, being under a Communist dictatorship, became "the first victim of Fascist aggression." Bulgaria, who owed so much to Russia but who betrayed her thrice, was absolved from all iniquity; a Polish delegate on one occasion went so far as to refer to the "epic struggle" of Bulgaria against Nazi oppression. On the other hand, Greece, being neither a Communist nor a Slav country, was exposed to constant vilification; nor did the Russians for one instant remember that, had it not been for those six weeks of Greek resistance, Hitler would assuredly have captured Moscow. The violence of Soviet enmity or partisanship made it appear as if our support of our own friends was of a lukewarm nature. The Russians certainly sought to use the Conference to convey the impression that they could be a formidable enemy and a potent friend; the Americans and the British, being mild men on the whole, conveyed no such impression.

I am not of those who hold that it takes two to make a quarrel; it takes only one to make a quarrel; but it certainly takes two to make friends. I do not believe that even if the western Powers had possessed the most gifted and powerful negotiators they could ever, at the Paris Conference, have reached a solid agreement with Soviet Russia. The publicity with which the proceedings were conducted, and the Russian fear of losing face, would in themselves have prevented so desirable a result. I am convinced that Mr. Byrnes and Mr. Bevin were right in adopting an attitude which, while firm on all essentials, combined patience with forbearance. Yet it is to be regretted that no statesman from the western group displayed the same burning conviction in the liberal theory as the Russians and their associates displayed in the Communist theory.

Mr. Byrnes conveyed the impression that he was uncertain about the whole business and that he agreed with Mr. Bohlen that to argue with a Russian was a waste of time; Mr. Bevin was not in good health during the whole course of the Conference and was unable to manifest that vigor which renders him so forceful an orator; and M. Bidault was hampered throughout by the Communist members of his own Cabinet. Some of the minor delegates of course delivered useful speeches; Senator Vandenberg made good speeches; Senator Connally made quite good speeches; General Smuts made a speech which recalled the delegates to the nature of their responsibilities; much quiet but excellent work was done by M. Spaak of Belgium and by Baron van Boetzelaer of the Netherlands. Yet one was conscious throughout of the absence of any compelling personality. There was no man who could recall the Conference to the principles even of the Atlantic Charter; no man who could lift the Conference out of the ruts into which it so soon became embedded; and as a result, the Conference, from first to last, failed to become air-borne.

I am never impressed by people who, in their later age, contend that the methods and personalities of the present are inferior to those of the past. The expression, "They were giants in those days," always suggests to me that the user of that expression, in those days, must have been both young and small. In many ways I believe that Mr. Ernest Bevin, given the circumstances, is a more effective British Foreign Minister than Lord Balfour or Lord Curzon. Yet it was with dismay that I contrasted the United States delegation in Paris with that which accompanied President Wilson to the Conference of 1919. It would be foolish, of course, to compare the aura of prestige which surrounded President Wilson with the haze of vague benevolence which enshrouded, and at times bemused, Mr. Byrnes. I am not talking about that. What I mean is that the American delegation in 1919, the members of Colonel House's "Inquiry," represented all that was best in American scholarship, and therefore, if I may permit myself so odious a remark, all that is best in the American idea. There were men like Bowman, Seymour, Day, Coolidge, Haskins and Lord. To this day I look back with gratitude to the good fortune which brought me, as a member of the British delegation in 1919, into contact with such fine minds.

One did not have the impression, at this Conference, that the American delegation were equally equipped. One did not have the impression that they were guided by the same quality of expert knowledge or warned by similar powers of prescience. One had the impression that they were animated by some vague conception of righteousness and benevolence, striped with bands of improvisation. Yet their direct responsibility for and at this Conference was even greater than that which gave such seriousness to the splendid delegation of 1919. Am I being a laudator temporis acti? I do not think so. It was not a contrast only between trained and untrained minds: it was a contrast in intellectual authority: it was a contrast in seriousness.


So the scene shifts from the Luxembourg Palace. At Flushing Meadows and elsewhere will continue to be enacted the struggle between the liberal and the totalitarian conception of the good life, the old controversy between the state and the individual, the principle of compulsion and the principle of consent.

Of the many lessons which I learnt from the Paris Conference there are some which I shall find permanently useful. I do not now believe that we can understand the Russians: I believe that we can strive not to misunderstand them. I do not now believe (if I ever believed) that we can induce them to appreciate (still less to share) our liberal point of view: but I do believe that if we are clear, and firm, and consistent, and united, we can lead them to realize that there are certain rights and principles on which we shall make a stand. I do not believe that war is either inevitable or even probable: but I do believe that the liberal Powers, while being fair and generous to Russia and her associates, must maintain united vigilance and strength. I certainly do not believe that any arguments can shake the rigid Russian faith in their own dogma: but I do believe that, if we are very wise, we can in practice show the world that the Marxist dialectic is not scientific, that capitalism can in fact avoid the dread cycle of boom and slump and war, and that the liberal world can offer a way of life which is infinitely more humane and agreeable, while no less certain, than the way of life which Communism preaches. And above all I believe (as I have always believed) in the impossibility of finding any single or sudden solution of the present uncertainty. There is no patent medicine, no special course of treatment, which can cure these ills; all we can hope to do is to render our own bodies sufficiently healthy to resist these maladies. No sane man would predict what will have happened to the world in 10 years from now. Things may be better, and they may be worse. All we can do at present is to preserve our common principles, to follow the immediate course with vigilance and caution, to avoid the twin pitfalls of provocation and weakness, and to make quite certain that if disaster comes we shall not have to reproach ourselves, or each other, with lack of patience or intelligence. I believe that by so walking, we shall walk in safety. But we must walk together.

Together? That is a provocative word to apply to Anglo-American relations. In each country there are people whose minds are clouded by memories of the past and misinterpretations of the present. America has not yet fully realized what it means to be the greatest Power in the world; Great Britain has not yet fully realized that she has lost her old almost effortless superiority. The British will be slow to see that they cannot, and need not, any longer seek to attain nineteenth century aims by nineteenth century means. It will take the Americans some time before they take for granted the immensity of their own stature. In America we may well witness the hesitations, and perhaps even the intemperance, of people who assume unaccustomed responsibilities; in Great Britain we shall have to be careful that our pride does not become too sensitive. Over there, in the east, is a giant with a single idea; it would be unfortunate if our own ideas became too dislocated.

The British have a remarkable gift for adjusting themselves to altered conditions and for finding comforting formulas whereby to render such changes less disagreeable. It is already a political necessity for us to conform our foreign policy to that of the United States. That will not always be easy. Our principles may be the same and our ultimate purpose may be identical; but we have no instinctive confidence in the wisdom or experience of American diplomacy, and at the back of our minds there lies a haunting doubt. For if we follow the United States in all its chivalrous adventures, if we allow the missionary spirit of the Americans to lead us into arduous paths, what happens if a wave of isolationism returns? We have slight faith in the continuity of American policy, knowing full well the sudden tides of popular emotion by which it can be deflected. It is not only righteous, it is even profitable, to maintain the open door in central and eastern Europe; but supposing that America becomes bored by the open door? We know the form which the reaction will take; it will be said that American boys are sent to Europe for the benefit of British imperialism. And we shall be left there alone, holding five fat babies in our aged arms.

I do not say that this also is a lesson which the Paris Conference has taught me. I say only that the conflict between the east and west which the Conference disclosed is a dangerous and I fear rather lasting conflict; that if trouble is to be avoided we must remain united and consistent; and that if unity and consistency are to be maintained Great Britain must be more cautious about her commitments, America more aware of her responsibilities.

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  • HAROLD NICOLSON, former member of the British diplomatic service and Member of Parliament; author of "Peacemaking 1919," "Diplomacy," "The Congress of Vienna" and other works
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