NOT the least remarkable feature of Canada's remarkable general election campaign, which ended in October in the return of the Liberal Party to power, was the fact that the appeals of the major parties avoided all temptations to exploit the critical international situation for political purposes. This was a break in the Canadian political tradition, and it bore striking testimony to the effect of Canada's new status of independence and equality upon the poise and balance of our parties. Formerly the attitude owed by Canada to Great Britain in matters of war and defense was a continuing issue in our politics which, in times of excitement, threatened to submerge all other issues.

The contrast between the excitement which attended the Chanak incident in 1922 and the calm of 1935 when the international situation was even more menacing, is a measure of our growth in a sense of national dignity and reserve. The League of Nations was in existence in 1922; but when the new and aggressive Turkish Republic threatened the arrangements of the Treaty of Sèvres, the government of Great Britain at once accepted the responsibility of defending the threatened positions and forthwith sent advices to the governments of the Dominions which have been variously described as messages of mere information and as a summons to take part in the struggle which was thought to be impending. That they were the latter cannot be successfully denied.

This 1922 call to action was a "try-out" of a system of imperial government which had been tentatively agreed upon at the Imperial Conference the year before. The system provided for common external policies and for common action in support or defense of them. When the hour came for its application it broke down principally because Canada, where there had been a change of government from Conservative to Liberal between 1921 and 1922, failed to obey the summons pending consideration of the situation by the Canadian Parliament. There was wide-spread resentment in Canada because the government at Ottawa refused to line-up with the governments of New Zealand and Australia which automatically responded to the signal; and a political issue at once emerged. Mr. Meighen, who had represented Canada in the Imperial Conference of 1921, and who was then leading the Conservative Party in opposition, at once challenged the policy of the Liberals. Speaking in Toronto, Mr. Meighen declared he would back up the government in rushing a message of loyal cooperation overseas as New Zealand and Australia had done. Canada, he said, was a party to the Treaty of Sèvres. "Yet when Canada is appealed to and asked to stand by her compact, when Canada should have said 'ready, aye, ready,' we did nothing." Europe, having been threatened by a new power, Great Britain had found it necessary to raise her hand and say, "Only thus far shall you go." "Britain taking this stand," Mr. Meighen continued, "sends messages to her Dominions, not a merely indifferent informal inquiry if we can judge from the evidence, but an appeal for coöperation. New Zealand and Australia replied at once and the British Government in a message of thanks to these countries -- a message in which Canada was not included -- expressed its heartfelt gratitude on behalf of the British people. Out of this crisis arises the question which is today foremost in the minds of the people: Where should Canada be found when the Motherland asks her to take a stand in defense of a treaty and a treaty which is not only hers but ours?"

This was in September 1922. Nothing could be more accurate than Mr. Meighen's statement that at that time a great body of opinion in Canada, representative of perhaps half the people, held that the British Government must determine external policy for all the British nations; that the plain duty of the Dominions was to say, "Ready, aye, ready," when this policy involved the possibility of war.

It is this attitude which has almost completely vanished from the minds of the people of Canada in the intervening years. When the Italo-Ethiopian difficulty became menacing to world peace, Great Britain acted with vigor and decision as a member of the League of Nations. This marked a change of attitude on the part of Great Britain from a position of guarded and qualified support of the League to what is, to all appearance, a permanent acceptance of the League as the determinant of British foreign policy where it affects those high issues which have within them the possibility of war. "The League of Nations," said the National Government in its election manifesto, "will remain the keystone of British foreign policies." "I am quite certain," said Winston Churchill in Parliament, "that the British Empire will never fight another war contrary to the Covenant." On this occasion, unlike 1922, no fiery cross went out to the Dominions summoning them to the defense of Imperial interests. Great Britain and the Dominions met at Geneva not as an Empire bloc but as individual member states of the League of Nations concerned with the other member states about Italy's violation of her League engagements. The attitude of the Canadian Government towards this issue was stated by Mr. Howard Ferguson, the High Commissioner of Canada in London. "If," he said, "a solution of the Italo-Ethiopian difficulty is not found and if there is resort to war, then the whole post-war system of collective security, based not on arms and alliances but on the outlawry of war and the pacific solution of all disputes, would be in danger of collapse. Such a collapse would affect every member of the League in every continent. There could be no escape from its consequences." "We hope," he added, "that an honorable and peaceful solution of the Ethiopian controversy will yet be reached. If, unfortunately, this proves not to be the case, Canada will join with the other members of the League in considering how by unanimous action peace can be maintained." Though the language was guarded, it was an acceptance by Canada of her obligations under the Covenant. It brought within the range of probability the association of Canada with the other members of the League in the application of preventive or punitive sanctions.

The proceedings at Geneva synchronized with a Canadian political campaign which was being fought with the usual noise and violence. The leaders of both major parties, however, instead of finding in these developments the pretext for further controversy, as would certainly have been the case ten years earlier, made statements which while textually different amounted in content and purpose to virtually the same thing. These statements appeared much too guarded both to the perfervid Imperialist and to the militant Leaguer, but having regard to the state of opinion in Canada (which with respect to the possibility of serious trouble was hostile and incredulous) they were marked by a wise restraint. Both Mr. Bennett and Mr. King, the leaders of these parties, put an emphasis upon their determination to protect the interests of the Canadian people. Yet there was a recognition of the duty which was imposed upon the League to keep the peace, if necessary by restraining an offending power, and an acceptance both express and implied of obligation on the part of Canada. Mr. King, who succeeded to the premiership in the following month, was the more explicit of the two, since he envisaged the possibility of the intervention of the League resulting in military sanctions. He made an engagement that, if actual war threatened, the Canadian Parliament would be called upon to decide whether the circumstances required Canadian participation. This reservation in no way derogated from Canada's acceptance of League obligations, since under the resolution of 1923, interpreting Article 10, each country must decide for itself whether its geographical location and its particular interests require participation by it in the application of military sanctions. Nor did the emphasis put by the party leaders on the need to consider national interests in reaching decisions imply any foreshadowing of an attempt to evade legitimate obligations. As a Canadian newspaper put it: "The maintenance of peace and the outlawing of war is for Canada as for every other civilized country the primary national interest."

Remarkable to those familiar with the explosive possibilities of any question involving even a hint of war were the absence of any attempt by the major parties to exploit isolationist sentiment, and the common agreement that this was a question affecting Canada only as a member of the League. This implied a common neglect of the theory that there ought to be an Imperial policy bearing on the matter in issue to which all the Dominions should proclaim their adherence. The significance of this did not seem to be understood or appreciated by the public, which accepted the disappearance of a once dominant note as a matter of course. There naturally were protests here and there. The most vigorous of these appeared in the Ottawa Journal, a leading Canadian paper of independent Conservative views. Its criticisms reproduce faithfully the sentiments of the "Empire" school. On September 18 this paper said:

The Journal would have liked to see some political leader in Canada making a plain confession of faith at the present moment both as to the League of Nations and as to what he holds should be the position of Canada in the ultimate as regards British connection. There has been no such leadership. There has been merely the convenient refuge that if the worst comes to the worst -- if British war eventuates -- Parliament will vote about it. . . .

Vote about it? Vote about what? About war? In part, yes. But what more? We take it that separation from the British Empire would be involved. And, if that is so, or even if only probable, would it not be well for us to understand the issue clearly now, and that our political leaders should discuss the matter frankly and state their own point of view? And, as they are intelligent men, state that should British war ensue, a vote by the Dominion Parliament as to whether Canada should take part will not be a vote merely about war but will necessarily be, we think, a vote as to whether or no Canada shall declare separation from the British Empire? . . .

And so the Journal will contribute its own third point of view, namely that we think this country should remain British to its last man and its last dollar -- that the British League of Nations is the best League of all, the greatest factor for peace whenever peace is possible, and the best hope for the future of the world. . . .

There could be no more complete expression than this of a political doctrine strongly held in Canada but yesterday, but which has mostly evaporated leaving behind it a very limited sense of loss. Here we have the assumption that there is a "British" war in sight and that therefore the Dominions with their hands on their sword hilts should pledge support to Great Britain in the policy which is in the making. And there is also the assertion that the British League of Nations, being the best League, has first claim on the affections and the allegiance of the younger British nations. From the Empire group protests have come, as here noted; but it is interesting and suggestive that up to the time this is written the supposedly powerful isolationist group has been, with inconsiderable exceptions, silent.

It is much too early, however, to interpret these signs as evidence that there has been a complete crystallization of Canadian public opinion behind the pro-League attitude. Public interest was monopolized until the middle of October by our unique political campaign with four national parties competing for the mastery and the exciting spectacle of Mr. Bennett, the chief of the doomed Conservative Government, making a spectacular last stand on the public platforms. It is only now that the realization has come home to the generality of the electors that war is again loose in the world and that Canada is directly concerned with the vindication of the principle of international law -- new since 1919 -- that the keeping of the world peace is the collective task of the nations.

The Liberal Government, upon taking office, reaffirmed the Canadian position with greater precision but yet with a note of caution, keeping the door open for the possible exercise in the future of those rights of reservation which are permissible under the Covenant. In a public statement, Mr. Mackenzie King, the new Prime Minister, said:

The League authorities are being informed that the Canadian Government will take the necessary steps to secure the effective application of the economic sanctions against Italy proposed by the coördination committee. The Canadian Government at the same time desires to make it clear that it does not recognize any commitment binding Canada to adopt military sanctions and that no such commitment could be made without the prior approval of the Canadian parliament.

It is also to be understood that the Government's course in approving economic sanctions in this instance is not to be regarded as necessarily establishing a precedent for future action.

In the future, as in the past, the Government will be prepared to participate in the consideration of the most effective means of advancing the aims of the League through the adjustment of specific controversies, the lessening of the rivalries based upon exaggerated economic nationalism, the renewal of the effort to stem the rising tide of competitive armament, and such other policies as are appropriate for a country in the geographic and economic position of the Dominion, and as will ensure unity and common consent in Canada as well as the advancement of peace abroad.

We have here an illustration of how decisive events can be in reducing a complex theoretical problem to simple proportions, thus revealing the way to its solution. For the past four years there has been incessant controversy in Canada over foreign policy and the course which should be followed to ensure the Dominion maximum security. Until 1931 there existed an unreflecting belief in the workability of the League. The era of wars of conquest and ambition was supposed to be over; the League could and would keep the peace; the responsibility for the direction of the League would fall in the main upon the Great Powers. Canada therefore had no occasion for worrying. This easy optimism did not survive Japan's adventure in Manchuria. Canada was shocked by Japan's callous and daring resort to pre-war policies into realization that she might find herself again in a war of vast range and possibly, as a Pacific power, in the area of actual disturbance. From that time forward there was continuing discussion as to what course the Canadian Government should take in preparation for the dangerous times which were foreseen.

The three schools of opinion already described -- the Empire, the League and the Isolationist -- had their counterparts in Great Britain, though the isolationists in their terminology and program (so far as this was developed) drew also upon sources in the United States. The Imperial school urged the re-consolidation of the Empire, in terms of foreign policy and defense, at the very moment when by the passage of the Westminster Act the right of the Dominions to complete control of their external relations was being given formal legal recognition. They wanted the creation of some kind of organization which would ensure a common foreign policy in matters which might involve war, common arrangements as to defense, with an allocation of duties and responsibilities. This was an attempt to give definite form to the vague and formless project of 1921, which went to pieces the following year in the crisis after the Chanak incident. Some saw a place for this Imperial bloc in the League of Nations, but others shared the opinion which has never lacked free expression in influential quarters in Great Britain, to the effect that there is a fundamental divergence between the spirit of Geneva and the historic destiny of the British peoples. Let the British nations stand together, trade together, cultivate self-sufficiency to the greatest possible degree, arm themselves against emergencies, and face the future with courage and confidence -- such was the program advocated with a considerable measure of definiteness by writers, public men and journals holding "right wing" views.

This movement was well under way by 1933. It encountered in Canada, as in Great Britain, the resistance of League of Nations sentiment. The strength of this sentiment in Canada was however a matter of doubt. It found formal expression through the League of Nations Society, an organization which struggled for existence in the face of apparent public indifference. Much of the League sentiment was nothing but a vague, idealistic aspiration for peace. It did not give grounds for much hope that it could be counted upon in a time of emergency. Further to the left was the admittedly formidable but as yet formless body of isolationist opinion. The more vocal elements in this group were outright isolationists, opposed alike to Imperial commitments and League obligations. But, as events were to prove, much of this sentiment was contingent -- it awaited, before becoming operative, the demonstration of League impotency.

A considerable clarification of opinion resulted from the British Commonwealth Relations Conference which was held in Toronto in September 1933 under the auspices of the Royal Institute of International Relations and its affiliated body, the Canadian Institute of International Affairs. This conference was made up of unofficial groups representing all the nations of the British Commonwealth (except the Irish Free State); and the complex question of the right relationship of these nations to one another and to the League, became the central theme. The views of the delegations from Australia and New Zealand were wholly in favor of an Imperial bloc with common foreign and defense policies. In the British, Canadian and South African delegations the three varieties of opinion noted above had their exponents. As the discussions proceeded, it became clear that answers could not be found to many of the Commonwealth questions in which the delegates were interested until the functions of the League had been defined not in theory but by practice. Among the puzzling Commonwealth questions were these:

Does the declaration of war by the King upon the advice of his Ministers representing one British nation bind all the nations? Or is neutrality possible for a nation whose Ministers did not join in the advice?

If the King can declare war on the advice of one set of Ministers, can any one of his six sets of advisers -- the Government of Canada, for instance -- tender this advice and thus involve all six kingdoms in hostilities? Or is the right to declare war still vested solely in His Majesty's United Kingdom Ministers?

Such questions presupposed a world in which the British nations could collectively or individually pursue policies involving war. It became very obvious that this pre-supposition either took no account of the League of Nations or regarded it as a negligible factor. This point of view was put forward with such force that a sub-commission of the Conference was constituted to study it. The sub-commissions' report was of remarkable brevity and reached conclusions beyond challenge:

It seems clear to us that in perhaps every case that can be imagined the machinery of the League or the obligations assumed under the Kellogg Pact will make clear to the nations of the Commonwealth the course that they should pursue.

It seems to us academic and unprofitable to consider legal constitutional difficulties which might arise if there were no Covenant and no Kellogg Pact. The principles of freedom and coöperation and "agreed anomalies" on which the Commonwealth is based, may create difficulties in many fields and we feel, therefore, that it would serve no useful purpose to try and foresee problems in one field, that of war, which we are entitled to hope are never likely to arise, and to seek to apply to them legal conceptions as to war and neutrality appropriate to the pre-League world.

The inference from these findings was that the British nations, instead of worrying about their war-time relations with one another, should concern themselves seriously with the question of their relationship to the League and with the much larger problem of the effectiveness of the League's equipment to do the work assigned to it, i.e. the keeping of peace by making war and peace the collective concern of the nations. This was recognized in the report of the Conference, in which the following observation was made:

Whatever view may be held as to the authority of the collective system at the present time, as to the best means for strengthening it, and as to the nature of its interdependence with the Commonwealth, the moral forces which have brought about the establishment remain in existence -- at least in the British Commonwealth. Inside its borders, they find their expression in the common outlook and ideals which form the deepest bond between its members. Thus, without seeking to predict the course of future events, it is clear that in the strengthening of these forces lies the best hope not only for the future of the Commonwealth but for the preservation and peaceful progress of our civilization.

The effect of these findings upon subsequent developments of opinion throughout the Commonwealth may be over-estimated. It may be that the Conference revealed tendencies more than set them in motion. But certain it is that the suggestion in the Conference conclusion that the Commonwealth nations, in coöperation but not as a centralized bloc, should in all ways possible support the League as the most effective available means of furthering peace has been vindicated very strikingly by developments in the British nations since 1933 and specifically by the attitude which these nations now have taken towards the Italo-Ethiopian dispute.

In Great Britain supporters of the League have insisted that Great Britain face up to its ultimate obligations under the Covenant. This opinion finally found in the Peace Ballot an expression so formidable and convincing as to be, apparently, the determining factor in recent British policy. The discomposure of the British Government over the determination of those in charge of the Peace Ballot enterprise to invite the judgment of the public on the desirability of invoking sanctions in case of need was shown in many ways, as for instance by the petulant protests of the London Times. As early as 1919 the British public had been officially advised that the League simply provided for a new, free, flexible conference method of diplomacy. In the intervening years that view had been repeatedly expounded. Only a few months ago a group of notable students of international affairs, said, in suggesting modifications in League objectives, that "Great Britain cannot accept the kind of commitment which in the present temper of continental politics is alone likely to satisfy the continental demand for security." These commitments, it was further explained, are, "too rigid for British taste or British parliamentary institutions." The most effective comment upon such tactics of belittling British support of the League is supplied by a series of speeches made in the last three months: by Mr. Baldwin and Sir Samuel Hoare on behalf of the British Government; by Mr. Winston Churchill; by Sir Herbert Samuel, on behalf of the Liberals; and by Dr. Hugh Dalton on behalf of the Labor Party. Great Britain has become openly and avowedly a country whose foreign policy upon issues which involve the possibility of international friction is League policy.

In Canada also, as noted above, there has been a corresponding revelation of readiness to support the League and to make the League's policy the policy of Canada in times of international stress. The doctrines of isolation -- that we should withdraw from the League or should stay in it only on the understanding that it involves no obligations in the way of sanctions -- which were advocated in the past two or three years with increasing stridency, have been abandoned or are in abeyance while the League seeks an adjustment of the present dangerous Ethiopian difficulty. Canada, like Great Britain and the other British Dominions, has made herself an active coöperating part of the League in an attempt to give effect to League principles as plainly set out in the Covenant and not in the spirit of the watered-down interpretation which has been so widely employed in the past sixteen years. This is the position at this time of writing; and if it should change before these lines appear in print it will be due to the fact that the League has proved unequal to its task and has faltered in its purpose.

Should this happen -- if the 52 nations now joined together to vindicate the law of nations should fail, implying thereby not their impotence but their final unwillingness under test to use their power collectively -- the League, as it was conceived by its founders and for the purpose to which it was primarily designed, would disappear, though it might survive in chains for the discharge of minor international functions if there should be room for these in a world which had rejected the idea of collective security and gone back to conditions of international anarchy. In that event, what would be the relationship of Canada to the other British nations and to the outside world? The discussion of this hardly comes within the scope of this article. Here is a bridge to be crossed only when it is reached. But it can be suggested that the world that would result from the disappearance of the League would give testimony to the soundness of the predictions that in a Leagueless world the British Commonwealth would be subject to strains of unpredictable violence with consequences not to be estimated. In such a world the conception of a British peace maintained over the seven seas by the pooled power of the British nations available for action under some common agency of control would not be realizable. Great Britain is a European country by geography and by interest; she would have to protect herself, not only at home but with respect to her colonial interests in every part of the world, by joining whatever European alliance would offer the best guarantee of security.

This would be a security not of peace but one based on the hope of a predominance of power in the wars that would inevitably ensue. Great Britain could not carry the Dominions -- at any rate not all of them -- into any such alliance. It is indeed probable that, in facing the realities of an anarchic world, she would find that she could not afford to have her freedom of action as a European power limited by the timidities and resistances of the Dominions. This is a consideration to which not enough attention is given. Locarno is an illustration. The British Government believed that it was essential for the pacification of Europe that Great Britain should be a party to the Locarno agreement; and alone among the British nations Great Britain signed it, thus raising questions as to the internal relationships of the Commonwealth nations to which answers are not yet forthcoming. The Dominions were not prepared to join in the obligations which Great Britain undertook as a signatory of Locarno. To what degree did her action impose upon them responsibilities to which they had not given consent? General Smuts at the time thought the action disruptive. Certainly the succession of such acts to which Great Britain would be driven in defense of her European and Imperial interests, in the absence of the League of Nations, could not but be disruptive.

No little probability therefore attaches to the prediction that the abandonment of the idea of collective security would be followed by changes in the relationship of the British nations to each other. The present indefiniteness, with its dangers both to Great Britain and the Dominions, could not be allowed to continue. The alternative -- a common foreign policy and pooled strength for offence or defense, so persistently cherished by the Imperialists both in Great Britain and the Dominions -- could not be achieved in the face of realities. As in the case of the existing Commonwealth, which is without precedent or parallel as a form of constitutional union, there would have to be developed some new unique basis of relationship which would give large liberty of action to all units of the Commonwealth to adjust their policies in the light of their own problems and of such important considerations as geographical location and particular sectional interests or affiliations.

These are questions for the possible future. They will never arise if the League is able to fulfil the purposes for which it was brought into being. But should the League collapse, the next day they will be on the doorstep of Great Britain, Canada and the other British Dominions.

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  • J. W. DAFOE, Editor of the Winnipeg Free Press since 1901; Chancellor of the University of Manitoba
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