Freedom of the Seas

THE Freedom of the Seas, like the Monroe Doctrine, is understood to be a phrase representing an aspect of the policy of the United States. Every nation has the right to define its own policy, and a British Secretary of State once provoked indignation by sending a dispatch to Washington in which it was argued that the Monroe Doctrine was not what the President of the United States described it to be. It is for the United States alone to define the Monroe Doctrine as being part of her own policy. But as other nations also have the right to define their own policies, it is for them to say how far the declared policy of another nation is compatible or conflicts with their own policies.

As far as the Monroe Doctrine is concerned, no friction except on the one occasion referred to above has arisen or is likely to arise between America and Britain. I am not aware that the United States has ever given any definition or declaration of the Monroe Doctrine which conflicts with British policy or aims. It is therefore unnecessary that there should be any discussion of the subject or exchange of views upon it. The United States has declared her policy to the world at large, and there is no likelihood of British policy running counter to it.

It is different with the Freedom of the Seas. The policy thus named applies not to one geographical area, as the Monroe Doctrine does, but to the whole world. Differences of opinion about right of capture at sea still exist. Even in peace time the sense of this difference causes a feeling of uneasiness between Britain and the United States; in the event of future war this might be not only serious but dangerous. It is therefore very desirable that the two nations should discuss the subject freely, when this can be done calmly and at leisure.

It is necessary, however, that we should know what is meant by Freedom of the Seas. The phrase has become so familiar that it is used as if the meaning was as familiar as the sound of the words; whereas in point of fact I doubt whether we are quite sure what it really does mean. Let us try to arrive at this by eliminating certain things which it presumably does not mean.

The full, literal, unqualified sense of the words would abolish national right to control territorial waters. This presumably is not meant. Whatever is contended about Freedom of the Seas, it will be agreed that there are to be such things as territorial waters and that freedom to use such waters will remain qualified and conditioned by national rights within these limits.

The "seas," therefore, for the purpose of this discussion, are to be regarded as the high seas outside territorial waters. For this purpose it may be desirable to have a clear understanding as to what are territorial waters. Even so, Freedom of the Seas must be still further qualified so as not to give immunity to battleships and other armed vessels of a belligerent nation. Each belligerent must retain the right to sink, capture or pursue the armed vessels of an opponent on the high seas.

If this be agreed, as I assume it is, then Freedom of the Seas applies only to merchant vessels. Here we come on to debatable ground, and it becomes necessary to ask questions as to what is meant. In the first place, is it the American view that the merchant vessels of a belligerent should be absolutely free from interference or capture on the high seas by the armed vessels of another belligerent? I have no right to assume the answer that the United States will give to this question, but let it be supposed for the purpose of further discussion that the answer will be in the negative -- that is to say, that Freedom of the Seas will not be construed so as to deprive a belligerent of all right to interfere with merchant vessels flying an enemy flag.

The next question will be whether a belligerent nation is to have no right to interfere with the merchant vessel of any neutral nation, no matter what the nature of the cargo or the destination of the vessel may be. In other words, is the whole doctrine of contraband of war to be swept away? This would be a great change, and here again, though I have no right to assume what is now meant by Freedom of the Seas, I will suppose that some right of capture or search on the high seas will still be left to a belligerent. The discussion will then be not whether there should be any belligerent rights as regards neutral merchant ships on the high seas at all, but what is to be the extent and the limits of such rights. This has hitherto been the ground of controversy on several occasions between Britain and the United States, and for the purpose of this paper I will assume that it will be the basis of discussion now.

It seems to be commonly supposed that there has been an American view of belligerent rights on the high seas and a British view, and that each view has been consistently opposed to the other. This is not accurate: it is indeed a misleading statement. American views and practice on this subject have not been consistent: nor have British views and practice. Let the British record be considered first.

British practice and arguments have varied. When Britain has been neutral, its public opinion has resented interference by belligerents with neutral ships and cargoes. I write from memory only, but I am confident that this can be proved by reference to the correspondence that passed between the British and French Governments when France was at war with China in the latter part of the last century. The French then declared rice to be contraband and argued for an extended view of belligerent rights. Britain disputed the French contention and argued for the limitation of belligerent rights. On the other hand, when Britain has been a belligerent, public opinion has insisted upon the utmost use of the navy to prevent supplies from reaching an enemy. The correspondence between the British and United States Governments in the first two years of the Great War is sufficient proof of this.

The United States record is similar. When neutral, she has contended for the rights of neutrals as against belligerent rights of interference with commerce; but when in the Great War she became a belligerent, she stood for the most extended rights of belligerents to control or supervise neutral commerce.

It is difficult to find in the practice of either nation anything that has not its parallel in the practice of the other. Each has had not one view, but varying views. Difficulties have arisen between Britain and the United States not because each has differed in principle from the other, but because they have not always held the same view at the same time. The record of practice shows that, had they always been neutrals together or belligerents together, they would never have differed about belligerent rights.

It is as if each had used a telescope. Each when neutral looked at belligerent rights through the end of the telescope that makes all objects seem very small. Each when belligerent has looked at these rights through the end of the telescope that makes objects seem very large.

Thus in the first part of the Great War Britain surveyed belligerent rights through the magnifying end of the telescope, the United States through the small end: the difference between their two points of view was naturally enormous. But when the United States entered the war she reversed her telescope, and all difference of view or practice disappeared. Indeed, it was as if the magnifying powers of the American telescope and of that of Britain were combined: for belligerent rights to interfere with neutral commerce were carried by the two nations together to an extreme that had never before been practiced, claimed or contemplated. America and the Allies ceased to bother about technical questions such as continuous voyage or the ultimate destination of particular cargoes. They discarded all argument and by force majeure put neutral neighbors of Germany on rations as regards everything that might help Germany to carry on the war.

Now the war is over and America and Britain are occupying different points of view as to what belligerent rights should be in future. American opinion recalls the intolerable nuisance of interference with American commerce by belligerents in a war in which America at first seemed to have no concern. American opinion seems to assume that in the next war the United States will be neutral and has therefore reverted to the neutral point of view: and this finds expression in the doctrine of the Freedom of the Seas.

British opinion, on the other hand, feels that its country has passed through a terrible crisis in which its liberty and its very status as an independent nation were at stake, and in which the issue was for a long time in doubt. Many people in Britain believe that had it not been for the sustained pressure of the British naval blockade of Germany the issue might have gone against the Allies and all that was at stake might have been lost: and that but for the pressure of the blockade even American help might not have been in time or have availed to save the Allies.

It is this very right of blockade that would be taken away by the Freedom of the Seas. Under modern conditions blockade could not be effective, it would indeed be a mere farce, if the limiting view of belligerent rights at sea which is now being put forward were adopted. The result would be that so long as an enemy fleet did not put to sea, the British Navy would be reduced to inactivity. Britain would in fact become a Power that could not hurt an aggressor; for the British Army, like that of the United States, is not maintained on a scale that can be regarded as a striking force. To this consideration must be added another disadvantage. London, the British capital and most vital spot, is more accessible to an air attack from a possible Continental enemy than are corresponding vital spots on the Continent to air attack from Britain. The conclusion is that with a navy reduced to a mere watching role in war, we should, if attacked by a Continental Power, be ab initio at a disadvantage. We should have more to fear than anyone else would have reason to fear from us.

The doctrine of the Freedom of the Seas has an altruistic or humanitarian as well as a commercial side. This higher aspect of it is illustrated by President Hoover's suggestion that in time of war food ships at any rate should be free. It may well be, therefore, that there are some people in America who feel impatient at British hesitation or reluctance to discuss the Freedom of the Seas -- an impatience that may feel conscious of a moral as well as a material justification.

If such impatience there be, I would ask those who feel it to imagine for a moment the mind of those who live in Britain. It may not be easy for an American to enter into this mind. For never since the independence of the United States was established in the eighteenth century have her people been in such peril from a foreign enemy as we were in the Great War; and never, as far as human foresight can see -- having regard to the geographical position of the United States, to her vast self-contained resources, and to the numbers and power of the people -- can she be made by any foreign foe to face an ordeal so terrible or an anxiety so intense as that from which we have but recently emerged. The margin by which we did emerge safely was narrow enough: the weapon of blockade was a great -- perhaps a really essential -- factor in winning our safety. Is it any wonder, when we are asked to discuss something which involves a pledge never to use this weapon again, that we should approach the discussion with misgiving and much caution? Some people in Britain probably feel the considerations here set forth to be conclusive against entering into the discussion at all. I do not agree with such a conclusion and will state the reasons for my opinion.

In the latter half of the Great War our most serious anxiety was lest German submarines preying upon merchant vessels should starve us into defeat. We could still prevent our enemies from getting oversea supplies, but under modern conditions it was more difficult than ever before to keep the sea open for our own supplies. Long range guns that could command the Channel, mines in the sea, aircraft, submarines, the recent inventions of science, have impaired our island security, for we must ever be dependent on imported food supplies. There are people who hold that the counter-inventions of science will master those that are unfavorable to us. Who can be sure of this? Would it not be well to accept President Hoover's suggestion that food ships in time of war should be free? We might by accepting it be impairing or retarding our chance of victory in a future war, but we should be greatly increasing our own security.

There are, however, one or two questions to be asked. The matter is not altogether simple.

The League of Nations and the Pact for the Renunciation of War have made it difficult for war to come in future between great nations without one of them having broken its obligations under one or both of these peace treaties. A nation which has set these obligations at naught will have no scruple about breaking other promises. If we are at war with such a nation, and it sinks or captures food ships destined for our ports, are we still to be bound by our pledge to respect food ships? The pledge will have been one given to all nations and the action of our enemy in breaking it can release us from it only in so far as it may justify us in retaliating upon ships or cargoes that actually belong to the enemy. The Covenant of the League of Nations and the Pact for the Renunciation of War have greatly diminished the prospect of future war. But these two treaties have also made us feel that if a nation does break these great and solemn obligations, no rules of war will be kept. We hope by these two treaties to be saved from war, but if in spite of them war does come, we must be prepared for a breach of every rule that has previously been accepted.

A further point remains. There is the need to secure that if food is to be free from capture in time of war the ships that carry food will carry nothing else. This difficulty might be overcome by strict supervision of the loading in neutral ports, but the supervision would have to be very strict and the food supplies confined to ships specially chartered for the purpose and loaded under this supervision.

Let us pass to consideration of supplies other than food, which though not actual munitions, are yet essential to carry on war: copper and rubber may be taken as examples. If we have observed every treaty obligation for the security of peace, and another nation has broken these and attacked us, are we to let all these supplies go through? Is the British fleet to remain inactive, to look on in acquiescence, while ships pass by conveying these supplies in unlimited quantity to a neutral port neighboring to the enemy, whence they can pour in an uninterrupted stream into the enemy country?

I have assumed that actual munitions, shells, rifles, guns will be regarded as contraband of war and legitimate capture. But is everything else, and not only food alone, to be guaranteed free passage?

Let it be supposed that a guarantee of free food supplies in time of war would have a balance of advantage in Britain's favor, and that in return for this it would be worth our while to concede some points about Freedom of the Seas that would have a balance of disadvantage to us. The question still remains: What is to be the position if an enemy breaks a rule that is to our advantage, and how can we be sure that this will not happen?

It will be observed that I have written thus far on two assumptions. One is that if we are at war it will be because some other nation has broken one or both of the great treaties to secure world peace. I have ignored the possibility of a British Government being thus to blame, because if it were thus in fault I should urge no plea that its interests should be considered. Nor has the contingency of a war in which neither belligerents could be charged with a breach of treaty been contemplated. Such an event is not inconceivable, at any rate technically, but to multiply in advance conceivable contingencies is an intolerable complication. Discussion should begin by contemplating one broad, clear and simple issue. This is the way to promote discussion of such a question as Freedom of the Seas; to overload the discussion at the outset by multiplying hypotheses is to choke it.

The other assumption on which this has been written is that the United States will not enter into any treaty or agreement about Freedom of the Seas that involves any obligation to take action or apply sanctions if the rules are broken. I have assumed that any such proposal must be excluded from the discussion. This assumption we are not only entitled but bound to make after the statements made by President Hoover, and by others made in connection with the Pact for the Renunciation of War. The first reason, then, why Britain should be willing to enter into discussion is as follows: It is a mistake to suppose that Britain has everything to lose and nothing to gain by Freedom of the Seas. We are more dependent upon overseas supplies, particularly of food, than any Continental country. As long as we could deny Freedom of the Seas to enemy supplies and maintain it for ourselves in time of war the position was naturally very satisfactory to us; but the inventions of science have already put the matter in doubt, and should they progress to a point at which even a superior navy cannot keep the sea open in time of war for its national supplies, then Britain has at least as much as any other nation to gain by an assured Freedom of the Seas.

Some will not be convinced by the above consideration and will ask: "Why should we not leave the question alone? Why should we not keep our hands free, and in the event of future war do as we did in the last war?" The answer is this:

In the last war, before the United States entered it, we pressed the right of blockade as far as we could without a breach with America. We knew this matter to be delicate; it was even more dangerous than we knew. Such books as the life of Walter Hines Page and the papers of Colonel House show that in the first part of the war we came nearer to a breach with the United States than even the most cautious of us realized at the time. It may seem illogical that we should have been brought near to a breach with the United States by doing less than the United States was ready to participate in herself directly she entered the war, but logic and consistency have not hitherto governed the views that nations have held about belligerent rights at sea. Or the same thing may be put positively by saying that every nation has been consistent in taking the view that suited its own interest at the time. The risk of a breach with America was not the only unpleasantness for the British Government in the first years of the war. We were exposed to reproach and obloquy from our own people: the demand was insistent that we should press belligerent rights at sea to the point of defying the United States, that is to a point that would have been fatal to the cause of our Allies and to our own.

As it was in the last war so would it be in another war. Britain in 1914 to 1917 did indeed come through without disaster, but as we look back with all the knowledge that we have since gained of the feeling at Washington it is surprising that we did come through; and it is to be hoped that no British Government ever will again have to engage in negotiations so critical and delicate with so powerful a neutral and at the same time be exposed to the pressure and reproaches of a public opinion at home for refusing to do what must certainly bring that neutral into the war against us. But should there be a future war in which Britain is again a belligerent and the United States is neutral the same dangerous situation will assuredly recur if we have meanwhile refused even to discuss the Freedom of the Seas.

Thus far the subject has been considered from the point of view of British national interest; and it is natural and reasonable that this should be our first consideration. We have but recently escaped great national peril, and experience has shown us that under modern conditions our island security is not, and probably can never again be, what it has been in histroy. But it is not on this basis, however, that coöperation and friendship with the United States can be sought. Friendship based on vital national interests takes the form of alliance or political entente. These can be based only on a conviction that the security of each nation depends on friendship with the other. There can be no such reciprocal conviction between the United States and any other nation. The intrinsic strength and geographical position of the United States make it independent of the support of any other nation. This it is, I imagine, which makes the historic American warning against foreign alliances or entanglements as potent in America today as it was when it was first enunciated. And so no doubt it will remain; for every nation would gladly avoid foreign entanglements as long as it felt that it could safely do so. Nor can friendship with the United States be based on the fact of common language or racial kinship. The latter as between the United States and Britain is only partial. These two factors, language and race, may and do make intercourse between individuals easy and pleasant, but neither one nor the other nor both together qualify or affect the fact that the national feeling of the United States is purely American and distinct from the national feeling of Britain, which is British; and that in any clash of policies or aims between the two countries their respective national feelings will draw apart as separate entities. In fact, in so far as American national sentiment can be said to have manifested any predilection at all, it has, owing to historical associations, been for France.

Friendship between the United States and any other nation cannot therefore be based on mutual national interest. It can come only by coöperation in something that is not exclusive: that is, in something that transcends any individual national interest, something in which the national interest of every nation may have a share and in which every nation may join.

Such an opportunity occurred when President Wilson proposed and pursued the policy of founding the League of Nations; then came the decision of the United States not to become a member of the League and the opportunity seemed to disappear. But the forces that make for world peace were still active. The League of Nations began to function and the United States showed that, though her decision not to join the League was unaltered, the motive and the ideal that had prompted its formation were still active in America. The attitude of the United States to the League was not unfriendly; on the contrary, it was one of good will, as was shown by the sending of friendly American observers to conferences and committees initiated or organized by the League. There followed an American initiative in movements for the reduction of armaments and finally in proposing the Pact for the Renunciation of War.

Thus the opportunity for coöperation with the United States for world peace has grown, has been fruitful, and continues. To refuse discussion of the Freedom of the Seas, if the United States proposes it, would be a distinct check to this coöperation. For the question has in the past been a cause of serious international controversy and is therefore very relevant to the security of future peace, which is concerned with the removal of potential causes of conflict as well as with the settlement of disputes after they have arisen.

Such is my final plea for agreeing to discuss the Freedom of the Seas. This does not imply that whatever the United States proposes must at once be accepted. Nor, I am sure, would the United States expect this. If she did so it would be quite contrary to the spirit in which all her peace initiatives have been taken. Difficulties will be met with -- some of them have been indicated here -- and these should not be left to arise as unforeseen obstacles in a formal conference. There should be, as in the case of the Five Power Naval Conference, preliminary, frank and informal discussion between the Governments. Especially should they consider what bearing the existence of the Pact for the Renunciation of War and the Convenant of the League of Nations has upon the question of the Freedom of the Seas. If either of these instruments is broken, the situation will not be the same as in previous wars. The Freedom of the Seas must be considered in the light not only of previous controversies, but also of these new future contingencies.

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