THE statements recently made by President Hoover and Mr. Ramsay MacDonald prove that the malaise which has underlain Anglo-American relations since the break-down of the Geneva Naval Conference in 1927 has been dispelled. The suspicion which was then engendered has been replaced by the confidence that, whatever the practical difficulties may be, the two countries are agreed that their navies shall be equal and therefore non-competitive and that they genuinely desire to make the Paris Pact for the renunciation of war the basis of their international policy.

It is not the purpose of this article to discuss how "parity" should be applied to the differing geographical circumstances of the United States and the British Commonwealth of Nations, nor to explore what the "ratios" between the British and the American navies and the navies of Japan, France, Italy and Germany should be, nor to consider the nature of the "yardstick" which will enable the varieties of naval armaments to be clearly and justly compared with one another. All these problems are now under consideration by the governments concerned and the outcome will be disclosed in due time. Its purpose is rather to draw attention to certain underlying elements in the Anglo-American problem which will remain unaffected whether an agreement on "parity," "ratios" and "yardsticks" is reached or not, and which will, sooner or later, have to be faced before any sure basis of Anglo-American comity or world peace can come in sight.


The only practicable basis for an agreement to limit and reduce armaments is the total renunciation of war as a method of settling disputes between the parties. Unless war is entirely ruled out, each side will maintain the armaments which it thinks will give it victory, or at least security, when war comes. That is commonsense, and also the verdict of history.

A naval agreement between the United States and the British Empire -- taken by themselves -- should be easy, because war is, in fact, ruled out, not only by the Pact of Paris but by the repeated utterances of statesmen and by public sentiment on both sides of the Atlantic. There is no Anglo-American political question which public opinion either in the United States or Great Britain would dream of trying to settle by war rather than by pacific means. An agreement about "parity" on the basis of a flexible "yardstick" can be reached directly the civil governments in Washington and London instruct their respective Admiralties to ignore the possibility of war.

The whole difficulty in Anglo-American relations arises from the possibility of war elsewhere. Great Britain cannot ignore the possibility of being involved in war in the north Atlantic and the Mediterranean arising out of the discords of Europe and the Near East. The United States cannot ignore the possibility of being involved in war in the Pacific arising out of the discords of Asia. The actual minimum standard of naval armaments which the "yardstick" will define will be determined not by fear of the policy of the other but by what each thinks necessary for dealing with the uncertainties of Europe and Asia. The risk of interference by Europe in North and South America, which the Monroe Doctrine was originally designed to prevent, has almost disappeared.

It has been the situation which arises when one of the two Powers is at war and the other is at peace which has caused all the serious controversies in Anglo-American history, i.e., the war of 1812 and the crises of 1861-62 and 1914-17. The central fact in Anglo-American relations is that every European or Asiatic conflict is liable to precipitate an Anglo-American conflict over belligerent and neutral rights at sea, however friendly the two nations may otherwise be. The main reason why either nation thinks of building a navy against the other is not that it fears attack but in order that it may be able to protect its ocean-borne commerce in the event of one of the two nations being at war with third parties when the other is at peace. As Senator Borah sees, this is the real Anglo-American difficulty and Anglo-American relations will not be on a stable basis until it is solved.

It is quite clear that the problem cannot be solved by entrenching the traditional British doctrine of maximum belligerent rights, for the United States began her present navy in 1916 for the avowed purpose of making it impossible for belligerents in quarrels of their own to interfere with her neutral trade according to their own interpretations and extensions of international law. She demands parity to-day primarily for the same reason. And even if the United States were to agree, other naval nations would refuse. To perpetuate high belligerent rights against neutral trade in "private" wars would be quite inconsistent with the policy embodied in the Covenant of the League of Nations and the Briand-Kellogg Pact. Moreover, the maintenance of the right to exercise high belligerent rights at its own discretion was a practical policy for Great Britain when she had "command of the seas," but today it leads straight to a conflict with an equal naval power -- a conflict she obviously couldn't contemplate if she were already engaged in a struggle with some other naval power. The acceptance of "parity" in 1922 was a tacit admission that the traditional British policy could not be continued.

It is equally clear that the problem cannot be solved by making the seas "free" to the trade of all nations in time of war, i.e. by entrenching neutral rights. British opinion believes that its navy has been, in fact, not only the shield of Britain's own defense but the guardian of world freedom. It would certainly refuse to abandon the right, which it possesses under immemorial international law, to use its navy to prevent its enemies from trading with neutrals if that were necessary either to preserve its own existence or to prevent some new Napoleon or Lenin from trying to dominate Europe or the world. It is doubtful whether American opinion, now that the American navy is as strong as any other, would agree to rules which would prevent its effective use in times of crisis. American opinion, too, is coming to see that a policy of "neutrality" is not enough, as the various embargo resolutions before Congress prove. On the one side a policy of neutrality tends not towards peace but to convert every war into an Anglo-American war, for neutral rights can be enforced only by war or the threat of war. On the other side, the enforcement of absolute neutral rights would be to nullify all effective international action to deal with an aggressor or to prevent war. The "freedom of the seas" is inseparable from the freedom of the world, for if the seas were "neutralized," land powers would be left with belligerent rights which were denied to naval powers, and naval powers would possess no lawful way of putting any limits on the power of military states to use their armaments for unjust or autocratic purposes, as they did in 1917-18.

Nor can the problem be solved by attempting to re-codify maritime law so as to secure agreement as to what belligerent and neutral rights at sea should be. The last war proved that all earlier codifications, e.g. the Declaration of Paris (1856) or the Declaration of London (1909), break down under the stress of world war, and that under modern conditions of the "guerre totale" it is impossible to distinguish between contraband and non-contraband, or between public and private property at sea. Everything except ostrich feathers is used for war purposes. Further, the whole idea of codifying neutral and belligerent rights is incompatible with the Kellogg-Briand Pact, and in some measure with the Covenant of the League of Nations and the Locarno Treaties. It is quite illogical as well as a confession of lack of faith to draw up rules for warfare if the use of war itself is to be forbidden and renounced.

We are still left, therefore, with the fundamental problem of Anglo-American relations -- What is to happen when one nation becomes involved in a war while the other is a neutral? There is only one solution and that is that they should use all their efforts to prevent the settlement of international disputes by war, i.e. to make the Briand-Kellogg Pact effective. The alternatives are inexorable. Either war is prevented, or every war is liable to develop into an Anglo-American war.


Consideration of the general problem of disarmament leads to the same conclusion. So long as war is tolerated as a method of settling international disputes, armaments are inevitable, for there is nothing else upon which nations can rely for the protection of their rights and independence. Yet armaments inevitably produce war. They may give security, but only at the price of war. Armaments, of course, are justified on the ground that they are merely legitimate instruments of national security. But no nation can make itself secure by armaments except by having armaments which will give it victory in the event of war, i.e. by making its neighbors insecure. Hence the perpetual repetition throughout history of competition in armaments ending in periodic war.

Moreover, so long as the settlement of international disputes by war is tolerated, it is almost impossible to secure that they are settled justly, for nations will not agree to international solutions, however just, which will prejudice their own strategic security in the event of war. For instance, the "union" of Austria and Germany is forbidden, not because people want to keep Austrian and German Germans apart, but solely because of the effect it would have on the strategic situation in Europe. Hence, too, the well-known difficulty of getting territorial re-adjustments or the revision of peace treaties. So long as there is a risk of war nations will not disarm, and international injustices which provoke to war will not be remediable except by war.

The only way to secure disarmament (and just solutions of international questions) is to prevent war altogether, so that reason and justice and not the high hand shall settle international disputes. Yet there is little chance of obtaining effective coöperation for the prevention of war unless armaments are reduced to the police level, and used for police and not for military purposes. The objection to "sanctions" springs largely from the fact that so long as nations are heavily armed, a promise to coöperate in preventing or stopping war or curbing an aggressor implies an obligation to take part in a first class war. The possibility of obtaining international guarantees against war becomes easier in proportion as armaments diminish.

So long as national armaments exist they must be used either as instruments by which international disputes are settled by war, or as the instruments by which resort to war is prevented. They must be used either for military purposes or for police purposes. There is no third alternative. If war is to be ended, nations must not only cease to use their armaments as the instruments of their national policy; they must also agree to use them solely as the instruments for preventing successful resort to violence.

Nor is it possible to keep naval and land armaments in separate compartments. Large armaments anywhere threaten war, and war anywhere, as already explained, is not only liable to spread, but, in particular, to precipitate an Anglo-American crisis over neutral and belligerent rights. The peace of Europe today depends in a large measure upon the obligation undertaken by Great Britain under the Covenant and the Locarno Treaties to use economic sanctions against a treaty breaker, that is, to interrupt its trade with neutral powers. It will be almost impossible to prevent the present military hegemony of France and her allies in Europe from developing into a new military balance of power, ending in another world war, unless adequate international securities for the prevention of war can be created. For the basis of the European trouble is not the love or the fear of aggression, but the fear of war.

Progress towards disarmament, therefore, like the solution of the fundamental Anglo-American problem, also seems to depend wholly upon making effective the Briand-Kellogg Pact for the total renunciation of war, whether it is waged on land, by sea or in the air, as a method of settling international disputes. How is that to be done?


It is sometimes suggested that the Anglo-American and the peace problems can be solved by distinguishing between "public" and "private" war, or by defining an "aggressor," so that it would be legitimate for Great Britain or any other nation to interfere with neutral trade when it was acting as a mandatory of international authority in dealing with an outlaw state, but that when it was engaged in a private war of its own, neutral rights should be inviolable. There are, however, insuperable obstacles to such a solution. How can you define the difference between a "private" and a "public" war? Who is to decide the question? The United States would certainly not bind itself to accept the decision of the League of Nations so long as it was not a member of it. Moreover, even if an international authority could be agreed upon, it would not suffice. It could, no doubt, give a verdict where everybody was already agreed. But in all serious disputes the public opinion of the world and the League Council itself is likely to be divided about the merits of the dispute and no verdict would be obtainable. In any case where two nations started to fight, neutral rights would inevitably tend to disappear, and neutrals would have to threaten or resort to war to defend them.

There is, too, no satisfactory way of determining an "aggressor." No investigating machinery that can be devised will act quickly enough. There is no time in a crisis to find out which side is right and which is wrong. Who knows yet whether Paraguay or Bolivia was the "aggressor" in the late dispute? The creation of "automatic" tests, such as a refusal to arbitrate, simply means that it becomes the main function of diplomacy to manœuvre an opponent into a position in which it will automatically be in the wrong. The "aggressor" solution is an illusion.

The only way forward is to begin to apply in the international sphere exactly the same method as preserves peace in the national sphere, which is to distinguish between the prevention of violence and the settlement of the dispute. Peace in the domestic sphere begins when a community makes up its mind that it will prohibit the use of violence because until that is effective there is no security that people will not try to take the law into their own hands, everybody goes armed, and shooting is chronic. It is only when violence is prevented that the reign of law and justice can begin. Lasting peace in the international sphere will similarly begin only when the nations make up their minds that the settlement of international disputes by war is disastrous because war anywhere tends to damage everybody and to engulf the whole world, and when they take effective steps to prevent it. The creation of means for the peaceful settlement of disputes is a second though parallel step, and may be attempted in many different ways.

The prevention of war is the primary interest of every nation in the world. The settlement of disputes as often as not is a local or regional affair. War in Europe is a vital concern of the United States, just as war in South America is a vital British and European concern, because war in either continent may produce a violent Anglo-American crisis over neutral trade. But the settlement of the internal problems of Europe is not primarily an American concern nor is the settlement of South American problems primarily a European concern.

The Covenant of the League of Nations and the Briand-Kellogg Pact approach this problem of the prevention of war in different ways. The framers of the Covenant felt that they could not deny to nations the ultimate right to use war; they concentrated on inducing them to submit their disputes to impartial investigation and report before resorting to war, and to combine to take "sanctions" against any state which went to war in defiance of this obligation. Disarmament has made no progress in Europe partly, at any rate, because resort to war is still ultimately legal. The framers of the Briand-Kellogg Pact started from the other end and proclaimed that it is the use of war itself which must be totally renounced in favor of pacific methods, though they made no attempt to create the means for making the declaration effective. The moral foundation of the Briand-Kellogg Pact is clearly sounder than that of the Covenant. If the means can be found for making it effective, there will not only then be peace but an immense reduction in armaments.

The key to the solution of the Anglo-American naval problem, of the disarmament problem, and of making the Kellogg Pact effective, thus seems to be the same. It is that the signatories of the Pact of Paris, and especially the United States and Great Britain, should publicly recognize that they are all vitally interested in any threat to the peace of the world, and that, on such threat arising, they will instantly take counsel together as to how hostilities can be prevented. What they will do in order to prevent war cannot be now foreseen. It will depend upon the movement of public opinion at the time. But once public opinion comes to the conclusion that the settlement of international disputes by war must be prevented, it will certainly mobilize action against war which will sweep older diplomatic machinery aside. It may be that, if persuasion fails, embargoes of the Capper, Burton, Porter, or Fish type will be employed, or some form of financial or naval blockade, or military pressure. For the present, the condition of combination to prevent war is that every state should remain absolutely free and unbound as to what it will or will not do. But can there be any doubt that if the leading signatories of the Pact, or even the United States and the British Commonwealth by themselves, were really determined to prevent the settlement of disputes by war, they would be able, if not to prevent the outbreak of hostilities in every case, at least to isolate the war and bring it to an end speedily, and in any case to prevent it developing into a world war or an Anglo-American war? This procedure was laid down in the Washington Four Power Treaty of 1922 for dealing with difficulties which may arise in the Pacific. It only requires to be extended to cover all threats of war wherever they may occur.

What happened in the recent Graeco-Bulgarian and Bolivia-Paraguay disputes illustrates the method admirably. In the Graeco-Bulgarian case the Council of the League of Nations was in session. The parties were immediately summoned under Article 11 of the Covenant. As they began to state their case M. Briand stopped them and said that the Council could not then consider the rights and wrongs of the case; its first duty was to stop hostilities; once guarantees on this point were given, it could take steps to secure an impartial and fair adjudication of the matters in dispute. Both sides agreed to stop hostilities and to withdraw behind a defined line, and in due time a verdict was given.

The Bolivia-Paraguay dispute was even more instructive. The Council of the League and a Pan American Conference both happened to be in session. Both bodies instantly concerned themselves with the prevention of hostilities. They even entered into informal consultation with one another for this purpose. But once the risk of war disappeared, the settlement of the issues was left entirely to the Pan American Conference in session at Washington.

Agreement to make the Briand-Kellogg Pact an effective instrument for the outlawry of war may seem a far-reaching departure from the British tradition of keeping a free hand to use its navy on its own initiative and for such purposes as British opinion may approve, with the maximum effect on neutral trade which a liberal interpretation of sea law may permit. It may seem to be a far-reaching departure from the American tradition of maintaining its own peace by neutrality in the quarrels of the old world. But if the arguments of this article are valid, it is the only way of preventing every war or threat of war in Europe or Asia from developing into an Anglo-American or a world crisis of the first magnitude.


It would seem, therefore, that we are face to face with far more profound decisions than an agreement about "parity" and a reduction of naval armaments, important as that is as a first step. The root menace to Anglo-American relations, the root obstacle to disarmament, the root cause of international injustice and unrest, is the institution of war. Until war has been dethroned in effect and not only in theory, there will be no security for Anglo-American peace, no probability of an all-round reduction of armaments to the police level, no prospect of lasting peace. There is no way of short-circuiting this inexorable fact by attempts to create a new "freedom of the seas," by distinguishing between "public" and "private" war, by defining the "aggressor," by "neutrality," or by re-codifying international law. Either we prevent war, or every war tends to develop into an Anglo-American war and a world war: either armaments will be used as the police instruments whereby resort to war is prohibited, or they will be used as the instruments by which international disputes are settled by war.

We are, indeed, clearly at a turning point of the world's history. The ultimate problem of peace is whether international questions are to be settled by reason and justice or by war. Consider a few of the main questions which threaten the peace of the world: the Polish corridor; the Anschluss; the outlet for surplus populations; economic opportunity for all nations; the relations between east and west, between Russia and its neighbors; the giving of security against international wrong and aggression. Are we going to settle these and other problems by patient consideration of them in all their aspects and a willingness to do what reason and justice eventually prescribe, or are we going to settle them by war? In international affairs, as in national, there is no compromise between the two systems: either we settle them justly by pacific means, or war will break out and inexorably engulf everybody in its ferocious grasp. To paraphrase what Abraham Lincoln said of another issue: the nations cannot stand for law at home and war abroad: justice and reason must settle everything, or war, in the future as in the past, will settle everything: force must be mobilized behind law and justice, or it will be used for war.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • PHILIP KERR, Secretary to Prime Minister Lloyd George from 1916 to 1921; Editor of The Round Table
  • More By Philip Kerr