Foreign Affairs: 100 Years
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THE British Commonwealth of Nations is in another period of transition, marked by two developments. In the first place, the Dominions have now become virtually independent nation-states. Secondly, the manner in which power politics is now being practised by all countries, totalitarian or otherwise, has brought an end to the era of make-believe foreign policies in which both isolationists and supporters of collective security enjoyed their fools' paradise. We are now down to brass tacks.
These two developments have inevitably led to momentous changes in the foreign and defense policies of the Commonwealth as a whole and of its six member-states individually. For we must keep in mind that each of these six nations is able, not only to conduct its own peacetime foreign policy, but to decide for itself the issue of peace and war.
Apart from the United Kingdom, two of those nation-states--the Union of South Africa and Ireland--have publicly declared through their governments that the decision to abstain from, or take part in, wars involving other members of the Commonwealth resides in them alone. The South African Government glosses over the question of formal neutrality, though constantly challenged by the Nationalist Opposition to be precise. Mr. De Valera for his part, while claiming the right to neutrality and insisting that it is Ireland's policy to remain neutral, has frankly acknowledged that it would be extremely difficult in practice for her to do so if Great Britain were involved in a European war. The important facts are that open declarations of principle have been made which imply a possible division of the Commonwealth over the issue of war and peace, and that these have not aroused any protest from the United Kingdom Government. They are indeed accepted by a large part of informed opinion in Great Britain as a logical expression of Dominion status.
In Canada, the Government's utterances on the subject of the Dominion's right to decide between peace and war might be taken as a mere claim to choose how much it is to contribute to a common cause. In a debate on foreign policy at Ottawa, following the March 1939 crisis, Prime Minister Mackenzie King, after jumping off the fence far enough to declare that if Great Britain were the victim of aggression Canada would certainly spring to her aid, resumed his habitual attitude by reëmphasizing that when the time came the effective decision would lie with the Canadian Parliament. He was speaking on a motion to adopt a bill proclaiming that His Majesty could not declare war on behalf of Canada except by and with the consent of his Canadian Government. Mr. Mackenzie King's most clearly defined objection to this measure was that it would help to encourage aggressors by making them believe -- what was not true -- that in no circumstances would Canada fight side by side with Great Britain. This was indeed a sound reason, but it is a pity that the bill could not have been considered on its merits. The strongest reason for passing it was that -- without materially altering Canada's actual status -- it might have allayed some of the suspicions of the Canadian nationalists in regard to Whitehall's control, which suspicions in turn prevent them from judging international affairs on their merits.
For the right to neutrality is logically implied in the Dominions' equality of status in the British Commonwealth. There is only one other way in which, in this field, the member-nations could be equal in status, and that would be for no declaration of war (or of peace) by His Majesty to be valid unless he were unanimously advised to make it by the Governments of all his autonomous Dominions. And that would reduce the international policy of the British Commonwealth to impotence. The separate right of neutrality has been held to be incompatible with the indivisibility of the British Crown. But the abdication episode showed that the Crown is divisible. King George VI succeeded King Edward VIII on three different days in different parts of the Commonwealth; if that can happen, then there is no greater difficulty in the Crown's being at war on behalf of one part of the Commonwealth and at peace on behalf of another -- no difficulty, that is to say, in constitutional logic. In practice there would be very great difficulties indeed, arising both from the personal loyalty of many Dominion citizens to the British Commonwealth and Crown, and from the intimate connection among the economic and defensive systems of the different member-nations. The South African Parliament, for instance, might by a majority decide upon neutrality in a major war in which England was fighting; but it could not prevent thousands of its citizens from volunteering in the British forces, or otherwise serving the Mother Country. Nor could South Africa in practice afford the same rights in her ports to enemy ships as to British ships, quite apart from the vexed question of the Simonstown naval base. Similar considerations apply to Canada, indeed to all the Dominions, though it is only in South Africa, Canada and Ireland that there has been serious talk of abstention from a major war involving Great Britain.
In the period of make-believe foreign policy, the issue was neatly turned by the argument that all self-governing members of the British Commonwealth were freely and separately members of the League of Nations, and that the duties incurred under the Covenant made neutrality impossible in a war against aggression, which was the only kind of war that Great Britain would ever contemplate.[i] This was quite true on paper, but it implied that there was no sense in worrying over whether the Dominions would fight to defend Great Britain because they were in any case bound to defend Lithuania. And that made nonsense in any world in which collective security was more than a pious formula. As soon as collective security plainly meant a liability to go to war over an issue in which no direct national interests were involved and which might not otherwise lead to war, the effectiveness of the formula failed.
Nevertheless, it was necessary to have such a formula during the period in which the Dominions, fledglings in international independence, were trying and strengthening their wings. The member-nations of the Commonwealth could at the time sincerely say: We are independent in our foreign policies, but our foreign policies are alike because they are all governed by collective security. The inherent weakness of this argument in a hard world was shown by such incidents as Canada's persistent attempt to limit the obligations of collective security under Article 10 of the League Covenant to a continental basis, by the refusal of the Dominions to endorse the Locarno Pact with their own pledges (though it only made the League obligations more precise in a limited area) or the rustication of Mr. W. M. Hughes from the Australian Government in the midst of the Abyssinian crisis because he ventured to remark, as the present Earl Baldwin had remarked before him, that effective sanctions meant war. Looking back, we can see from such evidence how superficial, after all, was the unifying power of the collective-security principle in British Commonwealth relations. Yet if that principle had not existed it would have had to be invented; for without it the period in which the Dominions were exercising their new external independence and casting off their old fear of Whitehall's control would have been far more awkward and more dangerous for Commonwealth integrity.
It took the September 1938 crisis to prick the bubble and to force the British Commonwealth either to seek some more realistic means of unifying its foreign policy, or else to face a loss of integrity vis-à-vis the rest of the world. That crisis found public opinion in the different nations of the Commonwealth considerably confused. No British nation had any specific pledge to defend Czechoslovakia, and none regarded its undertakings under the League Covenant as automatically binding without judgment on the merits of the case. And as for those merits, many people, both in the United Kingdom and in the Dominions, felt that a German minority ought not to be forcibly prevented from joining the Reich, and that to try to do so meant keeping open a permanent sore in Central Europe. At the same time, opinion throughout the Commonwealth was stirred by wider considerations -- by accumulated distaste for the totalitarian states and their methods of diplomacy, by romantic championship of the "little fellow," by faith in democracy and hatred of force, and (much more dimly in the Dominions than in Great Britain) by recognition of the strategic importance of the Bohemian frontier for the whole European balance of power, the maintenance of which has been for centuries one of the cardinal principles of British foreign policy. For these reasons, had Great Britain become involved in war with Germany last September, there is little doubt that she would have had the active support of all the Dominions, with the possible exception of South Africa, where a minority is pro-Nazi, a larger minority is more or less anti-British and isolationist, and a further contingent might have held that abstention was better than risking a civil war. Later, in April 1939, an experienced observer wrote to me from South Africa: "I think there would now be stronger support for firm measures by the British Government than was the case last September. There is little doubt that if war had come then the Union would have remained neutral."
Despite the probable readiness of other Dominions to follow Great Britain into war last September, the course actually pursued by Mr. Chamberlain undoubtedly suited the wishes and the interests of the member-nations of the Commonwealth, both separately and jointly. From the late Mr. Joseph Lyons to Mr. Mackenzie King, leaders in all the Dominions have applauded Mr. Chamberlain's policy in unequivocal terms, not merely amid the emotions of the crisis, but also upon much later reflection. The Dominion Governments were continuously consulted last September, and there is strong reason to believe that the balance of their advice was in favor of the policy of separating Sudetenland from the rest of Czechoslovakia. The Australian Government is generally understood to have gone much further than the United Kingdom Government in this direction. New Zealand, whose Government had previously pleaded for the full rigor of automatic collective security, might have been expected to cry with the loudest voice "stand fast against Germany;" but in fact her preoccupation with a general election, fought exclusively on internal economic policies, prevented her official voice from being plainly heard, and her people were patently thankful to be granted a further and perhaps prolonged period of peace in which to pursue their social experiments.
The fact is that not one of the countries in the British Commonwealth was prepared, either physically or morally, for the world-wide war which might easily have broken out had Mr. Chamberlain pursued a different policy in regard to Czechoslovakia. A measure of their lack of physical preparedness at that time is the degree of rearmament that has taken place since. It is scarcely too much to say that in ability to meet and parry a knockout blow, Great Britain herself is twice as strong as she was eight or nine months ago. And if Great Britain was behindhand with protective and counteroffensive armament, the Dominions had scarcely begun to readjust their defenses to the needs of the day. They would not, perhaps, have suffered for their defenselessness in the early stages of a war as Great Britain would have suffered, but they knew that in the end their fate was bound up with hers and that their coasts were virtually defenseless if her protection were shattered -- unless the United States should step into the breach.
They were as unprepared morally as they were physically. The outlook of their people on international affairs was still largely bounded by the optimism of the collective-security period. They were still arguing isolationism and neutrality regardless of the danger that within a few weeks, perhaps within a few hours, freedom might have its back to the wall. Australia and New Zealand, though alike in social structure, economic interest and strategic position, had been led under contrasting banners in foreign policy. Australian Labor, in opposition, was isolationist, crying "keep Australia out of wars in the northern hemisphere." New Zealand Labor, in power, was internationalist, demanding collective action against Japan, Italy, Germany. Australian conservatism, in power, was striving to keep Great Britain out of European entanglements. New Zealand conservatism, in opposition, was for following Great Britain wherever she should lead. Canada, according to those qualified to speak, was split into three sections: isolationists, who knew what they wanted, which was to keep out of all wars; imperialists, who were ready to follow Great Britain into war if necessary while hoping that she would keep out of it; and internationalists, who were not at all sure what they wanted, because many of them were against war in principle for Canada although they hoped that Great Britain would "give a lead" by pledging herself to go to war against aggression. In South Africa there was a strong isolationist movement, amounting perhaps to a majority, but the hard facts of the strategic position were being steadily driven home by the evidence of German ambitions in southern Africa. Ireland realized that she was a European Power and that as such her fate was as closely tied to the Continent as was Great Britain's; nevertheless, she was still preoccupied with the remnants of her ancient quarrel with England. In all the Dominions, public thought was mainly directed to internal problems and was relatively unschooled in the facts of international affairs -- the first of those facts being the urgent danger of world war.
If the nations of the Commonwealth were unprepared individually, they were also unprepared jointly. The threatened divisions in the national opinion of each of the Dominions had their counterparts in threatened divisions between the members of the Commonwealth. While individually they tried to shelter their economic achievements and aspirations from war, jointly they had to weigh the risk of a breakdown of the British Commonwealth experiment -- an experiment in coöperation between free nations under one Crown -- under a war strain which it was not old enough to bear. The fledgling period of Dominion autonomy had not lasted quite long enough. In general, the Dominions had not yet gained the self-confidence that would have enabled them, in advance of a grave crisis, to enter into close political and military commitments with Great Britain and their sister Dominions. Hence, the plans of the Commonwealth as a whole for mutual aid and joint action in a sudden war were as behindhand as the rearmament of its individual members.
The September crisis thus disclosed two vital needs for the Commonwealth: (1) the rapid acceleration of arming by all the member-nations that had felt the chill shadow of war; and (2) fresh and frank thinking by each of them about their international policies in order to erect a new structure of coöperation between them. British statesmen, indeed all students of Commonwealth affairs, fully appreciate that no country can be expected to base its defense policy or its foreign policy on anything but its own national interests as understood by its people. Alliances, or any other form of international coöperation not resting on recognized national interests, will fall to pieces in democratic countries as soon as they are put to a strain. It is now becoming plain, however, to most people in the British Dominions that their own vital national interests are in the end subordinate to their interest in preserving the strength and independence of the United Kingdom. Canada is the only possible exception, because should British power fail she may look to the United States for the protection of her shores, if not of her ships and overseas interests. Australia and New Zealand too might perhaps be taken under the protective wing of the United States if Great Britain were brought to her knees. But such speculations are not ones on which the policy of a nation can be founded. In any case, the impoverishment of Britain by defeat would gravely injure the economic welfare of these countries. That is why the Dominions, in addition to their own individual national interests, also share the vital interests of the United Kingdom.
This identity of vital interests among the nations of the Commonwealth (always with the qualification about Canada) is made plain by a study of the Dominions' defense arrangements. Though all the Dominions are small and exposed Powers, they are relatively under-armed, gauged by contemporary standards. Australia, the most highly armed among them, thinks herself heavily burdened because she is spending about one-twentieth of her national income on arms, compared with Germany's one-quarter and the United Kingdom's one-eighth. Moreover, with the possible exception of South Africa's precautions against a native rising (and of course omitting India from the picture), the Dominions' defenses are apparently intended to meet the contingency, not of local wars, but of a world war. Yet, in a worldwide war their defenses would be hopelessly inadequate either to gain ultimate victory or to prevent ultimate defeat; in fact, they would be inadequate even to withstand a sustained local attack by the concentrated striking force of a great Power. In other words, the Dominions' defenses are all based on the tacit assumption that British power remains strong in the outer world, ready to safeguard their overseas trade and to reënforce them if the outer barrier should be broken.
That defensive situation must be the necessary hard core of foreign policies within the Commonwealth. The facts can be allowed to make their own impression on public opinion in the member-nations, provided the people are told the facts by their political leaders. The need today is not for any straining of the concept of common interest, nor forcing of the pace of military coöperation in advance of public opinion. It is for the Dominions to take up their responsibilities as self-governing nations by enunciating their foreign policies plainly and consistently. As a group, they have hitherto tended to evade this responsibility under the cloak of one or the other of two formulas: first, that "We are bound to follow Great Britain and to be with her whatever happens;" and second that "Parliament will decide when the time comes." These two formulas are equally effective in emasculating public thought and enfeebling national policy.
If indeed it is true that for strategic reasons a Dominion must follow Great Britain, in war and out, this in itself is proof that the Dominion has a national responsibility to influence Great Britain's foreign policy. Such reasons would be no excuse for overriding the democratic rights of its people by failing to tell them plainly how the Dominion's influence was thus being used, and on what grounds. The only way the people of a Dominion can come to see a national interest in international coöperation is for their Government to take them into its confidence. For the Dominions, the first lesson of the September crisis was that this candid relation between government and electorate was often flagrantly lacking. Hence the bewilderment of a great part of Dominion opinion.
The second lesson was the futility of the doctrine that "Parliament will decide when the time comes." At the critical moment it was manifest that the fatal decisions were not in the hands of parliaments. The factors of time and distance alone were enough to throw the burden upon the executive. When parliaments met, they found themselves the prisoners of events and of their own past actions, or (more often) of their failure to act. It became clearer than ever that unless democracies are ready to endow their executives with plenipotentiary mandates, they are impotent before the swift manœuvring of the dictators. The pernicious doctrine that parliament will decide when the time comes -- which has been pressed on governments by parliamentarians who do not understand foreign affairs and has been conveniently accepted by governments anxious to avoid any odium they might incur by making up their minds -- is quite contrary to the theory and tradition of British democratic institutions.
A country which adopts this doctrine automatically bars itself both from a policy of alliance or collective security (either universal, or within a British or other group) and from using its power as a deterrent against aggression. In other words, the only way in which it can stave off war is to run away from it. This perhaps was a minor contributory reason why the Dominions backed the "Munich policy." The changed direction of the United Kingdom's foreign policy since the March 1939 crisis has therefore faced the Dominions with this fundamental issue in their external policies. For the United Kingdom has now decided that war is preferable to the consequences of running away from it any farther; and her decision has forced every other country in the same orbital system to answer the same question: "Are you or are you not a member of the front against aggression?" If the answer is "We are," then comes a further question: "What will you contribute to help deter the potential aggressors, or to win the war if it comes ? How is your power to be fitted into the whole scheme of defense against aggression?" This means that the Dominion Parliaments must decide now, not at some vague future date. If the Dominions are to join in the empire's defensive front, it is vitally necessary that plans for mutual military aid between them and the United Kingdom, especially regarding the use of ports and other naval facilities, be laid in advance. Such plans have undoubtedly been laid already, in spite of all the talk about neutrality; but the whole system would be stronger at its roots if the governments and parliaments of all the Dominions were to grasp the nettle and decide now whether in a clash between the dictatorships and the forces of decency they will throw all their power on the side of right.
It is felt in some of the Dominions that such pledges would deprive them of the right to have an independent foreign policy of their own. But if this were true, Great Britain herself has already signed away her independence in foreign policy by giving even more rigorous commitments (mutual or unilateral) to France, Egypt, Poland, Greece, Belgium, Portugal and 'Iraq. The only possible kind of independence would then be isolationism. However, isolationism is in reality impracticable for small Powers like the Dominions. No small Power can have the same degree of freedom of choice in mapping its destiny in international affairs as a great Power, at least in a world given over to power politics.
But the Dominions, through their membership in the British Commonwealth, have a greater measure of independent authority in world affairs than any other small Powers; they possess all the ordinary means of expressing their will and exerting their authority that other small countries possess, and more besides. Some of them maintain their own diplomatic missions abroad, yet in addition they can use the diplomatic and consular machinery of the United Kingdom to uphold their interests and protect their nationals throughout the world. They are separate members of the League of Nations, but their voice is much more effective as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations, because its corporate pronouncements (such as the reports of Imperial Conferences) are always unanimous. They can avail themselves of whatever sources of information they choose, but they are also kept continuously supplied with all the important information that reaches the British Foreign Office -- and knowledge is power, since to be forewarned is to be forearmed. Above all, they have one privilege that distinguishes them from every other small Power that is not a mere puppet state: they have at all times the privy ear of a great Power, and they have the assurance that their voice is heard and considered by its leaders in moments of crisis.
The machinery of political consultation in the British Commonwealth has three main components. First, there are the quasi-diplomatic Dominion High Commissioners in London and the United Kingdom High Commissioners in the Dominion capitals (except Dublin). In periods of crisis the Dominion High Commissioners are always brought into personal consultation with the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. The High Commissions and their staffs have exceptional access to Whitehall secrets and discussions. The Dominions Office may be described as the Foreign Office of this quasi-diplomatic machine, in that it has general charge over relations with the Dominions, appoints the United Kingdom High Commissioners to their capitals, and deals with such problems of Commonwealth relations as the late Anglo-Irish dispute. On urgent occasions, however, it is short-circuited. Indeed, the second component is the right of direct communication between Prime Minister and Prime Minister, which the long distance radiotelephone has made increasingly important, though the United Kingdom correspondent is often the Foreign Secretary or the Dominions Secretary, rather than the Prime Minister. Finally, there is the Imperial Conference, in which the whole gamut of foreign affairs and defense, as well as economic, constitutional and other matters, is run over in secret conclave and agreement reached on principles and to some extent on details. The last Imperial Conference was held in 1937, and, although they are normally held only every four years, the need to reaffirm principles in the light of new events would seem to point to the holding of another one at the earliest possible date.
These are domestic affairs for the British Commonwealth, but they are of moment to the whole world. For not only is the coherence of the British Commonwealth an important element of strength (or its decline an element of weakness) in the front against the totalitarian aggressors; it also represents an experiment in international coöperation pregnant with object lessons for the whole world. Within itself the Commonwealth contains a microcosm of the world's problems, not least among them the problem of relations between different races and different continents. Its disruption through the impact of war would be a major disaster for civilization and a triumph for the forces of brutality and materialism that threaten us with a new Dark Age. Happily there is strong reason to believe that, just as national opinion in democratic countries solidifies the instant their national homes or ideals are threatened and draws upon the reservoirs of unity that freedom gives, so in this democratic commonwealth of free nations the attack upon its integrity, its ideals and its institutions would weld it into a stronger brotherhood than ever.
[i] See "British Commonwealth Relations," the report of the first unofficial British Commonwealth Relations Conference, held at Toronto in 1933, p. 179.
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