IN DISCUSSING the relations with other nations which the United States should seek to establish and maintain, it will be very useful if the people of the country will give due weight to some general considerations applicable to all matters such as the World Court, the attitude of the country towards the activities of the League of Nations, the conferences like that about opium, the application of the Dawes Commission Plan, the promotion of disarmament, and so on.

One of these general considerations is that we ought not to let ourselves get into the frame of mind of men who are driving a bargain in which the interests of each are entirely separate and distinct from the interests of the other and in which each is seeking to get as much and give as little as he can. There must of course always be separate interests of different nations which their governments are bound to maintain, but there are also common interests in which all civilized nations share. These common interests arise from the interdependence of civilized peoples and they are a product of developing civilization. The farmers in America who are raising wheat and beef and cotton, and the great multitudes engaged in manufacture, depend for the rewards of their labor largely upon the orderly continuance of purchase, consumption and payment by the people of other countries. It would be a real misfortune to the American breakfast table if Brazil ceased to produce coffee and Cuba ceased to produce sugar and China ceased to produce tea. Trade is necessary to modern comfort and prosperity, and trade is maintained by a vast and complicated system of international transportation and finance. From all this intercommunication arises intercourse in literature and art and scientific research and the interchange of thought in the moral and spiritual life of the race. For the continuance of all these things, orderly government and sound finance and security for the fruits of industry and enterprise, not only in one's own country but in all civilized countries, are of vital importance. Every sensible statesman is bound, therefore, to make it one of his primary objects to contribute towards the peace and prosperity of the civilized world in which his own country shares. It frequently happens that this general consideration is much more important than the particular matters of controversy which arise between nations. For many years I have known a good deal about international arbitrations and I have never known of one in which both nations in controversy did not benefit more from having the question between them settled than either gained from a favorable judgment or lost by an unfavorable one.

Another consideration which should be kept in mind is that our people really do desire to contribute towards the preservation of peace and the progress of civilization throughout the world. We do not wish to be selfish and cynical and indifferent about the welfare of the rest of the world. We do not think we are and we do not wish to be thought so. We really have ideals about human progress and we wish to stand for them. We have long professed them and we do not wish anybody to put us in the position of appearing to be hypocrites and humbugs. If there be any project of international coöperation proposed which will really be for the benefit of civilization, we do not wish to have it treated as something that somebody else wants and is trying to get us into. If it is real, we want it to succeed just as much as anybody else can want it to succeed; and we wish to be counted in as supporting it unless there is some real obstacle in the way which cannot be removed. And by real obstacle we mean something substantial, not any fanciful or trivial difference of opinion about non-essential things. No two men ever devised plans of action to accomplish a particular object without finding that there were differences in their plans. That is peculiarly the case in international affairs. A real desire to accomplish the object will brush aside all the non-essential differences. That is the way in which we wish proposals for our coöperation in projects for the benefit of mankind to be treated.

Approaching questions of international relation in this spirit, we should remember that the real power behind international as well as national progress towards better conditions is public opinion--not sudden bursts of temper or sentimentality, but enlightened, matured public opinion. That is the power behind all human law and all custom. If a statute rightly reflects the opinion of the people for whom it is passed, or is adapted to give effect to that opinion, it gets itself enforced. If the contrary is true, the law fails of effect. No law however formal can withstand the effect of changes in opinion. Our Constitution vested in Presidential electors authority to select in their discretion any one they chose for President of the United States. In the course of a century, public opinion has determined that the voters themselves should say whom they wish for President, and as against the voters' expression of their will the Presidential electors no longer have any discretion, although the Constitution still declares that they have it. The King of England had a strict legal power to veto an act of Parliament, but the public opinion of Great Britain destroyed that power without any formal change of law. We slip very easily into the idea of compelling conformity to our ideas by the exercise of superior force. Compulsion is sometimes necessary for the maintenance of order and justice, but we should not forget that progress does not come through compulsion. Progress comes through the enlightenment of opinion, the development of character, the establishment of better standards of conduct.

Public opinion, however, cannot make itself affirmatively effective except by the creation of institutions adapted to give it effect. Mere verbal expressions of opinion get nowhere. A mob, however unanimous, can destroy but it cannot construct. What is everybody's business is nobody's business. To get things done some human agency must be designated to give effect to the general desire that they be done.

There is no reasonable doubt that the great majority of the people of most civilized nations are strongly opposed to involving themselves in war, and the question inevitably arises "How is it that nations composed of people who don't want war are continually fighting?" The answer is that the opinion against war has been without adequate institutions to give it effect. War is an international affair; and to prevent it there must be international opinion, and international action upon that opinion, and international institutions to give effect to that opinion.

The world of western civilization has been busy for a long time trying to create such institutions. The first effort was practically begun by the governments of Europe under the inspiration of Grotius about 300 years ago, after the Thirty Years' War. It consisted of agreement upon a series of rules of conduct under the name of international law and national foreign offices and permanent ambassadors and ministers to insist upon having national conduct conform to those rules.

All that was very useful, but it proved inadequate. The next stage of development was by the practice of calling general conferences of many nations so that the opinion of all could be focused upon a particular controversy or cause of controversy at the same time and with vastly greater effect. Illustrations of such conferences are the Paris Conference of 1856, the Berlin Conference of 1878, the Algeciras Conference of 1905 and the Limitation of Arms Conference at Washington in 1921 and 1922.

These conferences were a very great advance, especially relating to all controversies arising out of national policy, but they were still inadequate. About thirty years ago many people who had been thinking about the subject came to the conclusion that as most controversies between nations arose out of differences regarding their supposed rights and in the suspicions and hatreds growing out of supposed wrongs, one of the most effective means to prevent war would be to afford a substitute for war as a method of settling differences about rights and wrongs. They recognized that nations always will have differences of opinion about their rights and always will quarrel, just as private persons have differences and quarrel over them. They realized that if an international tribunal could be established, composed of able and impartial judges, drawn from many different countries and with jurisdiction to decide questions of right arising under treaties and international law, many nations would settle their controversies in that way instead of going to war. A great many wars come on because neither party quite knows how to give up in a controversy without humiliation. Such a tribunal, it was thought, would certainly be very useful in such cases. It was considered also that if an international court were once established and commended itself to the people of the world by its conduct, there would after a time grow up a universal public opinion which would discredit any nation that refused to submit a question of right to the court and undertook instead to enforce its own opinion by war. People generally would not have to argue out the rights and wrongs of the controversy. Public opinion would properly turn in favor of the nation that was willing to submit its claims of right to adjudication and against the nation which was unwilling to do so.

In the First Hague Conference of 1899, in the Second Hague Conference of 1907, in the Commission of Jurists which met at the Hague in 1920 to propose a plan for such a court, and in hundreds of negotiations and arbitration treaties between different nations, this idea of furnishing a judicial substitute for war has been worked out in the most painstaking way. It was exceedingly difficult because there were so many nations differently situated which had to be brought into agreement about the mode of creating the court and its power and procedure in order that it should really be an international court. Substantially all the nations which have entered the League of Nations have agreed to the proposed court in a separate treaty concluded December 16, 1920. The court has been established by the election of fifteen judges of the highest character and attainment, coming from as many different countries, and they are already engaged in hearing and deciding cases. The United States has always been the foremost advocate of this idea of substituting judicial decision for war, and President Harding and President Coolidge successively have asked the consent of the Senate to giving the approval of the United States to the court. This request has been awaiting action by the Senate for the past two years.

This court is the latest institution wrought out by the civilized world's general public opinion against war, for the purpose of giving effect to that opinion. It is an essential and indispensable institution for the effectiveness of that opinion and the proposal that the United States take part in supporting the court should be welcomed as an opportunity by all the people who have been talking in favor of abolishing war and preventing war and outlawing war, but who have not as yet arrived at any practical steps tending in that direction.

All these international questions call for an understanding of the infinite varities of human interests, conditions, opinions, traditions, prejudices, beliefs, inherited modes of thought and feeling, all of which make agreements difficult. The question what kind of an institution for international benefit should be attempted is not a thing to be reasoned out from an American point of view, or from a French point of view, or from a Japanese point of view. It is to be solved by ascertaining what beliefs and opinions all the different nations hold in common and basing the new institution upon those beliefs and opinions, not including in the make-up of the new institution anything because Americans alone think it better, or French alone think it better, or Japanese alone think it better. These common beliefs and opinions are few and simple, and new international institutions must accordingly be very simple in their origin if they are to continue. Thousands of elaborate schemes for the prevention of war have been produced in the United States within the last few years; most of them have been quite worthless because the authors completely overlooked the differences of opinion and modes of thought and feeling in other countries, differences which would prevent acceptance of the proposed scheme, and if it were accepted would prevent its operation. The process of finding what it is worth while to try to do internationally is a good deal like the old problem of finding the greatest common denominator which used to be so tedious when we were children. The question presented by a proposal of an international institution is not whether it is the best institution conceivable. It is whether the proposed institution would be useful so far as it goes and whether there is any practical probability of getting fifty odd nations to agree to a better institution.

The important thing is to get the right kind of an institution started, even though it be in the most rudimentary form. There is one unfailing characteristic of human nature which comes into play when an institution is once started. It is that after an institution is established and is conspicuous and universally known, it enters into the basis of thought of the people who have to do with the subjects to which it relates. People begin to think differently about such subjects. They begin to think that way, and if the institution is so conducted as to command confidence within its original limited scope, it grows naturally and inevitably because the fundamental idea being no longer a novelty and being accepted, enlargements and improvements of the idea are soon readily accepted.

We have now actually in progress an illustration of that general truth. When the Jurists' Commission at the Hague transmitted their plan for the court to the Secretary of the League of Nations, they also sent a recommendation that a general conference be called to consider the present condition of international law and the amendments and extensions which might be practicable. The Secretary sent this recommendation to the Council and the Council sent it to the Assembly and the Assembly rejected it. That was a little over four years ago. In the meantime the court has been created and is deciding questions of international law with a degree of authority which commands respect. International law since there has been a court to decide upon it and thereby make it difficult to escape, seems quite a different thing from what it was when two countries could dispute about it forever without any conclusion. It now seems quite well worth while to enlarge the scope of the court by defining and extending the rules of law which the court has to apply. Accordingly the League of Nations has invited a new committee, which includes our former Attorney-General, Mr. Wickersham, to advise them how they shall go about that revision and extension of international law which they did not think favorably of four years ago. In the meantime, also, since the court was established, the Pan-American Institute of International Law, which includes the United States and all the Central and South American countries, has actually undertaken the work recommended by the Hague Commission and has actually produced a new draft of a code of international law for consideration, and this is now in the hands of the American Secretary of State as Chairman of the Governing Board of the Pan-American Union.

It will be very useful for all of us to keep in mind another consideration. It is that we must not be discouraged if we cannot have everything as we want it immediately. We must be patient if we would act wisely. What we do today may bear fruit long after we are dead, for no good work is ever really lost. The important thing is to get the tendency right. We should think of all these subjects in terms not of brief individual life, but long continued national life. The business does not admit of sudden and spectacular achievements. General progress cannot be much faster than the progress of the most backward nations and the field of action is not the field of intellect, it is the field of character; and change or development of character is always slow work.

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  • ELIHU ROOT, Former Secretary of State and Secretary of War, United States Senator from 1909 to 1915
  • More By Elihu Root