How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
AT the present time, the two great English-speaking communities have attained a state of agreement unique in their history. Not one issue of major diplomatic importance exists to mar the harmony obtaining between Washington and London. Nor, so far as it is possible to see into the future, does it seem likely that such an issue will arise. The causes of dispute are all settled, and there is an entire absence of diplomatic friction.
But diplomatic relations, important as they may be, are not everything. At best their value is negative. If the material prosperity and political strength of these two great nations are to be the positive power for good in the world which they undoubtedly could be, it is not sufficient that there should be an absence of friction between their respective foreign offices; there must be that active sympathy and friendship between their common peoples which can give rise to something more fruitful, and provide a basis for the performance of those high duties which their joint efforts alone can fulfil. The resources of the British and American commonwealths are so commanding that if they were applied to a common end they could together give a stability to human society that has never been achieved in the past.
Unfortunately it is the will to coöperate which at present is lacking in the relations between America and England. Our diplomatic intercourse is correct and friendly, but it would be idle to pretend that the more intimate relations between the two nations are all that they might be and ought to be. Cordial personal feelings, of course, exist in abundance. When they are really thrown together few people mix so well as Americans and Englishmen. But, so far as I am able to judge, popular sentiment in England toward America has rarely been less cordial than it is today; and, if the general tone of the press is any indication, things are not much different in America. A spirit of coolness, if not of actual hostility, is abroad which paralyzes full coöperation.
This spirit is all the more surprising in that, in large measure at any rate, it represents a retrogression. Compared with the relations of other powers, no doubt, the relations of America and England during the century preceding the war present a monument of sanity. To have settled the numerous points of difference arising during all these years without recourse to force is an accomplishment of which both nations may justifiably be proud. But it is notorious that such disputes have often been conducted in a spirit of great acerbity, and that considerable bitterness has remained even when they have passed. One by one, however, the outstanding points at issue were settled. By 1914 most of the immediate causes of diplomatic friction had been removed.
Then came the war and American intervention. And with that intervention the hatchet at last seemed buried and the foundation laid for solid and enduring friendship. On that memorable day in April, 1917, when the American entry into the war was being celebrated in this country, it seemed to those of us who were privileged to hear the Battle Hymn of the Republic sung within the walls of St. Paul's Cathedral that the ancient feud could never again be revived, and that the two peoples, so tragically estranged in the past by despotic folly, were at last free to take up the performance of that task to which their common ancestry and common ideals so obviously predestined them.
Nor did the end of the war immediately dim the new vision that had opened out to us in the resounding aisles of the cathedral. After a brief but disgraceful interregnum of chaos, the Irish question, which had been for half a century a perpetual cause of friction in Anglo-American relations, was settled finally and justly. There is now no Irish question in English politics. With the concession of virtual independence to Southern Ireland, and the settlement of the Ulster boundary dispute, this age-long conflict has vanished from the political landscape. It would be true to say that the proposed levy on the Channel Islands occupies a place of far greater importance in the public mind than the Irish question does. Indeed, there is no Irish question. However belated the concession, and however questionable the motive, no reasonable man can deny today that at last England has closed that long outstanding account with wisdom and justice. Nor, in fact, is it denied even by the Irish themselves. A negligible fraction, it is true, still strive to keep smouldering the ancient fires of hatred. But the vast majority are well content with the settlement, and through the mouths of responsible leaders like Mr. Cosgrave have paid ample tribute to the spirit in which England has performed her side of the bargain.
The omens were no less favorable in the sphere of international relations. No Englishman in his senses ever supposed that the Anglo-Japanese Treaty could be used against America. But it is easy to see that to America, whose only possible rival in the Pacific is Japan, the alliance had inimical potentialities. And certainly it must be conceded that American criticism of the attitude which it led us to adopt with regard to the ambitions of Japan in China, were fundamentally sound and justifiable. Largely in deference to American feeling that alliance has now been allowed to lapse, and there is no prospect of its being revived. On the contrary, in all that concerns our policy in the Far East, it seems inevitable that our influence should be increasingly exerted in a direction favorable to American interests and opposed to those of our late allies. Whatever may be thought about the wisdom or unwisdom of the Singapore naval base, it is in Japan and not in America that it is regarded with disquiet.
Similarly with the question of sea-power. Save in the minds of congenital jingoes and chauvinists, there can never have been any question of serious rivalry between the navies of the two nations -- at least in the twentieth century. But whatever fears may have been entertained of a possible supremacy of the jingoes and, with that supremacy, an insensate race of armaments, they have been largely set at rest by the agreements signed at Washington. And the history of that memorable conference makes it quite plain that it was not the attitude of the representatives either of America or of England that prevented an even fuller measure of naval disarmament. If it had not been for French opposition, all vestiges of this possible source of antagonism would have been totally removed.
It is not, therefore, for lack of favorable circumstances that the seeds of complete friendship and understanding which were planted during the war have failed of full fruition. On the contrary, as I have already remarked, the diplomatic relations between the two nations have seldom, if ever, been more satisfactory. Ancient sources of irritation have been removed. Future causes of disputes have been anticipated and destroyed. Above all is the memory of a common and glorious participation in a struggle to preserve the characteristics and usages of a tradition dear to both nations. Yet, with all this, the mutual feelings of the two peoples have once more become estranged. The full coöperation which might have taken place with such infinite benefit to the rest of the world has broken down, and an atmosphere of aloofness and restraint, in which no real understanding can flourish, clouds and embitters our mutual relations.
It is not the purpose here to attempt to assess and distribute the measure of responsibility for the revival of Anglo-American acerbity. That can only be done by one who has a greater degree of impartiality than any present citizen of either nation can lay claim to. We of this generation are too moved by the little eddies of the day to be able correctly to estimate the force and the direction of the main currents.
Partly no doubt it is due to English misdemeanors. There were blunders in policy -- to put a charitable name upon some of them -- which alienated the sympathies even of the best elements in American public life. It would be useless, for example, to attempt to excuse the folly and the short-sightedness of the step whereby, at the election of 1918, the statesmen in charge of our destinies bound their hands by impossible and unscrupulous pledges, and prevented themselves in advance from affording the representatives of America at the Peace Conference that full measure of open support which should have been rendered. That was a disaster which will be writ large on the annals of history, and whose consequences neither this generation nor the next will cease to expiate.
Partly, no doubt, the irritation is due to the recollection of historic wrongs and ancient grievances. Englishmen, who pride themselves on their sense of the past, will not find it difficult to understand why Americans cannot easily forget the circumstances which gave birth to their independence. Nor will they find it hard to see why it is that the disputes of the nineteenth century, which to them were incidents of minor importance, should appear to Americans in quite another perspective. No doubt the memories of these things, which have become part and parcel of the American tradition, are not to be wiped out by the diplomatic unity of a single generation. Nor is it to be expected that the bitterness which the English treatment of Ireland has introduced into Anglo-American relations should disappear in an instant. Just because many of those who now cherish such feelings are far from the scenes and the incidents round which their resentment lingers, it is perhaps natural that they should remember when others are prepared to forget, and keep alive what others are prepared to let sink into oblivion.
Again, I have no doubt that there is still much in our manners which calls for improvement. The old attitude which treated Americans as colonials who had broken away from the family, and which regarded acquiescence on their part in our point of view as something inherent in the order of nature, was intolerable though not wholly unintelligible. We English have been notoriously lacking in the finer arts of international courtesy in the past, and we have lost not a few friends and made not a few enemies in consequence. But in this respect we are today the victims of the follies of our forefathers rather than of our own. So far as I am able to judge, the old attitude which has made us disliked is fast disappearing, and Americans of today labor under a great misapprehension if they mistake our natural reserve for a pose of superiority.
We were certainly never a less self-satisfied people than we are today. Five years of depression and general stagnation of trade have bred an acute and widespread distrust of our institutions and our methods, and the prevalent tendency is to underestimate rather than to overestimate the relative advantages of our position and America's. The amazing industrial triumphs of American capitalism, the abounding material prosperity and comfort of Americans, have made a deep impression on the minds of a people who -- wrongly, as I think -- are all too ready to think that their own days of opulence are past. The pendulum has swung right over with a vengeance. Today no praise can be too extravagant for things American. Do our industries languish? It is because they have not adopted American methods. Are industrial relations at all strained? It is for lack of the American spirit. Is our monetary policy vulnerable? We are told to look to American bankers for guidance. America, in short, can do nothing wrong -- at least in the sphere of economics! Serried ranks of business men return from America and exhort us to imitate things American. Even the socialists now distinguish between American and other capitalism, and the other day, in the House of Commons, one of them went so far as to suggest that the Government should send an industrial mission to America to see if there, in the Eldorado of the West, were not to be discovered means for the healing of British industry. I am convinced that Americans who still complain of English arrogance are to a very large extent mistaking the sentiment of the past for the present fact. Our state of mind today is very far from being arrogant.
Of course this view may be wrong. It is difficult to see ourselves as others see us, and it may be that to outsiders we are still unregenerate. But even if this were so, even if all the accusations which are brought against us were proved, there would still remain another side to the question which no fair-minded judge could refuse to take into account. We too, on this side of the water, have our grievances, and any view of the general problem of Anglo-American relations which does not take account of these must necessarily be one-sided. It is as important for Americans to understand the causes that make for English irritation with America as it is for us to appreciate the reverse case, and in this article I am mainly concerned to indicate the springs of the resentment which on this side of the Atlantic are contributing to vitiate Anglo-American sentiment.
The chief cause of estrangement is the debt settlement. Wherever one goes there is a deep undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the way we have been handled in this matter. It is not very vocal. It does not get into the papers very often. It is not one of the matters we discuss much in public. But it is there, and careful American observers have remarked it. Partly, no doubt, this is due to mere resentment at having to part with our money. As Jeremy Bentham once remarked, at no time in the history of the world have creditors been popular, and the British taxpayer, burdened as he is with a weight of taxation unprecedented in history, would be more than human if he did not feel some mortification at the fact that for every pound sterling he earns, he has to pay 9d. to a creditor whose economic position he has come to regard as being in almost every respect vastly more comfortable and happy than his own.
But there is more in it than that. The resentment which really counts is based on less ignoble feelings. In the main your Englishman, though like other men he hates parting with his money, is too much of a business man to harbor malice at having to meet an obligation which he has contracted in the course of straight business. He will dislike losing the money, but he will consider himself under a moral obligation to pay, and though he may envy his creditor, he will not like him any the less for it. But the whole point is that, in this case of the war debt, he does not feel that at bottom there does exist the same moral obligation. He cannot persuade himself that it was contracted in the normal course of business. He cannot agree that war debts and debts contracted in ordinary business are on the same footing. He regards the expenditure on the war as being expenditure incurred for a common object, and he cannot bring himself to believe that the mere bookkeeping entries of such expenditure have the same binding force as they have in the more material relations of commerce.
On an impartial view of the matter, he has some justification for this attitude. If we did wage a common war -- and I have yet to hear the man who denies it -- is it really possible to allocate the burden on purely commercial principles? No one has attempted to apply such principles to the sacrifice in men. Is there any more justification for applying them to materials? If America sent a detachment of machine-gunners plus equipment for the reinforcement of our defenses no indebtedness of this strictly computable nature was incurred. The sacrifices she made were agreed to be invaluable. But if she sent equipment only, apparently the sacrifice was to be assessed on quite a different basis. Are we wholly without reason if we sometimes find America's present attitude a little materialistic?
It is no answer to this indictment to point out that we, too, are insisting on payment. Again and again we have made it clear that the only ground for our insistence is the necessity of covering, at least in part, our payments to America. We did not incur the debts for ourselves. We financed our efforts with our own sacrifices. England was the one European power which conducted her war finance on rational financial principles. If it had not been for the necessities of our Allies we should not have owed a penny to America. The £33,000,000 which we are now paying annually to America is interest on sums which were borrowed in order to make things easier for France and for Italy. All that we are now saying to these two nations is that if America insists on exacting her bond, they must do something to meet their share of the common obligation. It is notorious that if America had not insisted upon a "business settlement," England would have been quite ready, in the common interest, to cancel all debts due to her. It is no exaggeration to say that America is the real obstacle to complete settlement of the problem of inter-allied indebtedness. Can Englishmen be blamed for resenting it a little?
But putting all this on one side, and accepting the assumption that the debts incurred in the common struggle are appropriate objects for the application of purely business principles, Englishmen still feel that they have a grievance in this matter. When they contrast the stern treatment which has been meted out to them with the easy terms which have been accorded to others, it is not unnatural that they should feel that they have been somewhat roughly handled. They cannot but feel it unjust that they should be called upon to pay more than three percent while the Italians, for instance, should pay less than one. Was their conduct of the war less meritorious than that of the Italians, they ask themselves. Were their motives less pure? Were their sacrifices less onerous? What have they done, they say, that they should thus be singled out for specially severe treatment?
Indeed, surveying the course of international relations since the war, the Englishmen sometimes find it hard to avoid the suspicion that they are still the object of peculiar animosity in America. No doubt this is very irrational, but it is not unnatural. They see the mildest complaint on their part treated as if it were a mortal insult. They see, on the other hand, the grossest outrages against the common peace on the part of other nations allowed to pass unnoticed. An Englishman visiting the States today will encounter criticisms of his country in plenty. If he ventures to defend his point of view, he may obtain a hearing, but he will always be regarded as a propagandist. Yet all around him he will find the most blatant French propaganda accepted almost without question. In fact, sometimes he might well ask himself, did we march into the Ruhr, or did the French? Did our Prime Ministers systematically oppose anything which might conduce to the pacification of Europe, or did M.Poincaré? Is it possible that after all we are the villains of the post-war drama, and our late Allies on the other side of the Channel the most injured and the most pacific nation in Europe?
All this may be very superficial, but it does not tend to the establishment of friendly relations. Nor do we find the attitude of certain American journalists and politicians very reassuring. There is a certain game called "Twisting the Lion's tail" which is very popular among certain of your public men. It is a very amusing game no doubt. But it does not conduce to mutual friendship. When I was in America shortly after the war, a Presidential election was in prospect, and Mr. Hiram Johnson of San Francisco was regarded as a possible Republican candidate. It was impossible to avoid observing that Mr. Johnson's first step in his campaign was to go to Boston and make a violent anti-British oration. I am not sure that Mr. Johnson wanted to do it. But the fact that he did do it is obviously evidence that there is a certain section of the public at any rate to which such demonstrations are welcome. Senator Borah is another devotee of this game of tail-twisting. He does it very effectively, too, on occasion. I do not think any single incident in the relations of the two countries since the war has caused such widespread indignation and feeling of outrage as his recent resolution in the Senate. The Senator may have been misunderstood. The question he raised was highly technical in nature. But certainly to almost everybody over here his resolution read like a deliberate attempt to embitter relations between the two peoples.
No doubt it is possible to overemphasize the significance of all this, but there can be little question that it leads to much ill-feeling. Certainly there are many Englishmen who feel that it considerably mitigates the force of whatever complaints of our tactlessness and lack of consideration for the feelings of other nations may be uttered from time to time by Americans.
Apart from all these sources of local irritation, which after all are largely of the sort that men of long views will find it wise to ignore, apart even from the whole question of debt, there are deeper causes of estrangement. And these causes are none the less serious because it is the more liberal-minded Englishmen, the Englishmen who set most store on complete harmony with America, who are most keenly aware of them.
Frankly we do not feel that America is contributing her share to the comity of nations. We do not feel that she is doing all that we have a right to expect her to do towards the maintenance of western civilization. We cannot forget that in the ultimate analysis, it is America's refusal to participate in the work of European reconstruction which is responsible for our present troubles. It was America's refusal to agree to the Tripartite Treaty and the Covenant of the League of Nations which is the prime cause of the chaos and confusion which have characterized European diplomacy since 1919. And, as we survey the history of the years which have passed since that refusal, we find it hard to withhold from America the condemnation reserved for those who having put their hand to the plow turn away before the furrow is done. Who can believe that if America had been in the League, the French would ever have marched into the Ruhr, that the German mark would have been allowed to collapse, or that Europe would have become as she is today, the distracted battleground of mutually suspicious powers, not fighting only because they are too exhausted to fight? In the light of the debacle of Geneva, it is hard to refrain from the reflection that if America had been playing her part, these things would never have been.
For this reason it is particularly hard to suffer in silence the reproaches which are periodically hurled at us from across the Atlantic that we are incapable of managing our own affairs, that we have no will to peace, and that therefore reasonable people will have nothing to do with us. Europe is hopeless, say our American censors; it always has been hopeless, and it always will be. But why are we hopeless just now? Is it not just because our critics have themselves let us down, have themselves shirked the business which they had given us to expect they would undertake? It is peculiarly galling for Europeans to be reproached by Americans for complications which would never have arisen had America done what all her actions up to the time of her retirement justified us in expecting of her.
Of course, if it had been anticipated that America would retire at the last minute, the whole structure of alliances and treaties which were built up at Versailles would have been different. The League of Nations, if it had been formed at all, would have been formed on another model. The subsequent history of Europe would have flowed in another channel. I am not here concerned to argue that the ultimate powers for good of the treaty structure which would have grown up would have been greater than those of the structure we know. But that it would have been better suited to suffer the strains and stresses which we now endure is, I think, incontestable. Americans may succeed for a time in avoiding the evil effects of the consequences of their abandonment of Europe, but they cannot evade responsibility for them. They must not be surprised, therefore, if Europeans sometimes take it amiss when they reproach them for these consequences.
Such are our grievances against America. If I have spoken with greater frankness than is customary in dealing with this delicate matter, I can only plead that my subject is of supreme importance and that in all my relations with Americans I have never found anything was lost by plain speaking. And the matter is urgent. It has been the capital theme in world affairs since the signing of the Armistice, and the seven years which have elapsed since then have not diminished its importance. So far as this country is concerned the debt issue, indeed, is likely to become less urgent as time goes on. With the aid of the share which we shall receive as reparations and the payments from France and Italy, the contribution which we ourselves shall be called upon to make will be reduced to more manageable dimensions. As time goes on, and as our industries recover, the dead weight of the burden which we are bearing may be expected to be lightened. And if the Dawes plan continues to work, the same will be true in large measure of France and Italy. It will be for America to decide whether she, who went into the war declaring that she did not want a mile of territory or a cent of reparations, shall become the ultimate recipient of the vast sums which year by year for three generations the German people will be called upon to contribute.
The main problem, the problem of organizing the peace of the world, will remain. And unless and until America decides to abandon her present policy of isolation, it is a problem which must remain unsolved. It is impossible to lay a permanent foundation for peace among nations when the greatest nation of them all--for that is what America has undoubtedly become, at least in point of potentialities -- remains distantly aloof. It is a supreme irony of history that the League of Nations, which was a conception born in the minds of American statesmen and brought into being by their fostering care, should today have to work without American coöperation. There is a vacant chair in the Assembly at Geneva, and until its rightful occupant takes her place the proceedings of that body will always have about them something of the atmosphere of a sham.
The extent of her wealth, the quantity and the quality of her population, her superb geographical position and her great pacific traditions, have all conspired to give America a unique position of predominance among nations. That position carries with it great privileges, but it also involves great responsibilities. And in the long run they are responsibilities which cannot be evaded. The doctrine of isolation is not only selfish: it is out of touch with realities. The modern world is a unit, and no single nation, no matter how great its wealth or wide its territories, can afford to remain detached from the other nations without endangering its own interests. It is not, and it cannot be, a matter of indifference to America that Europe should be a political and economic chaos. Americans, too, are damaged, even in a pecuniary sense, if English and German and French conditions are not all they might be. Even from the narrowest material point of view, America cannot afford to let the rest of the world go without her aid and assistance. Even if the whole structure of reparations and inter-allied debt agreements remains exactly as it is today, America will be forced by the mere aggregation of her claims on Europe to play a bigger and bigger part in the organizing of the European comity. She cannot continue to amass large holdings of property in Europe without becoming vitally interested in the stability of European institutions.
Yet this is not the real question. Even if it were possible for America to remain permanently detached from the affairs of the rest of the world without jeopardizing her own interests, it would still remain questionable whether it was right for her to do so. For any nation which regards its position in the world from any but the lowest standpoint, the question of what is right for it to do is not a question of what it can get out of the world, but what it can do for it. The material greatness of America will avail her little before the great tribunal of history if, when her record comes to be examined, it is discovered that to the healing of nations she contributed nothing but demand notes for debt payments and smug aphorisms on the decadence of Europe. It is not thus that a nation offers proofs of its greatness. And the plain fact is that at the present day America could save the world, and that without her the world will not find salvation.
It is for this reason that the establishment of a real friendship between the two great English-speaking peoples of the world is of such capital importance. Bound together by a common language and a common tradition, by a thousand intimate ties of a common ancestry and a political heritage which we could not repudiate if we would, we have it in our power not only to restore peace to this troubled world, but so to organize it as to remove once and for all the shadow of war and all its barbarous associations which now make civilized existence little short of a nightmare. The one good thing in the history of the post-war period -- the Dawes Report and the London Agreements -- is the fruit of such coöperation, tentative and hesitant it is true, but abundantly indicative of the immense power for good which could be wielded in closer association. It is to promote that closer association, not merely in the interests of the two commonwealths themselves but in those of the world at large, that I have written with a candor which I trust will not be misunderstood or resented,