The Overstretched Superpower
Does America Have More Rivals Than It Can Handle?
MOST Americans who write of American foreign policy denounce their Government. They take it as axiomatic that the Department of State is selfish and materialistic, that to differ proves their own beautiful idealism. They, of course, do not construct policy. They have the easier and more congenial task of pulling it to pieces. An Englishman or a Frenchman or a German seldom condemns his government in advance, especially in international dealings. His tendency is rather to support his government as long as he conscientiously can. I see no reason why Americans should be less patriotic.
Policy is based on ascertained facts and the man of average intelligence must realize that the Department of State has more facts at its disposal than has the reader of the newspapers, the versatile producer of newspaper articles, or even the professor in his study. When the Department, therefore, takes a position I try to suspend judgment until I have learned the facts on which the decision was based. Mr. Kellogg is a man of intelligence and breadth of vision. He has been a great lawyer and is, therefore, able to weigh evidence. The President has much to do with foreign policy. He is a man of high ideals, a clear and patriotic thinker, without his Secretary's knowledge of international matters but quick to grasp the essential facts on which foreign policy must be based and ready to act fearlessly when that policy is decided. I am unwilling to surrender my independent judgment to these men or to any others, but I am willing to start with the assumption that the policy they are trying to carry on is honest and that it is an intelligent attempt to interpret facts for the good of the United States.
On one point I am willing severely to criticize the Department of State. I believe that its reticence in the publication of facts gives destructive criticism the opportunity to influence public opinion before the Government states its own case and that this is one of the main reasons why that destructive criticism is so effective. What we read first remains in our memory, no matter how much goodwill we may have. I am convinced that this paucity of reliable information is the reason why I can myself make a less effective defense of American foreign policy and must often explain it from the point of view of tradition and common sense.
Broadly stated, I believe this policy consists in the protection and extension of American rights and interests in such manner as will make this country respected and a force for world peace. The Department of State is always pro-American. It does not pretend to be the foreign office of the world, but of the United States. It does not attempt, as some would have it attempt, to regulate the internal policies of other nations. Its aim is to keep on good terms with all other nations but it insists that there cannot be thoroughly friendly relations with any nation which ignores American rights. On the other hand, it asks no more for Americans than it is willing to concede to foreigners. Its policy is not dictated by Wall Street and yet it is ready to defend the rights of Wall Street exactly as it would defend the rights of Main Street. It tries to deal with all nations according to the same standards and, therefore, will not admit that a weak nation any more than a strong nation may ignore its international obligations. It is idealistic in that it tries honestly to serve the United States in a way that will be of service to all, but it does not confuse idealism with sentimentality. It does not surrender American interests in favor of foreign interests.
With this preliminary statement of what I conceive to be the guiding principles of American foreign policy, I shall discuss shortly some of the recent manifestations of that policy which, in spite of adverse criticism, I think are based on sound reason and are in accord with wise tradition.
The League of Nations. The Administration has repeatedly stated that the United States would not join the League. It could take no other stand and at the same time fairly represent the sentiment of the nation. The enthusiasts who sit in their comfortable studies and dream of the greatness of the League, who really picture it as a super-state, and the pilgrims who journey to Geneva and look at a meeting of the Council with much the same feeling of reverence that a good Catholic would have at a Pontifical celebration of the Mass in the Sistine Chapel, represent, not public opinion, but only themselves. If the League is the almost super-human institution which certain Americans conceive it to be why is it that people whose governments are members of the League have no such feeling of awe? The reason probably is that they recognize it for what it is, a valuable organization for conducting international conferences and an immensely useful meeting place for the statesmen of Europe, where the leaders of different nations can come together without creating excitement and suspicion of motives and can, therefore, settle amicably many minor points of difference in European policy. As a prominent British statesman said the other day, "The League is useful to keep the peace in Europe because it is feared by the little postwar nations. It will be helpless when a vital issue is at stake between two great nations. Then its function will be to prepare new rules for the humanitarian conduct of war." Few thinking people outside the United States would seriously contest this definition.
The Department of State apparently agrees with public opinion that the United States would gain nothing by joining the League, but that on the contrary membership would involve the American Government in European political questions in a manner contrary to all our traditions and all our interests. It is, however, quite willing to coöperate with the League in all matters affecting this country or in the attempted solution of problems of broad international interest. There is no longer hesitation or suspicion merely because this or that conference happens to be called in Geneva. League enthusiasts or League haters, however, who see in this willingness to participate in League activities a tendency to accept membership in the League itself are lamentably wrong. Rather is it true that the Department of State is glad to use and be of use to the League when it acts administratively, as an organ to conduct international conferences, and avoids that political phase which may well be useful to Europe but cannot be to America. The United States takes part in conferences when participation seems to be of value to this country. Other countries accept full membership for precisely the same reason, that membership is useful to them, and for no other. No nation is in the League for the good of other nations, yet other nations advocate American membership because they think it will be good for them, not for us.
Disarmament. In many of these League conferences the United States has played a helpful and constructive part. The Administration did not hesitate to accept the invitation to send delegates to the Preparatory Commission of the Disarmament Conference. We shall be represented at the Disarmament Conference itself if there should be prepared an agenda which promises any hope whatever of successful accomplishment. In the meetings of the Preparatory Commission the American thesis, which has been ably argued, is admittedly the only one which may bring about a material reduction in armament in any forseeable future. It is quite true that the American plan ignores the intricate theorizings of the continental thesis. It is practical. It does not attempt to limit war potentialities because it frankly accepts the fact that in war time a nation will make use of every resource within its borders. America denies the French thesis that the only possible method of limitation is through contemporaneous reduction of land, air and naval forces. It claims rather that land and air limitation is a matter for regional arrangement, the size of the French army and the French aviation forces, for example, having not the remotest interest for Chile, nor those of Brazil for Germany. It claims that limitation in one branch of the service can only assist the problems of limitation in other branches. It would base its standards of measurement on actuality, not on theoretical possibility; on the trained forces available instantly for war, not on the reservoir of men who might theoretically be trained after a declaration of war; on the factories capable of immediately producing the implements of war, not on those which in the course of time might be transferred to such uses. You cannot forbid a country to produce plows for its own use and to sell abroad because in case of war these factories might be able to produce heavy artillery. You cannot forbid a country to manufacture water pipes because the same moulds in time of war can turn out rifle barrels. Just so long as the nations are willing to discuss "hogs and fogs"[i] as an essential part of the disarmament problem, just so long will actual reduction of armament be postponed. The American thesis is not only practical but is immediately realizable when the truth is admitted that limitation of land and air armament is a regional problem.
Naval Limitation. Because the limitation of naval armament is far less a regional problem, and because achievement along one line would create an atmosphere of hopefulness, President Coolidge suggested the calling of a naval limitation conference to work along with the Preparatory Commission in Geneva. Only the great naval nations which had participated in the Washington Conference were invited, and this for obvious reasons. The naval problems of Czechoslovakia and Belgium and Rumania are not serious, yet whenever at the meetings of the Preparatory Commission naval questions arose the French called in the generals of the non-naval nations to vote in favor of the French thesis, whatever that might be at the moment. The Commission was, therefore, faced with the absurd situation of being reduced to practical impotence because the votes of Czechoslovakia and Rumania counted, in naval matters, exactly as much as the votes of Great Britain and the United States. France, to be sure, professed herself in favor of naval limitation but stood firmly on the argument that limitation by classes was impossible, that only global tonnage, the sum total of all naval construction, could be taken as the measure. In actual practice this would mean exactly nothing, because the nation with two or three battleships and a modest fleet of cruisers might find itself faced by a fleet of hundreds of submarines. It looked as though the Preparatory Commission, dominated always by France and her satellites, would fail to reach any practical method of naval limitation whatever.
In these circumstances the President saw the possibility of taking a step which would vastly help on the League disarmament plans and at the same time put a stop to the competitive naval programs that had begun to raise their threatening heads in the budget discussions in various parliaments. Great Britain and Japan accepted, France and Italy refused. The French note of refusal was a clever political document, meant to establish France as the champion of the League and the defender of the rights of small nations. The Italian refusal looked as though it were based on a misunderstanding of the President's proposal. The Department of State thereupon suggested a three-power conference, inviting France and Italy to be represented at least by observers if they so desired. It is clear that this conference, or these "conversations" as the British more aptly style them, cannot lay down any hard and fast rules because any ratio arrived at must be subject to change should other nations build beyond the limit of safety to the three concerned. But will not self-imposed limits on the part of the three great naval powers act as a curb on the programs of other powers? No nation will wish to be branded as the one which disturbed the equilibrium. No nation will wish to advertise itself as warlike. There is as truly a national as a personal psychology.
In all this the United States has taken the lead because it sincerely desires world peace and believes that limitation of armament is one form of insurance against war. Its proposals are so worded that any matter may be discussed, that the needs and special circumstances of every country may be taken into account. There are still those in the United States who sneer at the Washington Conference because it did not achieve the impossible. But the Washington Conference made the battleship, the principal offensive unit, unfashionable. The Geneva Conference will fail to satisfy those who again ask for the impossible, but may it not make the 10,000 ton cruiser unfashionable? May it not be a step toward the idea of making naval armament purely defensive instead of largely offensive? The thing is at least worth trying, and now that the Preparatory Commission has adjourned to give the nations time to settle between each other, if possible, the fundamental differences which have developed, the naval limitation conference ought to show that three great nations, sincerely desirous of peace, can reach reasonable and constructive agreements.
Russia. There are a few critics even of the consistent American policy of non-recognition of the Soviet Government. It is not that the Russian Communist Party is a small minority which has imposed itself on the great, inarticulate, inert mass of the Russian people. We cannot object to a government because it is not representative or because we do not like its form, but we can very seriously object when its methods are immoral and when it openly strives to destroy our own institutions. The refusal to recognize debts incurred by former legally constituted governments may be technically immoral, but incomparably more immoral is the world-wide propaganda to undermine existing governments, to bring about riots and international misunderstandings. Communism lives on unrest. It is anti-social, the negation of what we are pleased to call civilization. Its most bitter attacks are against the far-flung British Empire, all in direct violation of the Soviet's solemn promise to cease from propaganda as a return for the British-Russian trade agreement. American recognition of the Soviet would be a direct blow against Great Britain because the added prestige of American recognition and even more the loans which might be secured in the American market would be an incentive to further propaganda. It would enable the Soviet more efficiently to extend that propaganda to this country through its diplomatic agents just as it has done in Great Britain and France. America has always been friendly to Russia and will be the first to assist in rebuilding the ruins caused by the rule of the Soviet. It will not hesitate, furthermore, to recognize the advances in democracy made by the Russian people, but it has no right to assist in stabilizing a régime which is destroying the fundamentals of the Russian nation at the same time that it strives to disrupt and to destroy the prosperity and happiness of other nations.
Mexico. It is a curious fact that many Americans who would most vigorously protect American rights in Europe are willing to throw all such rights overboard when it is Mexico which sets up a peculiar interpretation of international dealings. Senator Borah, for example, would gladly bleed Belgium white to extract the last farthing of the debt, but when it comes to the open flaunting of the United States by Mexico he becomes suddenly very tender toward Mexican privileges and susceptibilities. Any support of the American Government in its action in Mexico and Central America is "propaganda," whereas the flood of really vicious propaganda poured out from Mexican sources is merely "an attempt to show the truth." Perhaps this is because we hear so much of Mexican oil and in the minds of the thoughtless there is something inherently wicked in oil property.
No true appreciation of the policy of the American Government toward Mexico is possible without some understanding of the actual situation. This has been obscured by prejudice, by the use of misleading catch words, by the refusal to recognize self-evident facts. The public cry is for arbitration, but before there can be arbitration there must be agreement on what is to be arbitrated. Mexico says that no arbitration can call into question the validity of the Mexican constitution or of laws deriving from that constitution, and large numbers of shallow-thinking Americans accept this dictum as self-evident, at the same time insisting on arbitration without noticing that the exceptions made by Mexico may leave nothing to arbitrate. It is quite true that the United States could not agree to international arbitration of a section of the American constitution, but the test of a hundred and fifty years has proved that our constitution is not confiscatory. If, however, we should abrogate our constitution and in a new instrument confiscate foreign rights acquired in good faith under the old law we should probably have to arbitrate or go to war. Mexico has had four constitutions in a hundred years and there is no shadow of doubt to anyone who will read the latest in an unprejudiced spirit that it does exactly what we should never think of doing ourselves. This fact was pointed out and the Mexicans responded that the constitution only became effective through the passage of legislation, and promised that no such legislation would be passed. Because of this solemn assurance we recognized the Obregon government. Shall a nation, merely because it is weak, be permitted to negative its promises and to flout international law and morality?
The Department of State has argued the case with Mexico patiently and wisely. It has never blustered, never even by implication threatened intervention. It has never presumed to interfere with local Mexican laws or regulations except in so far as they affected legally acquired rights of American citizens. It has taken no part in the unfortunate religious controversy, unwise as it probably believed the Mexican Government to be, because this was essentially an internal political question for the Mexicans to decide for themselves. Its moderation has been admirable throughout and if intervention should ever become necessary it will not be because of the firm and consistent policy of the American Government in upholding international usage, but rather because of the incitement of the Mexicans by irresponsible Americans and irresponsible newspapers to destroy the very bases on which friendly international relations exist.
Central America. In his speech at the dinner of the United Press in New York on April 25 the President said, "Toward the governments of countries which we have recognized this side of the Panama Canal we feel a moral responsibility that does not attach to other countries." This statement, which actually means just what it says, has been taken by the professional critics of the American Government as a slogan of imperialism. Naturally they do not stop to analyze imperialism. The Soviet Government implores the proletariat -- another meaningless word -- to save the downtrodden people of the Hawaiian Islands from the dreadful, imperialistic yoke of the United States. Every sane American knows this to be arrant nonsense, knows that not two percent of the people of Hawaii would vote to throw off this so-called yoke. But Hawaii was annexed to this country. There is no thought of annexing any of the Central American states. American influence there only attempts to bring peace, and with peace prosperity, to revolution-torn nations -- and this is imperialism! When the President spoke of "moral responsibility" he meant it, and these were the states he mentioned because they are our neighbors and we cannot, even if we would, shift the responsibility to Europe. Perhaps the saying was, as some point out, an extension of the Monroe Doctrine. If so it seems that our internationalists, the people who always want America to interfere in European political troubles, who urged their Government to accept a mandate over Armenia, should welcome the fact that we intend to keep the peace in Central America, to prevent Mexico from stirring up trouble in Nicaragua as we should have had to prevent Turkey and Russia from stirring up trouble in Armenia. But curiously enough it is these very people who most loudly declaim against interference in Latin American affairs.
No fair-minded man who has seriously studied the history of the Central American and Caribbean countries during the last thirty years would fail to admit that the influence of the United States has been, on the whole, beneficent. Public order has improved; budgets have been balanced and debts reduced; life and property have become secure. I have no doubt that our Department of State has advised and assisted bankers who have made loans in these countries. I have as little doubt that it has prevented them from making loans too heavy for the public exchequer and that it has insisted that all loans shall be for constructive purposes. All recent American loans, so far as I know, have been so drawn that the money could not be used for starting new revolutions.
We have from time to time sent marines into some of these countries. Wilson sent them to Haiti and Santo Domingo, and these little nations are peaceful and happy and prosperous as they have never been before. Taft sent them into Nicaragua, where they remained, a few of them, for years, until Coolidge thought it safe to take them away. Are the thousands of lives and the millions of dollars saved by their presence no justification for "interference in the domestic affairs of other nations?" The answer would seem to be inevitably in the affirmative, especially since the United States has always made it clear that their presence pointed not at all toward eventual annexation.
There are Central Americans, of course, who resent any American interference. They learn the language in which they express themselves publicly from the professional anti-imperialists of the United States, but what they really resent is the fact that they no longer dare to carry on pillage and murder for their own political advancement. As a rule they are supremely and entirely selfish, caring nothing for national tranquillity and prosperity because it interferes with their own selfish purposes. The first and only idea of most Central American "reformers" is to bring about a revolution which will put them personally into power. This was illustrated when the little company of American marines was withdrawn from Managua. The country has been in the throes of revolution ever since, and the recent peace brought about by President Coolidge's representative would be wholly illusory if the American guarantee of peace were withdrawn. Yet already our critics are busy showing the wickedness of this peace for the reason that the coming elections are to be supervised by Americans to insure fairness. Political labels in Latin America are as meaningless as they are elsewhere, but I have often wondered whether Secretary Kellogg would have been so violently attacked if Diaz had happened to call himself a Liberal.
Undoubtedly the American Government has made mistakes in its dealings with the smaller Latin American nations, although I believe these mistakes have been more in taste than in morals. Undoubtedly American business interests have not always played fair. But when the credit and debit columns of the ledger are set against each other I believe that the credit column will be very large and the debit very small. In spite of the critics, the whole story, growingly in its later phases, is an admirable chapter in American foreign policy.
China. There are two parties in America, those who believe that the Chinese troubles can be settled for the good of China and the world by the use of unlimited force, and those who believe that the good of China can only be attained by the withdrawal of all pressure. This latter party ignores the rest of the world.
Both are wrong. The American Government is cursed by both sides because it has taken a middle course. It has assumed leadership in a policy of moderation. It sympathizes with the Chinese desire for freedom because it has always been an unselfish friend of China. It cannot abandon American business men and missionaries to the mercy of a Russian guided Chinese mob. Both business men and missionaries are legitimately in China; both are there with the consent of the Chinese and both are of use to China.
After the outrages at Nanking, which after all were only the more exaggerated of many similar incidents, the American Government joined with others in presenting identic notes to what was then the Nationalist Government in China, demanding indemnity for damages, the cessation of such outrages and protection of foreigners. The very fact that several governments which had suffered similarly should all ask the same thing in the same words seemed to some people to presage war in China. There is no reason whatever to imagine that the Department of State had any such thought in mind. On the other hand, Mr. Kellogg promptly made it clear that the United States had made no commitment whatever, that it was determined to hold its hand, to act in whatever manner seemed most likely to assist in settling the Chinese question whatever other nations might decide for themselves. Soon after the specious answer of Eugene Chen was received there was a definite split in the ranks of the Nationalist Party. General Chiang Kai Shek repudiated the Red wing of his party which was undoubtedly responsible for the looting and murder in Nanking. To impose sanctions might well have driven the moderates again into concert with the Reds. America was foremost in counsels of moderation, and American counsel prevailed.
There is no man living who can foresee the outcome of the troubles in China. The victory of one army or of another is generally a matter of barter. In so far as what is happening is the result of Chinese aspirations for the abolition of unequal treaties and for full independence we must have patience and sympathy, only regretting that the Chinese people should have chosen the way of civil war and of atrocities on foreigners to gain their end when a united and peaceful China would have gained the same end in a shorter time and with honor instead of dishonor. In so far as the troubles are the result of the age-old quarrels of the war lords, fighting now under false titles of democracy and the rights of man, we must deplore them and wait until someone can speak for all of China. In so far as they are due to the incitement of Moscow -- and there is no manner of doubt that Moscow supplies both leadership and arms -- we must stand firmly against surrender of foreign rights, and that for China's own sake. And in all events we have the right to feel that our own Department of State is fulfilling its duty both as regards American promises to China and as regards the protection of American lives.
There are other aspects of American foreign policy which could be discussed. No subject is more controversial in its nature, for example, than the debts, but after all this subject is not under the Department of State and furthermore its discussion leads nowhere, but only accentuates international misunderstanding. One can only deplore the outpourings of college professors which delight our debtors because the arguments advanced might well have been prepared in the chancelleries of Europe. One can also, perhaps, deplore the fact that the American Treasury finds these vaporings worthy of answer. No discussion of this matter can be solely between the American Government and the other government concerned except when carried on by duly credited agents. Public talk involves American interference in the relations between other nations. There also are problems of economics and of tariffs, but these again, due to our system of government, are not under the immediate control of the State Department.
Perhaps I have said enough to show that an American citizen has a right to feel at least that his Government has a clearly defined foreign policy along broad lines, that this policy is steadily directed toward promoting the best interests of the United States with full recognition of the fact that these interests are inevitably interwoven with the best interests, the prosperity, and the happiness of other nations. There is no such thing as isolation, nor any wish for isolation. On the other hand, the American Government owes it to us, the citizens of the Republic, to represent us first and foremost, to put our good before that of the rest of the world. In the various manifestations of that policy we all are free to criticize and to advise but we ought, nevertheless, to remember that valid policy can be based only on knowledge of all the facts, that these facts are not all in our possession, and that the men chosen to formulate and direct policy are trying always to understand public opinion and, in the light of that, to protect American rights and to advance American interests for the good of the largest possible number. As patriotic citizens we should be interested in this policy and keep our right to criticize; but we can help our own Government and the world at large only when this criticism is constructive and helpful.
[i] See the Dutch proposition made to the Preparatory Commission as published by the League.