The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
THE recent Anglo-French negotiations have again focused attention on the problem of the limitation of naval armaments. Nothing is so calculated to whet the appetite of the public as an international agreement of which the existence is known and the text withheld. Now that the text of this agreement has been published the element in it which is surprising is its futility. It is hard to see by what chain of reasoning its authors persuaded themselves that it would afford a basis for a general naval understanding. It is still more difficult to see how they would justify it as a real step toward naval limitation.
The failure of the Three-Power Naval Conference at Geneva in 1927, and now the rejection by the United States and Italy (and by public opinion generally) of the Anglo-French compromise, have served to emphasize that the naval problem ranks with reparation as the most serious of pending and unsettled international problems. The naval problem, to an even greater extent than that of reparation, requires for its solution the coöperation of the American Government. It is distinctly a governmental problem. Informal commissions of inquiry or investigation are less likely to be of assistance here than they have been, and may again be, in the case of reparation.
When the Washington Conference adjourned in 1922 the impression was very generally created -- particularly in the United States -- that the naval problem had been solved. It was felt that even though certain naval elements were not included in the scope of the Treaty, naval competition of a dangerous character would be eliminated. It is no disparagement of the accomplishments of the Washington Conference to state that all that was expected from the Naval Treaty of 1922 has not been realized. This has been due not only to inability to agree on cruiser and submarine limitation, but also to advances of science over which treaty makers had no control.
The combat value of the battleship, for example, has undoubtedly been lessened by the development of the aeroplane and the submarine. This fact is reflected in the action of Great Britain in advocating further economies in battleship construction through a reduction in the maximum size and an extension of the replacement age limit for such ships. Also, France and Italy have never fully availed themselves of the right accorded them by the Washington Treaty to construct a limited number of additional battleships. Italy, in its recent reply on the Anglo-French compromise, has even suggested that the Powers signatory of the Treaty of Washington "undertake to postpone until after the year 1936 the construction of those battleships which the Treaty would allow them to lay down during the period 1931-1936." Without taking sides in the heated controversy between the supporters of the battleship and the supporters of the aeroplane, we are safe in stating that in the view of many admiralties the battleship is less important today than it was deemed to be at the time of the Washington Conference. As a result, the European naval Powers are admittedly ready to accept more drastic limitations respecting battleships than those embodied in the Washington Treaty. At the same time added emphasis is being placed on the construction and development of the types of vessels not limited by that Treaty, particularly the cruiser and the submarine.
It was very shortly after the ratification of the Washington Treaty that Great Britain entered upon a considerable program of cruiser construction; and more modest programs were developed in Japan, France and Italy. The United States initiated practically nothing in the way of a cruiser building program. Congress was still under the impression that naval competition had been eliminated at Washington, and our legislators were disinclined to support appropriations for new ships to take the place of other new ships which were being scrapped. In 1926-1927, when Congress became aroused to the naval situation, the President deemed it wise to make a serious effort to effect a general limitation of naval armaments which would restrict the amount of building that might be necessary; hoping that this could be achieved by international agreement, he discouraged the idea of increased naval appropriations.
During this period the Preparatory Disarmament Commission of the League of Nations, on which the United States was represented, was discussing the limitation of all types of armaments, including navies. France and Italy took the position, first, that land and sea armaments must be considered as a part of an indivisible whole, and second, that naval armaments should be limited by fixing for each nation a global or total tonnage for naval craft of all types, leaving to each Power the right to allocate this tonnage among such types as they desired. On both points France had the following of the continental European Powers; and on both points the United States, Great Britain, and Japan were in opposition.
At the Three-Power Naval Conference in 1927 no procedural difficulties of this character were encountered, and an effort was made to find a common yard stick to measure the navies of the United States, Great Britain and Japan. The effort failed for two reasons. In the first place, the British would not accept any tonnage basis for the limitation of cruisers which did not permit a considerable expansion of their present cruiser strength. Secondly, the British insisted that most of the cruisers to be constructed in the future should be restricted in size to 6,000 tons and carry guns not in excess of six inches in calibre. Stating these same reasons from another point of view, we may say that the conference failed because the United States declined to conclude a treaty on a basis which sanctioned a large expansion in the cruiser strength of the strongest naval Power and which strictly limited the particular type of vessel deemed most important for the United States navy.
After the Three-Power Naval Conference the discussions of the Geneva Preparatory Commission were continued, but without appreciable results. The difference in point of view between the Anglo-American group which favored limitation of naval armaments by categories, and the French and Italian group which insisted upon limitation by total tonnage, was still an obstacle.
Such was the situation when the Anglo-French conversations were initiated in March, 1928. It would hardly be profitable to give much time or space to speculation as to the motives which actuated Sir Austen Chamberlain in his negotiations. Temperamentally he apparently prefers conversations with M. Briand to negotiations with the authorities in Washington. Moreover, after the breakdown of the Three-Power Naval Conference as the direct result of a sharp divergence of view between the United States and Great Britain, he may have felt it wise to start negotiations in another quarter than Washington. The differences between Great Britain and France over the limitation of trained army reserves and the methods of effecting naval limitation made it unlikely that the Preparatory Commission would achieve any results if it were again convened. Meanwhile, Count Bernstorff, the German representative on the Preparatory Commission, had been quoting the disarmament provisions of the Treaty of Versailles with insistence and emphasis, pointing out that no steps had been taken toward the general reduction of armaments pledged by that Treaty despite the carrying out by Germany of her agreement to disarm. It was important to get results promptly and Sir Austen turned to France to secure what he may have hoped would furnish a basis for united action at least between Great Britain and the continental European Powers.
It seems obvious that Sir Austen must have considered going ahead without taking the position of the United States into account. In fact, it was the French Government which brought this point forcibly to his attention when M. Briand, in a note of July 20, 1928, stated: "It will not have escaped the notice of the British Government that the agreement so earnestly desired on all sides can only bear fruit if the United States Government, in particular, agree to accept it. M. Briand will be glad to know whether His Majesty's Government consider it advisable to take the necessary steps to this end at Washington." Is it possible that this had "escaped the notice" of the British Government?
We are not justified in complaining because Mr. Chamberlain decided to enter into conversations with France on naval matters. In this he was clearly within his right. In fact the American representative on the Preparatory Commission had suggested that points of difference be ironed out by "direct negotiations between the various Governments and between groups of Governments." This was only the suggestion of a normal method of procedure and did not involve sponsoring any particular negotiations. Unfortunately the Anglo-French negotiators, in ignoring completely the American position, have only created new difficulties more serious than those they undertook to solve. It is not the procedure which is objectionable, but the substance of the agreement. If an effort had been made to force through a program on the basis of the Anglo-French compromise, the United States would have been placed in an awkward situation. It would have been left standing almost alone in opposition to what it would have considered as at best a hollow pretense of naval limitation. With the unfavorable publicity which the agreement has now received, there is not much likelihood that it will be used as a basis for future negotiations. The question of real interest therefore is not why such an agreement was ever concluded, or the motives actuating the negotiators, but rather whether there are any elements in it which can be used to advance the cause of naval limitation. It is also important to consider where these negotiations have left the international situation and what the next move can be.
The Anglo-French naval agreement is so brief that it may be given in full:
Limitations which the Disarmament Conference will have to determine will deal with four classes of warships:
(1) Capital ships, i.e., ships of over 10,000 tons or with guns of more than 8-inch calibre.
(2) Aircraft carriers of over 10,000 tons.
(3) Surface vessels of or below 10,000 tons armed with guns of more than 6-inch and up to 8-inch calibre.
(4) Ocean-going submarines, i.e., over 600 tons.
The Washington Treaty regulates limitations in classes (1) and (2) and the Disarmament Conference will only have to consider the method of extending these limitations to Powers non-signatory to this treaty.
As regards classes (3) and (4), the final Disarmament Conference will fix a maximum tonnage applicable to all Powers which no Power will be allowed to exceed for the total of vessels in each of these respective categories during the period covered by the convention. Within this maximum limit each Power will at the final conference indicate for each of these categories the tonnage they propose to reach and which they undertake not to exceed during the period covered by the convention.[i]
In the note from the British Ambassador in Paris to M. Briand (July 28, 1928) summarizing as above the points of agreement, the significant statement was made that the British Government was prepared "to accept the supplementary proposals made in the French note, namely, that an equal maximum tonnage for submarines and cruisers should be fixed for the great naval Powers. . . ."
We need not concern ourselves here with points 1. and 2. of the Agreement; they do not deal with matters pressing for immediate consideration. The Powers not bound by the Washington Treaty are not engaged in the construction of battleships and large aircraft carriers to an extent which could disturb the Washington Treaty limitations.
Points 3. and 4. propose in effect that only large cruisers and large submarines be limited. As a basis for negotiation this is far less acceptable than that suggested by the British at the Three-Power Geneva Naval Conference in 1927 and rejected by the United States. There the British representatives were prepared to accept a limitation for all types of cruisers, submarines and destroyers, though the tonnage limitation proposed for the cruiser class was too high in American eyes to afford a satisfactory basis for agreement. For the United States to accept the British-French understanding would mean a complete surrender of its position at the Geneva Naval Conference and an acquiescence in the view that there should be no limitation whatever of important types of naval vessels -- and this in the face of the obvious determination of the British Admiralty to build a large number of the cruisers of the unlimited smaller class once the Powers have been persuaded to restrict other types.
It is rather significant that the British have apparently agreed that the same limitation in the large cruiser and large submarine classes should be applied to all the great naval Powers -- presumably meaning all the Powers party to the Washington Treaty. A somewhat similar suggestion had been made at the Three-Power Naval Conference when the British proposed that the three Powers there represented should have the same submarine tonnage. At that time Japan, anticipating that this would cause apprehension in the United States, promptly made it clear that she had not asked for a submarine tonnage equal to that of the United States. In commenting on the Anglo-French agreement, the Japanese note hints at the difficulty of an indiscriminate allocation of the same tonnage to various countries which from the point of view of national security and national economy are differently situated.
The Anglo-French Agreement admittedly contained an element of barter. In exchange for French acquiescence in the British plan for limitation by categories or classes of vessels, Great Britain agreed not to press for the limitation of trained army reserves and accepted the French thesis that the number of small submarines should not be subject to restriction. International agreements can rarely be obtained without mutual accommodation, and this in itself is not open to objection. But in the case under discussion the public attitude toward the negotiations has undoubtedly been prejudiced by the fact that the bargain involved a surrender of the principle of the limitation of important elements of both naval and land forces.
On one point there seems to be general accord, namely that the Anglo-French Agreement is dead and that the problem must be attacked from a new angle. The questions at issue are serious, and the need for a solution is pressing. It would be most unfortunate if criticism of the agreement or of the tactics followed in the recent negotiations were allowed to create an antagonism which would prevent a calm and considered examination of the central problem. Even unsuccessful conferences and fruitless negotiations can be turned to useful account if they serve to define the exact questions at issue and give clues to possible lines of settlement. The Three-Power Naval Conference and the Anglo-French negotiations have now been submitted to the critical analysis of the press, of public opinion, and in certain cases, of the governments interested. The following points stand out as crucial:
First. A basis for agreement between the United States and Great Britain is a necessary preliminary to any general understanding on naval limitation. Until this can be achieved there is little to be gained by naval discussions such as have been carried on by a large number of Powers through the Preparatory Commission at Geneva or by conversations such as those between Great Britain and France.
Second. No basis would be satisfactory which did not cover all types of effective combatant vessels not already limited by the Washington Treaty.
Third. The tonnage limits fixed as between the United States and Great Britain should be on the basis of parity in each class, should be reasonable in amount, and not appreciably in excess of the present strength of the stronger of the two Powers in any particular class. In the case of certain classes of vessels limits might be fixed below the present levels of construction.
Fourth. In the matter of types, within the cruiser classes, both Great Britain and the United States should be prepared to make concessions in order to bridge the gap between their two points of view. Great Britain should abandon the contention that the United States restrict its cruiser force chiefly to the small type of cruiser or shape its own naval program to suit the asserted needs of the Empire for this type. On the other hand, the United States might properly be asked to consider the British claim that the use by the United States of its cruiser tonnage for the construction of the larger eight-inch gun cruisers would give combat superiority even though there were tonnage equality; that is, parity of combat strength and not alone parity of tonnage should be considered.
It is not easy to find a formula which takes satisfactory account of the fact that tonnage is not the sole criterion of naval strength. The Washington Treaty fixed the tonnage of each battleship to be built and the size of its guns so that tonnage and combat parity would be achieved. In the cruiser class -- and it is only here that the question is acute -- an effort might be made to arrive at substantial combat parity by estimating six-inch gun cruisers "at a discount" for the purposes of naval limitation. For example, 100,000 tons devoted exclusively to eight-inch gun vessels would count as 100,000 tons, but 100,000 tons devoted exclusively to six-inch gun vessels might, for the purposes of the limitation Treaty, count as 90,000 tons. These figures are purely arbitrary, and are taken merely to illustrate an idea not to suggest what may be the relative combat value of the two types of vessels, which at best is a matter of conjecture. Incidentally, a somewhat similar suggestion was incorporated in the draft Disarmament Treaty submitted by France to the Preparatory Commission in 1927, but on that occasion applied to the element of age not to that of gun calibre: "In assessing total tonnage, a fraction only, equal to . . . percent. of the real tonnage, shall be reckoned in the case of vessels of war which exceed the age limit laid down in Article 17."
Another method of attacking the same problem is apparently hinted at in the recent American note on the Anglo-French compromise. The plan suggested is that a part of the tonnage primarily allocated to one class be made available for the construction of vessels of another class. In this way, for example, Great Britain, which desires a considerable number of smaller cruisers, could devote to them a part of its destroyer or possibly even its submarine tonnage. This allocation of tonnage between classes of vessels (originally a French suggestion) could be availed of to help adjust and maintain the parity of combat strength.
If Great Britain is ready to restrict all types of vessels, and to fix reasonable limitations in each class, then the problem of working out a basis for adjusting existing difficulties respecting types of cruisers should not be insoluble. Certainly a basis can be found if both countries take the common-sense attitude that neither fleet is a menace to the other and that while substantial parity of combat strength should be the basis of any treaty, neither side will insist that the treaty make each of the fleets the replica of the other. There should be a reasonable latitude for each of the Powers, within well defined limitations, to meet its own peculiar naval problems.
Undoubtedly the feeling exists in the United States that Great Britain should take some account of the sacrifices which the United States made in 1922 in order to facilitate agreement. It is not suggested that in so doing Great Britain should scrap cruisers in order to reduce to our level of construction, but only that she put some reasonable limit on her own future construction and that she take account of the fact that the naval problems of the two countries are different and consequently that the United States may have need for a different type of cruiser than the Empire. This would not seem to be too much to ask. The failure to meet the United States on these points will probably mean that further naval agreement between the two nations is unattainable.
The possibility of agreement between the two countries is of course predicated upon the frank acceptance by Great Britain of the principle of parity in all classes of vessels. The record shows this to have been recognized as the basis of negotiation by responsible English spokesmen, but the impression exists in the United States that influential forces are at work in England to prevent the realization of any agreement on this basis and that this is one of the underlying causes of disagreement. Certainly England has as much to gain as the United States from an agreement on the basis of parity. If unrestricted building is carried on in both countries, who can predict whether the United States will be disposed to accept an agreement on the basis of parity ten years hence? The real reason for accepting this basis lies not in a careful weighing of relative naval needs, nor in a consideration of the relative financial or technical resources of the two Powers, but rather in the thought that the possibility of conflict between us should be eliminated in determining naval programs. It was this thought which one hundred years ago led Canada and the United States to their agreement that there should be no naval forces on the Great Lakes. Unless the same general principle can be applied to the relations between the United States and the British Empire there would be no reason for the United States to restrict itself to the principle of parity with Great Britain.
The passage of pending legislation in the United States, and the construction of the proposed fifteen cruisers in addition to the eight cruisers which are now being built, will only serve towards bridging the gap now existing between British naval strength and our own. It can not be regarded as an effort to secure naval superiority, as under any tonnage limitations which are likely to be proposed (except limitations directed chiefly against the larger type of cruiser) such a program would be permissible. This program need not cause apprehension either to the friends of naval limitation in the United States or to foreign public opinion.
The danger in the situation lies in the continuance of the present acrimonious debate regarding the respective naval objectives of the two Powers. This is serving to create the feeling that, after all, each may be building chiefly with a view to the program of the other. As it seems only too likely that this situation will continue until a basis for a limitation is discovered, no time should be lost in starting the diplomatic interchanges which will serve to show whether agreement is possible. We already have the assurance that the British Government is giving careful consideration to the American note commenting on the Anglo-French agreement. The next move towards unravelling the naval tangle lies with London.
[i] British Parliamentary Paper, cmd. 3211, p. 26-27.