ALL Jeremiahs to the contrary notwithstanding, it may well be doubted whether the fundamental relations between any nations in close and constant contact have ever been more satisfactory than those now existing between the United States on the one hand and Great Britain and the British Commonwealth of Nations on the other. More than that, there are fewer real causes of friction between them today than at any time in their common history -- the years of their joint participation in the Great War alone excepted. Broad as these statements may appear, it would not be hard to justify them by a historical survey did space permit. Speaking only of the present, however, let us remind ourselves that all boundary disputes are ended, no territorial questions disturb us, and no claims against one another (either by the respective governments on their own behalf, or on behalf of their nationals) are clamoring for settlement. The debt incurred during the war has been adjusted upon terms mutually agreed upon after full and fair conference; and while no responsible statesman should foreclose the possibility of a reconsideration in the light of future events, no one seeks a further discussion at this time. Even the delicate question of the enforcement of our prohibition laws by search and seizure beyond the three-mile limit has been solved by generous concessions to the American point of view, although it is rumored that here and there contraband supplies occasionally leak in nevertheless.

Commercial and industrial competition between them is more or less acute, but no more and no less so than between any pair of rival merchants; and the disagreeable things said or done in the course of trade are no more justified, and no more disagreeable. After all, one should not be surprised at a certain jostling and shoving in the scramble of the market place. So far as the trade between them is concerned, it is obvious that the relation of buyer and seller is of the greatest possible economic value to both -- a value exceeding that to be found in any other quarter. Here are the figures for 1927:

Combined figures Percent of total
of U. S. export U. S. export
and import trade and import trade
Canada $1,311,000,000 14.4
United Kingdom 1,198,000,000 13.5
British South Africa and British Malaya 330,300,000 3.6
Australia 197,700,000 2.1
British India 194,300,000 2.1
-------------- -----
$3,231,300,000 35.7

1928 will tell a similar story. Our best customers are, and promise for an indefinite period to remain, Canada and the United Kingdom.

In the domain of the mind, interchanges between scientists and other workers in the field of knowledge are constant; we observe and take full advantage of each other's political and social experiments; our capitalists, financiers and leaders of labor are in intimate contact; there are cultural stimulations one from the other in art, drama and letters; and many valued personal friendships add their fragrance to the whole.

Yet for some years the impolitic question has been repeatedly put on both sides: Is the friendship proof against every strain? And if not, what will be the consequences and how and to what extent is it prudent to prepare against that day? The question "Are you or are you not my friend ?" is always a stupid one, for it demands an analysis of the unanalysible. To the imaginary interlocutor who asked, "Is it still the same between us?" Stevenson replied, "Why, how can it be? It is eternally different; and yet you are still the friend of my heart." And to the further question, "Do you understand me?" -- "God knows; I should think it highly improbable."

In the Anglo-American instance the answer to the hypothetical question is particularly difficult because, at bottom, it depends not so much upon the behavior of the parties in their direct relation, as upon their attitude conditioned by the behavior of a future enemy of one or the other. The possible consequences, military, economic, political and social, of a war between the United States and Great Britain or the British Commonwealth are so appalling that no man can sanely contemplate them. Discussion which proceeds on the basis of averting or preparing for such a war starts with a false and hurtful premise by assuming that which public opinion should be educated to exclude and not to include in its reasoning; as indeed in the case of Canada our public opinion already does. Statesmen on both sides would do well instead to direct their own and the public's attention toward the strain that may come when a third party is at grips with either, and so to strengthen our relations that it may be proof against the stress of that event. Unfortunately there are many utterances on the subject by those who are neither statesmen nor near-statesmen, and these are not altogether harmless. Like the railings of a nagging spouse, they create a reciprocal frame of mind.

No sane man, I repeat, who considers the consequences of a war between the two powers, will urge courses which are calculated in the most remote sense to increase its possibility. It is not my purpose here to conjure up in detail the destruction to the political and economic welfare of each country, the disintegration of the ties of our common civilization, the sudden apparition of those hideous forces which lurk under the repression of organized society, and the physical and moral degradation which would result. Neither prospective combatant, it must be remembered, is made of the stuff that easily yields. Yet no American who truly loves his country could lightly contemplate a victory which left her in the position occupied in the ancient world by Rome; and short of victory by one or the other nothing would be settled.

If the sort of sermonizing in which I have thus permitted myself to indulge has no other usefulness, it may help to turn the discussion into more fruitful channels. Something may be gained by coming from the general to the particular and considering those specific matters which seem most likely to tax the friendly feelings of the two peoples. At the moment, these appear to be three in number: First, commercial rivalries in Latin America, the Far East and elsewhere, and the struggle for raw supplies. Second, the running sore of the unpaid debt, which recurrently recalls to each Briton, as often as he pays his income tax, our happier economic situation, and also the pressure which he has to transfer to his Continental debtors. Third, the problems, psychological, legal and technical, connected with naval power. On the first two it is not especially profitable to dwell, for neither lies at present in the field of debate. It may be said in passing, however, that the rigors of economic competition will doubtless be mitigated, are being mitigated indeed, by private adjustments along practical economic lines rather than by political or official handling, and quite clearly there is no shortage of raw materials anywhere.

Naval policy offers a more promising field for investigation and action, and in the better atmosphere that would result from a settlement of one category of disputes the others would prove less aggravating and less dangerous. In this realm sober public discussion is doubly useful. It will educate the public, and the public may educate the governments, for the public has already learnt that governments have much to learn. The British public has shown itself fully aware of the miscalculations which led to the Anglo-French naval compromise. Washington doubtless has come to share the popular realization that the Three-Power Disarmament Conference failed because the ground had not been prepared and because the technique of international conference which has been developing since 1917 was wholly ignored. At the opening session of the Conference, a fully elaborated scheme, which obviously had not been the subject of mutual exploration and tentative consultation, was publicly thrown by each delegation at the head of the other; national prestige became involved; and after showing how the worst elements of both open and secret diplomacy might be combined, the Conference adjourned, with the general atmosphere much less friendly than if no Conference had been held.

Aside from a want of careful preparation, the cardinal weakness in that Conference was that questions of naval strategy were always to the fore, and emphasis on strategy always deflects policy; in fact, the naval "building" question, which is strategy, has continued to deflect policy ever since. It is policy which ought first to be determined, so that in the end it may control strategy.

This is not the prelude to an argument for another conference to "codify" or "state" war law or practice. When Senator Borah proposes a "restatement and recodification of the rules of law governing belligerents and neutrals in war at sea" he hastens to add, "on the basis of the inviolability of private property therein." There is no such accepted "law" as that; Senator Borah is dealing wholly with policy. To enter a conference on policy, having determined in advance and announced to your own nation what the outcome of the conference must be, is to make, with lawyers as agents, the same mistake that was made at Geneva through the admirals.

What then is the question of policy at issue? The position of the British Admiralty is simply this:

We happen to be an island, and it is necessary to our existence in time of war to dominate the sea. In peace the sea is free to all in the world through our own policing of it. . . . What happens on the sea in war threatens our very existence. . . . If the claim were not made and upheld, then the freedom of England would perish utterly. . . .

Or as Lord Wester Wemyss is reported to have said:

Every Englishman knows in a general way that his safety and even the national existence depend entirely on the navy, but he has the vaguest idea what a fleet does. Its chief power lies not in guns or torpedoes, but in the immemorial right of all belligerents to suppress entirely all sea-borne supplies of enemies on which the enemies' continued resistance must depend.

This position never has been willingly accepted by any other nation independent of Great Britain, and never will be except under force majeure. Jefferson's protest still holds good:

Reason and usages have established, that when two nations go to war, those who choose to live in peace retain their natural right to pursue their agriculture, manufactures, and other ordinary vocation; to carry the produce of their industry, for exchange, to all nations, belligerent or neutral as usual; to go and come freely, without injury or molestation; and, in short, that the war among others, shall be, for them, as if it did not exist. One restriction on those mutual rights has been submitted to by nations at peace; that is to say, that of not furnishing to either party implements merely of war, for the annoyance of the other, nor anything whatever to a place blockaded by its enemy. . . . If any nation whatever has a right to shut up to our produce all the ports of the earth except her own, and those of her friends, she can shut these also and so confine us within our limits. No nation can subscribe to such pretentions.

The United States insists upon "freedom of the seas," but just how much freedom is not clear, for there are many shades of American opinion. Some want freedom of sea transit in time of war for all private property, of belligerents as well as of neutrals; some are for freedom for all neutral commerce; some would except munitions, or other forms of contraband, or make a class of conditional contraband; some would allow blockade, the doctrine of continuous voyage, etc., and in substance hold to Lord Stowell's rules. What all are agreed on is that there shall be rules, in the making of which the United States shall share, and that Great Britain shall not violate them when she is at war.

Here is the first weakness in the current discussion of the question. It is based on the wholly unprovable, indeed the unlikely assumption that in future wars Great Britain will always be a belligerent (of the traditional or "old-fashioned" kind) and the United States always a neutral (again of the "old-fashioned" type). When wars come, if come they must in the future, who is so wise that he can foretell in what quarter they will arise or who will be the primary combatants? I shall revert to this assumption later.

Now the British conceive, and we in this country with our views of democracy are scarcely in a position to dispute the point with them, that all of their great wars in which they asserted a domination of the seas were those in which by opposing the aggrandizement of autocracy they were defending the liberties of the civilized world -- the war against Philip II and his Armada, the long drawn-out wars against Louis XIV and his successors, the life and death struggle against Napoleon, and the resistance in 1914 to a German military power which, whatever the causes of the war, would if successful have come to dominate all Europe. Their naval strength, and the rules (or absence of them) by which they give it the utmost effectiveness in time of war, seem to them no more than a natural protection to give to the great trading enterprise called the British Empire, or the British Commonwealth of Nations, whose security they identify with world peace. I have no intention of saying we should accept, or that I intellectually accept, such an identity; I say only that the British so conceive it and that after 340 years of history it is not unnatural that they should.

There is no occasion for resentment, therefore, if they turn to us and say: "When we were fighting Napoleon you went to war with us, oblivious to the issues involved in the great struggle, and quarreling over the means we used to make it successful. If the Germans had not taken the lives of so many of your citizens in the World War and had not so nearly succeeded in destroying your highly profitable trade with the Entente Powers, you might have come to blows with us again. Our position is precarious, as our existence depends upon overseas imports of food and overseas exports of our manufactures. How are we to maintain it, except by the means we have tried and found good? What other means are we to employ and what are to be the rules of the game? Define your own position."

Now, making the assumption which I deprecated above, viz. that Great Britain is to be an "old-fashioned" belligerent and the United States an "old-fashioned" neutral, what are the proposals which are possible in reply? One which has already become overfamiliar is that there should be a "codification" of the decisions of Lord Stowell and other authorities, with nice definitions of search, seizure, contraband, blockade, continuous voyage and so on. This might at first seem attractive to the British civilian. But the attractiveness would gradually wear away as the British admirals, examining the definitions, pointed out how they would have hampered such and such an operation in the World War which they think contributed to its winning. No definition of contraband or of blockade would stand up with those operations as the standard.

A second is an agreement for the free transit of the seas in time of war for all property of every character owned by neutrals. This and more is what Congress has suggested in the Fifteen Cruiser Bill when it declared for a treaty or treaties "regulating the conduct of belligerents and neutrals in war at sea, including the inviolability of private property [all private property, presumably, whether belligerent or neutral] thereon." Is it probable that this would be accepted? Or would the British Admiralty, seeing in its imagination a ship chartered by Krupp's passing down the Channel in time of war between Great Britain and France, explode with Pitt's classical statement:

Shall we allow entire freedom to the trade of France? Shall we allow her to receive naval stores undisturbed, and to rebuild and refit that navy which the valor of our seamen has destroyed? Will you silently stand by and acknowledge these monstrous and unheard-of principles of neutrality, and ensure your enemy against the effects of your hostility?

Is this as unreasonable as it sounds? Consider what we should do if the United States were at war with a southern neighbor, Cuba or Mexico, for instance, which was planning to raid the Panama Canal, and munitions and supplies were being shipped by neutrals from Halifax to Havana or Vera Cruz. Would we seize their vessels, if we could, off Cape Ann, and bring them in to Boston for search, or would we not? Perhaps the probability of such an event is so remote that we should be willing to agree upon a general rule, otherwise beneficial to us, even though it might involve the event and compel us to hold our hand if it happened.

That we may not be too quick with our answer to the instance given, and lest we fancy that our record alone is one of consistency on the law of the sea, let us turn to the minutes of the Second Hague Conference of 1907. At that conference the British Delegation announced that:

In order to diminish the difficulties encountered by neutral commerce in time of war, the Government of His Britannic Majesty is ready to abandon the principle of contraband in case of war between the powers which may sign a covenant to this effect. The right of search would be exercised only for the purpose of ascertaining the neutral character of the merchant ships.

Twenty-five nations voted for the acceptance of this proposal. Four abstained from voting. Five voted in the negative; and these were Germany, France, Russia, Montenegro and -- the United States. When the attention of the American Delegation was called to the vigorous letter of Secretary Marcy in 1856 on the question, they bluntly answered that America had learned much in the meantime and was following the policies of Roosevelt rather than those of Marcy. Tempora mutantur.

Every discussion of policy necessarily enters the field of probabilities. This is precisely the field for political thinkers, often called statesmen; it ought not to be left as a tilting ground for the admirals, who are so admirable on their own target-ranges. The whole crux of the matter lies in an effort to make it reasonably probable that in future naval conflicts, the fixed policies of Great Britain and the United States will cause their navies to work in harmony or at least not as potentially hostile agencies of policies diametrically opposed.

In the discussions of boundaries and armaments and occupied territories that have occurred since the Great War, we have grown accustomed to the talk of security as the thing which must first be sought, and without which no progress could be made. At every turn that idea has confronted us. We shall not escape it here. Let us suppose that Great Britain agrees to the inviolability of all private property in time of war but Germany or France do not. If Great Britain should then reduce her navy so that she could no longer protect her commerce from the surface-raider or the submarine of either power, could she reasonably expect the United States to join in the protection of that commerce or to abstain from trade with the belligerent? Or would we be likely rather to insist on this trade and use our navy if need be to protect it? The real problem, as the imagined instance shows, arises from Great Britain's exposure to risks which we do not share. She has developed -- or believes that she has -- a technical protection against those risks, a security of her own against all possible threats from an anarchic world. She can hardly be blamed for thinking that weapon necessary for her; others cannot be blamed for deeming it intolerable when used to prevent all the world from having relations with her enemies. But if she is to diminish or weaken that protection, is there nothing by way of inducement that we can or should do to lessen her risk?

I assume the readers of this article will see at once that this implies that the United States should take an active part in concerting measures for the prevention of war, and in compelling the observance of those rules which aredesigned to mitigate its destructiveness -- in other words, that it should accept what the Treaty for the Renunciation of War may be said to imply, viz. that all the nations whose treaty is broken or threatened so to be, have a mandate to concert measures to prevent the breach or to repress it; that there must be introduced, in short, into the rest of the world the principle established for the Pacific area by the Four Power Treaty of 1921, that of "joint conference . . . for consideration and adjustment." The sequence of ideas is so natural as to be unavoidable; the breach of a treaty (the Kellogg-Briand Treaty) or the approaching probability of its breach is a cause of concern to all the signatories whose covenant is or is to be broken; the nations thus flouted may -- nay, they must be expected to -- consult together for the protection of their common interest; that common interest is the preservation of peace; consultation is idle unless it leads to a concert of measures of some sort -- economic, diplomatic, or what not -- of a coöperative character.

The resulting coöperation might or might not be spontaneous, and might at first be an ad hoc, world-wide activity not inherent in the League of Nations although germane to its purposes. One of its first consequences undoubtedly would be that of making neutrality under the assumed circumstances immoral. Governmental protection afforded to munition makers attempting to supply a country which had refused "the settlement or solution" of its dispute "by pacific means" would become an act of national wickedness, and would class the country with Dante's "caitiff choir" of angels who stood aloof from the struggle between God and Satan.

To return, then, to the theme of reducing the probabilities of conflict of policy between the two countries. If indications are given from responsible sources that in the event of constabulary action against a covenant-breaking state the navies of the two countries will act together, or at least that as a result of diplomatic consultation neither will be used to protect the trade, inbound or outbound, of an outlaw state, one area of possible conflict is greatly reduced. The directors of policy in each country would be brought to rely confidently upon the sympathy and not the opposition of the other so long as they used their navy sincerely in the interest of world peace and not as an instrument of selfish national policy.

On the basis of such an understanding, however informal, it would not be unreasonable to expect Great Britain to agree that if she were engaged in an old-fashioned "private" war -- a war, let us say, in which though she might not be the aggressor, it could not be clearly established nevertheless that her adversary had broken the Covenant of the League or the Locarno treaties or the Kellogg-Briand Pact -- she would not attempt to interfere with the fullest freedom of sea transit by all nations not engaged in the war. This would be the policy she deliberately adopted at the outbreak of the Crimean War in response to representations from Sweden and Denmark. It is the policy to which for obvious reasons her mercantile interests have always leaned. Once adopted by the world at large, it would in the long run afford protection to herself. The danger she fears most is an attack in the narrow seas on her vital supplies, by submarines, aëroplanes or surface commerce-raiders dashing out from harbor and back again. Full freedom of the seas for neutral trade to her ports would protect her against such dangers, and bring the "neutrals" (if any there were) to the support of the principle in the event of its violation.

Surely this is the most hopeful line of progress. Efforts by strategists and technicians to translate naval parity into terms of guns and vessels may be expected to end where they have ended before. Unfortunately, in such matters -- complicated as they are by geography, distance and national needs, as well as by national pride -- mathematics alone will not serve us. The axiom that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other, no longer applies. Attempts by conference or by treaty to codify the law of the sea are well enough in their way, but if the world is today just what it was yesterday the welcome that has awaited previous attempts of the same sort is not encouraging. When the work of the codifier is done, the parliamentary gauntlet is still to run and the strain the work will bear under stress of war is still to be calculated. Behind both processes lies the question of the policy that guns and vessels and codes are designed to serve. Until there is some agreement there, we but treat the symptoms and not the disease.

In the world of yesterday, the dominant thought was national security against all comers. If the Covenant of the League, the Locarno Treaties, the Four Power Pacific Treaty, and the Kellogg-Briand Pact are anything more than idle words, the controlling idea today is world-wide peace against all disturbers. I am persuaded that a frank declaration on the part of the United States of its willingness to accept the implications and responsibilities which that ideal demands would do more than all else to convert it into a reality. At the least, it would shrink the whole naval controversy to its true proportions. It would reduce the probability of a collision between the navies of the United States and Great Britain to the vanishing point. And incidentally it would take away all support from those naval proposals which pretend to secure the sea commerce of each country against imaginary attack from the combined navies of other powers, whenever and wherever delivered; proposals comparable in their mounting extravagance only to those of the military men, who, as Lord Salisbury exclaimed, "would fortify the Moon against an attack from Mars."

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  • JOHN W. DAVIS, American Ambassador at the Court of St. James', 1918-21; Democratic candidate for President, 1924
  • More By John W. Davis