How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Remarks on the occasion of the opening of the new building of the Council on Foreign Relations, New York, November 28, 1930.
By John W. Davis
THIS is a proud moment for the Council on Foreign Relations as it settles into its new home. It is made all the more proud and significant because of this distinguished company which is gathered to do honor to the occasion.
Institutions, like men, measure their progress by their birthdays, and when I hark back in my own recollection to the time when I first learned of the Council on Foreign Relations, and to the first gatherings which were supposed to outline and chart its future history, I confess that, being more or less of a doubting Thomas, I did not think that this happy occasion would come so soon. Indeed, when it was first suggested that we might found a new review dealing with foreign affairs, there were some who had doubts about the success of that undertaking. It was entered upon; it is an achieved and proven success; and I think we may justly plume ourselves on the fact that, in FOREIGN AFFAIRS, we are publishing the premier journal of this sort in this country and probably in the world.
Our next suggestion was that we should have a program of research. That too was entered on in a more or less tentative spirit; and it has blossomed into a substantial and very useful enterprise.
Then, something like a year or eighteen months ago, it was determined that the time had come to strike for a permanent home, and again, with more or less of misgiving and some faintness of heart, the effort was made. I think all of those who participated in it, whether promoters, originators or contributors, must be surprised and gratified both at the promptitude with which the enterprise was supported and the readiness with which this very substantial achievement was reached. And now, here we are in our own home, a thing which gives us a local habitation, something more than a name, and, I believe, insures the perpetuity of an institution which must grow into increasing usefulness.
We have not been unambitious in the field we have chosen to occupy. No angle of foreign relations is immune from our scrutiny. No foreign policy is foreign to our investigation, and we hope in our modest way to contribute to the enlightenment, the information, and the progress of the American people.
I presume that anybody who thinks of American foreign affairs is somewhat at a loss to discover any continuity of policy and of purpose running through it. We have always been pragmatists in our foreign relations. I think at the moment of but four definite aims and objectives which this country seems to have maintained throughout the course of its foreign affairs: first, the rather nebulous policy adumbrated in the Monroe Doctrine; second, our determination to achieve, if we could, equality for American trade through the policy of the open door; third, our steady adherence (which I hope we will give very substantial evidence of in the near future) to the cause of the judicial arbitrament of foreign disputes; and, fourth, our steady disinclination, in the popular language, to entangle ourselves by limiting our freedom through any compact with other nations -- and we have carried it, I think, something further than that, to the extent of showing a steady disinclination to chart our domestic policies with any consideration of their results in our relations with foreign powers.
Whether those four lines of policy are going to be sufficient in the future are grave and serious questions for this country. Whether we shall not be compelled to take a broader view and implement them further, future generations must soberly consider. I hope this institution will help them.
Now so much by way of generalities. I am not the speaker of this occasion. I am merely the presiding officer, and perhaps as a presiding officer I have already gone too far. This institution has enjoyed a piece of great good fortune throughout its history in that it has had not only the constant interest, but the active participation in its affairs of a man whom all Americans delight to honor and whose broad experience of men and things, whose broad learning in foreign questions, and above all whose sane and temperate judgment, have been absolutely invaluable throughout its history. Long may he remain with us! I take great pleasure in introducing Mr. Elihu Root.
I CAME not to make a speech but to respond to a call. For a great many years, now, I have taken an interest in the kind of thing that you are undertakng to do, and I take a special satisfaction in the opening of this house. The laying of one brick doesn't create any very great disturbance, but without it, how would you have your house? I think the first thing that impresses me as an immediate lesson from the establishment of this building and the centering of the work of the Council on Foreign Relations here, is that it indicates an appreciation of a truth very widely neglected, and that is that the work of improving the foreign relations of civilized man is necessarily very slow and laborious and difficult, and that anyone who is going to contribute materially to it must settle down to steady, continuous and unspectacular labor. The making of great speeches, the writing of brilliant articles or impressive books, even the occasional meetings of specially trained men, are not enough. I think about the worst enemies of improvement in the relations of the nations are the people who are impatient, the people who are in a hurry, who want everything done at once and who, unless they can see in anything that is proposed an immediate result, say, "Oh, well, it doesn't amount to much." These people who are in a hurry are a serious obstacle to the accomplishment of something by people who are willing to take the necessary time and do the necessary serious work for accomplishing it. The establishment of this building, the collection of these books, all these facilities for steady work, are a striking public exhibition of an understanding of that very important truth.
The discussion of questions of law is but a partial treatment of the subject. The discussion of international feeling, international manners, international morals -- the discussion of all these is necessary to complete the picture, and I think when we have studied the history of international relations we must come to the conclusion that underlying improvement in them is not the result of reaching written or oral agreements, of making treaties, of intellectual reasoning, but that it is the result of the enlargement and elevation of standards of conduct in all the countries of the civilized world. No improvement comes by compulsion; no improvement comes merely by intellectual understanding. You have got to get the same change in the standard of conduct which has made possible a change from the recognition of private war as the appropriate means for the settlement of differences into the recognition of judicial decisions as the appropriate means for accomplishing the same thing.
We settle our differences by judicial decision now instead of settling them with the pistol or the knife, not because laws have been made but because the individual members of a community have come to a feeling that that is the better way. There must be a long process of instruction, of information, and of gradual effect of example bringing about better conditions. That will not be accomplished in my time, or in yours, and it will never be accomplished unless people get busy about it, and take the early and probably the unnoted steps necessary to bring about such a change. This doesn't apply to foreign affairs alone. It applies to all the progress of civilization. Civilization proceeds by changes within the individual and not by compulsion from without.
The need for work of this kind is not confined to foreign affairs. Life is getting so complicated that it is very difficult for anybody to understand it. The best informed of us don't understand most of what is going on; we don't understand one-tenth of what is going on in the government of our country, in the government of our own city, still less in the government of other countries of the world. We are not far removed in time from conditions under which people did very well governing by the guidance of first impressions. A lot of honest, hard-working, law-abiding people governed themselves by counting votes, by yielding to the will of the majority, when those votes were dictated by the common experiences of life.
Today the complication of affairs has become such that ninety percent of the people who cast votes have had little or no experience in the affairs to which their votes relate, and they have to depend upon what somebody else says. They naturally depend upon what is said by the people who try to please them. The great body of people in any modern country on either side of the Atlantic or of the Pacific cannot take the time to go back and become familiar with all the intricacies of modern industrial and commercial and financial and political and social life. The voters who govern modern democracies no longer find the first impressions of a simple life adequate as a guide; they must be informed specifically regarding the questions under discussion by neighbors who have made a study and who are qualified to be leaders of opinion. The process that you are going through here in this building is in the early stages of making it possible that competent leaders of opinion in these complicated matters shall arise in this country.
We are better off in one way for dealing with such a problem in this country than they are in most countries of the world, because our people have acquired the habit of thinking about governmental matters; but we are worse off in another respect because our people have never felt the pressure of immediate interests in regards to foreign affairs. It is easier for a community which has been in the habit of dealing with municipal government to think about international affairs than it is for a community which has never thought at all on such a subject; but it is more difficult to get a community that has never had the pressure of interests, of immediate danger, of possible disaster, to think at all on such a subject.
A very great number of people in our country have never acquired the habit of thinking about foreign affairs. You see that reflected in their representatives, who themselves have never been in the habit of thinking on such subjects because their constituents didn't care about them. Our representatives in all our great legislative bodies, national and state, correspond pretty fairly to the condition of opinion among their constituents, and if their constituents are interested in water power or the tariff or irrigation or immigration or roads or what-not, their representatives are interested in those questions and study them. If the constituents become interested in foreign affairs, their representatives will come to understand foreign affairs. That process, in a vast multitude of people, is a very long and laborious one. I think you have taken a good step on the road which leads to our having representatives who are thoroughly informed and interested in the relations of the United States to other countries.
There are things going on which look towards so improving the machinery for international intercourse, and so improving the general conception of what is suitable in the relations between nations, that there will be some progress towards a better condition of thought and feeling in the future, so that when you have had a settlement of one particular difficulty you won't begin the next one where you began the first; you will begin the next where the first ended. The treatment of naval disarmament has been of that character. The idea was started at the Washington Conference, and continued in the recent London Conference, that each country should appropriately and properly consider not merely its own specific naval needs but also what is fair and reasonable towards maintaining the peace of the world. The world will not, in our time at least, get back to thinking about navies in the same way in which it thought of them a few years ago.
It is just so, too, on the subject of disarmament. Twenty years ago you couldn't have got the minds of public men addressed at all to the subject of regulating the armament of their own country with any reference to agreement with other countries. But they are getting along, gradually and with great difficulty, to a point where that general idea is going to be present in the minds of everybody whenever the subject comes up.
Just so with the World Court. Some of us can remember when good people who were very much interested in questions of peace began declaring that international questions ought to be judicially decided and that they should receive the same treatment which private war had received. They said, "Public war can be disposed of in the same way as private war has been." They were regarded as visionary. After a little time, practical diplomatists began to think about that same question and began to discuss it. After more time, they were willing to talk about having a regular tribunal, a permanent court, with judges who did nothing else but decide international questions, and they came far enough to make a declaration in favor of that in the general conference of 1907. But they couldn't agree upon the election of judges. Then, in 1920, that question was solved, and the tribunal was created. And now the tribunal has proved itself, and by its work for the last nine or ten years has won universal confidence and respect. The dream of half a century ago has become a reality.
What I have described relates not to a particular exigency of the moment. It introduces a new idea into the minds of everybody who is thinking about any international controversy. There is the idea of a court, a new element in the problem. It isn't a question between submission or war -- there is the court. A good half of the wars we have are brought on notwithstanding the fact that the governments that bring them on don't want to fight at the time, but they have got into a situation that they can't retire from without humiliation. Here comes this new idea which affords an escape from the war they don't want or the humiliation they will not endure. That new idea will never get out of men's minds in the discussion of international controversies.
That process of modifying the old ideas which have led to useless and senseless wars is going on continuously. But it is a process which is slow. It has got to be furthered not by mere sentiment, not by speech-making, but by understanding; it has got to be done by bringing a sufficient number of the people of the civilized countries to an understanding of the questions and of the difficulties and of the possibility of a better day in the future.
I think you are working here in that direction. You are not merely giving an opportunity for people to study questions of international relations. You are leading the way in showing the right method by which the path is to be found and to be followed. You have my hearty congratulation on what you have done and my confident expectation of great although perhaps unheralded or unnoted achievements through the work which you are now preparing to do.
DEPARTMENT OF STATE
November 25, 1930
COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS
45 East 65th Street
I regret that I cannot be in New York on the twenty-eighth on the opening of your building. I regret it particularly because I feel that to a peculiar degree I know the value of the Council and what it is doing and I share your gratification in the thought that henceforth it is to be permanently and efficiently housed and equipped for its work.
With the general purpose of the Council I am in hearty sympathy. There can never be a satisfactory foreign policy of the United States unless it represents the thinking opinion of a considerable body of its disinterested citizens, and that presupposes a greater degree of discussion based on reasonably correct knowledge of the facts as to foreign affairs, more widely disseminated, than now exists. You are trying to create a sound basis for the foreign policies of the United States -- more strength to your effort!
I read FOREIGN AFFAIRS regularly and with interest. It seems to me admirably edited and even when I disagree most violently with what some of its contributors write, I have never failed to find it stimulating and I believe that it is a work of proven value.
It is difficult to make the current action of the State Department generally and publicly understood. The press reports and daily editorial comment of the press -- of necessity hurried and often based on facts imperfectly grasped -- fail as a complete record of its work, partly for lack of historical background, partly because from the nature of the case the Department cannot publish its full story or reveal its conclusions. Sometimes it has difficulty even in making clear its purposes. The official publications of the Department when they eventually see the light are dry as dust and deal with a dead past, not fresh enough to be news nor old enough to be history. To a large degree the three volumes of the "Survey of American Foreign Relations" so far published by the Council on Foreign Relations tend to fill that gap. They seem completely unbiased, they are devoid of any official character, they are critical and they come as near probably as is possible under existing conditions to giving a fair background and consideration to current problems in American foreign relations. That seems to me a real achievement.
The opening of this new house of yours means that your work will go on with comfort and efficiency. It has my most cordial good wishes.
Very truly yours,
HENRY L. STIMSON
LONDON, November 27, 1930
The Council of the Royal Institute of International Affairs has learned with great interest that the new premises of the Council on Foreign Relations are to be opened on November 28 and it gives me much pleasure as President to convey to you our hearty congratulations on this important step.
We have greatly valued the close coöperation between our two organizations and will ever remember that both had a common origin in the meeting in Paris presided over by General Bliss, whose death we have so recently had occasion to mourn.
Having ourselves enjoyed for some years the gift of Chatham House we are the better able to realize how much your beautiful house will aid you in your efforts to achieve the great purpose which inspires both our organizations.
I consider no task of greater importance to the peoples of our two nations and of the world than that of promoting through close and impartial study a sympathetic and well informed understanding of international relations and I wish you well in the efforts you are continuing to make towards this end.
GREY OF FALLODON
PARIS, November 27, 1930
On the occasion of the inauguration in New York of the new building of the Council on Foreign Relations I recall that this group was founded in Paris during the Peace Conference and that since then through the publication of FOREIGN AFFAIRS and in many other ways it had done important work in furtherance of impartial and profound study of historical and diplomatic questions. I wish that it had been possible for me to be present myself at the ceremonies, for I am always most happy to be able to collaborate in work such as yours. At any rate I cannot resist sending you from France my warm congratulations and my best wishes for your continued success, which will be in the interest of scholarship and truth as well as in the furtherance of international peace.