AMONG the relationships which together make up the pattern of international affairs those between the United States and the member nations of the British Commonwealth are incomparably the most fruitful for good or evil. The point can most effectively be driven home if we assume that, for any reason, antagonism rather than friendship were to govern the attitude of the United States and the United Kingdom toward one another, and if we then attempt to estimate what changes in the international structure would at once be brought to pass. Of Anglo-American relations it can be said that their condition, actual and prospective, influences the calculations of statesmen within and without the British Commonwealth in a way which, if not decisive, is more potent than that of any other bilateral factor in the sum of things. The United States is the strongest single force in the world, and the fact that such a force is now situated outside the European continent has created a new problem in political magnetism; the geographical position of the United Kingdom, and the special relationship to Europe thus imposed, enormously strengthen its voice in continental counsels; and, finally, the existence of the British Commonwealth and of a British colonial empire, and the far-ranging connections of the United States, bring the interests of the two Powers, both political and commercial, into juxtaposition in all regions of the globe. To this must be added -- what Mr. Walter Lippmann [i] has so clearly set forth -- that their political relations are vexed by no disputed frontiers, no "spheres of influence," no desire for territorial expansion, that their world outlook is fundamentally the same, that their speech and traditions are drawn from the same well. Why, as he asks, do they not stand together more effectively than they do?


Mr. Lippmann finds an answer in the assertion that the paramount interests of one are the secondary interests of the other, that "their most immediately pressing needs are not identical." He says very truly that British frontiers are in the Low Countries, while the American frontier is on two oceans, connected precariously by the Panama Canal. He asks, as a first step in the development of Anglo-American political coöperation, a "clearer definition of British policy in the region of its primary interest, which is Europe, and of American policy in the region of its primary interest, which is the Pacific."

There is, if a retort courteous be permitted, a neatness, an air of logical finality about this, which is deceptive. It invites entry into a field of discussion in which British uncertainty as to American action where Europe is concerned, and American uncertainty as to British action where the Orient is involved, can be provokingly balanced one against the other as preventing any "clearer definition" of policy by either country, with the result that the hen and the egg compete once again for priority in existence, and confusion is worse confounded.

There is a real primary interest of the United States and Great Britain, and it is neither the Orient nor Europe. For each it is made up of self-preservation and its corollary, peace, which dovetail one into another like mortice and tenon. To say that for the United States the Orient is primary and Europe secondary in rank, or that the obverse is true for Britain, is to take no account of the fact that when war impends or breaks out in Europe the affairs of that continent become a primary interest of the United States, and that when war threatens or occurs in the Far East the affairs of that vast region become of primary interest to Britain, herself a great (not less than the greatest) Oriental Power. Even this is not all, for out of the madness which denies interdependence in trade, the world of our time has spun a new and ghastly interdependence in armament and military assistance, so that an explosion in Europe must invite another in Asia, and hostilities in Asia must subject the fabric of European peace to intolerable strain. We are led, I believe unescapably, to the conclusion that the sole "primary interest" of the English-speaking world is peace, and from that conclusion to a question: Is there not a serious disproportion between the power and potential influence of the United States, and the part which the American people have been willing, or seem now to be willing, to play in the organization of peace?

It is with no remotest desire to draw a comparison with Great Britain, but in the hope that an attempt by a friendly observer to distinguish between the characteristic attitudes of one and the other government may contribute something to objective discussion, that I venture to assert the existence of this disproportion.


It would, perhaps, do no injustice to Mr. Lippmann's article to say that it seeks, inter alia, to discredit such phrases as "American isolation" and "British internationalism," by stating a sort of political equation, or what might be an equation if the two quantities -- Britain in Europe and America in the Far East -- were not unknown. The clichés which move him to impatience should certainly not be kept in circulation. No doubt it would be as fanciful to describe the temper and disposition of the people of Great Britain as "international," by any definition of the word known to me, as to say that in the last half-century the mounting strength of the United States had permitted or encouraged the American people to practice "isolation." It follows that any lack of Anglo-American political coöperation cannot be handily explained by reference to such imagined attributes as these. What is more, the characteristic manifestations of American foreign policy since the World War have strangely resembled those which, mutatis mutandis, distinguished the policy of Great Britain from the time of the defeat of Napoleon to the day, in 1900, when Germany embarked on the creation of a great navy. The concept of the "balance of power" is as clearly visible in the pattern of America's attitude toward the Far East today as it was in the design of Europe which Britain helped to draw in the nineteenth century. These and other things are clear enough, but their discussion, which might be endlessly continued, could bear no fruit. Some better purpose might perhaps be served by the suggestion that the British policy of "splendid isolation," as we look back upon its results, had no such enduring success as would make it the best of models. Or if we should extend the lines of today out into the future, and attempt to show the United States -- a later and a larger Britain -- as the withheld and deciding weight in the scales of a world balance of power, as was England of a European balance of power, until history repeats itself, America is (as was Britain) forced to throw her weight into the scales in order to restore a lost equilibrium, and the hopes of mankind are blotted out in a universal war.

Vaticination, however, is mere vanity. You may bring in nineteenth century Britain to explain twentieth century America if you are willing to accept all that is thus implied. But surely something more is desirable in -- and demanded by the urgencies of -- the present time. There is, I firmly believe, an essential difference between British and American policy today which no reference to regional parallelism can diminish.

Broadly stated, I believe the difference to be this: that British policy, more acutely sensitive though it may be to events in one region than another, yet is always concerned, in a positive and what may be called an intervenient sense, with the causes of war everywhere; whereas those responsible for American policy have been constrained to cultivate insensitivity to the causes of war in Europe, and can move into contact with events antecedent to possible conflict only when the Pacific is the theater. There are reasons for this unequal response to realities -- for such on the surface it appears to be -- which rise above captious criticism. They have no relation to the degree of wisdom or clarity of vision of American statesmen, who -- without exception in my personal experience of the State Department -- have fully grasped the essentials of a positive contribution to European peace which they have been politically unable to make. Nor, by the same token, do they justify the tendency in foreign countries to ascribe to the American Government and people lukewarmness in the greatest of all causes, a tendency born of that massive, and apparently irreducible, ignorance about the American system of government which afflicts the average non-American.

The difference in the quality and inclusiveness of British and American policy is, in fact, constitutional. The American system differs from the British in many respects, but in one most influentially. In the words of Walter Bagehot, the "efficient secret" of the British Constitution is that executive and legislative powers are one; the most important attribute of the American Constitution is its dispersion of power. The effect, in one and the other case, upon the formulation and expression of a consistent foreign policy is immense. Freedom of action, within parliamentary bounds, is given to a British Cabinet in a degree unknown to any American President, whose executive power is balanced against -- and, let it be said frankly, is too often found to be in conflict with -- that of a jealous and equally puissant legislature. Thus it is that American foreign policy so often resembles Penelope's web, for what is woven by the President may be unwoven by the Senate, to the confusion of such suitors as, for instance, Secretary Hay with his treaties, President Taft with his proposals for arbitration, and President Wilson with his Covenant of a League of Nations.

Most foreigners, and some Americans, abound in criticism of the situation which thus periodically develops, and they may be right, though we must allow for the fact that the foreigners are generally right for the wrong reasons, which the moralists assure us is not rightness at all. Other Americans, however, seem to me to rationalize this conflict between executive and legislative in the field of foreign affairs, to endow it with some mystic and recondite wisdom, to see in it something ultimately purposive; and with these it is difficult to agree. For it has been, and remains, a source of grave uncertainty for the Cabinets and foreign ministers of other countries, Great Britain among them, who must await the action (often contradictory) of the Senate before they can estimate the value of a declaration by the American executive, and, what is more important, must take anxious counsel before they follow the invitation of an American executive policy, lest its later implementation be refused by the Congress and they be left in a position of dangerous detachment. So was it, where the Great Powers were concerned, with the non-recognition doctrine of Secretary Stimson, a fact which American opinion would do well to recognize.


It is time, however, to say that nothing in what has gone before is intended to imply that in British foreign policy all is clear, firm, positive, following an ordered and undeviating line. That would be a childish avoidance of the truth. A quotation from the late Sir James Headlam-Morley,[ii] sometime historical adviser to the Foreign Office, will serve admirably to show how Great Britain's dealings with foreign powers are the outcome, as he says, of interaction and compromise between many different and competing interests and motives. He goes on:

In the beginning we have the union of the British Isles, achieved after centuries of effort, only to be broken in our own days, the dominance of the Narrow Seas and the struggle to prevent a great military and naval power being established on the opposite shores. And then the field of interest widens. We become aware of the Atlantic motive; there is expansion across the ocean, the struggle with Spain and France and the foundation of colonies. At the same time as the Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea comes into the picture; interests and influence are established in waters to the rulers of whose shores we cannot fail to appear as alien interlopers. And then are added India and the East, and the road to India, and our coaling stations, and the opening up of China; until it has come about that with the furtherance of trade and commerce there is no continent in which we do not have real and vital interests.

The maintenance and defense of these interests provides in each case a new motive of policy, but the real problem arises always from the very number and variety of the interests to be defended, the developments to be furthered, and the objectives to be pursued. Like all other countries, England has but a limited amount of power, wealth, public credit and political influence, and success requires a careful economy of resources. Just because the interests of this country are world-wide, just because there is no continent in which it has not political power and fields of economic enterprise, it is more than any other country exposed to the danger of pursuing conflicting aims and arousing political opposition, and, for this reason, objects which are desirable in themselves cannot all be attained at the same time; there must be a sacrifice of material advantages, even a withdrawal from spheres of authority where we have established ourselves. . . .

To this is largely due an element in the history of British policy which is often cause for unfavorable comment. There appears to be an uncertainty of touch, a vacillation and indecision, which is undoubtedly very inconvenient to those other nations who desire to coöperate with us, and which easily may give an impression of weakness.

How much of the phrase "British internationalism," to which Mr. Lippmann objects, is left after the reading of such a passage? Yet Sir James's words invite this comment at least: that if constantly changing conditions had not taught the guardians of an often hesitant British policy to adapt their methods and correct their aims, there would now be vastly less for these gentlemen to guard. They have learned to watch for, and within the limits of their power to seek the removal of, the causes of war everywhere. This is not a hazardous policy. The real danger would lie in a failure to follow it. And I humbly suggest that the policy of nineteenth-century America may not, because it seemed necessary and profitable many years ago, be still equally fitted in the twentieth century to serve the real interests of a Republic powerful beyond any unit on earth, the greatest of creditor nations, whose people, by the very fact of their wealth, their strength, and their habits of action and enterprise, are today vexed by the question whether, if war should break out, they could possibly remain neutral.


It remains to find some word to take the place of "isolationism" as descriptive of the American position. At the risk of adding to the already staggering list of neologisms which bedevil the purist, I suggest "unilateralism," as to which a few illustrations may take the place of definition. The time has long gone, if it ever existed, when the effect of any action by the American Government could be confined within the continental borders of the country. The time never was when actions within a certain category, actions theoretically of purely domestic import, could fail to exert a powerful influence for good or evil upon the peoples of other lands. And yet today, when the nation is stronger than ever, it is (I hope I may say without offense) too rarely that we find any account taken of the inevitable repercussion abroad of policies to be enacted into law.

Certain modern instances may be cited, and one particular aspect of the Immigration Act of 1924 may head the list. Its import will be better understood if we remember that, at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, the conviction of the Japanese delegation that they were denied equal status at the council table with the great white Powers was a source of profound embarrassment in negotiation. There ensued a period of dangerous tension in Japanese-American relations, which was happily relaxed by the Washington Arms Conference of 1921-22. In Washington the representatives of Japan felt, and were not mistaken, that a cordial equality was theirs. An agreement as to capital ships and a nine-power Chinese treaty were successfully drawn up and signed, and a settlement of the Shantung difficulty by China and Japan was made possible. Not long after, a veritable explosion outward of American generosity toward the sufferers from the great Japanese earthquake encouraged the people of that land in their new conviction that Americans were indeed their friends. And then, in 1924, with the refusal either to continue the "gentleman's agreement" as to Japanese immigration, or to grant Japan a quota -- not many more than 100 persons annually would have entered -- all the good was undone. Long residence in Japan, and knowledge of its proud and sensitive people, leave in me the conviction that the breakdown of the Washington agreements began with the feeling that the cordiality with which their delegation had been received in 1921 was unreal, that equality of status in the most delicate of its forms of expression could never genuinely be theirs.

We shall be moving still in the region which Mr. Lippmann describes as the "primary interest" of the United States if we turn now to China, the maintenance of whose independence and administrative integrity has long been an avowed objective of American policy, whose market is desired by American traders, and whose people have had the sympathy of countless Americans in the period of unhappy Sino-Japanese relations which began a few years ago. The Chinese are believed to have suffered cruelly from unwarranted attack, but it is doubtful whether the cost to them of Japanese bombs dropped and shells fired is not less than that inflicted by the American Congress when it passed the Silver Purchase Act of 1934. It will be difficult to make the Chinese accept as explanation that new stocks of silver were required in order that this country might have a currency base broad enough to support a higher price level. Indeed, this and other explanations have been dismissed by Americans and by the newspapers of this country themselves in favor of that which attributes the legislation to the political need of placating a small group of silver-producing States and their representatives.

Finally, a brief allusion to the question of Philippine independence may not be out of place. The ultimate disposition of the archipelago is entirely the affair of the American people. But their decision cannot fail to play a part in the strategic preoccupations of Japan, Great Britain, certain dominions of the British Commonwealth, and Holland. It had long been a confident assumption of the islanders that the grant of independence, when it came, would take generous account of their material well-being and military weakness -- would, in short, be a final and noble expression of American altruism, supported by such international agreement as the beneficent purpose and powerful influence of the United States might incline the American Government to conclude. No more need be said upon this than that those who, like myself, have lived and worked in the Philippines, an experience always productive of warm affection for the kindly, hospitable folk who inhabit the islands, were seriously disturbed by the indifference to all but the competitive aspects of economic relations which determined the action of Congress. As for an international agreement which might allow the Filipinos to develop behind a friendly protective screen, Congress was in too great a hurry to permit of its initiation, even if international affairs had not been too confused to justify a hope of success; and we are now left to wonder whether it can ever be made. The fate of the islands without either continued American guardianship or some substitute multilateral engagement is not difficult to predict, and must now be a rather uncomfortable factor in the calculations of some of the Powers I have mentioned.

In all this the point upon which I would respectfully insist is that each of the instances cited is in fact a manifestation of American foreign policy, and that each can be shown to be inconsistent with the aims or professions of that policy as it has from time to time had executive expression. The foreigner who desires to understand the uncertainties of American relationship to the outside world would be wise if he kept his readiness to criticize under strict restraint, and recognized these cases as the almost logical outgrowth of a system based upon the dispersion of power. There may be room, of course, for reflection upon the curious fact that, whereas the Senate often intervenes to block the road of executive action in foreign affairs, the President -- who has the power of veto -- rarely if ever interposes a negative when legislation which may be a wholly disastrous contribution to external policy is involved. But while the field is open to the operations of two forces, executive and legislative, between whose equal powers the Constitution has decreed a legal separation, and whose activities can be contradictory, it need occasion no surprise if the result, when it takes a statutory form, should be determined by the arguments and pressure of regions within the continental area or distinct groups within the population -- the Pacific Coast, the silver-producing States, or a farming section -- rather than by a more fully integrated national interest.

In conclusion, let me say that Mr. Lippmann's demand for "clearer definition" of British and American policy at the points (as he finds them) of greatest susceptibility, seems at once too gradual for these urgent times, and less effective than would be the development on this side of the Atlantic of a positive concern with the causes of war everywhere. Not until this had been tried could the results be determined, but it is fairly arguable that thus, and perhaps thus only, could American executive and legislative powers be united in the service of consistent action, and the cause of Anglo-American coöperation for peaceful ends be genuinely advanced.

[i] "Britain and America." FOREIGN AFFAIRS, April 1935.

[ii] "Studies in Diplomatic History." London: Methuen, 1930.

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  • SIR WILLMOTT LEWIS, since 1920 Washington correspondent of the London Times, formerly stationed in the Far East
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