Russia Thinks America Is Bluffing
To Deter a Ukraine Invasion, Washington’s Threats Need to Be Tougher
WAR is positive, peace is negative. Therefore it is natural for nations that want war to take the initiative, laying their plans far ahead and choosing the favorable moment to strike; while pacific peoples, from the very fact that they are not seeking a change, incline to rest in peace until some aggressor attacks them, and then defend themselves at a disadvantage because less well prepared beforehand. In short, the aggressive and the pacific peoples occupy the position of the wise and the foolish virgins.
Where is this train of reasoning leading us? Surely not where we want to go. Perhaps there is some error in the logic or some inaccuracy in the major premise. Maybe peace should not be negative. Maybe the policy which seeks to attain peace should not be a mere waiting for some move by a perhaps unsuspected foe, but prevision and precaution before trouble becomes acute. The danger of conceding the initiative to an opponent lies in the possibility that he will take up a position from which it will be hard for him to retire without national humiliation. We then should have to yield or fight: whereas, if we had thought the matter out beforehand, and let our attitude be known, he would not have put himself in any such position -- unless, indeed, he deliberately intended to force on us a war, which no nation now wishes or perhaps ever will wish.
As originally conceived by Canning in England, and by John Quincy Adams and President Monroe in this country, the Monroe Doctrine was an example of pacific initiative which forestalled and prevented possible war. It did not contemplate any control by the United States over the new states of Central and South America, nor did it interfere with any existing sovereignty. It merely gave notice that any future European attempt at dominion in that region would be regarded by us as an unfriendly act. Backed by the parallel statement from England -- then wholly master of the high seas -- it proved effective in preventing any such attempt from being made. Moreover, it announced our intention to resist hostile attacks in Central and South America from overseas. This claim was not, indeed, admitted by European nations; but it was respected. Thus France during our Civil War tried to place Maximilian on the throne of Mexico; but there existed grounds on which we could claim -- without making any threats -- that France must withdraw her troops, and as soon as our hands were free we pressed our claim and France complied. Later, in the Venezuela controversy, President Cleveland was in a position to insist that England should resort to arbitration instead of force.
Herein lies -- shall we call it a principle, a custom, a convention? At any rate it is a fact in international relations that when a nation has staked out a claim by occupation, or by other definite process, a subsequent attempt by another country to dispossess it is a far more serious business than rivalry involved in the race to get there first. It is said that an English officer, hearing that the French were about to occupy the island of Perim, at the southern end of the Red Sea, sailed there quickly, hoisted the British flag and thereby secured the island permanently and without dispute. Fashoda, on the upper Nile, was obviously a point of great importance to England -- much more so than to France; yet Marchand coming through Central Africa got there first, raised the French flag, and acquired a right by occupation. The serious friction which ensued disappeared only in the course of a general adjustment of many differences between the two countries. Nor is the attitude created by occupation unnatural. It is the same as that of the dog and the bone: once he possesses it, the dog considers any attempt to take the bone away a casus belli.
The same reasoning may apply not only to actual possession but to prospective enjoyment of land as well, in cases where the land in question is not at the time vacant and yet where certain nations have entered into agreements regarding a possible successor to the title. Before the World War there was much negotiating about what should become of the Portuguese colonies in Africa. Not that there was any talk of driving Portugal out of them. The discussion turned on who should be allowed to be the purchaser if Portugal saw fit to sell them. Had the matter been finally arranged, any other nation seeking to obtain those lands would have been regarded as interfering with vested rights.
To go farther: every great nation not bound by a contrary treaty with other nations has assumed that she possessed an interest in the fate of her small neighbors, at least in so far as the preservation of their independence and integrity was a factor in her own security. She further has assumed that this interest was one which she could and must defend. For more than three hundred years England has been ready to fight, and has fought, to keep The Netherlands or Belgium out of the grasp of any third nation; and with the development of airplanes and submarines this has become more important than ever. Nor is it by any means an isolated instance. The continued independence of Switzerland, with its three races and for a time its four languages, has been due to the unwillingness of its powerful neighbors to see any one of them take over control of the Alpine passes. The Wars of the Spanish Succession were fought on essentially the same principle. The Congress of Berlin was held in 1878 to forestall a conflict over Russia's retention of Constantinople. And the occasion -- one cannot say the cause -- of the World War was the Russian resistance to the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia. In fact, many wars have occurred from a lack of common recognition about the relation of a great nation to lesser ones which -- although in no sense under her control -- may affect her prestige or even her security. Some relationships of this sort are of so contentious a nature that they can hardly be stated without provoking trouble; but in other cases no country can reasonably object to a statement of such interest being made -- unless, indeed, it is planning to gain some advantage in prospective hostilities.
These considerations raise the question whether there still are places where our proper interests have not been made clear. Monroe proclaimed that on the mainland to the south no foreign government can attain a new political foothold without offense to us; and although our untactful ways have often provoked resentment among the justly proud peoples of that region there is probably no one of them that would not resent any other's selling a part of their common heritage to a foreign power, and that would not rejoice to see any such project effectively prevented. As for Canada, everyone knows that no hostile army could land there without war with us; and a cession of Canadian land to another nation is inconceivable.
Moreover, it is clear that neither England, France, nor The Netherlands could sell its share of Guiana to a European Power. The same is true of the islands in the Caribbean or on the Atlantic seaboard. Could France trade the possession of Guadeloupe to Italy, or England that of Jamaica, Bermuda or Newfoundland to Germany? Clearly not. Although those islands are held in full sovereignty, such a transfer would be an unfriendly act on the part of the seller and might be a hostile one on that of the purchaser. This needs no official statement: it is self-evident. Not that we desire to obtain these possessions. On the contrary -- save for an occasional case of some small island that might be useful in perfecting our defense of the Caribbean and the Panama Canal -- we should much prefer to have the present owners retain them on the understanding, practically now recognized, that they are not to dispose of them without our approval.
Are there not other islands in which we have a similar but not as yet so obvious an interest? What, for example, about the Portuguese islands of the Azores? In the hands of a strong maritime Power they might serve as a naval base from which a hostile fleet could reach any part of our Atlantic possessions in less time than our fleet would take to go from one end to the other of the line we must defend in that ocean. What is more, even though our coasts may not yet be within direct striking distance from the Azores by airplane, they will surely become so as navigation of the air improves. Clearly we cannot permit the Azores to pass into the hands of a powerful, and possibly hostile, state. Further south and east lie Madeira and the Canaries, the former Portuguese, the latter Spanish. No strong nation would wish to acquire and fortify these without harboring hostile intent against someone. Still farther south, near the easternmost extremity of Africa, lie the Cape Verdes. These Portuguese islands, though easily convertible into a strong naval base, would not constitute a direct danger to us; but the picture would be very different if we should ever be called upon by our friendly neighbors in South America for help against European aggression. Then they would become of great importance. A battle fleet based on the Cape Verdes could in a surprise attack reach the South American coasts before our fleet could interpose to prevent it. And the distance to the Cape Verdes from any point where a conflict would be likely to take place would be only about half the distance to the nearest station where our battleships, cruisers and submarines could refit. In naval warfare that might be decisive; and at any rate we should obviously be placed at a grave disadvantage.
In quite another part of the Atlantic, too, we see American strategic interests at stake but as yet undefined. The risk of a general war in Europe has provoked some fear that Germany may hope by a conquest of Denmark to acquire Iceland, and even Greenland, as air and naval bases.
All this raises the question whether the State Department and the people of this country ought not to consider, earnestly and at once, what islands in the Atlantic, if any, we should be unwilling to see pass from the hands of their present owners into those of another European nation. Having reached a decision, should not our Government state it publicly? Nor would this constitute a purely selfish policy; for European states may well make a similar claim about the islands in the eastern part of the Atlantic, since it is of universal interest that they should remain unfortified.
The subject here presented is not new. For half a century or more Americans have discussed, and worried about, the ownership of islands in the neighborhood of their coasts. The nations that possess those islands find them inexpensive sources of usefulness or of pride; and if it were understood that they could not transfer them without our consent they would need little defense, for this fact would render the conquest of them fruitless. None of them are in unfriendly hands. The intent of the suggestion made here is wholly peaceful, and as it applies equally to all nations there is no reason why any of them should take umbrage.
The same argument holds in the Pacific, for we must at all hazards insure the safety of the Panama Canal. It provides the only way by which we can throw the fleet into either ocean as needed for the defense of our eastern or western shores. A country must not merely take advantage of the benefits geography has conferred upon it; it must make up as well as it can for the drawbacks. The Canal is our antidote for possessing two coasts separated by an ocean voyage round Cape Horn longer than half the circumference of the world. In any war with a formidable Power we must keep our fleet together; on that all naval strategists will agree. And to any citizen no argument is needed to prove what a sorry plight we should be in if when our fleet was in one ocean we were attacked in the other and the Canal were blocked; nor will anyone deny that it might be rendered useless by an airplane attack in sufficient force from a nearby station. Therefore we could not suffer the Galapagos Islands to pass from Ecuador's hands into those of any other Power without our consent.
Although not so self-evident, the same reasoning applies to islands farther away in the Pacific yet near enough to be a source of some anxiety. The Marquesas, for example, belong to France. They are of little or no use to her, and she might be tempted to sell them if she were not made aware of our objection. Our Government should seriously consider whether it would not do well to declare that, while we have no desire to obtain any more islands in the Pacific, we feel that for our own security we could not regard as a friendly act the transfer to another Power, without our consent, of any of them lying east of the longitude of Samoa. For no great foreign nation would want to acquire such islands now except as a coign of vantage in some policy relating to America, North or South.
A question of this kind arose in 1912, when it was proposed that Mexico should lease Magdalena Bay, in Southern California, to Japan for a fishing station. The suggestion of a Japanese port for any purpose near the Canal aroused so much protest in the United States that Mexico dropped the matter. Having this occurrence in mind, and being anxious about the way security of our coastal stations might be affected by the Treaty of Paris, the writer, on July 30, 1928, inquired of Mr. Kellogg, then Secretary of State, as follows:
"Is there not an aspect of the treaty for the renunciation of war that may furnish an effective argument to opponents in the United States unless it is refuted before it is advanced? All parties to the treaty agree to renounce war as an instrument of national policy, if none of them breaks the peace. May it not be claimed that this might affect seriously the Monroe Doctrine, unless the contrary is made clear? Suppose, for example, that Japan should, without violence, propose to purchase from Mexico Magdalena Bay, or some other port of Lower California; or suppose Great Britain or Germany should plan to buy a port in Venezuela or elsewhere near the Panama Canal; might it not be urged that in such a case the treaty would bind us to renounce war as a means of prevention ? If so, it could be argued that by the treaty we give notice to the world that we shall not in any event resort to force against peaceable violations of the Monroe Doctrine, no matter how prejudicial to our traditions and interests."
Secretary Kellogg on August 7 replied as follows:
"With regard to the Monroe Doctrine, I do not consider there is the slightest danger so far as this treaty is concerned. The Monroe Doctrine is one of self-defense and it clearly appears by the correspondence that any country has not only the right of self-defense but the right to defend any special interests it has. Certainly the building of a naval base near the Canal or near continental United States would be resisted on the ground that it endangers the special interests of this country. Furthermore, it is expected that all Central and South American countries will adhere to this treaty. With all the leading countries in the world parties to it, if any one of them should break it, the others would be released so I can see no possible danger on this score. Great Britain did not make any reservations to the treaty. In the correspondence she did say that she had special interests which were matters involving her self-defense similar to the Monroe Doctrine, but she is not going to make any reservations in the treaty whatever."
In short, the Secretary of State took the ground that the United States had such an interest in any foreign possession near enough to be important to the security of the Canal that the use of force to prevent its possible transfer to some other nation would not be a resort to war but a defense of our own international rights. That point of view may not be so obvious to all rulers that there is no need for asserting it. Even our own people might profitably be so informed. For the essential point is this: If we say nothing in advance, the foreign nation may be regarded as acquiring some island or other territory rightly and thus as having lawful possession; while we, in trying to prevent her from retaining it, would put ourselves in the position of the aggressor. Whereas, if we had made public in advance our claim to such an interest, any nation taking the territory in question would deliberately commit a hostile act. This no foreign country is likely to do.