The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
WHEN I was honored with an invitation to speak to the members of the Council on Foreign Relations tonight it was suggested that, as the evening was to be devoted to naval and military subjects, an appropriate theme might be the possibility of limitation by agreement of land armaments in Europe. But, under conditions as they are, if any one were to propose to himself even an approximate answer in figures to the question "What degree of disarmament can be expected in any European nation?" he would find that: answer so bristling with provisos, with "ifs" and "buts," that he would put it outside the limits of profitable consideration. He would at once find himself confronted not with the question of disarmament but with the basic one of the conditions that for an unknown time make his problem impossible of solution.
To these conditions, therefore, I shall address myself, in the hope that we may find America's interest in them. Time will permit nothing but an arbitrary statement of these conditions as they appeal to me. There is nothing new to be said of them, nor is there anything new in the conclusion to be drawn from them. For there is no man here present who does not know now, as clearly as he ever can, what is the real interest that America has, not merely in European military and naval questions, but in the great underlying problem that makes them questions at all.
Let us hastily sum up the more striking conditions by contrast--pre-war and post-war.
Under pre-war conditions, Europe west of the Ural Mountains and north of the Mediterranean was divided into some twenty states, big and little. They had grown at different rates under a curious law of evolution which applies only to the human intelligence and which seems to impel it irresistibly to larger and larger political aggregations--like nature so long as the result is the coalescence of like parts, unlike nature in proportion as the result is not coalescence, real absorption into the original body, but a mere accretion of unlike parts. Then the final law of nature, more powerful than that of human intelligence, begins to act. Nature has a tendency to preserve states that grow in accordance with her own law and to destroy the others. This destruction may take the form of the sloughing off of unassimilable parts, or it may be a disintegration of the whole mass. These disintegrated parts begin the old process of growth. In the rare case where the directing human intelligence has profited by its lesson, out of death may come a better life, a better and more enduring state; otherwise, sooner or later, again death. We have recently had, and still have before our eyes, illustrations of both processes.
The essential thing to note is that the process in its inception, its continuance and its end has hitherto been characterized by war. With nations of healthy growth war has been the growingpains of childhood; with diseased ones it is the last convulsive agony with which all animate nature struggles against extinction. To those who hope for different conditions of state growth this way of putting it seems pessimistic. But there is at least a ray of hope. Unlike the immutable law of nature, the law of state growth is subject to human intelligence. This, too, is subject to evolution; but its evolution has been, in this respect, less rapid than the growth of its political combinations.
However this may be, at the pre-war time of which we speak six great powers held by far the larger area and population and controlled, if they would, the peace of Europe. All of them illustrated the law of growth as directed by human intelligence.
Two or three of these states were unified, homogeneous nations, as the result of the natural coalescence of like parts. If at any time in their past history they had violated the natural law, they had paid the penalty which time almost inevitably brings. There might be other like parts which they had not yet acquired; but they had practically nothing that did not belong to them.
The other states represented varying degrees of natural and unnatural growth. And they were only waiting to pay, in their turn, the penalty that their principal antagonists in the Great War had already paid at various times.
There are certain facts connected with the growth of all these states which it is important for us to note.
The first is that the period of growth, even by combination of like parts, has been one of war.
The second is that the states in question have a tendency to maintain international peace for longer and longer periods, partly due to the fact that every advance in destructive arts has brought them nearer to the time when war means death to the loser even if it does not inflict mortal wounds on the victor.
To escape this fate when war does come we note, as the third fact, the inevitable tendency to form alliances. When the process is completed we find the six great powers separated into two super-states for the purposes of war. So long as there is no misdirection of human intelligence, these super-states have an even greater tendency to prolong the peace, because they tend to an equality of strength.
The fourth fact is that during the last period of international peace, prolonged by the tendency already noted, there had grown up a new economic world. All economic relations became inextricably interwoven. To cut by war the connecting line between one state and its outlying interests meant tapping the life blood of all others, both those immediately concerned in the war and all who might remain outside.
This brings us to what I assume to be the fifth fact, deducible from the others--that a war between any two of the great powers in Europe is most likely to bring in, first, all the alliances, and then all other nations whose economic life is tied up with theirs.
Thus, under the present accepted principles governing international relations, the last stage in state-building, while it may secure longer intervals of peaceful development, ends in a more disastrous crash.
Now turn to present conditions. Perhaps an exact analysis might show that the principal underlying cause of the Great War which brought about these conditions was the continued violation of the natural law of growth of nations. At any rate, one of the objects of the war, as declared in the course of it, was the rectification of these violations. One of the great powers entered it primarily for this purpose. Another, though defending itself, was inspired by the same purpose. The two principal aggressors desired to guarantee the indefinite possession of what they had more or less wrongfully acquired, with the certainty that in the event of their success their previous wrongdoing would be repeated on perhaps a greater scale. It will be interesting to learn as time goes on whether in the eternal process of correcting wrong by violence its correction has been, as heretofore, accompanied by the commission of further wrong.
While the Peace Conference was still sitting I heard men who ranked among the most important statesmen in Europe express regret at certain things which they mistakenly thought that they had done--among others, the breaking up so completely of the Austrian Empire. They recognized, in principle, the desirability of separating alien and unassimilable groups. But they thought that in that particular quarter of the world there was an unfortunate number of such groups, alien to the Austrian domination and to each other, and that complete separation meant a long period of disturbance. They thought it might have been better to attempt to preserve the combination, perhaps in a modified form, but under the hegemony of an historic state which, however much internal trouble it might have had, for a long time when left to its own devices had been one of the least aggressive of the European states.
Now, I would like to have you note what many have failed to do, that it was not the Peace Conference that broke up the Dual Monarchy; that for the most part it did not assign the disintegrated fragments to this or that existing state; that it did not create the new states. When the string was cut, even before the armistice, the beads began to roll hither and yon according to their own impulse, some coming temporarily to rest by themselves, others seeking new combinations. In this respect what the Peace Conference did was to recognize--legalize, you may say--an existing status, whether it would or not.
That there should be some wrong was inevitable; but criticism does not lie in the mouth of any man who maintains, as most do, that the preservation of the integrity of a state against foreign aggression must in the future as in all the past depend upon its ability to guard its own frontiers. And that was the general view of the men who made the peace--both the old, professional diplomatists and statesmen and the students drawn from the long seclusion of academic halls and libraries. Ethnographic, linguistic, religious, cultural and economic boundaries might perhaps be adjusted; but it had to be done over again when it was asked "What about the strategic frontier?"
The treaty makers were confronted by the fact, never yet challenged by any influential nation since the beginning of time, that in the last resort war is the only arbiter in international disputes. They had on one side defeated but still dreaded enemies; on the other, states that they wanted to make secure against these enemies and against each other. Then, again, on the eastern horizon loomed a power, scarred by defeat and wounds inflicted from within and without, a former friend but regarded by some as potentially a greater menace than their defeated enemy. There was a vague consciousness that there had been destroyed, temporarily at least, the great barrier that had stood between a semi-oriental civilization and the strip of Latin and Anglo-Saxon civilization clinging to the western border of Europe.
Now one may see how invariably like causes produce like results. Larger nations have absorbed smaller ones or, if they could, have taken parts from another state, always for the basic reason to give themselves more defensible frontiers, to gain more strength against an assumed enemy, and, in order to be stronger in both economic and physical war, to get possession of the great deposits of natural wealth. No sooner were some of the new states in process of formation than they began the same procedure from which they had suffered. In the adjustment of the resulting disputes I believe that the Conference acted as rightly as was possible for men who had to consider the historic fact that ultimate force, while it can endure, determines international right. It helped in creating new states while the words "the next war" were in everyone's mouth. It had to endow them primarily for that next war. To enable them to hold their own it had sometimes to give them what was not theirs--but, I think, in the smallest degree possible. Personally, I believe that it was only the reweaving of the perpetually unraveling Penelope's web. But we can not escape the fact that the most righteous-minded body of men you could assemble to remodel the map of the world would have to act, more or less, under the same motives that inspired a Peter the Great, a Frederic II, a Napoleon, or any Peace Conference in history.
Now I take it that the most immediate interest that America has in Europe's military and naval questions--in other words, in present European conditions--is in the present relative chances of peace and war. And then there is a more remote interest, in the minds of many, in the question whether at some later stage in the situation America can, and in her own self-interest should, do anything that will in any degree tend to maintain the one and prevent the other. Let us look for the moment at the general situation in its bearing on these matters of interest.
The result of the war finds Europe with twenty-six states. The original twenty are reduced to nineteen, and seven new ones have been carved out of the two principal enemy states and Soviet Russia. In addition, several of the nineteen have received varying increases in territory. Germany contributed to the making or the increase of some seven states.
One of the curious results is that Germany, after generations and generations of attempts to absorb radically alien elements, is now reduced to what she would have attained along a line of natural growth. The war has put her in a position, were there no other war to fear, to secure in everything that is worth while a domination that she could never attain by any career of conquest. She has now, concentrated within somewhat narrowed borders, most of the homogeneous population that ever did or could make her great. It is conceivable that if all Europe could disarm, could live at peace for fifty years, Germany could pay all her obligations and at the same time outstrip her competitors in industry and commerce. But for the world under its present principle of government to believe that possible would seem to be enough to guarantee that it will not permit it. Other things being equal, whether we have large or reduced armaments, the nation which is the strongest industrially is the best equipped for war, because the machine shop and the laboratory are becoming the two most important elements of military preparation. With war ever looming as a possibility at any time, and a certainty at some time, such a nation is a standing threat.
For those who believe that war must forever loom as a certainty what a vicious circle they find themselves in! Because so long as the arts of peace endure some nation in a group will develop them, and develop in them, more rapidly than others. When a super-successful one is pulled down for the common safety another must take its place. And before the process ceases the arts of peace themselves have perished. So we can hardly escape asking ourselves the question, "Did we recently delude ourselves with the belief that it was our sole purpose to put an end to military domination or to all domination ? Is successful rivalry in industry and commerce, even without the support of military power, as great an international threat as successful rivalry in the arts of war?" Whether there can ever be any limitation of armaments whatever depends upon the answer to that question. Surely, if America's world-interest is in the world's peaceful development she has a vital interest in this matter. I shall recur to this subject in a moment. Just now it suffices to say that while we are in the process of seeking an answer to the question the chances of any disarmament in Europe are very remote.
In comparison with pre-war conditions we note a material increase in the number of states within the same area, none of the additional ones being very large and some being very small. No man can deny that the continued operation of like causes will produce like results. There has already been a tendency of the larger of the small powers to encroach upon the smaller ones. With the revival of power, if it ever comes, there will be a tendency on the part of some of the hitherto great powers to absorb even the larger of the smaller ones. The smaller ones are already asserting--the revived larger ones will assert--historic claims which vary in sanction of time from a century back to the days of the ancient Roman Empire. There is a tendency for groups of smaller states to combine both for economic and military reasons to resist absorption. This is favored by any great state that sees its own even temporary advantage; it is opposed by any that sees in the combination a block in its own path. Economic union is the first step towards political union. The resulting great states may be of different combinations than before, but they will come into being by an irresistible law. It is inconceivable that in a large area occupied by several numerically strong races there can long be only one or two great states with many small ones under their hegemony. This process in the past has meant war; how is it to be escaped in the future?
The tendency is increased by a multiplication of clashing interests; an increase in the annoyances which become more and more intolerable to an industrial and commercial world; an increase in tariffs, in customs regulations designed to accomplish what in some cases is the impossible, namely, to make a nation, however small, self-sustaining within its own borders for the purposes of war. In numerous cases, important lines of communication which formerly were controlled by one state are now controlled by two or more. Small states not very far advanced in civilization, not highly developed in the industry and commerce which ties their prosperity by complex and delicate threads to the prosperity of others, lack what is now probably the greatest influence which causes a people, even when raging with mad passion, to pause and think. On the eastern shore of the Baltic there are three small states. Their combined population is less than that of the enlarged city of New York. Their relative development is not such as to assure the perpetuation of their national existence. They control certain lines of commercial entrance and exit for Russia. They control five ports necessary for this commerce, and in the freedom of which Russia and all Western Europe are greatly interested. Nothing but a wisdom of administration that has at times failed even great nations, strong enough to defend their acts of folly, can assure the life of nations so placed. If they should give cause for absorption by neighboring states and if Europe is determined that they shall not be so absorbed, or shall be absorbed by this rather than by that state, it foreshadows the continuance of the armed status by all of them.
In the attempt to secure strategic frontiers, to increase manpower available for war and to acquire valuable deposits of natural wealth, alien populations, always an element of discord, have been included in certain states. In the original group-masses many alien fragments were already encysted. For the various reasons indicated, new ones had to be added. All of them are important enough to be noted in ethnographic maps. Some of them, relatively to the dominating group, are quite large and compact. They are, for the most part, along and just within the strategic frontiers. Taking the Baltic States as one unit, this number of included alien groups runs from a minimum of four to a maximum of eleven. It is evident that to produce real internal harmony many linguistic and cultural differences must be absorbed--a thing that all time has not sufficed to do. If the Minorities Treaties are enforced there will be a tendency against this absorption; if they are not enforced there will be a tendency, as heretofore, to acts that set passions in a blaze and invite the hostility of other states.
As to strategic frontiers, in one important case at least--that of Poland--it is impossible to give them. To attain them she would have to go to the farther border of her eastern and western neighbors. The attempt would only mean (as it already has meant) the inclusion of still more alien people.
Knowing no other way to preserve their integrity, these smaller states have all had to assume the burden of military preparedness. Relatively, the burden is greater. Before, when every mill and factory and farm was teeming with industry, the national surplus product was enough to maintain millions of potentially productive workers under arms and still continue progress in peace. With finances and industry and agriculture disorganized, the prompt restoration of which requires the labor of all these potential workers, the burden is manifestly greater. And it seems to be one of the almost hopeless paradoxes of the war that those who, for their own safety, freed their chief enemy from the self-imposed burden of military preparation, find that if this status should continue they have increased his capacity for what they also dread--successful economic war.
The small states were not prepared by their former rulers for popular self-government. And so their constitutions are imitative, not the growth of experience. They all feel a revival of intense nationalism, and their political institutions now provide for the prompt translation of the popular will into action. This inherent right of democracy, unless it is willing to put checks upon itself, is not free from danger.
Now I will not weary you with further reference to these conditions nor those that all see in operation as between the remaining great powers. I have looked at the dark side because that is necessary in thinking of any chances of limiting armaments. Were it possible to guarantee these states, big and little, from foreign aggression, none would be in any danger except from the peaceful penetration of trade and commerce. That, with a continued guarantee against physical aggression, would be for the good of each and of the world.
Can any reasonable guarantee be ever given? Is it worth while even to attempt it? If the question were asked you as a purely business one I know what your reply would be. It is the business men of a few great nations that will decide most future questions of peace or war. Can they not decide them in a business way? Can they not establish a working rule that will guarantee a fair distribution of the natural products of the world, --that will assure their supply of coal, iron, copper, oil, or what not in the markets of the world without the constant apprehension of political interference? If they can, they will do more than anything else to check war for the indefinite future.
If the question could be taken out of the hands of political men and put into those of business men I believe that it could be so settled. You have more than once read the statement of some prominent European official that his state does not threaten the peace because it can not go to war until it has improved its finances and reorganized its industries. Must we conclude that no enlightened self-interest will ever impel nations to look on intervals of peace as other than periods of recuperation for war? I, for one, think not. I all the world-group is there no nation that can enlighten the self-interest of the rest? I for one think that there is, and that this is the one sole interest that America has in the problems of Europe, military, naval or any other. But her own self-interest must be enlightened first, and the time is not yet come. But it will come, and associations of men such as are represented here tonight should do what they properly can to hasten its arrival and enable our nation to make the most good of it when it comes.
I cherish no illusions on the subject of war. I have long believed that it is, essentially, a great evil. But, as the history of the world has been, it has not been the greatest nor the worst. That state of slavish and sluggish indifference on the part of a people that makes it think there is nothing worth a war is a far greater and worse evil. War has destroyed civilizations, religions, political institutions; but it has also won and preserved them. And for myself I thank the good God who has given us bodies and souls strong and enduring enough to win and hold them by war, so long as it can be done in no other way. The whole question lies in that. Has the time come, or is it near at hand, when great international wars must, of necessity, destroy more than they save? If so, then every such war means a step backwards towards the extinction of what we want to save.
You will have noted that the sole underlying cause of present disturbed conditions is mutual fear. That condition is exactly what yours and mine would be were we to revert to the ancient status of private war. We would arm against each other and then find that no amount of armament can dispel the fear, because those that can arm the least are still at the mercy of those that can arm the more, and the latter are in even more fear of each other. There cómes a time when that haunting fear causes the victor to do his enemy to the death. And that is likely to happen in the war of nations.
At this moment that is the exact situation, mental and physical, of two great peoples. For fifty years the eyes of each have been on the slightest movement of the other's hand towards his sword. Then comes the inevitable collision. The weaker is saved only by the interposition of neighbors. Saved, but brought to the verge of ruin himself, he has his knife at the heart of his adversary. Those who saved him perhaps ask him to withhold his hand. He replies, "What will you do to at least reasonably assure me that he will not repeat his aggression?" "Nothing; except to try to have treaties made among the nations to assure that future wars will be fought only by upright Christian gentlemen." "Then it is either his life or mine; or at least I shall, if I can, so mutilate him that I shall have no further fear of him." Those responsible for the situation can not blame him. For he knows that, so long as no other way for his protection can be devised, his enemy's revival means his own death.
Nevertheless this isn't a desirable thing to be done. The men who tried to make the peace devised a plan to relieve this fear, but they attempted too much. They had before them all plans prepared in recent years by distinguished jurists and philosophical students of history. These agreed in one thing, differed in all others. They all agreed on the necessity of minimizing the chances of international war due to acts of aggression. The new plan failed to recognize that with any reasonable chance of prolonged peace the social problems about which they were not agreed would largely settle themselves. In the organization which they created they vested the study of matters that directly bore on international war to one committee out of many, instead of having the sole attention of the entire body focussed constantly on this one question. We ourselves have rejected the plan--and I accept that rejection as a settled fact.
But is there no hope? Is it possible that man, who is daily conquering every other evil force in nature and harnessing it to his triumphal car for further progress, who can make the lightning and the mysterious powers in the ether carry his messages and the swift winds his merchandise, whose vision can penetrate the infinity of space and measure the distance to other worlds so remote that it would seem they must be the lights twinkling about the throne of God, yet can not check his own passions that destroy his greatest achievements and has vision so weak that he can not grope through the intricacies of one problem growing out of his own nature?
I do not believe it.
We have rejected one plan, but no one has a right to say that we have rejected even the consideration of any other one.
I am so little of a pessimist that I believe the people are still longing for some sort of a solution of this problem. And I believe that this Council could help them find it. I was present at the meeting in Paris out of which grew this association and the corresponding one in England. It was a meeting of the experts, British and American, attached to the Peace Conference. I was not qualified to be one of these; I wish that I were. For I can conceive of no greater honor than to have been a member of that broad-visioned, high-minded body of men, such as never before worked together for a great purpose. I say this in derogation of no others, but with special reference to the American experts. That meeting laid the foundations of the two associations, one in London and one in New York. Their declared object was to continue the study, then engaging them, of great problems of international interest for the special purpose of enlightening and guiding the peoples of their respective countries. We have this one problem, the greatest of all. I believe the earnest, consistent attention of this association to it will do much in helping the people find an exit from the maze in which they are groping. I believe it can build a monument for itself nobler than that which the old Latin poet boasted that he had reared to his own glory, loftier and more enduring than the royal Pyramids. For our glory it will suffice to lay but one stone in the foundation.
But it is no task for the doubter or the pessimist. It seems to have become the fashion of late in this good city of New York to declare what one does not believe. But I shall close with the recitation of my Credo and I put it in the words of the great French scientist whose centenary was recently celebrated by all the world, of which he was a general member:
"I believe with unshakable faith that science and peace will yet triumph over ignorance and war, and that the peoples of the world will seek knowledge, not to destroy but to create."
And to accomplish that is, I think, America's interest in the affairs of Europe and the world.