IN WATCHING history weave its intricate tapestry one is left uncertain whether the warp or the woof is the more important, whether the concealed and underlying framework determines the shape of history or whether history is composed of the countless little threads and knots which display its apparent pattern. At a certain moment one feels that the desires and energies of individual statesmen are but straws floating on the surface of some hidden tide; at another one becomes convinced that although the great river of history may flow slowly in a certain recognizable direction, it can be impeded, accelerated or even diverted by the force of a few dominant personalities or by the trivial and momentary barrier of some chance circumstance. When one reads the history of transactions analogous to those which have come within one's own orbit of experience one suspects that the historian, working upon documents, is apt to underestimate or to ignore the influence exercised upon events by the elements of chance and personality, and to be overinfluenced in his appraisal by the apparent sequence of cause and effect. At some international conference, for instance, a statesman achieves a given result which in the end proves of the utmost advantage to his country. In his subsequent memoirs he will almost surely disclose a greater degree of prevision, a more definite consciousness of motive, than he was himself aware of at the time, thereby establishing a logical (and personally creditable) sequence of cause and effect.

To those who have watched great political events forming and reforming before their eyes the simplifications of history do not seem so convincing. They have become aware of the immense part played by the incidental and the fortuitous in human affairs; they know the influence exercised upon day-to-day transactions by such forgotten and unavowed causes as personal friction or friendship, momentary impulse or bouts of ill health, or the chance alternation of hours of energy with hours of lassitude. The historian observes that certain results have accrued from a long course of negotiation; he analyzes the motives which induced the protagonists either to further or to impede those results; and, in all scholarship and sincerity, he produces a sequence of ordered and logical events, beginning with an ascertainable motive and leading to an inevitable end. Motives which at the time of some negotiation were subsidiary or even nonexistent become, in retrospect, the determinant ones, whereas motives which at the outset seemed to be central to the whole controversy suffer changes or disappear.

Such considerations tempt one to ask again certain questions that long have puzzled the observer. Do men mold events or are they molded by them? What part is really played by conscious motive in the long and unending processes of international negotiation? How far, again, does the fortuitous, the unavowable, the incidental and the trivial affect decisions in great affairs?

The malady of our age -- as of all periods when the majority of men tend toward the determinist or materialistic interpretation of human endeavor -- is cynicism, or more accurately, distrust. The doctrine that man is essentially an economic animal, intent only upon his own material advantage, induces disbelief in the purity of any motive. In revolutionary epochs such as the present those who represent the old order suffer commonly from a loss of self-confidence, while those who wish to establish a new order spread and intensify distrust of the old. The task of the latter is facilitated by the fact that suspicion is the easiest of all moods to inculcate, being the philosophy of the unphilosophic; whereas confidence demands that form of resolute tolerance which is acquired only through humanism or faith. People are easily persuaded that those in power assume virtues for purposes of propaganda and deception and that their defects furnish the real clue to their character and motives; they are with difficulty convinced that sincerity and unselfishness are in fact a major and recurrent constituent in the moods of public men. Yet my own experience has been, on the whole, that public men are motivated by worthy desires, and it is in the light of this generalization that I shall approach my questions.

The determinist contends that the individual is little more than the symptom, or at best the personification, of the spirit of his age; the humanist imagines that men of outstanding character or genius are enabled by superior will power, initiative or imagination to shape events according to their own program. What seems more probable is that the stream of human evolution is liable to long periods of placidity interrupted by sudden rapid spurts of disorder and change. During the periods of repose or lethargy, the man of genius is accorded small opportunity for personal influence; it is the man who in his own personality reflects the stability and mediocrity of his age who becomes the representative, and therefore dominant, figure. The genius, being inconvenient, has little chance; the Chamberlains and the Coolidges occupy the foreground.

It is when the phase of placid acceptance begins to move into the phase of energy or discontent that the man of outstanding personality or energy is at last afforded his opportunity. To that extent he is the product, rather than the creator, of events; yet no man who has observed in practice the impact of personality upon circumstance could deny that the temperament or genius of the men who are then called to exercise power does in fact give to events a particular tendency and tone. The Russian Revolution, for example, produced three men of outstanding genius: Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. Lenin succeeded in giving to it a definite personal development, different from that which, under Stalin, it has since assumed; and had Trotsky instead of Stalin succeeded to Lenin a third alternative of development might have startled and alarmed the world. Again, the tremendous economic anxiety which gripped the heart of Germany after the depression of 1929 would in any case have created widespread effervescence and rendered the mediocrities of the later Weimar Republic unrepresentative of the spirit of their age; but it was the intense concentration of Hitler's phenomenal temperament which gave the Nazi revolution its extreme and curious form. A German social revolution was in any case inevitable. It may have been inevitable also that such a revolution should assume a nationalistic mood and that anti-Semitism of some sort should appear; but it was the driving force of Hitler's hatreds and obsessions which gave the revolution that peculiarly aggressive, embittered, self-pitying, rancorous and cruel impetus which roused the world against it.

Some less dramatic illustration of the relation between circumstance and personality is perhaps more instructive. From 1920 onward the French people were denied those physical guarantees of security which they felt to be their right, and were convinced that with the growth of American and British isolationism France would again be faced with the eternal German menace. In these circumstances they acquired the general, if undefined, conviction that they must seek their future safety by other means. There were several alternative roads which French policy might then have followed. The French Government might have concentrated upon convincing the two western democracies of France's deeply pacific intentions, of the justifiability of her apprehensions, and of her real need to coöperate with the United States and Great Britain in a policy of reconstruction. It might, on the other hand, have concentrated all its faith and energy upon the League of Nations, seeking to find in Geneva that identity of purpose with Great Britain which had not been achieved under the golden chandeliers of the Quai d'Orsay. The circumstances of France's anxiety were very real; the anxiety itself was sufficiently widespread and acute to demand some solution; but the actual form which that solution took was determined by the personality of Raymond Poincaré. This precise and gifted logician had the mind, not of a lawyer only, but of a chartered accountant; he thought in balance sheets and figures. The emotional idealism of the Anglo-Saxon peoples was as abhorrent to him as the emotional patriotism of Clemenceau and Foch. He approached the situation as a mathematical problem, without duly considering the effect of that approach upon opinion abroad. He instigated a fallacious movement for Rhineland separatism; he occupied the Ruhr and sought to exact productive pledges; he constructed a weak and most provocative ring around Germany in the shape of the Little Entente; and in so doing he was representative, not of the permanent wisdom of his country, but of its momentary mood. Poincaré was not a genius; his mind was small and taut and very trim; he worked out his own mathematical solution, forgetting that history is not a sum, and he imposed that formula upon his country and upon Europe. The disasters which his policy produced furnish an admirable illustration of how, in times of general uncertainty and disquiet, a man of ability who knows exactly what he desires can, temporarily at least, carry with him the majority of his own countrymen and to that extent determine events.

His main adversary during those decisive years was Lord Curzon, a man of outstanding intellect and petulance. He did not regard his controversy with Poincaré as a conflict of principle; he came to regard it as a personal combat. Both statesmen at the moment represented to some extent the will of their respective peoples; France, while Germany was still weak, desired to obtain guarantees for her future safety; Great Britain desired repose and the end of European bitterness. But whereas Poincaré interpreted security in narrow terms of physical and economic coercion, Curzon interpreted repose in terms of a successful triumph over Monsieur Poincaré. The need was there; the occasion was offered; but had Poincaré been less mathematical and Curzon either stronger on principles or less combative in action the trend of diplomatic history might well have assumed a wider and less torrential form.

My conclusions are threefold: first, that in periods of placidity and repose even the most outstanding political or military genius is ineffective; secondly, that in periods of change events are turned in a certain direction by the men of energy whom they throw up; and thirdly, that in phases of uneasiness and change even secondary people can, by the nature of their intelligence or the quirks of their temperament, give to events a shape and a development which they might not, in other hands, have assumed.

This leads us to ask what part conscious motive plays in the shaping of events. And my answer is, "Not so great a part as the historian supposes. All too often he ignores the chain of circumstance." The word "motive" is not very explanatory, nor does it help much to distinguish between personal or impersonal motives. Was Wilberforce's determination to abolish the slave trade or Woodrow Wilson's determination to impose the Covenant of the League personal or impersonal? A more useful differentiation in examining conscious motive is that between positive motive (namely, the consistent desire to achieve certain aims), and negative motive (namely, the consistent refusal to admit the violation of certain principles). I should say from my own experience that the former type of motive is the more rare, variable, opportunist and unascertainable.

It is necessary also to distinguish between conscious motive and that more generalized striving for success and power which we call ambition. It is no discredit to any public man, who has to fight hard in the political arena, to assume that his most constant motive is personal success: without this central propellant he might flinch from the unending energies and conflicts which the struggle entails. Moreover, an isolated motive (be it a dedication to prohibition, proportional representation or any other "cause") leads to extreme specialization, a narrowness of interest which is apt to place the aspiring politician in a somewhat lonely position. Modern political conditions impose upon most men a habit of empiricism; nor is it cynical to suggest that the conscious pursuit of definable aims is a particular rather than a general phenomenon. There are, of course, many instances when it can be shown that some statesman has devoted his whole life and energies to the achievement of a definite aim, subordinating to it all other possible considerations; Mazzini, Garibaldi, Cavour, Bismarck, Masaryk, Venizelos, Lenin, Kemal, have all displayed this consistency of motive. But my own experience is that in the conduct of human affairs the element of conscious human motive is, with obvious reservations, less prominent in day-to-day negotiation than many historians would have us believe. Their habit of deriving ascertained effects from assumed causes tempts them to discover motives in circumstances in which such motives did not consciously exist.

Do my doubts regarding the influence of conscious motives seem exaggerated? I ask those who feel so to consider how often false motives are attributed to public men. Few indeed who have played even a minor part in public affairs have not from time to time been startled to learn that their actions or attitudes are attributed to motives (generally discreditable) which in fact did not, even unconsciously, come within the area of their intention. Obviously any man who enters upon an international negotiation is provided with a "line of policy;" obviously also, it is his duty to defend the interests of his own country against the interests of other countries. Yet that seldom means that he pursues a definitely selfish policy or that he is blind to the fact that, on the whole, the common interest is of more value and importance than any separate interest. It is the extent to which he can see the special in the general which differentiates the statesman from the politician.

When I read the recorded proceedings of various international conferences -- for example, of the varying and uncertain discussions which took place between Bonaparte and the allies at the Congress of Châtillon in 1814 -- and when I compare them with my own experience of similar conferences, I am certain in my own mind that things did not really "happen" in the way we are told. It is not merely that most of the decisive exchanges and decisions were made in private conversation and that all the chroniclers are wise after the event. It is that history omits (as it is bound to do) all the cumulative gradations and fluctuations of purpose and desire created by such chance or incidental circumstances as exhaustion, personal sympathy or antipathy, gratitude, hospitality, illness, the impossibility of being continuously obstructive toward people one is meeting every day, preoccupation with politics and politicians at home, banquets and the lethargy they induce, female society and all the countless minor pains and pleasures which affect the human heart and mind. To take a small point only: historians do not give sufficient attention to the order in which subjects are arranged upon the agenda paper. It is a common experience in any conference that the subjects which come first on the agenda are discussed with greater acerbity or attention than those which, after an exhausting sitting, come toward the end. I do not say that these small considerations impede or largely affect conscious motives. But they have an immense influence upon unconscious motives, and the part which they play in any negotiation is bound to be powerful, and, in some instances which I have myself noted, almost determinant.

Yet although I suspect the historian of allowing himself, for purposes of clarity, to exaggerate, to misplace, to invent, or even to antedate, the element of positive motive, it is my belief that in international affairs the immense influence exercised by negative motive has not been sufficiently emphasized. A statesman is fortunate indeed if he is able to impose upon an international conference the complete acceptance of something ardently desired by his own country, as when Castlereagh, before going to Vienna, secured the acceptance by his allies of the independence of the Netherlands. Such positive achievements are rare; but the refusal to depart from a given national principle is a far more common device. It is easier to say "No" than to induce five other governments to say "Yes;" and it can be observed in practice that a firm refusal is generally more effective in a conference than a definite demand. To refuse to discuss a subject which might imply the violation of a national principle (such as the Monroe Doctrine or the Statute of Westminster), even if that principle be unilaterally established, is less complicated than to induce others to agree to the extension of a hitherto nonexistent national interest. That is why denials in terms of principle are often more operative in international affairs than affirmations of desire.

To say that if the statesman is unable to distinguish principle from detail he is no statesman is to beg the question. If genius be the capacity to differentiate between the extraordinary and the impossible, then statesmanship is certainly the capacity to tell the difference between principle and detail. But it is never quite so simple as all that. The unscrupulous or ingenious negotiator will always seek to achieve a principle in the shape of its own details. It was a principle with Hitler, for instance, to destroy the Treaty of Versailles; and he ingeniously encompassed that end by ignoring the principle and concentrating upon the successive items -- the "artichoke" method of diplomacy. As he detached each leaf he asserted that it was assuredly his last. The other nations were never faced with any single act so menacing as to provoke retaliation; and at last, in one delicious gulp, Hitler was able to swallow the fond d'artichaut in the shape of the Rhineland.

The problem of principle and detail is further complicated by the desire for "improved relations," an inevitable and not at all discreditable tendency to which all diplomatists and statesmen are prone. Man is by nature a sociable animal and he finds an atmosphere of unabated discord and bickering uncongenial. He seeks to mitigate by concession in detail the animosities which he may rightly cherish in principle. If wisely handled, such concessions can be a useful lubricant to the over-heated machine of international intercourse; but the Stresa Conference, at which Mr. Ramsay MacDonald was too polite to his host even to mention the matter of Abyssinia, is an example of how disastrous it can be to identify as a detail something which, however painful and inconvenient, is in fact a matter of basic principle. A statesman both wise and strong should be able, like Metternich, to allow himself wide latitude in shifting the frontiers between detail and principle; the misfortune is that so few statesmen are either strong or wise.

To the question whether or not the idealist is more potent than the realist in international affairs one can hardly say more than that it depends upon how accurately the idealist has estimated the support which he possesses. Men like Wilberforce or Canning had behind them the united will of the majority of their countrymen; and at that date Great Britain's influence was determinant in international affairs. Although the United States was determinant in international affairs in 1919, President Wilson did not have the united will of his countrymen behind him.

In dealing with problems of international relations the present tendency of the ordinary citizen is both to oversimplify and to undersimplify. On the one hand he allows himself to forget that foreign affairs are precisely that, and as such involve the interests, not of his own nation only, but of several nations. He is apt to think that his own country's Secretary of State should frame an ideal policy and hand it over to the experts for execution, much as the Secretary of the Treasury can frame a finance bill or the Secretary of Agriculture a scheme of farm relief. When other countries with other interests impede this policy he is too ready to believe that some "evil" (by which he means "different") influences are at work. Conversely, he is apt to undersimplify, in the sense that he is so appalled by the infinite complexity of the subject that he abandons all hope of understanding it. At its best, this means that he leaves the foreign policy of his country in the hands of those who may be supposed to know its true interests; but at the worst his lack of personal attention or feeling of responsibility creates unfortunate results. He either falls into a general mood of suspicion and displeasure (which tempts him to feel that his own country is virtuous and every other country selfish or debased); or he seeks to take short cuts, adopting patent medicines or falling back upon headline types of opinion such as "Federal Union," "Collective Security" or "America First."

My own experience is that public opinion, or more accurately public instinct, is correct in the end; but since in foreign affairs events move rapidly, whereas opinion in democratic countries moves slowly, an immense advantage of manœuvre and initiative is accorded to the totalitarian countries where public opinion can, at least in the initial stages, be ignored. The lag between the time when the expert reaches a reasoned conviction and the time when the ordinary citizen feels ready to adopt an attitude is not always compensated for by the fact that popular backing provides added force in the end. The lag can be reduced somewhat by education and information; but the difficulty must always remain that in dealing with external affairs statesmen cannot always utter unambiguous warnings without causing dangerous offense abroad. For this reason leaders in democratic countries should by all means in their power refrain from policies which are difficult to explain openly and in detail. The public understands principles whereas it does not understand manœuvres; and a foreign policy based upon ascertainable and avowable principles is more likely to command the ordinary citizen's consent than one based in any respect upon ingenuity or adventure. Sir Edward Grey was once asked by a young inquirer whether he found it difficult as Foreign Secretary to reconcile his private morality with his public functions. "Well, you see," he said, after a long pause, "I have discovered that to do the right thing is generally the right thing to do." Because I believe that, if for practical reasons only, democratic diplomacy is bound to become more simple, I also believe that it will become more unselfish.

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  • HAROLD NICOLSON, National Labor M. P., formerly in the British diplomatic service; author of "Peacemaking 1919," "Curzon: the Last Phase, 1919-1925," "Diplomacy" and many other works
  • More By Harold Nicolson