I WELCOME this opportunity of describing to careful students of international problems the general trend of Belgium's foreign policy as it has developed since the war. The outstanding characteristic of such an account ought to be preciseness. In my description of negotiations and in my examination of treaties, then, I ought to quote texts, compare them, interpret them and, to some extent, touch on the technique of international law. In view of this care for clarity, the reader will perhaps forgive me if parts of my account are rather dry.

At the end of the war the Belgian Government was faced with a double duty: to find a new basis for the country's security, and to regulate the financial consequences of the war -- reparations, war debts, the monetary crisis.

Before the war the international Statute of Belgium consisted of three treaties signed in London on April 19, 1839: the first between Holland on the one side and Austria, France, Great Britain, Prussia and Russia on the other; the second between Belgium and Holland; the third between Belgium and the five Great Powers mentioned. The treaty between Holland and Belgium determined the frontier between these two countries; Article 7 provided that Belgium should form an independent and perpetually neutral state. The treaty also provided for the status of the rivers, especially the Scheldt. These provisions were guaranteed by the five Great Powers in the third treaty.

The attack of August 1914 destroyed this system. Two guarantors of Belgian neutrality, Germany and Austria-Hungary, violated this neutrality, and another guarantor, Russia, later failed in her engagements. Belgium was forced into the war in spite of the treaties of 1839, and with the aid of her faithful guarantors defended herself against her aggressors.

Would it be necessary, after the war, to restore Belgium's perpetual neutrality? That was one of the most serious problems facing the government that had fled to Le Havre. After most careful study, the Cabinet became convinced that the system of 1839 could not possibly apply, and responsible opinion in Belgium confirmed them in this attitude. Belgian neutrality was a political arrangement of general European interest, founded on the balance of power of the five great states of the time. The system had stood the test of the Franco-Prussian War. But it was now evident that the separation of Europe into two rival groups of Powers had radically changed political perspectives since the beginning of this century, and that the efficacy of the 1839 system in time of crisis was accordingly diminished; as a result it was clear that our country had from that time very little chance of remaining apart in a general war. Could any one dream of reëstablishing the former statute after the war? Obviously, Belgium could not count on the three guarantors who had defaulted; the burden of the guarantee had fallen exclusively on the two faithful guarantors. But this was no longer the régime of 1839, based on the equilibrium of five Great Powers: the old formula had covered an entirely different situation.

In September 1918 the Belgian Government notified France and Great Britain that it believed the restoration of permanent neutrality was impossible because of the new situation in Europe. "The international Statute which Belgium intends to win," it stated, "is complete independence without conditions, whether political, military or economic."

As events had destroyed the principal political clauses of the treaties of 1839 -- that is, the clauses of neutrality and of guarantee -- a general revision of these treaties was desirable. Here was an opportunity to place Belgium's security on new and firmer foundations, in order to prevent a return of the catastrophe that had overtaken her. It was proper also to remedy the disadvantages that experience had shown in the interpretation or application of the treaties of 1839 as regards the economic clauses, especially those relating to river communication with the sea and with the Rhine. As early as the armistice, in fact, the Belgian Government had demanded the revision of these treaties.

Such a revision was ordered by a resolution of the Supreme Council of the Allied and Associated Powers on February 26, 1919. On June 4 a resolution passed by the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Principal Allied and Associated Powers directed a commission, called The Fourteen (composed of representatives of these Powers, as well as of Belgium and Holland), to submit proposals involving neither the transfer of territorial sovereignty nor the creation of international servitude. Belgium and Holland were invited to present their proposals concerning the navigable channels. The result of the conferences to which these proposals gave rise will be described later, when I discuss the present state of the negotiations between Holland and Belgium. The members of the Commission of Fourteen agreed to declare for the annulment of Belgian neutrality, but the conditions and the guarantees of future security were the subject of lengthy discussions that had no definite result.

There emerged from the political negotiations in Paris no new judicial statute to replace that given Belgium in 1839. From January 10, 1920, when the pact of the League of Nations came into force, until the Locarno Treaties came into force, her security was based exclusively on the provisions of the Pact of Geneva.

Belgian public opinion had welcomed with enthusiasm the idea of uniting the nations of the world in a league that would assure the security of its members. And our grateful memory still goes out to the great American who, almost a year before the end of the war, in his memorable address of January 8, 1918, to the American Congress, described the character and aims of the institution that he had conceived of: "A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike." I was one of the committee that drew up the Covenant in Paris in 1919, under the chairmanship of President Wilson. The text of the Covenant is well known; it has been studied and expounded; its real guarantees and its deficiencies have both received attention. I need not recall them here.

The Council of the League of Nations met for the first time in Paris on January 16, 1920. The first Assembly of the League was held in Geneva from November 15 to December 18, 1920. It was a great honor for the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs, the head of the Belgian delegation, to be called on to preside over this first Assembly. I participated in the efforts of the Council to build up a positive foundation for the new institution. The rôle of Belgium never varied throughout; it was always inspired by the wish to create a state of mind which would permit of loyal coöperation, without any mental reservation, among the nations represented at Geneva and to set up a coördinated system of arbitration and of security.

On December 13, 1920, the Assembly approved the statute of the Permanent Court of International Justice, and it came into force the following autumn, after ratification by the majority of the members of the League. On September 25, 1925, Belgium accepted the compulsory jurisdiction of the Court in those juridical disputes mentioned in Article XXXVI of the Statute. The Belgian Government, then, can -- if necessary, by unilateral request -- lay any dispute before the Court, with the exception of legal disputes of ancient standing, provided the defender state has like Belgium recognized the Court's compulsory jurisdiction.

Attempts were made at Geneva to supplement the very substantial guarantees contained in the Pact by new guarantees of a general nature. Unfortunately the members of the League could agree neither on the plan of a treaty of mutual assistance nor on the Protocol of Geneva of 1924, which, while facilitating the declaration of aggression, tended to make impossible differences of opinion in the Council of the League of Nations over disputes submitted to that body. The Fifth Assembly of the League recommended the conclusion of conventions of arbitration and of treaties of mutual security. The first and the most important of these were the Treaties of Locarno; and they were the ones that gave Belgium a new political statute in place of that of 1839.

Of the international accords initialed at Locarno on October 7 and signed in London on December 1, 1925, I shall consider only the two that concern Belgium: the Rhine pact between Germany, Belgium, France, Great Britain and Italy, and the arbitration treaty between Germany and Belgium. In contrast to former alliances, the Locarno Rhine pact is against no state and affords each of the contracting states the same safety. The preamble expresses the wish to give "to all the signatory Powers concerned supplementary guarantees within the framework of the Covenant of the League of Nations and the treaties in force between them." It declares void the treaties of Belgian neutrality. One of its principal results is to substitute a new system in place of the former Belgian neutrality: it gives us the guarantee of France and of Great Britain, and with them, Belgium was particularly happy to note, that of Italy. It is the Rhine pact, accompanied by the treaty of arbitration, which replaces for Belgium the political statute of 1839.

By Article I of the pact all the contracting parties guarantee, individually and collectively, the inviolability of the frontiers between Belgium and Germany, and between Belgium and France, as determined by the Treaty of Versailles; the maintenance of the territorial status quo between these Powers; and the observation of the arrangements of Articles XLII and XLIII in the Treaty of Versailles concerning the demilitarized zone. Germany and Belgium, and also Germany and France, engage (Article II) not to expose themselves to attack or invasion and in no case to resort to war. Finally, by Article III, Germany and Belgium, and Germany and France, undertake to settle their disputes by pacific means.

The Rhine pact, then, constitutes a condemnation of war between the contracting parties. It completes the guarantees of the pact of the League of Nations in two important respects. First, the prohibition of war which it formulates applies even in the eventuality in which the Pact of Geneva admits that armed intervention might be legitimate, namely when, knowing of a conflict, the Council of the League of Nations cannot come to a unanimous agreement (Article XV, paragraph 7). Second, the Rhine pact provides for immediate aid to the victim in case of flagrant violation of these agreements.

By the arbitration treaties signed at Locarno judiciable disputes can, by agreement between the parties, be submitted to a permanent commission of conciliation, and if conciliation fails they must be brought before either a tribunal of arbitration or the Permanent Court of International Justice. Non-judiciable disputes must be submitted to the permanent commission of conciliation and are then brought before the Council of the League of Nations.

It should be noted in passing that the numerous arbitration treaties concluded by Belgium during the past few years establish a method of regulation clearly superior to that of the Locarno arbitration treaties. According to their terms, judiciable disputes are immediately brought before the Permanent Court of International Justice, while non-judiciable disputes must be submitted to an arbitration tribunal; no conflict, whatever its nature, can avoid a peaceful solution.

Finally, realizing a hope that mankind had cherished in vain for centuries, the General Pact for the Renunciation of War, signed in Paris on August 27, 1928, has for the first time outlawed war. The gratitude of the world is due to the men who first conceived this great act -- to M. Briand, the author of a plan for a Franco-American pact of perpetual friendship, and Mr. Kellogg, who proposed a multilateral pact between the principal Powers, to which all states would be invited to adhere. Belgium was among the first fourteen signatories of the Pact of Paris.

The terms of the pact are well known. The Belgian Government was pleased that the pact maintained the rights and obligations growing out of the Covenant of the League and the Locarno treaties, which, as I have said, constitute the fundamental guarantees of Belgian security. A commission is busy in Geneva attempting to bring the League Covenant into harmony with the Pact of Paris, by amending Article XV, paragraph 7, and also Article XII, in order that recourse to war can no longer, under any circumstances, be considered legitimate under the terms of the Geneva Covenant.

Since Locarno, then, the security of Belgium has a new basis. But, as I said above, the revision of the 1839 treaties ought to include also their economic clauses, especially those concerning river communications with the sea and with the Rhine.[i] This revision gave rise to negotiations with the Dutch Government which are still under way.

In accordance with the resolution of the Principal Allied and Associated Powers on June 4, 1919, the Commission of Fourteen invited Belgium and Holland to present proposals regarding the régime of the navigable channels. After nine months of negotiation the Belgian and Dutch delegations agreed on a rough draft of an economic treaty. The proceedings were interrupted by a dispute that came up unexpectedly between the two governments concerning the sovereignty of the Wielingen Channel, which gives access to the Scheldt and, being almost entirely within three miles of the coast, constitutes part of Belgian territorial waters. Four years later the two governments decided that it would be enough, when the time came to sign the treaty, to renew the reservations of sovereignty repeatedly formulated by them during the nineteenth century.

Negotiations were renewed after I had talked in Geneva in September 1924 with M. de Karnebeek, Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, and on April 3, 1925, M. de Karnebeek and I signed, at The Hague, the "treaty revising the treaty signed in London April 19, 1839." The treaty included a political clause (Article 1), by which the contracting parties recognized the abrogation of Article 7 of the Treaty of London which established Belgium's neutrality, and also (Article 14) the stipulation that Antwerp should be a commercial port only.

The economic clauses of the new treaty met the wishes of the Belgian Government by assuring the navigability of the Scheldt at all times and also by creating rapid and certain communication by Dutch waters between Antwerp and the Rhine. The principle was laid down that the lower Scheldt between Antwerp and the sea ought always to be ready to handle the traffic resulting from ship building and increasing navigation. An administrative commission was to draw up rules covering all the details connected with navigation, and it was decided that in case of disagreement between its members or between the two governments the dispute was to be brought before a commission of arbitration. The Dutch Government had previously closed the two branches of the western Scheldt by which ships proceeded from Antwerp to the Rhine, and had replaced them by canals. We considered the facilities offered by these canals as insufficient; accordingly, the treaty provided for the construction on Dutch territory of a waterway from the docks of Antwerp to the Hollandsch Diep near Moerdijk (the projected Moerdijk Canal). Further, it provided for the construction of a canal from Antwerp direct to the Rhine, across Dutch Limbourg. The Belgian Government agreed to complete and improve water communications from Rotterdam to the Meuse and the Moselle.[ii]

The treaty was approved by the Second Chamber of the Dutch States-General by the feeble majority of three votes. It was defeated in the First Chamber by two-thirds, principally because of the opposition of Dutch commercial and maritime bodies, which believed their interests endangered. This defeat came as a shock to Belgium. Negotiations have subsequently been resumed, but so far without issue.[iii]

Belgium insists upon the establishment of good communications between Antwerp and the Rhine as an essential factor in her prosperity. Holland also is interested in ending a dispute which has dragged on so long, so as to make possible neighborly and intimate economic coöperation. I am sure that eventually the negotiations will lead to an understanding. There are many economic bonds between the two countries, and an agreement would be of benefit to Europe in general.

I ought at this point to say a few words about the economic and financial policy of the Belgian Government. On their return to Belgium after the armistice, the King and the government found the countryside devastated, cities and villages destroyed, industrial plants ruined. Reconstruction and reorganization called for the most strenuous efforts, and as she was without immediate resources of her own Belgium had to have recourse to loans. Furthermore, the government had to redeem at par the 6 billions of marks (71/2 billion francs) that the Germans had introduced into circulation during the occupation; this action alone resulted in an inflation of 5 billion francs. The Belgian currency of course depreciated still further subsequently. It was impossible either to set up regular budgets or to stabilize the currency unless it was known what Belgium was to receive in reparations.

Belgian statesmen and financiers played an important rôle -- sometimes even a preponderant one -- in the settlement of the reparations question, both at the conference at London in August 1924, when the Dawes Plan was adopted, and at The Hague in August 1929 and January 1930, when the Young Plan was adopted. I ought particularly to underline the part played in that second conference by M. Henri Jaspar, the Belgian Prime Minister, who was chosen president because of the confidence he inspired in all the delegations; he acted as mediator and conciliator in the settlement of many delicate points.

Between the adoption of the Dawes Plan and the adoption of the Young Plan, Belgium succeeded in consolidating her foreign debts. Article 232 of the Treaty of Versailles substituted Germany for Belgium in the matter of the debts contracted by Belgium with the Allied and Associated Powers up to November 11, 1918. Belgium was also freed of her war debts to France and Great Britain. But this was not true of her war debt to the United States, since that country did not sign the Treaty of Versailles. This debt was arranged on equitable terms by the agreement of August 18, 1925. On December 31, 1925, Belgium also arranged her post-war debt and her Belgian Congo debt to Great Britain.

The Belgian Government was now in a position to stabilize the franc. This was brought about in October 1926 as a result of energetic measures (notably the forced consolidation of the floating debt) and thanks to a foreign loan of 3 million dollars. Finally, by an arrangement of July 13, 1925, which came into force at the same time as the Young Plan, Germany agreed to a partial indemnity to Belgium for the cost of having had to redeem the German marks.

But it was not enough to repair the losses directly due to the war; it was also necessary to reëstablish the interrupted exchange of goods between Belgium and foreign countries. Belgium today cannot live without foreign markets. A century ago agriculture still dominated our economic life, and even last year our agricultural products were valued at almost 23 billion francs. But the use of machinery and the wealth of our coal deposits have now given the preponderance to industry.

Belgian industry formerly found inside the country itself the greater part of the raw material which it needed. But that is no longer the case. We now buy from abroad enormous quantities of iron, zinc, copper, wool, flax, cotton, hemp, jute, hides, wood, etc. More and more we have to import to make up the deficiency in our coal production. Furthermore, we have to import a large part of our food supply. It used also to be the case that Belgian industry found its principal markets within our own national boundaries; a century ago our exports hardly amounted to 100 million francs a year. But in 1929 our exports amounted to 32 billion francs, corresponding to 4½ billion pre-war francs.

The characteristic of Belgium's economic position today, then, is her dependence on foreign countries -- dependence with regard to food supply and raw materials, with regard to markets where her surplus production can find an opening, and also with regard to openings for her capital, which seeks a remunerative return abroad.

I have said enough, I hope, to explain the conditions of our prosperity and the direction of our economic policy. Being a small country, tributary to foreign countries for food supplies and raw materials, we should continue to produce cheaply. This implies a liberal customs policy; our products, which surpass our own needs, must be sold in foreign markets; this in turn implies that it is of the utmost importance for us to obtain admittance to foreign markets and to build up a régime of equality.

Unfortunately, at the very moment when Belgian industry and commerce were suffering from the effects of a crisis common to most of the countries of the world, new difficulties appeared, new protectionist measures abroad caused us the deepest anxiety. We cannot but fear, notably, that the new American tariff which went into effect on June 18 will result in great losses to our commerce. The effect of the revision carried through by the American Congress is to raise the average level of the tariff from 38.10 percent to 48.92 percent for agricultural products and from 31.02 percent to 34.31 percent for industrial products. Obviously, such high duties set up barriers that are very difficult to surmount.

In the sphere of world economics the Belgian Government has always been progressive. This was illustrated by the attitude of the Belgian delegations at the international economic conference in Geneva in 1927 and at the conference on concerted economic action in 1930. At the former conference Belgium supported the declaration that a nation's tariff policy is not of interest to that nation only, but that it has a decided interest for the entire world. This first recognition of the interdependent character of the tariff policies of individual states has just been confirmed by the discussions, both at the tenth Assembly of the League of Nations and at the recent conference on economic coöperation, arising out of the project for a tariff truce and the ensuing Commercial Convention of March 24, 1930. I have just succeeded in securing the Belgian Parliament's approval of this convention; Belgium will be the second Power to ratify it.

I should like also to mention the convention of July 25, 1921, which establishes an economic union between Belgium and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg; these two neighboring countries now form a single tariff territory. The treaty binds together more tightly than ever two peoples who were already united by a loyal friendship of long standing; it is one of the most happy events of the post-war years.

The account which I have given shows the international position of Belgium today. No nation is more attached to peace. For the past ten years she has taken an important part in every movement aimed at assisting the peoples of different nationalities to know one another better in order to understand one another better, to coöperate in the development of general prosperity, to settle their inevitable difficulties by conciliation and arbitration, and to establish their security on firmer foundations. Nor has she spared herself any effort, within her means, to facilitate the task of institutions destined to maintain peace, especially the League of Nations. Her foreign policy will continue to be inspired completely by the spirit of the Covenant.

As long as her security does not rest on positive and practical guarantees, Belgium owes it to herself, as she owes it to her international engagements, to take the necessary steps for the defense of her territory and of her independence. Her government will omit nothing to assure that security, for without it attempts at collective coöperation are vain. But this anxiety does not in the least weaken her hope of seeing finally set up a régime of brotherhood and justice. She will always coöperate towards the realization of the great ideal of world peace, which must animate every high-minded individual and every civilized people.

[i] Cf. "The Scheldt Dispute," by Robert H. George, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, Vol. 6, No. 1, pp. 155--157. (Editorial Note).

[ii] By a treaty signed May 22, 1926, Belgium, France, Great Britain and Holland agreed that the treaty of April 3, 1925, between Belgium and Holland involved the annulment of the treaties of April 19, 1839.

[iii] Both Governments have set forth their positions in official notes, the texts of which may be found in the Gray Book published July 1, 1929, by the Belgian Government.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • PAUL HYMANS, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belgium at the present time, and also 1918--20 and 1924--25; principal Belgian plenipotentiary at the Paris Peace Conference
  • More By Paul Hymans