The Global Zeitenwende
How to Avoid a New Cold War in a Multipolar Era
THERE is one subject in the field of our international relations on which all Americans are in agreement. We wish to keep out of war. We are somewhat vague as to how this is to be accomplished, and divergence of opinion immediately arises when we discuss the form our insurance against war should take. Also, we are too apt to jump to the conclusion that our aims can be achieved without much thought or planning on our part. Quickly forgetful both of the immediate past and of the lessons of history, we assume that we blundered into our wars largely because of the mistakes of our leaders. We are tempted to believe that the World War finally taught us a lesson, that we have achieved a kind of immunity from war as the result of our disillusionment over that experience and its effect upon our domestic and international relations. Finally, we assume that, with proper respect for the rules of neutrality, we can without much difficulty keep in the straight and narrow path of peace.
The facts hardly justify any such complacency. The country was certainly as peacefully-minded in 1914 as it is today. Further, our whole past history shows that the American people, even more than many other peoples, have those temperamental qualities which make it particularly easy for the war fever to spread as an epidemic in the face of provocation. In the past we have engaged in our share of wars, and more, and in most instances not because war was brought to our own shores but because we were goaded into making war outside of our territorial limits.
If the situation is looked at abstractly, it is true that no country is better situated than the United States to keep out of war. It is almost inconceivable that anyone will attack us as long as we maintain the present policy of adequate defense at sea. Unfortunately, however, this is only a very superficial view. The interests of the United States are not territorial -- they are worldwide. Our citizens reside, have property interests, and carry on business in and with every country of the world. The maintenance of our place in foreign markets and our access to these markets has always been considered an important element of our foreign policy and essential to our prosperity. So long as we show any disposition to protect our foreign trade and our citizens, or to defend our manifold interests abroad, which are both material and sentimental, the outbreak of a major conflict will bring the United States face to face with the same problems we met in the past, both in the period 1807 to 1812 and before we entered the World War.
It is therefore high time to consider what progress we may have made in the last fifteen years, or what program we have for the immediate future, which would give us greater immunity from future than we have had from past wars. Despite the cynics, something real and substantial has been accomplished toward the organization of peace during the last fifteen years. We see only the troubles which have occurred despite such institutions as the League of Nations and such agreements as Locarno and the Kellogg-Briand Pact. We cannot estimate the troubles we might have had without these agreements. At the same time, we know only too well that the peace machinery has not been perfected, and consequently it is of vital importance to consider now whether any preparation could be made to help keep us out of war in the event of the breakdown of that machinery.
The ancient formula Si vis pacem, para bellum can hardly give us much comfort. The days of a Roman peace when one Power imposed its will on the civilized world by force of arms are over. Certainly the United States does not aspire to any such rôle and has long adhered to the policy of providing only for its own defense and not the conduct of hostilities abroad. Tempting as it might appear in theory, the often-suggested program of a peace insured by the Anglo-Saxon peoples is not within the range of practicable politics. If we sincerely wish peace for ourselves, we are therefore thrown back on a policy which should include first of all the element of coöperation with other Powers who have the same interest and ideals as ourselves in the maintenance of the peace and, if these efforts fail and the peace is broken, we should prepare ourselves for that course of conduct which holds out the best prospects of keeping us from being drawn into the war.
If the United States could be sure of effectively maintaining a policy of neutrality, this would furnish the solution. From the domestic point of view, our position, as long as we are able to remain a neutral, while difficult and embarrassing, would not necessarily be a disastrous one. It is true that during the period of neutrality in the World War our commerce was interfered with and the lives of our citizens abroad were jeopardized. On the other hand, certain of our industries flourished and we were then powerful enough as a nation to prevent that total disregard of our rights which drove the country to desperation prior to the War of 1812. If we could with honor have kept out of the World War we might have emerged with a strong economic and financial position and enhanced power in world affairs. This is, however, a shortsighted point of view. It does not take into account that the ultimate effect of the World War by impoverishing other nations eventually impoverished us through the destruction of foreign purchasing power and international trade.
The real question, however, is not the economic or social results of a policy of neutrality but whether the United States can remain a neutral in the event of future wars. There should be no insuperable difficulty in remaining neutral in the event of a conflict which does not involve any of the major sea Powers, or which is of brief duration. In particular, if there is a war in the Atlantic-Europe area, and England is not involved in this war, we would probably find that the interests of the United States and of England in maintaining trade would be somewhat similar. In such a situation, without too great risk of becoming involved we might be able to win respect for the so-called traditional rules of neutrality, and continue our trade. We would likewise have the same general interest as the British in protecting our nationals and our interests in the area of conflict. On the other hand, in any major war in the Atlantic in which England is engaged, or in a war in the Pacific involving Japan, our position would be very different and the difficulty of affording effective protection to our nationals or to our interests in the war area would be great. Further, if in any such conflict we attempted to follow out the so-called traditional policy of neutrality as expressed in our correspondence during the period prior to our entry into the European conflict in 1917, and as developed more than a hundred years before, we would again risk becoming involved in war with one or the other of the belligerents.
This view of our position as a neutral is not based on theory; it represents conclusions forced upon us by our experience in the period 1807 to 1812 and again prior to 1917. On both of these occasions the country was fortunate in having leaders who were not only popular and powerful but who were also passionately devoted to the cause of peace and whose one aim was to keep us out of war. Each started out to accomplish this purpose by a rigorous neutrality: the type of neutrality which countless numbers of unthinking Americans today believe would be a panacea for future trouble. Jefferson left office under a storm of popular disapproval caused by the measures he had taken in the hope of maintaining our neutrality, only to see his successor forced into war a few years later. Woodrow Wilson, after a determined effort to maintain a strict neutrality, turned to preparedness and what might have led to an attempt at armed neutrality, if war had not come in the midst of this second phase.
Such has been our experience in the past. It brings us face to face with the problem as to our attitude for the future. In the case of major conflict, to what extent should we go to protect our overseas interests, our overseas trade, and our nationals abroad? If we were prepared to extend no protection, that fact would certainly help to keep us from becoming involved. This in effect would mean a policy of non-intercourse with the belligerents. We would then "batten down the hatches" and wait until the storm had blown over. It is futile to discuss any such fantastic hypothesis, for the American people would never be willing to do anything of this kind. In the first place, our people at the outset of a war would see no need for so extreme a position, and would undoubtedly exercise effective political pressure to prevent a prohibition of their normal course of business. We would not foresee at the outbreak of war all the complications which would result from continuing our commercial activities. Each trader would see only his particular cargo, would weigh the possibilities of getting it through safely, and would clamor to take the gamble.
But even if we should ever again start out with a policy of non-intercourse, as we did in 1807, we would soon abandon it or it would fall by the wayside through our inability to enforce it. Further, this would still leave us with the problem of protecting our citizens on the seas and in the area rendered dangerous by the action of the belligerents under the conditions of modern warfare. It is inconceivable that as soon as a war broke out we would attempt to prevent our citizens from travelling abroad, and even if we should do so we would have no means of repatriating thousands who are living abroad. The suggestion that we should automatically withdraw all protection from our citizens because they venture within the danger zone of war has been greeted in the past with a storm of popular disapproval, and the same would probably be true in the future.
Non-intercourse is impracticable; isolation is impossible; and the particular type of neutrality to which the United States is now more or less committed by law and by practice has not in the past furnished any solid basis for a national policy in case of a world crisis. This is the situation as it appears today. It forces to our attention the urgent necessity of considering how our policy can be shaped so as to give us some further measure of protection in the event of war.
In a striking article in the issue of FOREIGN AFFAIRS for April 1934, entitled "Troubles of a Neutral," Mr. Charles Warren has demonstrated the fallacy of reliance upon the so-called neutral rights which have not been admitted by belligerents in the past and give us no sure basis for enforcing respect for our nationals, our trade, or our foreign interests in the future. From the point of view of avoiding a conflict, if that rather than the protection of our interests is our primary aim, our neutrality policy is subject to criticism from two angles. In the first place, we tend to be committed by our past policy to support our nationals in maintaining trade and in carrying on their normal activities in belligerent areas to an extent that is likely to bring us into conflict with the belligerents; and, in the second place, we permit belligerents too many liberties on our own territory. Both these conclusions have been effectively brought out by Mr. Warren. If we wish to build up a policy which might be of some value in keeping us out of war, our neutrality laws should be made more stringent, both to prevent the belligerents from activities on our territory which might inflame our own people and to restrain our own nationals from becoming too deeply involved in the cause of either.
In the event of a war involving a great sea Power in a life or death struggle, that Power would most certainly take all possible steps to prevent any substantial aid, whether contraband or non-contraband, from reaching its enemy, unless it was persuaded that the neutral Powers were prepared to fight to maintain this trade. In the latter event, the belligerent would weigh the relative risks of incurring the enmity of a neutral as against the importance to it of preventing the trade. Certainly in this situation any neutral which makes the maintenance of its trade a matter of national honor or prestige would run the risk of becoming involved in the war. The safer course of action for us in this situation would be to make clear both to our own nationals and to the belligerents that, without admitting the right to interfere with our legitimate trade, we would make illegal interference with such trade a basis for a claim for money damages, and keep the issue a pecuniary one rather than a question of national honor. This, of course, is much easier said than done, and the inherent disadvantage of any such policy is that if we relieve the belligerents of the fear of our intervention, the result would probably be that they would play fast and loose with our trade. The smaller neutrals, caught between the Allies and the Central Powers, found it expedient during the World War to take a very limited view of their neutral rights.
Even if this presents a possible attitude toward trade and property rights, it is more difficult to deal with the protection of the lives of American citizens on this basis. Property damage can be measured in money, but not loss of life. Some steps could be taken to deal with the situation where our nationals in an unnecessary and foolhardy manner risk their lives, so that such risk should remain personal and not one involving the honor and the prestige of the United States. It is already the law that if our nationals enlist in belligerent armies they assume the risk of their action. If our nationals propose to travel indiscriminately on ships laden with munitions for belligerents, or in the war zones, or engage in other activities of this general nature, it is fair to ask whether our government is bound to consider that any harm which befalls them involves the honor of the United States. It is one thing if a foreign government deliberately sets out to attack American nationals. It is different if American nationals voluntarily put themselves in a position where they suffer as result of action primarily directed against one of the belligerents. We did not go to war over the Lusitania, despite the popular demand in the East; and the fundamental reason why we did not go to war then was because this act was not primarily directed against American citizens. Their death was incidental to a blow struck at one of the belligerents. On the other hand, we did go to war following the declaration of the unrestricted submarine warfare, because that warfare was directed indiscriminately against all who ventured within the forbidden area except on the terms prescribed by Germany.
As the situation stands today, the United States is quite free not only to revise its domestic neutrality laws, but also to readjust its conception of its policy as a neutral. Our citizens are not interested in the technicalities of the question. When the man in the street refers to the necessity of maintaining neutrality, all that he means is that the United States should avoid being drawn into war. He is not primarily interested in the enforcement of any particular body of neutral rights, or in any particular code of neutral obligations. Of course, after war once breaks out, and our citizens see rich opportunities for profit unless they are restricted by our national laws, they object to the imposition of prohibitions at that time. In time of peace, however, our public could probably be brought to acquiesce in the formulation of a new national policy of neutrality and a stringent revision of our neutrality laws, if they had any assurance that these steps would help to any real extent in preventing us from becoming involved in war.
If this is a fair analysis of our problems as a neutral, the following conclusions might be drawn:
First: Our traditional policy of neutrality is possibly adequate to meet our problems in the case of a war which does not involve the major sea Powers of Europe or of the Far East, or which could be localized in those areas.
Second: In the case of the two major conflicts in Europe since our independence, namely, the Napoleonic Wars and the World War, we were forced to abandon our neutrality. There is no reason to believe that the situation would be different in the future in the face of any like catastrophe. The practical difficulties of our position as a neutral would be greater today than ever before because we might be faced with Far Eastern as well as European complications and because modern war would mean a much greater dislocation of our manifold interests than was the case in 1807-1812 or even in 1914. To balance against these added difficulties of our position as a present-day neutral, we have our enhanced strength and prestige as a World Power which any belligerent or group of belligerents would be reluctant to provoke.
Third: In the event of a prolonged and general conflict in Europe or in the Far East, the prospects of keeping out of war might be increased by a modification of our past attitude toward so-called neutral rights and a decision on our part that the danger of war involved in the defense of all such alleged rights was too great to justify the maintenance of our traditional position in this regard. Whether such an attitude is consistent with our national dignity and honor, or with our position as a World Power, is a serious question. It is easy to foresee circumstances where the sacrifice involved would be too high a price even for peace, and the temper of the American people is such that they would probably reject such a policy if carried to any extreme.
Fourth: Without abandoning the protection of our foreign interests in case of war, we could somewhat improve our position and somewhat lessen the danger of becoming involved in war by a thorough-going revision of our neutrality laws. This must be viewed as an added insurance, but is far from being a measure of complete protection against war.
The time to weigh these problems and to start shaping our policy is now rather than after war has broken out. At that time we are too deeply engaged in dealing with particular incidents as they arise to be able to formulate a policy. Further, any revision of our neutrality laws becomes increasingly difficult after war breaks out, as any change in existing laws under the particular conditions might be deemed to prejudice the position of one or the other of the belligerents.
If it is correct that no conception of a neutrality policy which has any prospect of being adopted by the United States would give us satisfactory assurance against being involved in war, there is certainly every reason, on the ground of self-interest, to reëxamine our policy of coöperation for the better organization of the peace machinery. Programs of this character are often attacked as altruistic gestures, involving serious risk to ourselves with no commensurate advantages. If, however, a major conflict -- and any minor conflict in almost any part of the world may develop into a major conflict -- involves the serious risk of forcing us to choose between abandoning our interests or intervening in the war, we would be justified, from the point of view of self-interest alone, in taking what has been referred to as the "risks of peace;" that is to say, it would be worth our while to take some risk in collaborating with others in the maintenance of peace if in this way we can prevent a situation from developing which might eventually involve us in war. This is not meddling in what does not concern us. It is merely paying a premium to minimize the risk of war to us.
It has been suggested as consistent with this enlightened view of our own self-interest as well as with many of our treaty engagements that we should consult with other nations for the maintenance of peace, reserving our full freedom of action if such consultation fails. This, however, does not directly bear on a discussion of neutrality. The suggestion has also been made, and here the neutrality question comes in again, that under certain circumstances we should not adopt the same attitude toward both groups of belligerents where one was taking collective action against a treaty-breaking state, and where, for example, we considered that a treaty to which the United States is a party, the Briand-Kellogg Pact for example, had also been violated.
This difference in attitude might be shown in various ways short of engaging in the hostilities. We might embargo munition shipments to one group of belligerents and not to the other. We might close our ports to importations from one group and, as suggested during the Geneva disarmament discussions, we might take the position that the government should not assert the right of our citizens to trade with a treaty-breaking belligerent; that is, trade in such a case would be carried on at the risk of the trader and without expectation of government support. We might also refuse to recognize the results of an aggression.
The threat of any such measures by the United States would be a real factor in the prevention of war. Their actual adoption in case hostilities break out is fraught with difficulties. To distinguish the guilty party from the innocent in order to know when to apply pressure of this nature is, at best, a difficult task. In most cases the United States would probably decline to assume it. In many other cases the Powers primarily concerned might fail to agree among themselves on a common course of action. On the other hand, it is a mistake to condemn a policy solely because it does not represent the easiest course -- which is rarely the safest in the long run -- or because it does not fit all situations. In any emergency where the United States is disposed to lend its influence for the maintenance of peace through frankly stating what its position would be if the peace is broken, this would certainly be a factor in rallying other states more nearly concerned to take timely and effective action for the maintenance of peace. If we assume that wars are to some extent avoidable, certainly the most effective way to prevent them is to give those who propose to embark on a warlike program some clear idea of what attitude they may expect from the rest of the world.
Let us assume, then, that as a result of consultation in time of a world crisis the nations propose a peaceful method of adjustment which is acceptable to all except to one of the threatening belligerents, and that the United States takes the position that if the Power threatening the peace proceeds to war and the other states collectively decide upon measures of prevention, the United States would adopt what, for want of a better term, we might describe as a position of "benevolent neutrality" towards this collective action. Our benevolent neutrality would consist in adopting one or more of the various measures suggested above. Of course, if we did not agree with the judgment rendered or if the collective action against the disturber of the peace did not follow, then there would be no reason to distinguish in any respect between the two opposing belligerents. The same would be true, of course, where both of the parties to the dispute refuse any peaceful settlement. In such a case the other states should certainly consider how far it would be fair and equitable to withhold from both sides certain rights which belligerents in the past have expected to enjoy at the hands of neutrals -- such, for example, as the right to purchase arms. The proposal to embargo arms shipments to both belligerents in the Chaco conflict is an interesting and useful precedent.
A benevolent neutrality would of course involve a modification of our traditional position. Some of our international jurists suggest that it means complete abandonment of neutrality and that, to adopt the words of John Quincy Adams, neutrality must recognize the cause of both parties to the conflict as just -- that is, avoid all consideration of the merits of the contest.
We should not mislead ourselves, however, to believe that neutrality in the legal sense necessarily leaves us in a position of real impartiality as between the belligerents. Our Government can, of course, remain impartial in the sense that it would enforce the laws equally with respect to the belligerents. But if either our geographical position or the fact that one belligerent controls the seas creates a situation where our citizens send their goods and munitions and money only to one belligerent, our legal neutrality may become rather a hollow sham. In the World War, the Central Powers finally decided that our neutrality was more harmful and hampering to them than our belligerency was likely to be. They badly miscalculated the situation, but it is the type of miscalculation that any belligerent in the heat of war is likely to make.
If we propose to draw any practical conclusions from the Briand-Kellogg Pact, and unless it is to be only a self-denying covenant which loses all effectiveness as soon as violated by others, can we escape the conclusion that the United States as a party to this Pact has the right to draw a distinction between the nations which respect the Pact and the nations which violate it, if such a violation can be established? In the present Far Eastern controversy the nations, including the United States, have taken a position which has been based on a judgment of the merits of the controversy. The fact that hostilities have been carried on without a declaration of war, and hence no questions of neutrality have been raised, does not alter the fact that in connection with these hostilities we have not taken a position of disinterested impartiality.
As a matter of international policy, we can, of course, if we wish, ignore a violation of the Briand-Kellogg Pact. We are not obliged to show resentment because others violate their obligations towards us. It is enlightened self-interest which should be the test of our action. It is this which should determine our course in the face of a threat to the peace and our policy as a neutral if war breaks out.
It is impossible to determine in the abstract where in a given state of facts this policy of enlightened self-interest would lead us. Different situations call for different remedies. In one case a traditional neutrality might suffice; in another, it might be necessary to fall back on a neutrality which laid emphasis upon avoiding conflict rather than upon enforcing or exercising all our rights or what we may believe to be our rights; and finally, there may be situations when the boldest course would be the safest, when our collaboration with others for the preservation or the restoration of peace would be the only course which holds out any real hope of preventing a world crisis from developing into a world war in which sooner or later we would probably be driven to intervene.
It would be the part of wisdom to leave the door open to follow whichever course seemed best under the circumstances.
The first course requires no change in our position or in our present laws.
The second would mean that in certain emergencies the President should have the power under permissive legislation, to be passed now, to put into effect further neutrality measures and to regulate our trade with the belligerents and other neutrals. One group of such regulations might provide for a measure of collaboration with other Powers in preventing aid -- for example, munition shipments, loans, etc. -- from reaching all belligerents; another group of regulations should be drafted to be put into effect only when hostilities reach a point where the attempt to protect our overseas trade and our interests abroad in the traditional manner was likely to force our intervention and where a policy of limited or modified enforcement of our so-called neutral rights would be the safest course. Further, such regulations should be broad enough to permit the President to negotiate with belligerents at the outset of war for an agreement which might help to define neutral rights. Our neutrality policy could in this way be made more flexible so that we could adapt it to the facts of the situation. It is unreasonable to suppose that neutrality regulations which would be quite adequate for a war in the Chaco would suffice to keep us out of trouble if again confronted with a world-wide conflict.
It is a much more difficult task to prepare ourselves for the third alternative course of action, that is, for some measure of collaboration where one of the belligerents has been found responsible for a breach of the peace. As the Far Eastern precedent has shown, the Executive, through the control of foreign relations, can bring the influence of the United States to bear in such a situation to some extent at least. The Executive has the right to consult with other Powers, to give or withhold recognition, and to extend or withdraw protection for our trade and our nationals abroad. Legislation to supplement these existing powers may come when the American people are more keenly aroused to the difficulties and dangers of our past policy of neutrality and more convinced than they are today that our peace and welfare may depend upon our ability and our willingness to make it known to treaty-breaking belligerents that our economic and our financial strength will not be available to help them to wage a war.
At least we should now realize that we cannot find safety solely in avoiding entangling alliances and through a traditional neutrality. There is no thought of any alliances or other types of political understanding which would prejudice our freedom of decision in a given emergency. The fact is, however, that no nation can reach the position of a World Power as we have done without becoming, in fact, entangled in almost every quarter of the globe in one way or another. We are inextricably and inevitably tied into world affairs. We should not delude ourselves that like Perseus of mythology we can put on neutrality as a helmet and render ourselves invisible and immune to a world in conflict around us.