WHEN the world was preparing in 1898 for the first Peace Conference at The Hague, the Norwegian Government put forward as one plank of their country's program a claim to obtain permanent neutrality, this to be formally recognized by all foreign governments. A petition supporting this program was quickly signed by fifty thousand names. Four years later, in 1902, the same claim was unanimously adopted by the Storting. At that time, however, the union with Sweden still prevailed, so that Norway could not carry on an independent foreign policy; and the Government and the Riksdag of Sweden refused to agree with the Norwegian desire. The question therefore did not appear on the agenda of the Hague Conference nor did it attract attention in any of the international discussions of the day. But the program was in keeping with the traditions of Norwegian policy, and it even helped to strengthen Norway in her struggle to take into her own hands the control of her foreign affairs.

It was in those days that the uncrowned king of Norway, the poet-politician Björnstjerne Björnson, put forth the slogan that when the time came for the country to set up an independent foreign office the object of that office ought to be to have no foreign policy at all. Of course, Mr. Björnson, perfect poet though he was, had too much insight in international affairs to propose such a program literally. What he intended was to set himself against the tendency in contemporary politics to seek security by means of military alliances with foreign countries. In fact, there was a current belief at that time -- unfounded, I am inclined to think -- that the Swedish Government (and particularly the King) was striving to bring the two United Kingdoms into a defensive alliance with Germany. What Björnson wanted for Norway was absolute neutrality. He wanted her not to take sides in the formation of opposite blocs then proceeding in Europe, and so to keep clear of all political rivalries. He had made himself the champion of the demand for an independent Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs in order to provide his country with an effective instrument for defending such a policy of neutrality, and he clearly understood that this policy had to be accompanied by, or even founded on, constructive action for the formation of a universal peace organization.

This attitude taken at the opening of the century has been basic to all the foreign policies of Norway since that time. I think, moreover, that in essence it is representative of the political aims of every small country in Europe. Historical conditions may have implanted them more deeply in the mind of the Norwegian people than elsewhere. In any case it is an impressive fact that since 1720, that is to say during a period of 216 years, Norway has had but seven years of war; and during the last 122 years no Norwegian soldier has had to fight. It may also be taken into consideration that during several centuries the direction of Norwegian foreign affairs was in the hands of a government situated outside the country, in Denmark or in Sweden. That condition may have influenced the development of the nation in many unfavorable ways; but certainly it helped root out of the Norwegian soul any military ambitions or any aspirations for political domination. Norwegians have set their minds on the honorable achievements of peace; their policy throughout has been and is for peace.

But the maintenance of neutrality in the world of today raises more and more difficult problems. It already required a remarkable measure of prudence and balance for us to escape being drawn into the World War of 1914. You may think of Norway as a country on the periphery of Europe, not directly touched by the waves of European storms; but the fact is that, militarily speaking, it is situated on the border line between Great Britain and Germany, and in addition it has a mercantile marine -- the third or the fourth of the world -- spread over all the seas of both hemispheres, and consequently extremely vulnerable in all cases of disturbance. Finally, since the peace of 1919 one can hardly think of any country as being peripheric. All European countries have been brought into the political unity created by the League. That means a change of the whole notion of neutrality; the problem of remaining neutral has not only become more difficult than it was formerly, it has become quite different.

In the last Assembly of the League of Nations, on September 28, 1936, the first delegate of the Soviet Union, Mr. Litvinoff, spoke with some harshness, even contempt, of the countries which in face of the dangers of war threatening from aggressive Powers "strove to seek salvation in neutrality." He reminded them that the recent lessons of history as to violations even of neutral positions which had been internationally recognized ought to make clear that it was not sufficient to write the word "neutrality" on a frontier. This scoffing tone might have been perfectly justified if the countries to which he alluded were really planning to observe a neutrality in the old sense of the word in case a new war should set the world ablaze. But that sort of neutrality had already become impracticable in essential respects during the World War, and with the organization of the League of Nations it has become absolutely unthinkable.

Professor Shotwell has recently pointed out[i] the complete reversal of the old ideas of neutrality internationally recognized by the Declaration of Paris of 1856. At that date the rights of neutrals were defined as the privilege of maintaining commerce with both parties in a war. During the war of 1914-1918 the neutral nations found out that this privilege was put under severe restrictions. And the Covenant of the League of Nations definitely put an end to it by laying down the quite opposite rule that all the members of the League had the duty to sever all commercial and other relations with an aggressor. That was the end of neutrality as formerly conceived. Now all League members are bound to come to the assistance of the nation recognized as having been unjustly attacked, inasmuch as they would be allowed to maintain their commerce only with this party.

Since 1919, then, the problem of neutrality is exclusively a military one. But as such it still exists. Originally, by the first draft of the Covenant, the victorious Powers of the World War had intended to bind all members of the League to participate in military coercive measures, later better known as "military sanctions," against the aggressor state. But the Scandinavian governments in particular protested against the imposition of new military duties, and the final form of Article 16 of the Covenant left the decision as to the application of military sanctions to the judgment of each government. One might say that such was the case even as regards the adoption of commercial sanctions, as the said article provided for no kind of common action but left all initiative and responsibility with the individual members. In fact, however, no government could think of adopting commercial sanctions entirely independently; such action must usually be doomed to be ineffective. On the only occasion when there was a manifest desire to put measures of this character into effect, the Assembly of the League made haste to create a common organ of deliberation, a "Committee of Coördination." On the other hand, military sanctions might easily be imagined as independent actions; their efficacy would simply depend on the power of the governments resorting to such action, so that each nation's liberty in this respect would appear to be quite real.

Switzerland reserved her neutrality from the moment she entered the League of Nations; and she even succeeded in obtaining recognition of a limitation of her obligations in regard to commercial sanctions when, for the first time, they were brought into play in the Ethiopian conflict. The idea of such a limitation was put forward by the Scandinavian governments during the first years of the League's existence. Indeed, they succeeded in having it included in the Geneva Protocol of 1924, Article 11 of which introduced the idea that the geographical situation of each country should be considered when enforcing sanctions. I think I am right in saying that Denmark in particular was strongly interested in seeing this limitation recognized.

The deliberations over the Protocol afforded at the same time the only extensive discussion that has taken place inside the League of Nations about the military duties of its members. Conflicting views were expressed. Some delegates asserted that all members of the League were obliged, or ought to be obliged, to participate even in military sanctions. But the delegates of the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands firmly maintained that only by their voluntary decision might they become parties to military actions on behalf of the League. In the end their contention was upheld by the Assembly, the Protocol formally stating that each member was pledged to coöperate in the execution of sanctions only in so far as its particular conditions allowed.

As the Geneva Protocol was never ratified it is not legally binding. The problem involved may therefore be said not to have received any formal solution. But the Powers which then defended their liberty of judgment regarding the use of military sanctions have asserted it with unalterable determination ever since. Only recently (July 1, 1936) the Foreign Ministers of all the northern countries, Finland included, meeting in Geneva with those of Spain, the Netherlands and Switzerland, published a common declaration to the effect that so long as the Covenant of the League of Nations was applied in a defective and inconsistent way they had to take this fact into account in applying the article regarding sanctions. In particular, they pointed to the non-fulfilment of the engagement to disarm, thus emphasizing the existence of a close connection between the general limitation of armaments foreseen by the Covenant and the obligation to apply coercive measures against an offender. The conclusion would be that if all the provisions of the Covenant were to be carried into full effect, the small nations named would be willing to fulfil all the duties foreseen therein, but that until such time they were reserving their power of free decision.

Now, all this may hold good as an interpretation of the Covenant, and in theory it seems unobjectionable. But the question involved is not exclusively, perhaps not primarily, a theoretical one. Of course, it would be of great importance to the said Powers to be able to prove that their attitude was consistent with the Covenant if at a given moment they should have to refuse to coöperate in military measures. But in the event that sanctions were adopted and applied by the League of Nations in order to stop a war, facts might be stronger than theories, and there always will be a chance that one might be drawn into the war against one's own wish and will. This possibility is even foreseen in a particular provision of the Covenant of the League, which prescribes that the members of the League are obliged to support one another mutually "in resisting any special measures aimed at one of their members by the Covenant-breaking State." The practical implication of this provision was brought to the attention of a certain number of the League governments when, in the autumn of 1935, Great Britain addressed herself to all the Mediterranean countries and their allies, asking them to declare whether they were ready to come to the assistance of the British fleet in the Mediterranean if in the fulfilment of its duties in enforcing sanctions it were attacked by Italy. Almost all the governments so addressed declared their readiness to act in accord with their obligations under the Covenant; and some governments even thought it their duty to give a similar declaration spontaneously. None of them was called upon to take action in execution of their promise, because Italy did not attack Great Britain. Certainly such an act on the part of the nation hit by sanctions might have led to a general war, involving even the small Powers.

During the Ethiopian war it was very often said by the opponents of sanctions that even purely economic sanctions involved a danger of war for the participants, and this was made an argument for withdrawing from the League of Nations. If now we are entitled to draw a conclusion from the experiences of this war (the only experiment, so far, with sanctions), we are forced to state that economic sanctions do not necessarily lead to war. But it must be added at once that the experiences of the Ethiopian war do not furnish sufficient proofs in this respect, chiefly because the sanctions applied were relatively weak ones, falling far short of the measures presupposed by the Covenant. Further, one of the parties in the war, the nation which was the object of aggression and which was to be helped by the sanctions, was by its geographical situation so completely cut off from the outside world that no assistance could reach it. For that reason any collision between the aggressor and the sanctionist Powers was virtually precluded. The danger of military encounters might otherwise have been considerable, and a small country like Norway, which sends her ships all over the world, might have been at least as much exposed to the danger as any of the big nations.

Actually, recent developments seem to have a tendency to make wars more likely to become universal than ever before. We may discern this tendency clearly in what is going on in Spain. The Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Señor Alvarez del Vayo, representing his government at the last Assembly of the League of Nations, formulated his conception of future wars in his speech of September 25. "The era of national wars," he said, "the classic form of war by the attack of one state upon another, is steadily vanishing. The war of the future, although it may assume the appearance of a conflict between two States, will, in fact, be a conflict, a collision, a clash in the drama of history, between two ideologies, two mentalities, two different conceptions of life. Just as in the Europe of the sixteenth century men took sides and fought for two religious ideals -- Catholicism and Protestantism -- so today men may be said to be divided by two political ideals -- democracy and oppression." Possibly others would prefer to define the opposed ideals by other words, for instance, Communism and Fascism. But that does not matter in the present connection. What is important is the conception of wars of opposed ideologies. Manifestly the civil war in Spain has ranged peoples on opposite sides in accordance with their political sympathies, thus continuing, in fact, the movement started by the Russian Revolution.

In such a war, neutrality in the old sense is impossible. The authorities may agree to keep hands off, at least so far as military assistance to any of the parties is concerned. As the events have demonstrated, even such a limited neutrality is very difficult to maintain, and the mutual charges about violations of the non-intervention agreement have come perilously near to disturbing the general peace. But apart from the official authorities and regardless of their admonitions, popular sympathy has found ways of expressing itself by acts of assistance in a large number of countries. In particular, the representatives of the working classes have formulated strong demands for the abandonment of neutrality, which, to them, appears as a "fake neutrality."

Nobody can conceal from himself the fact that the same classes of society which now oppose the nationalist insurgence in Spain are identifying dictatorship with war. They believe, and think they have strong reasons for believing, that Fascism in Italy and Naziism in Germany are fostering a mentality that almost inevitably will lead to war. They see no possibility of maintaining neutrality toward such political systems and they want to arm themselves against them. Perhaps the most notable event resulting from this current of opinion was the resolution adopted on October 6 last, by the British Labor Party -- against a strong minority it is true -- in favor of rearmament. This remarkable change of policy on the part of British labor was expressly based upon "the threatening attitude of dictatorships, which are increasing their armaments at an unprecedented rate, flouting international law and refusing to coöperate in the work of organizing peace." On the other hand, we hear the representatives of dictatorial countries demanding the union of all nations which want to maintain what they call the principles of capitalism in a struggle against "Marxist revolution." The very first words, of the new German Ambassador to England, Herr von Ribbentrop, arriving there at the end of October, contained a warning of the danger of Communism, resistance to which he described as being in the nearest interest of both countries.

Even amongst the small nations we can observe a tendency towards a division along similar political and social lines, and an increasing willingness even to go to war to defend certain political ideals. But in these smaller countries any such desires are allayed by their sense of military insignificance. In fact, many of them have had to admit to themselves that they would hardly be able to defend their own independence in a war with one of the greater Powers. How, then, could they think of plunging into foreign wars, even for the noblest of causes? If they want to give their support to what they think is the cause of justice, then they will have to find other means for acting than military power.

At the present moment, then, the will to keep out of war prevails in all the small countries. We have just seen it illustrated by the speech made by the King of the Belgians on October 14 last. People who had not observed the trend of Belgian politics very closely were surprised by the royal announcement, and several newspapers (some of them motivated by considerations of party politics) tried to give it a misleading and sensationalist color. As a matter of fact, it was the natural outcome of the changes in European politics effected by the German denunciation of the Locarno Treaties last spring. That act struck hardest at Belgium, laying bare its eastern frontier. Since that event, the Belgian Government has been forced to reconsider the country's position, and for a couple of months in advance of the King's speech it had been clear that they contemplated abandoning their alliance with France and reverting more or less to their prewar policy. This was really the purport of the proclamation of October 14. It did not and it could not mean a reversal to the old neutrality; there was no idea of retiring from the League of Nations or of deserting the duties imposed by the Covenant. But Belgium, like Poland on the other side, could not help realizing the dangers of its situation between two great and hostile Powers. The Locarno Treaties had seemed to remove that danger. Now it presented itself again, even more threatening than before, and the Belgian Government became convinced that the alliance with France, far from averting the danger, might even increase it. "Our policy must solely aim," the King declared, "at placing us outside the quarrels of our neighbors and keeping war from our territory."

Such must be in fact the policy of all small states. Even before the Belgian proclamation there was a rumor about a movement among the smaller European states to form a block -- alluded to as a neutral non-military bloc -- as a counterweight to the major Powers. The increasing prestige and influence of this bloc was seen at the Assembly of the League of Nations this past autumn, when it succeeded in upholding the general principles of international justice as opposed to the considerations of political opportunism urged by most of the great Powers. The events of this Assembly furnish sufficient evidence that the so-called neutral bloc has no idea of abandoning international action in support of universal law. But it is also evident that the small nations so united have no intention of letting themselves be drawn into wars which, in the last resort, might endanger or destroy their own independence. The importance of the Belgian announcement lies in the fact that it signifies Belgium's adherence to the group of states which are determined to resist tendencies to divide Europe and the world into two hostile camps, whether the dividing lines are determined by ideologies or by the competition for power. Such a division would lead fatally to a new universal war.

It must be openly admitted, however, that thus defined the policies of small states inevitably raise a new problem. If the small states declare themselves unwilling or unable to accept military obligations for purposes of international justice or peace, the question arises whether it is safe to leave the military defense of the principles of the League of Nations to the great Powers alone. That seems to be the only alternative. But I think it fair to say that such a delegation of power to a limited group of strongly armed states will awaken much distrust all around in the world. In the various conflicts that have occurred inside the League of Nations we have seen the great Powers acting in furtherance of their own interests. Nobody has a right to reproach them for protecting their interests; every nation has that duty. But it has been disillusioning to the small states to see how often the question of the balance of power has influenced the great nations when they must make decisions regarding the maintenance of international law. This disillusionment accounts to a great extent for the resolution of so many small states not to take any part in military measures, even those destined to defend the general peace.

Today we listen with a certain degree of skepticism when the great Powers talk about the duties of collective security, because we see them using it as a cover for defensive alliances which are uncomfortably similar to the military alliances of prewar days. I would not deny the possibility -- or perhaps even the probability -- that honest purposes of peace lie at the base of such alliances, and if they could be firmly linked up with the essential rules of the League of Nations they might be expected to serve the peace of the world. But when they can embrace only a small number of the great Powers themselves, the dangers they provoke are more apparent than the security they afford.

Generally speaking, a small state can never put its trust in military power. Recent events have made us rather incredulous about wars to stop war. We have reasons, too, to fear that even armaments are not the best means to ensure peace. Therefore, when we discuss the problem of peace and the reform of the League of Nations, we are not inclined to emphasize rearmament and military measures. Article 16 does not appear to us the most important part of the Covenant. On the contrary, we think much more of the articles regarding the prevention of war through conciliation and peaceful action. Here lay the real purport of the proposals formulated last summer by each of the Scandinavian governments. All of them asked for stronger League activity to prevent conflicts and, as a means to that end, more elasticity in the interpretation of the rules of the Covenant so as to enable the League to make better use of its powers of mediation.

In the Covenant there is one article that seems to me particularly adapted for use in the furtherance of an active peace policy. That is the article which authorizes the Assembly of the League "from time to time to advise the reconsideration by Members of the League of treaties which have become inapplicable and the consideration of international conditions whose continuance might endanger the peace of the world." It is astonishing that there are members of the League who solemnly announce that they would regard such an action by the League as hostile, and who protest against it with all their power. One might think that all the articles of the Covenant would be equally sacred to all the members. Instead, one finds that the mere mention of this article (Article 19) is like putting one's hand in a wasp's nest. In my opinion, hardly any other article in the whole Covenant is of such importance as this one, because it affords the opportunity of taking up for peaceful discussion all the problems liable to engender international conflicts. It seems to me essential in the work for peace to take the possible elements of conflict at the root and try to settle them before they have ranged nations against each other in a passionate fight for what seem to them vital interests or questions of honor. By proceeding in that way the League of Nations may become a truer and more powerful instrument of peace, and the need for military measures will gradually lessen. The small nations have no greater hope. Neither have the great Powers.

[i] "On the Rim of the Abyss," Macmillan, 1936.

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  • HALVDAN KOHT, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Norway; formerly Professor of History at the University of Oslo; author of volumes on historical and literary subjects
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