The Background Of Aggression

By Norman Angell

[The New Republic; September 8, 1917]

One query dominates all the serious discussion of any war settlement. It is this: "What assurance can we get that Germany has learned her lesson? Have the German idea and the German spirit, which have devastated four-fifths of Europe and carried frightfulness across the ocean, been chastened? If not, would peace be anything more than a terrible illusion, a mere truce, which, after a breathing space for military autocracy, would once more break down? Would disarmament, even, be sincere, or be relied upon with a nation that does not hold to its bond? "

The experience of mankind in dealing with the individual criminal may have some bearing on that question.

It marked an immense step forward in criminology—and consequently in public order and the possibility of more decent and humane feelings on the part of society towards some of its members—when we ceased to allow moral indignation to be the sole or main determinant of our attitude to crime, and began to ask, "What makes the criminal?" Those who asked that did not necessarily hate crime less than those who regarded the question as subversive and as tending to excuse the criminal. Incidentally, crime was often worst where the punishment was most ferocious, not because punishment necessarily fails as a deterrent, but because those who depended upon it were treating symptoms instead of getting at causes.

In international politics we seem only now to be emerging from this early stage, where the policy is guided by moral indignation expressed in plans of simple repression. Two years ago so able a man as the late Lord Cromer could write that it was useless to look into the causes of this war because the war had only one cause: the wickedness of Germans. He seemed to find it unnecessary to deal with the question, "What makes the Germans more wicked than other folk? He implied that German foreign policy, with its self-regarding nationalism, was not the result of historical or political conditions, but of sheer original sin; and that the problem of internationalism resolved itself, not into changing the international condition of life, but into the subjugation and punishment of the German people.

One almost wishes that this were true. It would simplify things so much! But it is, alas, too simple. The notion that Providence endowed a certain conglomeration of races, living within certain artificial political borders, with so special a depravity that given conditions do not act upon them as upon other men, does rather too much violence to one's intuitive sense of probabilities. But if the "original sin" explanation is unsound, it follows that this wickedness, the menace of Prussianism, is historical, not racial, in its cause; that it is the result of conditions that must be altered if a permanent cure is to be obtained. It means further that if mere ferocity of punishment or repression failed to lessen the crimes of individuals within the state, it would be still less likely to succeed in the case of the "criminal nation."

In his book The League of Nations, Mr. Brailsford, approaching the problem in something of the spirit of the scientific criminologist, has shown very clearly—more clearly perhaps than has been shown by any other writer—the danger which threatens the whole device of a League of Nations as a solvent of International anarchy. On the side of the English and the Americans a League of Nations is conceived mainly as a means of coercing disturbers of the existing order. And they so conceive it because the existing order of the world, with the great undeveloped spaces in their possession and no historical grievances to redress, is for them, on the whole, a very satisfactory order. But to certain other peoples, and notably the peoples of the Central Empires, the mere crystallization of the existing order may represent nothing more than the confirmation of the privileges of triumphant force which they are entitled to upset by a "righteous rebellion" whenever the opportunity should present itself. Until we have taken more fully into account the weight of this consideration, and all that is implied in it, we shall fail to win the peoples of the Central Empires to real cooperation in lasting peace. So far, almost all the plans for the maintenance of peace, of Anglo-Saxon origin, are marked by the outstanding characteristic of early methods of maintaining peace within the state. The problem is conceived first and last as one of repression. Having drawn a new map, we are to see that respect for it is enforced by preponderant power. Such a conception, of course, implies, not only that the world as now organized internationally, or with such redistribution of territory as the Allies may enforce at the peace, with about the currently accepted principles of national rights, economic and political, is in itself just, but that it will remain so permanently.

The solution is not a matter of map drawing, but of modifying the rights which have heretofore attached to national sovereignty. M. Ribot says Alsace-Lorraine "belongs" to France; Bethmann-Hollweg that it "belongs" to Germany. But if we could imagine the provinces being handed over to France, and France exercising the rights of "proprietorship" hitherto recognized as belonging to national proprietorship, and shutting out Germany from access to the ore fields of Lorraine (thus depriving them of a necessary element of their economic welfare), we have merely created conditions morally certain to render impossible that form of the German spirit which we all admit to be indispensable to the destruction of German militarism and to the permanent peace of the world. On the other side, so long as Germany regards her sovereignty in Alsace as an absolute thing not to be limited by definite obligations to the peoples of those provinces and to the world, France will oppose any real reconciliation with Germany, and make our League of Nations a fiction. No mere manipulation of the map will save us from either horn of the dilemma.

The question Mr. Brailsford has set himself to answer is: "Under what political and economic conditions would the creation of a League of Nations be a hopeful venture?" Whatever the answer, it must include a very great change in our conception of national right and international obligation. The independence and sovereignty of states must no longer, for instance, include the right to block the necessary access of other states to the seas, or, in certain cases, to raw materials and markets. The whole question of sea law and belligerent rights must be approached from a new angle. There must be some means of change, even of frontiers, without war. A League to Enforce Peace that enforced the resolutions of the Paris Conference, sustained the right of one empire to make a preserve of its dependent undeveloped territories, of some small state to block the natural economic highway of a large one, would really be one group of nations maintaining by force special privileges as against another group excluded from them. It would merely be the old conflict of Alliance or Balance of Power in a new form.

Yet we are not ready for the very profound modification of political ideas touching national independence and sovereignty necessary to make a League of Nations workable, and consequently any settlement a very hopeful one. For the League of Nations must be an integral part of the settlement, if even on its territorial side it is to offer hopes of permanence. The prevailing conception of the League to Enforce Peace, even among supporters, is that of a piece of machinery to be brought into being after the war, not at all a part of the problem of the war itself and related to its conduct and conclusion. Yet, if it is not a reality to the extent of being a living policy with obvious chances of success, when we come to make peace the parties to the settlement will be concerned mainly to secure their own safety by preponderance and "strategic frontiers." And the necessary violation of national rights involved in that will condemn any subsequent League to failure. "The two questions," says Mr. Brailsford most truly, "must be solved as a whole. The settlement must be the preparation for any future Society of Nations. The stability and efficacy of a League of Nations depend not merely on the wise drafting of its constitution, but also on the solution reached in the war settlement of our problems of nationality, colonial expansion, international trade, sea power and alliances.

Any attempt to settle questions of nationality without taking into account the two dominant motives which determine the policy of the great Powers is bound to fail. Those two dominant motives are first security, and secondly vital economic interest. At present the great Powers have no security but their own strength, actual and potential. That compels them, not only, as already indicated, to violate the principle of nationality in order to secure strategic frontiers, but to add by annexation to their own forces human and material, and to weaken those of a possible enemy; while the economic motive pushes to the same violations in order that the possession of a given territory may secure freedom of economic movements to the sea, or access to raw materials or markets.

The danger of these violations is not confined to the Central Powers. The same considerations have stood for generations, and stand to-day, in the way not only of an independent Ireland, but of an Ireland having the same autonomy as a British self-governing colony. Mr. Brailsford notes some of the other Allied cases:

Italy, in order that she may have unchallenged naval control in the Adriatic and certain ports for commercial purposes, is claiming the larger part of Dalmatia, where the Italians are outnumbered more than ten to one. Thus, not only would Slovenes, Croats and Serbs be placed under the government of a tiny minority of aliens, but the retention of this country by an alien clique might shut out from free access to the sea more than fifty millions of Germans, Magyars and Slavs.

Take the cause of an independent Bohemia. One-third of its population would be Magyar or German—a far more important minority than that of Ulster which has so long helped to make the settlement of Ireland impossible; and in the case of Bohemia it would be complicated by the language question, which does not exist in Ireland. And whereas Ireland is at least open to the world by her ports, Bohemia is wedged in territorially between her enemies, whose access to the sea her allies would be blocking.

Rumania in entering the war laid claims to Austrian territory which as a whole would contain as many Magyars and Germans as Rumanians. In the case of one district the Rumanians would be a tiny minority.

The Allies, in order to weaken Bulgaria, proposed to reconquer Macedonia for the Serbs, although the greater part of the country is emphatically and even fanatically Bulgarian by allegiance and choice, and although the Powers previously allotted the country to Bulgaria, and although the second Balkan war was due to Serbia's refusal to give effect to the European decision.

And these are but samples on the Allied side of the fence. If the Allies, who proclaim themselves to be fighting for nationality and the rights of all people to their own government, feel themselves justified on behalf of security in violating their own principles to that extent, what may we not expect from Germans and Austrians who do not emphasize that purpose? If the need for security justifies it, the Germans, who will be the weaker and more unpopular group, will be able to invoke it with very much greater force.

We are still as nations a very long way from the conception that our national independence must be limited by our international obligations. The old nationalist notion that there is something derogatory and unpatriotic in ceding any part of our national sovereignty or independence has still an almost fanatical strength. And we have no clear idea of just how far that sovereignty and independence must be ceded for the purpose of International organization for security. It is these two things mainly—the force of the old conceptions and the lack of any definiteness of a newer principle—which stand mainly, and will stand at the peace, in the way of settlement.

The disturbing fact in connection therewith is that these changes in conception and principle cannot be made by the pubic opinion of a great country from one day to another. Coming to the settlement dominated by the old notions of international law, independence, sovereignty, it would tend to compel the rejection of new and strange principles.

The only way to break down the strangeness which at the crucial moment may cause new principles to be misunderstood and misinterpreted is to ensure their thorough discussion beforehand. But upon that discussion there has been placed an almost official ban. By some sort of miracle the democracies are to be fitted to face entirely new conditions and apply new policies, with no preparation whatever, without that discussion which is the chief means of political education. Even certain peace organizations, whose purpose is to prepare the world for the difficult problems of internationalism, have laid down the strange doctrine that these matters should not be studied by the mass at all just now. They may be studied when the damage is done, when, hurried at some juncture into a rapid settlement, mankind may find itself committed to decisions which, as Mr. Lloyd George said the other day, may bind them for generations, but which may well defeat the objects for which the war is being fought.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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