The Vision of a Commonwealth

By David Jayne Hill
Formerly United States Ambassador to Germany

[The Century Magazine, September 1917]

So long as governments insist upon the light of a strong state to subjugate or to exploit against its interest a weaker state, there will be no international harmony, and the world will be subjected to the ravages of recurrent wars. The attitude of the great powers upon this subject is therefore of the greatest moment, for it will determine the fate of civilization; and, in the end, this attitude will, in all but the most absolute governments, be affected by the predominant opinions of thoughtful men.

It is, then, of interest to inquire. What is the present position of the great powers, upon whose decisions the future peace of the world will chiefly depend, regarding the rights of the small states, and of those colonial possessions which in the past have often been cruelly exploited for the benefit of their overlords? In brief, are there any powers that are willing to submit to a peaceful decision of their own rights in relation to the weaker states, and voluntarily to subject themselves to principles of law and equity in their conduct generally? Upon the answer to these questions turns the whole problem of even partial international organization and the prospect of eliminating the military control of international affairs. Even should it be found that a certain number of powers were disposed to apply strictly business principles to their business transactions without throwing their military force into the scale, it would not follow that military force could be entirely dispensed with; for, so long as there remained in the world even one formidable military power that persisted in using force for its material advantage and refused to resort to pacific means for adjusting conflicts of interests, it would still be necessary for the powers that were ready to dispense with military decisions to arm themselves for defense against aggression, and perhaps to combine their forces in the interest of safety and of justice.

It would, however, mark the beginning of a new era if a number of great powers were sufficiently enlightened to perceive that economic imperialism is, in effect, an anachronism, and that their real interests would be better served by a combination not for the balance of power, but for a decided preponderance of power, that would be able, on the one hand, to establish a system of legal relations and conciliatory policies, and, on the other, to render military exploitation an unprofitable and even a dangerous adventure.

It would undoubtedly be both unwise and unjust to limit in any way the extent of international union were it not for the fact that, until profound changes occur, a universal union would seem impossible. There is at present no unanimity among the nations regarding any authoritative basis for a society of states. No proposal has ever been made for the recognition of any such basis in any international conference. Because some powers have held that the state is a law to itself, and that there is no law which it is bound to obey, it has been impossible even to suggest that there is for sovereign states such a thing as outlawry. If there is in the nature of things no super-state law, and if states cannot create it without general consent, then of course no state can be treated as an outlaw; for there is no standard by which the legality of its conduct may be determined.

But it is still possible for a union of states to be formed which can determine by what law its members will be governed, and it is possible for them to exclude from it any state that does not accept this law. It is likely that if the formation of civil society had been suspended until every brigand and every housebreaker in the community was ready to favor a law against robbery, civil society would never have come into existence. The only way, it would appear, in which a real society of states can ever be created is for those great powers which can find a sufficient community of interest to unite in the determination that they will themselves observe principles of justice and equity, and that they will unite their forces in defense of them.

It would be well if, at the conclusion of the present European War, or, if possible, even before it is ended, certain basic principles could be laid down that would be accepted by at least some of the belligerents as inherently just and equitable, and solemnly subscribed to as binding upon them. Upon no other basis would a permanent peace appear to be possible. Any other result would be a mere armistice for, whatever it may have been in the beginning, the war is now declared to be "a conflict of principles," a battle for law and right on the one side, and for arbitrary power on the other.

If the conflict is really a struggle for a just organization of international relations, it is of the highest importance to the cause of civilization that the principles necessary to a true society of states should be clearly formulated and, as far as possible, accepted now, while the conflict is still going on; and those who profess to champion them should not hesitate solemnly to pledge themselves to respect and obey them. We should then know with certainty what the purposes of the belligerents really are.

In a book on "The War of Democracy," Viscount Bryce, whose writings and personality are held in very high esteem in this country, employs in the subtitle the expression "the struggle for a new Europe." What, then, is this new Europe to be for which, as Lord Bryce would have us believe, the Entente Allies are struggling? Does it merely involve some changes in political geography? Thoughtful men will not be satisfied with that, for the mere shifting of frontiers, however reasonable it may seem at the time, has no guarantee of permanence except by means of armed force until a better system of international relations is adopted. Or is it for a mere form of government that the Allies are contending? Who, then, has the authority to impose upon Europe a particular kind of polity, and who can assure us that democracy, if made general, would always be wise and just and peaceable? No, it is something deeper than these outward changes that this experienced historian and statesman has in mind when he speaks of "the fundamental significance of the struggle for a new Europe." "The present war," he insists, "differs from all that have gone before it, not only in its vast scale and in the volume of misery it has brought upon the world, but also in the fact that it is a war of principles, and a war in which the permanent interests, not merely of the belligerent powers but of all nations, are involved as such interests were never involved before."

That the present war is on either side a purely altruistic championship of merely abstract principles is of course not pretended. On the side of the Entente Allies, as well as on that of the Central powers, immediate national interests of great consequence are involved. But this does not signify that, in its underlying principles and in its ultimate consequences, the struggle may not in some sense be an affair of all mankind. Our own country has been already so vitally affected by it, and is now so deeply involved in all of its results, that we cannot regard the fate of these principles with indifference. What is truly surprising to us in this country is that two great empires, England and Russia, and the French republic, which has twice quelled the spirit of imperialism within itself and reasserted its love of freedom, are now solidly united in fighting the battle of democracy. Suddenly, through the mysterious working of some intangible, but all-pervading and overmastering, influence, we have witnessed this unexpected alignment of nations, in which there is an almost general repudiation of the past, a reassertion of the larger claims of humanity, and a spirit of sacrifice that is an astonishment to all who behold it. There is yet to be fought a battle more sublime than any ever jet waged in the name of democracy, because it will be a battle for that which gives to democracy its indestructible vitality—the essential dignity of the human person, and its inherent right to freedom, to justice, and to the quality of mercy at the hands of one's fellow-men. This is no tribal adventure, no thrust for territorial expansion, no quest for new markets and undeveloped resources, no aspiration for world supremacy; but a consolidated human demand that in the future the world be so regulated that innocent and non-combatant peoples may live under the protection of law, may depend upon the sanctity of treaties, may be secure in their independence and rights of self-government, and that the people of all nations may enjoy in safety the use of the great seas and oceans which nature has provided as the highways of peaceful commerce and fruitful human intercourse.

In its beginning the European War was undoubtedly a conflict of national and racial interests, a struggle for the future control of the Balkan Peninsula and the debris of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire. Was the prize to be possessed by the Teuton or the Slav? The assassination at Sarajevo and the part in it attributed to Serbia were only signals and excuses for the beginning of a drama already carefully staged and in which the parts were supposed to be carefully assigned. It was to be a swift, short war, in which the principal prize would be won by a comparatively small effort, and others incidentally acquired. But interests were affected and forces were evoked that had not entered into the calculations of the aggressors. It was the unexpected emergence of these new forces, and the nature of the resistance met with in the course of the war, that entirely changed its character, and converted it into a war of principles; for the progress of the conflict disclosed an antithesis of conceptions regarding matters of general human interest that had hitherto been unsuspected. The whole system of law, treaties, and human obligations which had been counted upon as furnishing a sure foundation for civilized society was suddenly discovered to be without solidity. In the general debacle the hopes, the beliefs, even the friendships, with which the present century had opened auspiciously in matters international were swept away. It is needless to dwell upon barbarities on land and sea that a few years ago would have been utterly incredible. Our thoughts must take a deeper direction. We must face the fact that we have not to deal with mere incidents, but with the underlying causes of which they are the outward expression. If the postulates of imperialism are correct, there is nothing abnormal in all this destruction, desecration, and slaughter at which the minds and consciences of many have revolted; for upon this assumption sovereign power is acting wholly within its rights, and is even engaged in the solemn execution of its sacred duty. There is therefore, upon this assumption, nothing left to us but to arm, mine, fortify, and intrench, repudiating internationalism, and trusting solely to our physical instruments of defense. In truth, there are before the nations only two alternatives: on the one hand, the reestablishment of international existence upon a more solid foundation than that afforded by military rivalry and the supremacy of national power, and, on the other, a return to the life of troglodytes. If the world is to escape permanent international anarchy, it will be through the decision of governments to accept and loyally respect certain principles of justice and mutual obligation in the form of a constitution of civilization in which are recognized the reciprocal rights and duties of separate nations. It is within the capacity of a few great powers to adopt and maintain such principles; and they will do so whenever the masses of the people, speaking in their sovereign right, declare that their governments must accept and conform to them. If this is what Lord Bryce means when he speaks of the "War of Democracy," then he is voicing an appeal to all thoughtful persons in every civilized nation; for the democratic conception, based as it is on the rights of man, is the only true source of law for the rights of states also, and is alone adapted to that general extension which opens a vision of a commonwealth of mankind in which all nations, regardless of territorial boundaries, may rightfully claim a place.

Are there then any nations that are prepared to be guided by this vision, to forego the aspiration for world supremacy, and to unite with one another in the creation of such a general commonwealth?

It is an interesting fact not only that the people of Russia have overthrown autocracy, but that, in the midst of a great crisis, another power which the world has regarded as imperial should openly recognize the truth that it has, by the forces of its own national development, ceased to be an empire in the old sense of the word, and has become a confraternity of free and virtually self-governing communities.

The present war has revealed to Great Britain, and made it evident to all the world, that British strength does not at present consist in the exercise of an imperium, but in the recognition of the essential freedom and the equal rights of what the most authoritative British statesmen now call the "autonomous colonies;" and it is especially interesting to find a conservative, like Bonar Law, saying that what was impossible before the war will be easy after it, and that the relation of the dominions to the mother-country would never again be what it was before. It is, in fact, a confederation of autonomous self-governing republics, rather than an empire in the proper sense, that is coming into existence through this internal transformation of the British Empire. Common aims, common safety, common interests, and common ideas—these are the foundations of this confraternity. It is not the bugle-call of imperial command that has brought troops from every quarter of the globe to participate with Great Britain in the present struggle, but the common conviction that democracy is in danger and that free nations must stand together. An English historian, in the midst of the war, writes:

This is a testing time for Democracy. The people of Great Britain and the Dominions, to whom all the world looks as trustees, together with France and America, of the great democratic tradition, are brought face to face, for the first time, with their full responsibility as British citizens. Upon the way in which that responsibility is realized and discharged depends the future of the democratic principle, not only in these islands, but throughout the world.

And this is the conviction of the British Dominions themselves. To the astonishment of the world, not one has failed to respond. In an address at Montreal, Sir Clifford Sifton said: "Bound by no constitution, bound by no law, equity, or obligation, Canada has decided as a nation to make war. We have levied an army; we have sent the greatest army to England that has ever crossed the Atlantic, to take part in the battles of England. We have placed ourselves in opposition to great World Powers. We are now training and equipping an army greater than the combined forces of Wellington and Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo.

Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and even India have responded voluntarily in a similar manner; but they did so, not as imperial possessions, but as virtually independent nations, sure of themselves, confident of their future, and inspired by the vision of a union in which for all coming time they are to be free and independent participants. From the uttermost parts of the earth they have gathered "to honor their uncovenanted bond, obedient to one uncalculating purpose; and the fields of their final achievement, where they lie in a fellowship too close and a peace too deep to be broken, are the image and the epitome of the cause for which they fell."

But in all this fine consciousness of British unity there is not the slightest touch of really imperial influence. The Canadian and the Australian do not wish to be rated as Englishmen, and would sometimes even resent it. Common traditions there are; but they are not merely traditions of race, of language, or of religion. They are primarily traditions of liberty. It is not the state that holds them together; it is the conviction that all that makes the state worth saving is the protection it affords to freedom, the value it gives to the individual life.

But such an inspiration can never end in a stolid and pertinacious tribalism. It feels a larger kinship and seeks a wider partnership. It gives unity to the nation, but it reaches out for international friendships and affinities. It seeks to establish the greater commonwealth of nations. It aspires to a place in a system. And the same Canadian who said that Canada was ready to take part in the battles of England said at the same time, "I say to you that Canada must stand now as a nation....The nations will say, if you can levy armies to make war, you can attend to your own business, and we will not be referred to the head of the Empire; we want you to answer our questions directly."

By the force of its own free development, democracy must become international. In no other way can it realize its own security. In no other way can it attain to its own ideals. "It is necessary," says a Canadian writer, "to declare with utmost haste...that motives of national aggrandizement and national enmity must be subordinated to the desire for the larger benefits growing out of peace and international good-will." And never will the autonomous colonies enter a war in the name of the empire in which they do not have a voice. Said the high commissioner of the Australian Commonwealth, Mr. Andrew Fisher, on his arrival in London:

If I had stayed in Scotland, I should have been able to heckle my member on questions of imperial policy, and to vote for or against him on that ground. I went to Australia, and I have been prime minister. But all the time I have had no say whatever about imperial policy—no say whatever. Now that can't go on. There must be some change.

In April, 1916, at the conference of the Entente Allies held at Paris, the sense of a commonwealth took a wider range, and this meeting, it has been held, assumed the form of "a legislative parliament of France, Russia, England, Italy, Belgium, Serbia, Japan, and the self-governing British Dominions." The subject of interest was financial solidarity during the present war, and even after it. Some of the exclusiveness that marked that conference may vanish, and will certainly be diminished after the war is over; and it may well be that, "if the agreements growing out of this event stand the test of time, they will dispose effectively of the contention that dissimilar nations cannot act in harmony for their mutual advantage in matters international."

Three of these nations, Britain, France, and Russia, are henceforth to be bound together as at the beginning of the war it was never imagined they could ever be by a new sense of the value and the meaning of democracy. They will be in relations that will enable them to dispense to a large degree with military action except for their common defense. With the support of other nations for common purposes, there should be no room in the world for economic imperialism in its existing form. Deplorable, indeed, would be a further and more powerfully organized example of it, which would be. in effect, an indefinite prolongation of international strife. But such a purpose is not in the interest of these powers; and, when this comes to be duly considered in the treaties of peace, it may happily be averted.

The main problem of pacification will be a method of insuring the future against new military adventures, and of providing that armed force shall henceforth, in some manner, be placed under the restraint of law. How far purely economic measures may be devised to produce this result is uncertain. But the united aim of all civilized peoples should be to see to it that there should be possible in the future no recurrence of the international conditions that existed on August 1, 1914.

It is useful for us to recall what those conditions were. Dismissing from our minds for the moment all questions regarding the underlying causes of the war and without attempting to pass judgment upon any of the issues involved in it, let us fix our attention upon the military situation as it existed on that fateful day when the whole mechanism of European security suddenly broke down.

We may pass over the ultimatum to Serbia, Austria's invasion of Serbian territory, and Russia's resolve to protect the small Slav state or procure a hearing for its case as a question of European interest by which armed conflict might, perhaps, have been avoided. On August 1 the German emperor had in his hands the following documents

1. A telegram from the czar, dated July 30, reading: "The military measures which have now come into force were decided five days ago for reasons of defense and on account of Austria's preparations. I hope from all my heart that these won't in any way interfere with your part as mediator, which I greatly value."

2. A telegraphic instruction by Sir Edward Grey, dated July 30, directing Sir Edward Goschen. the British ambassador at Berlin, to say to the imperial German chancellor "most earnestly," that "the one way of maintaining the good relations between England and Germany is that they should continue to work together to preserve the peace of Europe; if we succeed in this object, the mutual relations of Germany and England will, I believe, be ipso facto improved and strengthened.... And I will say this: If the peace of Europe can be preserved, and the present crisis safely passed, my own endeavor will be to promote some arrangement to which Germany could be a party, by which she could be assured that no aggressive or hostile policy would be pursued against her or her allies by France, Russia, and ourselves."

3. A telegram, dated July 31, from the Russian minister of foreign affairs, reading as follows: "If Austria will agree to check the advance of her troops on Serbian territory; if, recognizing that the dispute between Austria and Serbia has become a question of European interest, she will allow the Great Powers to look into the matter and decide what satisfaction Serbia could afford to the Austro-Hungarian Government without impairing her rights as a sovereign State or her independence, Russia will undertake to maintain her waiting attitude."

4. A telegram of July 31 from Sir Edward Grey, reading: "If Germany could get any reasonable proposal put forward which made it clear that Germany and Austria were striving to preserve European peace and that Russia and France would be unreasonable if they rejected it, I would support it at St. Petersburg and Paris, and go the length of saying that if Russia and France would not accept it, His Majesty's Government would have nothing more to do with the consequences."

5. A telegram from the minister of foreign affairs of Austria-Hungary to all Austro-Hungarian embassies and legations, dated July 31, to be communicated to all governments, reading: "Negotiations dealing with the situation are proceeding between the cabinets at Vienna and St. Petersburg, and we still hope that they may lead to a general understanding." In these circumstances, on August 1, the German emperor, having received no reply to his demand that Russian mobilization against Austria should cease within twelve hours, declared war on Russia, thus automatically involving France, Russia's ally, although knowing that France did not desire war. The sole reason given for this action was that Russia had not at that time ceased the mobilization of her army, there being no direct quarrel between Russia and Germany. How unjust the ultimatum sent on the previous day to Russia was, is shown by the telegram of the German emperor to King George, on August 1, the day he declared war on Russia, when under the erroneous impression that Great Britain had proposed to guarantee the neutrality of France, which reads:

I have just received the communication of your Government offering French neutrality under the guarantee of Great Britain. To this offer there was added the question whether, under these conditions, Germany would refrain from attacking France. For technical reasons the mobilization which I have already ordered this afternoon on two fronts—east and west—must proceed according to the arrangements made. A counter order cannot now be given, as your telegram unfortunately came too late, but if France offers me her neutrality, which must be guaranteed by the English army and navy, I will naturally give up the idea of an attack on France and employ my troops elsewhere. I hope that France will not be nervous. The troops on my frontier are at this moment being kept back by telegraph and by telephone from crossing the French frontier. WILLIAM

No one of these nations, it is alleged, desired a general war, but it came as a matter of military necessity! "I hope France will not be nervous. The troops on my frontier are at this moment being held back by telegraph and telephone from crossing the French frontier." And, according to Berlin, mobilization had not even been ordered until five o'clock of that same day!

What a white light is poured by this last telegram upon the mechanism of destruction that had been so laboriously prepared! Only one man in Europe who could stop the war, and he caught in the fatal toils of his own machinery! For technical reasons—telegram too late, German troops held back on the French frontier by telegraph and telephone, "I hope France will not be nervous." But why this solicitude for the nerves of France? Was Germany nervous?

I am making here no accusation. What I wish to emphasize is that the machinery for preserving peace had not been sufficiently organized, while the machinery of war had become so efficient as to be virtually uncontrollable. No one, we are assured, wanted war. All wanted peace. Serbia wanted justice. So also, it is said, did Austria. But Europe had not provided for justice to a small state.

The time has come when Europe should reassert its moral unity and make an end of tribalism. All the machinery for international cooperation already exists, and needs only to be adjusted to the purposes of peace. The railways and the steamships that have facilitated the mobilization of troops and munitions of war, the telegraphic lines which have transmitted the orders setting great armies in motion, the vast factories that have been forging instruments of destruction, are already there, waiting to convey the merchandise, communicate the messages, and produce the commodities of peace. The one thing lacking is the organization of international justice. Let it once be agreed that each people shall be secure in its freedom and independence, and that nations may be as sure of justice as are individual men in a well-organized state, and the transformation would be already accomplished.

Depending, as it does, upon good faith, this regeneration is essentially an inner process in the minds and souls of men. It cannot be imposed from without. It cannot be forced upon one nation by another. It cannot be effected by fighting. It will never come as the spontaneous act of governments. It must come from the overwhelming determination of the people of many nations to have it so.

The real testing time of democracy will be the moment of victory; for victory there must be, and yet a victory that is not a conquest. If the claims of democracy in this war are to be accepted, it is intended to be a defense of the conquered against the conqueror, a protest against the ordeal of battle as the decisive factor in determining the fate of nations. To invert the roles would be to abandon the cause. If there is to be a commonwealth of nations, the Central powers should not be excluded from it except by their own will. The first article in a treaty of peace should be a statement of the principles for which we are now fighting in this war and the establishment of a commonwealth based upon them. Respect for treaties, the rights of the small states, the rule of law, the abandonment of conquests, the right of a people to choose its affiliations, the ultimate extinction of militarism as a system, the submission of justiciable differences to a competent tribunal, the responsibility of states to the society of states—these are the essential terms of a durable treaty of peace. If this can be attained, there will indeed be a new Europe.

Should a nation wait to be vanquished before accepting such a peace? Is it not the only peace in which any nation can place its trust? Against any other the vanquished would be in perpetual revolt. But in such a peace all men would at the same time have the support of their own sense of justice and secure the realization of their own highest ideals. It would be to all the peoples of Europe like a proclamation of emancipation. With it would come the joy of liberty, the sense of security, the flood-tide of human fellowship. For such a peace the mighty host of the dead on land and sea might well rejoice, if they could know, that they had bought it with their lives.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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