Why Not War, And If Not War, What?

By Norman Angell

[The Independent; August 9, 1915]

If America does not go to war in the ordinary sense with Germany over the sinking of the "Lusitania" it will not be, let us hope, because she takes lightly an act of that kind, but because we have now arrived at some real understanding of the permanent issues involved and have realized how ineffective would war in the ordinary sense be as a means of vindicating those principles laid down by President Wilson in his notes to Germany.

But because Americans realize the ludicrous ineffectiveness of war at this juncture to promote the principles for which they stand, that does not in the least imply that the only alternative is passively to submit to outrage and insult. Those who call for war seem to take it as an axiom, as self-evident, that war is necessarily effective for such ends as those which America now has in view: for insuring, that is, the future security and protection of American citizens, the observance of international law and the due punishment of those guilty of breaking it. Whereas the whole point of discussion is that war and military power is obviously and ludicrously ineffective to achieve any of these things.

First, let us see just how America now stands with reference to certain facts of this war as a whole. The protest against the sinking of the "Lusitania" derives its real importance of course from the fact that if the United States were guilty of inert acquiescence in it she would be sanctioning the establishment of a precedent which would mark a definite step backward in the maintenance of certain fundamental principles of human relationship. America would have a large part of the blame for allowing to take place a re-barbarization of international relations and for undoing such small advance as we have made so slowly and painfully in the past.

So with her case against Great Britain. It is not a mere matter of profit on export trade which is concerned; nor is it because America wants to harass Great Britain at a difficult time over dollars and cents matters that, she presses her points, but because if she accepts that reading of sea law which enables Great Britain absolutely to control the neutral international trade of the world in war time she might be placed in the position of having to accept the same reading when some other power has command of the sea in some future war—Japan at grips with China or with Russia. America might, if she accepted this view of international law, find herself compelled in some measure to become the unwilling ally (because the belligerent that controls the sea can avail himself of the economic resources of neutrals and prevent his enemy from so doing) of some sea power other than England in a cause upon which she might look much less favorably than upon the British cause in the present war.

Now the mere fact of joining the Allies and helping in the defeat of Germany would not necessarily advance the solution of any of the problems here indicated.

American lives at sea would not be more secure; during the war at least they would obviously be less. And as to the future, if America, in joining the Western Allies, committed herself to accept the view of at least some of them on sea law, American ships would still in future wars be subject—legally—to destruction in war areas by floating mines; neutral rights would during the war at least be likely to be still further whittled because America herself would cease to be a neutral and would become a combatant, and consequently tend to take the combatant rather than the neutral view; and if it be said, that the final defeat of Germany would facilitate the internationalization of sea law it is necessary unhappily to reply that it is England that has in the past opposed the internationalizing process and Germany that has favored it: on the whole, Germany and America have stood for it in the past as against English influence.

The fact of becoming England's ally would not make it easier to stress points of difference but the reverse, just as the existing relations of England and the others to Japan has made it impossible for them to protest even verbally against Japanese action in China—or Russian action for instance in Finland. Nor would American action against Germany be rationally punitive for the "Lusitania" outrage. The last thing likely to happen even in the event of German defeat is the efficient punishment of German admirals or bureaucrats. The soldiers and sailors whom America would share in killing would be those having had no part in the outrage, who were possibly averse to it.

And even if America could secure some sort of undertaking from the Allies as to the future law for which they would stand, what assurance has she that this agreement would outlive the existing military alliance if the military motives and ambitions of European states are to be in the future what they have been in the past? It is nearly true to say that of all the combatants now fighting there is not an enemy who was not in quite recent times an ally, nor an ally who was not quite recently an enemy. For—and this perhaps is the most important consideration of all—this war is a struggle for political power. In the most general view it is the result of the attempt of a nation, not content to be a member of the society of nations, to impose its domination on the world. Such a pretension as that of one nation to dominate the world even tho it be based upon an alleged superiority of ideals and culture is fatal to real freedom: no really free society of nations can be formed on the basis that one nation can by its power dictate to the rest. But as a matter of fact, world power, the capacity to dictate in large measure to the rest of the world, belong to the nation that controls the sea because, as this war proves and as Admiral Mahan has shown other wars to have proven, the issue of any great war is determined by predominant sea power, "a truth that becomes truer" as nations become more interdependent.

There is a very significant passage in President Wilson's last note to Germany, the full import of which hardly seems to have been realized either in Germany, England or America. The note says:

The Government of the United States and the Imperial German Government are contending for the same great object, have long stood together in urging the very principles upon which the Government of the United States now so solemnly insists. They are both contending for the freedom of the seas. The Government of the United States will continue to contend for that freedom from whatever quarter violated without compromise and at any cost.

What does this mean, "the freedom of the seas?" Is the United States really contending for the free movement or the partly free movement of German merchant ships upon the sea in war time, so that Germany can in some degree supply herself with materials and so limit the effectiveness of British, sea power which so many Americans believe in large part stands between their country and the possibility of German aggression? Had not Germany the freedom of the seas before she made war? Could not her ships move freely without interference? What, then, does the President mean?

Well, as a matter of fact, if the position that America is taking in this matter means merely freedom for Germany to supply herself despite England's naval superiority, there are certainly very many Americans who would regret that the United State should stand for anything of the sort. But freedom of the sea stands for both more and less than this.

Let us suppose that Britain's views of belligerent rights at sea are freely admitted and become the rule for nations in the future. Then, when Germany is defeated she will argue "We were defeated because we did not control the sea. In future we must be sure of doing so." And other nations will argue in the same way and you will get what Admiral Mahan prophesied would take place:
a competition among groups of nations as against other groups for the domination of the sea. Armament competition and the struggle for political power will go on between the nations in an intensified form. There is one thing only that can prevent it and that is that limitation of belligerent rights for which America is contending and which must end finally in the internationalization of the sea, which in its turn must end in the internationalization of the world.

Two courses are open to the world: to sanction a sea law which by the whittling down of neutral rights -makes sea power more and more the determining factor in all great international conflicts; Or, by development of sea law, the growing internationalization of the sea to place the final decision of those conflicts in the hands of the nations as a whole. The first solution means an intensified armament rivalry, a weakening of the powers possest by the community of nations as a whole and a strengthening of the powers possest by the commander of the seas for the time being. It is irrelevant to say that Britain has never abused her command of the sea. Others than she may be involved in certain conflicts of the future; and if she holds her power as a great international trust on behalf of civilization, then it should be legally internationalized and civilization should be duly represented.

And there is this hope in the internationalization of sea power: if the nations are agreed so to do they can exercize a blockade or siege of a given country by means that will be perhaps more largely non-military than military. If, for instance, the nations of the world had agreed not to export anything whatsoever to Germany they would be doing more effectively perhaps by agreement between them the thing which England is now trying to do simply by the power of her ships. If there were international control of world communications, civilization would possess a very powerful instrument for the coercion of a recalcitrant member of the society of nations. But this power, if exercized at all, is one that should belong to the nations as a whole, to be exercized on behalf of the community, not by an individual nation against all the rest.

To that end the policy now espoused by the United States will finally lead if it is pursued with resource and energy. If America can obtain the cooperation of the great states of the world—and she might so obtain it at this present juncture—to exclude Germany from intercourse with civilization it could be made plain that military aggression involved a price which even Germany—perhaps especially Germany—would not lightly pay. If Germany had to face the alternative either of cooperation in some sane peace, a rational settlement or the exclusion of her merchants from every market of the world for half a generation; the inability of her ships to enter a civilized port, the confiscation of such German ships and other property as might be found outside Germany for the purpose of indemnifying Belgium (say) on the judgment of an international court, the nations as a whole would at least have something wherewith to bargain other than the threat of the use of armies—an instrument which has proved to be, not for the first time, of very uncertain effectiveness. Those non-military forces here hinted at have not been organized and coordinated, but if the United States, obliged to take some coercive action against Germany, offers her economic cooperation to the Allies on conditions which will mean finally an international control of the highways of the world, she would certainly be taking a long step in the direction of such world organization.

"Sea law" sounds an abstract thing of little interest save to lawyers. But round it will probably gather the main problems of civilization during the next ten years. Very nearly the whole case was stated as briefly as I have seen it stated anywhere, by certain American university students interested in international affairs and gathered recently at a national conference. The statement took the form of a resolution in these terms:

Recent events have shown that the lives of American and other neutral citizens and American and other neutral commerce on the high seas cannot be made secure by America's taking part in a war in which both sides are in some measure straining or violating the law and support an interpretation of law which would leave those rights without due protection in the future.

We respectfully submit that the protection of American rights necessitates

(1) The development and reform of existing international law, which involves:

(2) An international legislative "body for the framing of such law,

(3) An international court for its just interpretation, and,

(4) An international arrangement for the due execution of the Court's decision by such combination of economic or military measures as may be most effective.

That is very nearly the whole case.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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