Chapter III

The International Jungle

In international relations the ethical problem is even simpler and the logic of the factual situation more obvious than in the class and minority-group struggle within nations. The two groups of forces causing conflict in the world today are classes or pressure groups within nations and nations within the society of nations. Classes within a nation like those of labor, agriculture or the aged pension seekers can by coalition and logrolling become momentary majorities for the purpose of securing class legislation. They can also become a triumphant revolutionary majority. This is actually happening today to a greater extent than is commonly perceived due to the subtleties of democratic lobbying and logrolling. The Have-nots are already running a fairly obvious revolution in America by means of progressive taxation on the rich and subsidies to the poor farmers and unemployed. Most of the time, however, social classes do not constitute a sovereign political majority for broad political power purposes. Nations, on the other hand, are sovereign all the time, that is, to the extent of what is physically possible for them to do. For the purpose of making decisions they are unquestionably and always sovereign. Else they are not nations. This being true, nothing could be more provocative of war and less conducive to peace than the legal or ethical approach to any international difference. This is the central point of the present chapter.

The popular notion is that the way to prevent war is to invoke law and morality. The contention here is that that is precisely the way to get a war started. The appeal to law or ethics in international differences is simply an attempt to impose upon another nation an alien theory of law and justice. In international affairs the appeal to law and ethics always brings down the house at home. Abroad it inflames public opinion equally but to an exactly opposite conviction and impulse.

In 1915 Mr. Wilson made the bad decision of refusing on good moral grounds recognition to a bad president and government of Mexico. This act inaugurated a new era of righteousness in American foreign policy. It started the chain of events in our relations with Mexico, the latest link of which is the expropriation of two hundred million dollars worth of our property in that country. This ideology got us into the World War; it got us into several bloody interventions in Haiti, Nicaragua and Mexico; it has made Mexico unsafe for American lives and property; and it is by way of getting us into a second world war within one generation. But these melancholy experiences in no way affect the faith of our present ruling classes and government officials in this normative or legalistic theory of international relations. And why should experience invalidate a theory which transcends mundane realities and rests firmly grounded on principles which, being morally right, do not have to be historically or otherwise right?

The ethical or legal theory underlying this tendency of our government since the beginning of the Wilsonian era revolves around unreal concepts of the nature and functions of what is called international law. This theory is ideal but contrary to fact. A strong case can be made out for the contention that what goes by the name of international law is not law inasmuch as it lacks most of the essential attributes of law, such as certainty, uniformity and enforceability. But, for practical purposes, there would be little point to such an argument. If, by common consent, people call something international law, the sensible attitude to take towards such usage of words is to accept it. Those who talk about international law are consistent in one respect and inconsistent in many others. What they refer to as international law always means the same body of rules, which makes their use of the general term consistent; but what they refer to is always a selection from this body of rules which can be matched by another wholly contradictory or inconsistent selection from the same body of rules, which makes their use of the term international law most confusing. International law always means the same thing or the same body of rules; only these rules are often mutually contradictory.

If our Secretary of State says that Proposition A is international law and the Foreign Offices of London, Berlin or Moscow say that the exact opposite or something wholly inconsistent with A is international law, the probabilities are that each is entirely correct. The thing to understand about international law is not how to reconcile its contradictions, for that is impossible, but merely to know their respective sources in international law. This allows the priesthood to discuss facts and interest conflicts in a language the laity cannot understand. The use of this language in no way facilitates understanding of, or promotes agreement about, the real things in dispute. But it does assure the legal priesthood prestige, power and a meal ticket. It is like the game of scriptural or Marxist exegesis. No religious argument can ever be settled by reference to the Bible. No Marxist argument can ever be settled by appeals to the writings of Marx. No international dispute can ever be settled by reference to international law, except where all parties are willing to accept one particular set of rules and canon of interpretation. And, if all parties are that much in agreement, there is likely to be no dispute which will not be settled by mutual concessions wholly aside from legal rules.

One invaluable key to an understanding of international law is realization of the fact that anything relating to several nations is ipso facto international. Therefore, if one group of nations says that cotton is not contraband and another group says that it is, or if two groups of nations uphold any two mutually contradictory propositions, it must be recognized that the fact that they do so makes each of these propositions good international law. Secretary Hull, in protesting against the action of the Russian government in refusing to release to the American owners the German prize, the ship “City of Flint,” invoked as good international law a ruling of the Supreme Court releasing under similar circumstances the British ship “Appam,” a German prize during the war. Secretary Hull was correct in citing anything the Supreme Court has ever held affecting international disputes as good international law. And so would any other nation be in citing anything held by its courts affecting international disputes as good international law. Our Supreme Court, of course, has repeatedly reversed itself in making new rulings. An American Secretary of State invoking one selection from that interesting bundle of contradictions called international law as the basis of an argument and moral appeal would never dream of admitting that the opposite thesis could be sustained with equally good authority by another selection from that storehouse of dissenting opinion, dogma and precedent called international law.

There are a few minor exceptions to the general rule that there are no universally accepted international rules. These exceptions are mainly rules of diplomatic immunities, precedence and protocol. The chief reason these particular rules happen to enjoy practically universal acceptance is that they involve almost no conflicts of vital interests. They are accepted for the same general reasons that people ordinarily take their place in a line and do not fight over who goes first through a revolving door. Such generally observed rules of behavior in no way establish a basis for hoping that all forms of competition and conflict between individuals can be eliminated by observance of the same etiquette.

Then there are the fairly numerous examples of arbitration, over five thousand in all, in which nations have agreed to pacific settlement of a dispute in accordance with some prearranged formula of procedure and subject to certain mutually agreeable rules. In such cases international law and the lawyers go to town in a big way, simply because in these particular instances both nations would rather concede everything in dispute than fight. The only problem in such cases is for the lawyers and the protocol to save the faces of all concerned by working out a formula of final settlement along more dignified lines than those of simple horse trading. The result is a great victory for international law and fat fees for many international lawyers.

Thus, in the case of our Alabama claims against Britain, arbitration provided an excellent ritual for a compromise whereby the British paid us fifteen and a half million dollars for losses suffered by our shipping as a result of the British having allowed Confederate privateers to be fitted out in and depart from British ports during the Civil War. That was a grievance over which we should never have gone to war with Britain but through which Britain might have lost much more than fifteen and a half million dollars worth of American good will. Two dictatorships would have disposed of this difficulty by a simple negotiation and some arbitrary settlement. In this manner the German minority problems in the Italian Tyrol and the Baltic states have been summarily disposed of without recourse to legal principles or formulas of settlement. For democracies some international judicial procedure would have been necessary for the disposal of these issues. The fact that Germany and Italy settled a long standing difference by summary action does not prove that all future disputes between these two countries can be settled in that way. Why assume that because two nations settled a minor difference by arbitration they can dispose of all disputes in the same manner? The assumption is obviously unreasonable and contrary to experience, yet it is basic to most of the current claims for international law.

The following simple generalizations about international law will make its limitations clear:

First, it is not a body of codified law.

Second, with certain exceptions affecting mainly diplomatic immunities and protocol, it is not a body of universally accepted rules.

Third, international law is a body of miscellaneous principles, rules, doctrines, precedents and agreements to be found in a long line of state papers, treaties, textbooks, articles, arbitral and court decisions and public utterances of statesmen and supposed authorities.

Fourth, the elements of this corpus of so-called international law are largely contradictory, mutually exclusive and inconsistent propositions as to international rights and duties. A given rule or set of rules may have been accepted by a given group of nations and even used by them in a specific past period and situation thus becoming international law. Yet, in the changed circumstances of today all or most of the same nations may reject those rules without ever having formally proclaimed repudiation of them. Hence the utter meaninglessness of the term international law in the sense of being positive law.

It can be seriously argued that thinking of international problems in terms of the words, definitions and abstractions which make up international law instead of in terms of the current realities of experience is wholly bad for peaceful settlement of international differences. If there were universal agreement as to the norms and concepts or if there were just one body of norms, international law might serve as a useful instrument for the examination of conflicting claims. But, as there is no such agreement, dragging what is called international law or a bunch of legalistic contradictions into an international dispute usually makes matters worse by adding an argument over words to an argument over things, thus increasing the heat but affording no additional light. It also confuses the relevancies of the present with the irrelevancies of the past.

The fact is that the chief utility of international law today is as a tool of propaganda and dialectics for home use. It creates the requisite moral justification in the minds of the people of the home government for the demands of that government and any war those demands may render inevitable. Dr. Goebbels invokes international law quite as often and quite as effectively for the persuasion of his own people as President Roosevelt does for the persuasion of his own people. But neither persuades the people of the other by an appeal to international law, hence its futility for peaceful purposes. From the point of view of a neutral, wars are fought between right and right, not between right and wrong. The chief utility of international law is to put one nation in the right and the other in the wrong, hence it is of no use for purposes either of neutrality or the prevention of war. It goes without saying that once a nation goes to war its people believe that they are right and their adversaries wrong. But this view serves only the ends of waging war, not the ends of maintaining neutrality or averting war. The point just argued is advanced somewhat more guardedly in a book entitled Nationalism by a study group of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, as may be seen from the following quotation: “May not the function of the public conscience be, not to influence national policy but to provide a moral basis for policies determined on purely national grounds?”

To pit one ethic against an opposite ethic is ipso facto to commit to war the people and the force factors behind each of the opposing ethics. People who link ethics with peace, as is the current practice, are simply oblivious of the facts of history. So far as nations are concerned, and it happens to be nations and not angels that we are talking about, the best definition of an ethic is something the people are willing to fight for. And ethics are not only what nations fight for but what makes them fight.

The truth is that every nation has made a supreme ethic of war and no nation has ever really made a supreme ethic of peace. The proof is simple: Every nation is ready voluntarily to make the supreme sacrifice for war. What great or small nation in modern times has ever voluntarily, or otherwise than under foreign military compulsion, made a really great sacrifice for peace? Christianity bids men make a supreme sacrifice for peace by turning the other cheek. What nation observes this Christian ethic? It would be contrary to the ethics of nationalism for a nation, voluntarily, to make a supreme sacrifice for peace. And that, fundamentally, is why we have wars. The point is that, so far as nations are concerned, it is not so much ethics they fight for as it is ethics that makes them fight. National ethics make wars; they do not prevent wars. And the only type of ethics that could keep one nation out of war, the Christian ethic of turning the other cheek, for example, is wholly incompatible with nationalism. A universal international system of ethics which would prevent all nations from making war is virtually a contradiction in terms. Nations would not be nations if they lacked the means and willingness on occasion to make war.

So, paradoxical as it may sound, those who cherish the ethic of averting wars in the world in which we live in, should strive to keep ethics, morality and international law out of diplomacy and international relations as much as possible. If peace through war is desired, talk law and justice; if peace through compromise is desired, talk facts. Ethics are not an easy basis for concession. The one thing nations cannot gracefully compromise on is moral principle. Material interests, on the contrary, are easy subjects of compromise. The peace ideology of our postwar internationalists has concentrated on law and morality and refused to talk realistically economic and political facts, such, for example, as, tariffs, immigration barriers, access to raw materials, redistribution of colonies and raw materials, the distribution of the world’s gold, the means of transferring international payments and the other innumerable bread-and-butter realities of life. This emphasis on law and ethics coupled with a disregard for the material problems of the struggle for existence has culminated in another war, which, if it is to make sense, must be a world war, within a generation of the last world war. This culmination surely bears out the thesis of these two chapters: that social ethics for this world, especially in relation to national problems, should be consistent with facts.

Not only have ethical abstractions been used since Wilson to confuse political and economic realities, but now Christianity, as an ethical ideology, is being pressed into the service of warmongering. Miss Dorothy Thompson in one of her columns during the early days of the second Anglo-German war of this century actually made this conflict one of Christian versus anti-Christian values. It may be fair to say that many of the values of German and Russian national socialism are not only not Christian but anti-Christian. But the same can be said with equal truth of many of the dominant values of the capitalism and imperialism of Britain, America and France. To call any conflict of class interests within a nation or of national interests within the society of nations of the present-day, a war between Christianity and anti-Christianity is a sheer confusion of terms. No class or nation today is waging class or international war mainly, if at all, for objectives which by any stretch of the imagination can be called Christian. For one thing, truly Christian objectives are not pursued by means of class or international war. The simple historical and philosophical facts are that Christ never issued a call to class or national war. Those who are now summoning their fellow men to fight for British, French or American imperialism in the name of Christ are pious frauds. The call to fight for Caesar should not be made in the name of God, except where the two can be combined as happened in ancient Rome or present-day Japan. If the system calls for the separation of church and state, God and the church should not be mobilized for every war. But they are.

Individuals can take refuge in religious escape; nations cannot. The individual can flee into the wilderness and live on locusts and wild honey. The nation, the community or the social class cannot renounce the world, and escape from it to a religious asylum there to live a life of devout contemplation and prayer supported by the working and sinning community outside. The tens of millions of people crowded into a small area like that of the British Isles or Germany cannot take seriously a religious ethic, the practice of which would mean starvation for millions of them. Specifically, they cannot reject discipline as regimentation, a war for feeding places as immoral or a program of socialization at home and aggrandizement abroad as selfish. And to say, as do many internationalists, that the over-populated nations, poor in land, food and raw materials, are able to buy all they need is the rankest intellectual dishonesty when it is known that the world is ruled by autarchy and policies of tariff and immigration exclusiveness. For one nation to invoke against another Christian ethics which no nation can possibly practice and remain a nation is the height of inconsistency. And it is an inconsistency which no Christian ethic prescribes.

The saddest commentary on the invocation of ethics, especially those of Christianity, in connection with current conflicts is that the motive is usually selfish and bellicose, hence highly unchristian. Our wealthy conservatives do not plead for Christian charity, nor do they go and sell all that they have and give to the poor as Christ bade the rich young ruler do. They invoke Christian ethics for the protection of the money changers or to support the class interest of the rich against the class interest of the poor. Our militant liberals do not invoke the ethic of the Prince of Peace, the ethic of good will to men and peace on earth, but seek only to pit the Cross against the swastika or the hammer and sickle. The appeals to ethics are made in support of unchristian interests and unchristian acts in defense or furtherance of those interests. They are made in cases where an appeal to facts would not be convincing and where the action sought is against the best interests of those to whom the appeal is made, as well, of course, as against the most fundamental Christian ethic.

In conclusion, this book up to this point argues that good social ethics must be good social mechanics and dynamics, which is to say that they must work. Social ethics must change with social facts. Those who would oppose facts with ethics will learn to their sorrow that power is paramount to preference and that might which prevails thereby always becomes right.