The Significance of the Arbitration Treaties


SOME years ago, the United States advisedly changed the policy of isolation which had obtained since the days of Washington for one of participation in international politics; but the significance of this step, the obligations under which it has already placed us, the benefits it has already conferred upon us, the probable good and possible ill that may in future be its consequences, do not seem as yet to be generally understood by the nation. Yet the issue raised by the arbitration treaties, now awaiting confirmation by the Senate, is nothing less than that of the position and influence of the United States in international affairs: the question of our relations, not only with England and France, but with Germany, Russia, Mexico, Cuba, China, and every country that has or hopes to have a place in world-politics. Paradoxically, the arbitration treaties were born not simply of an enthusiasm for peace, but of the interests and ambitions of the great nations of the world. In gazing too fixedly at the commercial and humanitarian reasoning proving the desirability of peace, and even the necessity of freedom from the burdens of war, we close our eyes to the no less striking and infinitely more significant facts which demonstrate that the nations of the world possess interests and ambitions irreconcilable with the supposition of peace, and impossible of decision at Hague Tribunals.

An idea is current that the arbitration treaties are attempts by England and France to secure an offensive and defensive alliance with us against Germany. To such statements in the Senate, the reply was made that the idea was entirely preposterous, a statement which was literally correct, but which the newswriters promptly interpreted as a denial of any real significance in the treaties save a humanitarian desire for arbitration. Needless to add, this was the avoidance of Scylla only to be wrecked with a vengeance upon Charybdis. The Senate, like the newspapers, misconceives the international position of the United States. They see us, in the Miltonic phrase, ‘a noble and puissant nation, rousing herself like a strong man after sleep and shaking her invincible locks, as an eagle mewing her mighty youth and kindling her undazzled eyes at the full mid-day beam.

Our swelling millions of population, our coffers overflowing with agricultural and industrial wealth, our towering cities and our prosperous towns, rouse their enthusiasm to such a pitch over the unprecedented growth of a civilization where there was an untamed wilderness a few generations ago, that they believe us capable of anything and think us as important as they feel. But such a method of reasoning minimizes our real strength, and loses sight of our real weakness. The cardinal error in studying our foreign policy is to regard the United States as possessed of the physical strength and strategical position indispensable to a nation which would obtain as of right a share in influencing the fortunes of Europe and Asia.


In fact, our greatest strength is at the same time our greatest weakness. From the assaults of foreign fleets and armies we are invulnerable. To be sure, our sea-coast is vast in extent and for the most part unprotected. A Japanese fleet might, indeed, land an army at Seattle, Los Angeles, or San Francisco without serious opposition; a German fleet might land an army anywhere on the Atlantic coast which could sweep aside our militia and occupy New York or Boston at will. Sed cui bono?

The British found out in the Revolution that the occupation of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia put them no nearer the military possession of the continent than they were before, and that marching through provinces was not subduing them. No doubt the seizure of New York would temporarily cripple the commercial and railroad enterprises which centre there, but even from a military point of view, its capture would be of little significance, for it is not a strategic spot in the European sense of a place from which an army could menace the safety of the whole country, and whose possession is conceded to be the equivalent of conquest. Its possession would not make the conquest of the country any nearer than before; and, as for holding the country in permanent subjection, it is probable that no foreign army large enough for such an occupation could be maintained in New York or any other American city at such a distance from its real base of supplies.

Nor is there any inducement to lead a foreign nation to attempt so hazardous an enterprise; we possess nothing she wants that force would be necessary to obtain, while a war with us would certainly expose her to the dangers of annihilation in Europe at the hands of those enemies who are waiting patiently for the commission of some such capital blunder. The timid may reassure themselves: the breadth of the Atlantic makes fleets and coast defences relatively unnecessary as pledges of the maintenance of our national independence.

This very invulnerability, however, prevents us from becoming a dominant or even an important factor in European politics. If they cannot menace us with armed reprisals, or with wars for conquest, we are equally unable to menace them. The eagle is the terror of the barnyard, not because she mews her mighty youth upon the mountain top, but because she may invade the barnyard and carry off its inhabitants bodily. The fact which is an unmixed blessing in domestic affairs, which allows us to beat our swords into ploughshares and our spears into pruninghooks, becomes our greatest weakness, once we desire to play a part in the affairs of the world.


In truth, disguise as we may the unpalatable fact, it still remains the truth that it is the international situation, the close balance of power between rival nations, rather than the position of the United States, that makes us a factor in international politics. There has never been, since man first began to record his acts and thoughts, so complicated a situation as exists in the world to-day. The foreign policy of the United States must be based upon an understanding of the Persian question and the great scheme of Germany, upon the Egyptian problem and the aims of England, upon affairs in India and China, and not at all upon the facts about America which to the casual observer would seem to be conclusive. In brief, the important element in our foreign policy is not our designs and ambitions, but the ambitions, strength, and position of other nations. To grasp its fundamentals will require a sketch of factors many of which had been long at the root of European affairs when Christopher Columbus first saw the dim outlines of Guanahani through the mists of the gray dawn.

The delicate balance of the European situation, its vital importance to every European nation, above all, the interrelation of its parts, largely make the United States a factor in international affairs. France fears not only Germany, but Spain and England. Germany,eager to secure control of the Baltic, finds herself menaced on the east by Russia, with the same ambition, which can be gratified only at Germany’s expense; and on the west by France, thirsting to avenge the loss of Alsace. England is imperiled whether the Germans attack her, or seize France or Belgium, for a strategic position on the Channel might allow the Kaiser to revolutionize the European situation. At the same time the control of the Channel by England puts German trade in jeopardy, for the long and hazardous voyage round the British Isles fairly forces Germany to use the Channel as a road for her commerce, and inevitably makes its possessors her natural enemies. The existence of Belgium as the strategic point of the European side of the Channel, Germany’s possession of Lorraine, the gateway to Paris, the English control of the Channel, make it impossible for these three nations to view each other except with fear and apprehension. Each holds in its hands the possibility of jeopardizing the other’s prosperity, as well as the ability at any moment to menace the other’s very independence.

Nor are we now in the days when it required so long to mobilize an army, so long to march to the scene of action that the party attacked had usually time to prepare a pretty effective resistance. Modern warfare has made imperative a different sort of an army to resist invasion from a collection of peasants armed with pikes and bows or a body of yokels equipped with flintlocks and fresh from the plough. As Lord Roberts has just forcibly pointed out to the English people, the modern army cannot be equipped and drilled for efficient service in the few short weeks which even a tardy advance by the invader might allow the invaded for preparation. The horrible destructiveness of modern armament and its terrible efficiency leave no alternative but destruction or a constant readiness to meet whatever your adversary might do, should he completely disregard all right and justice. Europe presents the aspect, of an armed camp, not in the least because it fails to appreciate the desirability of peace, but because it sees no other method of avoiding the certain evils which would flow from a war for conquest. Each sees its rivals’ opportunity for evil only too well to put much faith in their protestations of pacific intent. Behind modern armament is not so much a desire for war, as a fierce determination to preserve national independence and the integrity of the national domain at all costs.

At the same time, the complexity of the problems of no single group of states, whether in Europe, in the Middle East, or the Far East, could possibly give the United States prominence. In each the natural antipathies counteract each other. Only the fact that every nation is anxious to maintain or win power and wealth in Europe and Africa and Asia can make us important to any of them. We must realize that only as European questions are themselves factors in the larger problems of the anxiety of England about India, the fears of France for Morocco, the ambition of Russia and of Germany to seize India, can they concern the United States at all. European politics had to become world-politics, Asiatic and African questions had to become European, before the United States could begin to play a part in their solution. We have ourselves no vital stake in any one of these fields, and normally, therefore, cannot, even if we would, risk the same stake as the European nations do; the Atlantic on one side, and the Pacific on the other, insure our independence more absolutely than could the fleets and coalitions of centuries. Only the creation of world-politics by other nations can give us a share in it.

For the United States, the most vital fact is that no nation has the same natural allies in all parts of the world. England and France are at one in opposing the extension of German authority in Europe, but nothing but their extreme danger in the Mediterranean at the time of the Crimean War and the peril to which they have been exposed in Europe since the Franco-Prussian War has buried the enmity of deadly strife in America and especially in India. Russia is the firm ally of both England and France in Europe; she is their deadliest foe in the Black Sea, in Persia, in India, and in China. Yet, to oppose Germany, we see Russia and England amicably enough uniting to crush Persian independence. Germany must secure French and English aid to secure herself against Russian aggression on the east, but finds her very allies her greatest competitors in trade, and the most determined opponents of her expansion on the west. At the very moment, nevertheless, at which the British lion and the German eagle are loudly threatening to tear each other’s flesh in Europe, when the Crown Prince is publicly indicating his sympathy with the war party, and when the Imperial Chancellor’s declarations of pacific intentions are being greeted with roars of derision in the Reichstag, we find the two guarding the railroad to Pekin together, and acting in concert about the Chinese loan.

The variety of the interests of these nations makes it impossible for them entirely to trust or distrust each other, to keep or reject each other’s friendship. England, who needs Russia’s aid in Europe and in Persia, cannot act too determinedly in her opposition to Russian advance in Afghanistan and Manchuria. Germany, who hates the Russian in the Baltic, must secure at least his acquiescence to her designs on England and France before the great scheme can be executed.

In all this the United States has no personal interest, nor does she possess any strategical position, or military or naval strength, that would permit her to play a decisive part in the field on either side. It is, however, none the less true that we are a great factor in the international situation, and may be some day a decisive factor. The United States seems in some ways to be indispensable to England and to France, and therefore is an extremely desirable ally for Germany. The economic and financial condition of these countries will make clearer what the possibilities of our position really are.


England and France realize that each needs the support of the other’s capital. Both are keenly alive to the fact that a new force of amazing potency has been born of the new international credit structure and the new finance. The growth of trusts and corporations, the sale of bonds to foreign investors, the placing of large government loans in foreign countries, has made the world’s financial and credit structures so interdependent that a disaster in one country would be sure to induce a crisis in others. Moreover, wealth is not capital: only ready money which is not at the moment tied up in investments or business, is capital in the international sense; and at any one moment that country is really the strongest which has the most ready money to devote to defraying the excessively large expenses imperative in modern warfare. France and England see that they control between them the bulk of Europe’s funds available for loan or investment, and they are alive to the fact that this capital places in their hands, for the present, the control of the international situation, because to wage a war of sufficient size to change it would require larger sums of ready money than any other single country could furnish.

Until the summer of 1911 the truth of this aspect of the situation was not fully grasped by most statesmen, to say nothing of the general public,— being concealed by the fact that the private debts and loans of the citizens of a country are not only, as a usual thing, far greater in amount than its public indebtedness, but, being private and changing rapidly (even from week to week) in complexion, their amount is rarely, if ever, known. Thus, when the war scare of that summer caused the wholesale recall of English and French loans in Germany and the sale of German stocks, bonds, and securities on all the European exchanges, it became apparent that the operation had not only deprived the Fatherland of the ready money needed to begin an offensive war, but had brought her commercial and financial world to the verge of actual bankruptcy.

To maintain this ascendancy — whose extent, though not its existence, was now first apprehended — is, of course, the chief safeguard of England and France against Germany’s plans; and, with Russia crippled by war and mortgaged to the French Rothschilds, and Belgium’s financial powers united to the latter family by the ties of blood and interest alike, there was in the world only one possible rival. To the west lay a land whose coffers already overflowed with capital sufficient to finance vast enterprises. Moreover, it was so highly organized that it could be manipulated by a few men, although the net yearly incomes of the businesses in their hands were many times that of the national government. Suppose that this easily available capital were placed behind the German coalition! The much-abused trusts and railways of this country give us our stake in the international game; they alone compel recognition. Had not that recognition already been accorded, had not this country been already pledged to England, perhaps the German Emperor’s request to Wall Street for a war-loan this last summer might not have been declined.

Still other influences make an alliance with the United States imperative for England and France. The former is absolutely dependent on foreign supplies for her food, and her rapidly diminishing supply of the raw materials — coal, iron, and steel — needed to create, equip, and maintain a modern navy in a state of high efficiency, is causing her statesmen great anxiety. The only ample supply of all these articles so essential to England’s safety, not in the hands of her enemies, is found in this country, and the very fact that we are three thousand miles away from Europe in the opposite direction from the probable seats of war makes these supplies easily available because it simplifies the task of maintaining communications. Moreover, war would certainly stop the regular trade between England, Egypt, India, and Australia, so that were it not for American cotton, wool, and other raw materials, the great English factories must suspend work. Nor have the English forgotten that she was enabled to fight Napoleon successfully because she was able to continue manufacturing when the rest of Europe was forced by the war to stop. Should the war force her to stop, what then would be the consequences?

In other words, without the assistance of the United States, England might starve; her fleet might in time become inefficient; and a commercial crisis of the worst description might occur. Nor would this be all. Unless a market for her goods could be found in the United States, unless she could procure from the United States the quantities of manufactured goods necessary for the war, which because of the war she could not herself make, her factories might just as well suspend work and her people prepare to suffer from cold and nakedness. She is no longer as self-sufficing as a century ago, nor is her supremacy in manufacturing anything like as great as it was when the Industrial Revolution was in its prime.

Nor would the situation in France be widely different. She can feed herself in time of peace, but with her men in the army she could neither supply food nor the manufactured goods imperative for equipment and for the daily use of the population at home. And England could not supply her with either.

The economic supremacy of England is no longer as overwhelming as it was in the days of Bonaparte. And then, for such goods as France does make, mainly luxuries, she must depend upon a market in the United States when the markets of Europe are closed. But, chiefest of all, without the aid of the English fleet, whose maintenance may depend wholly on the United States, she is lost. Only the fear of that fleet now keeps the Germans out of Paris, so the latter declare. Hence, although the United States is not herself a factor in the game at all, upon her active coöperation may depend, perhaps, the very existence of the chief factors, not only in European but in Mediterranean and Asiatic politics.

If it is our money and coal, our grain and steel, that Europe wants, why does she not make her arrangements with the trusts and Wall Street, who, the magazine writers seem to think, control the situation? The answer is simple. The private citizens of a great nation cannot undertake overt acts, for which the country would be responsible in time of war, without the consent of the national government. Whether the money of the trusts, or the wheat raised by Dakota farmers, makes us a desirable ally, the European nations can deal only with the government, for it is only against the government that they have any remedy for breach of faith or of contract. Besides, only with the government’s aid and, in fact, only with the approval of the people in general, can either France or England receive the degree of assistance which alone will avail.


Why now should the United States consent? Why should she welcome an alliance which would apparently force her to assume responsibilities which are not essential to her own prosperity and safety? Above all, why should the interests of the people as a whole be risked to furnish a market for the wares of the trusts, and high rates of interest for capitalists, as many ‘discerning’ people will at once assume the object of the whole transaction to be?

It is a grave error to suppose that England is less essential to us than we are to her. It is an equally grave error for the ‘average’ man to suppose that she is more essential to the trusts than she is to him. Without the services of the English merchant marine to carry our foreign trade, our factories must shut down. We are at present producing at a rate far beyond our own capacity to consume, and the English and French market for our surplus goods would be absolutely necessary to us, if European war should divide that continent into two camps, one of which would be closed to us by the presence of the English fleet on the other side.

Nor can we choose the side of Germany. We must cling to the power which owns both the bulk of the merchant marine of the world, and the navy which can maintain an open road to its own ports and those of its allies. England’s geographical position places her squarely between us and Germany and would force us to deal with England before we could reach her. Shipping subsidies would not avail us much: it would take decades to create a merchant marine large enough to replace that part of the English fleet now occupied with our trade; until our navy is large enough to challenge England’s with some chance of winning battles, it is foolish for us to build ships which England will capture in the next war; and, until our navy can contest England’s supremacy of the Atlantic, we cannot dream of dispensing with her assistance in peace and war. If we must depend upon her at all, it is better to depend upon her altogether, for the benefit is mutual.

In addition, we need large quantities of English and French manufactured products which we do not make, the eastern wares they control, and their capital to use in developing our natural resources. But, above all, we must ally with England if we propose to have colonies, dig canals, and have a share in the exploitation of the Far East. Only crass ignorance of modern conditions, only a complete lack of imagination, could lead any one to suppose that we took possession of the Philippines, Hawaii, Porto Rico, and Panama without English consent. Nothing, in fact, but England’s refusal to countenance interference prevented the concerted action of Europe against, us in the Spanish-American War. We own colonies eight thousand miles away, largely by reason of the assistance of the nation whose fleets control the sea. We need a navy ourselves, not so much to maintain our colonies in existence, — for England will not countenance the presence on the seas of a fleet large enough to dictate to her, — but to relieve the English fleet of the necessity of protecting from other fleets than her own the ocean highway to America, and our possessions in the Gulf of Mexico and the Far East.

As a matter of fact, the present, arbitration treaties cannot create an alliance between the United States and England, because the alliance was consummated years ago and we are already enjoying its fruits. To be sure, the day had come when the ambitions of the United States coincided well with English plans. Ever since the days when Louisiana was first purchased, the men of the Mississippi Valley had dreamed of the extension of the sway of the United States over all Central America and the Gulf. Burr’s treason, the Mexican War, Walker’s filibustering expedition, the Clayton-Bulwer treaty, the assertion of the Monroe Doctrine against the possession of Mexico by Napoleon III, were only the forerunners of the events which are giving us complete control of Central America by the same methods of pénétration pacifique by which England, France, and Germany have extended their colonial empires.

For a long while, as the treaties show, both France and England successfully and vigorously opposed our schemes; but of recent years their opposition has been withdrawn as the price of a new alliance with the United States based upon a new conception of world-economy. Germany evinced a desire to interfere in Venezuela, and the difficulty of the Mediterranean and Persian situations made it clear that no strength could be spared for the Western Hemisphere. Hence the two nations turned over to the United States their claims to Central America and their treaty and property rights to dig a canal. We were to keep all other nations out.

In the Far East, too, there was only one strategic spot the two did not hold, and only one they could not take for fear of European complications. The Spanish-American War solved the problem by giving the United States an excuse to seize the Philippines, and thus added to the holdings of the alliance that great group which controls the eastern side of the South China Sea and furnishes them with a base of supplies and a citadel safe from assault so long as they can command the sea. Incidentally, these colonies would provide the United States with an avowed interest and a tangible stake in the Far East which would enable her to begin the realization of the dreams that sent Perry to visit Japan before the Civil War.

Moreover, the English see in the Panama Canal a new road to India, the one of which Columbus had dreamed, longer certainly than the road through the Suez Canal, not much shorter perhaps than the passage around Africa, but incomparably safer than either. Should Russia’s plans or Germany’s great scheme actually succeed in reaching India through Persia, the allies would still have a military road to the East of the first consequence and a trade-route of value.

Those who can read the handwriting on the wall have already seen the clear proof of this new policy in the tacit renunciation of European treaty rights forbidding us to dig canals or project spheres of influence over Central America; in the sight of a United States army camped on the Mexican frontier; in our creation with undignified haste of a Panama republic; in our overturning governments and countenancing filibusters and revolutions in Honduras and Nicaragua. The natives at last realize the truth — that we intend to control and, eventually, to annex their countries. Already the finances of most of these unhappy states are in American hands; already their customs are assigned to American‘syndicates’; their plantations bought by, or mortgaged to, Americans. In fact, our private citizens already own the whole Gulf and its inhabitants, body and soul, just as the French do Morocco, the English and Russians, Persia, and the Italians, Tripoli.

Yet, strangely enough, the real truth about these so-called Wall Street transactions, their identity with European action in Africa and Asia, seeps but slowly into the minds of the American people. They cannot grasp the fact that bankers are not personally involved at all; are only agents for the national government in a transaction to which the government cannot openly be a party itself, and occupy the same position the Bank of England and the Bank of France have held in similar transactions in a dozen localities. They cannot see that the United States controls the banker in this case, that his appointment was made in London and Paris, and not in Washington, that the lack of a bank supported by the government compels us to intrust the task to a private citizen, but only to one whom foreign governments and bankers can implicitly trust.

So, again, Wall Street’s refusal of a loan to Germany last summer, and its participation in Chinese railroad loans, and its share in the negotiations for a new loan to the Chinese republic, are not proof of its desire to influence politics, but are the clearest possible proof of our alliance with England and France, and of the fact that we have been, at last, accorded a place in the great game for the conquest of the world. A moment’s thought will show that England and France did not cancel all their treaty obligations with this country and permit us to undertake the wholesale rearrangement of affairs in Central America in order to make money for Wall Street; and that the insistence of the United States government that an American citizen should share in the Chinese loans could not have been successful unless the United States held a relationship to other nations which in itself would make impossible a demand whose only purpose was the aggrandizement of an individual. Wall Street is not the United States government.

The United States government is just at present using Wall Street as its agent in delicate foreign matters where it cannot itself appear. And these issues in which the United States is thus indirectly playing a part concern the safety and future of the world, and are necessarily based upon larger conceptions than the making of dollars for individuals. To throw open the subscription list for these bonds as the magazines desire, to allow the general public to invest in these political enterprises, would deprive the United States government of the absolute control it must exercise over them, and which it can have only so long as the ‘ loan ’ is in one firm’s hands. It would, furthermore, result in the withdrawal of European support, without which the schemes themselves are impossible.


The arbitration treaties merely give formal notice to Germany and Russia of the firm intention of the three contracting nations to maintain their former alliance at all costs, under all circumstances. They mean that the alliance is based on such fundamental and vital factors in the life and policy of the three that no war between them could ever win for any one of them successes commensurable with the certain risks and probable losses. They say: we cannot afford to fight each other; everything, therefore, shall be submitted to arbitration; but the fact of significance is not the arbitration, but the realization that their mutual interests make war impossible. The treaties are merely a public confession of this fact. The real issues the treaties raise for discussion in the Senate are not those of alliance or the expediency of arbitration in general. We should ask ourselves whether we want colonies at all in the Gulf of Mexico, in the Philippines, in the Pacific, or elsewhere; whether we want to pass in at the open door that leads to the Chinese trade; whether we wish to have a part in world-politics; whether we wish Washington to be, some day in the distant future, the centre of an Anglo-Saxon empire controlling both hemispheres. And we must recognize frankly that the only alternative is to remain forever satisfied with what we have, and a readiness to accept whatever influence in the world’s affairs the Europeans may allow us.

The announcement that the United States is willing to conclude a similar treaty with Germany is not at all inconsistent with the view just propounded. Germany and the United States could never have a controversy over which it would be ever worth either’s while to go to war; neither could possibly fight the other except on the sea, where she could win nothing of value, and might lose much of consequence by exposing herself to other attacks; a money indemnity for wrongs suffered must, in any case, be arranged by arbitration, whether the arbitrators are members of a permanent court or assemble for the purpose. Both powers have, in addition, everything to gain from arbitration.

Germany thus assures herself of the presence of her whole fleet at home to protect herself and menace England; she could not under any circumstances afford to weaken it to attack us, and she will now be relieved of the possibility. The United States, on the other hand, may jeopardize the affairs of the alliance at any moment by taking independent action against Germany of such a nature as to make war necessary. England and France, dependent on American food and trade, could not allow Germany to prevent them from trading freely with us, as she would certainly at once attempt in case of war, nor run the risk of having English merchant ships captured for carrying contraband.

In fact, a war between Germany and the United States would immediately put in peril the European, Mediterranean, and Asiatic situations, and probably bring about the general world-war, which every one is anxious to avoid. England and France therefore, and Germany as well, are most desirous of preventing us from precipitating a struggle in which they may lose not only colonies and wealth, but their very independence, when we are physically prevented from risking our own national existence, and cannot therefore be deterred from action by the same fear of vital consequences. We do not wish to fight England and France; we cannot be allowed to fight Germany.

Doubtless, the industrial and intellectual arguments for international arbitration, and the evident swing of public opinion toward it, have influenced deeply the action of the contracting nations in the present treaties; but these considerations have dictated the form that the agreement should take rather than its making or its terms. Instead of using a secret defensive and offensive alliance, or a formal agreement whose terms should be secret but whose existence should be acknowledged, the nations have adopted the most popular form of international agreement. It is a significant and, indeed, a great step in advance, to bring them to the point of declaring publicly that they prefer peace to war, whatever may be the motives that actuate the declaration; but it is still true that the relative strength and ambitions of nations, rather than legal conceptions and ethical notions, govern their actions.