The International Policeman

By A. Lawrence Lowell
(President of Harvard University)

[The Independent; June 14, 1915]

Valuable as are treaties for international arbitration, most thoughtful people have become convinced that they must remain in large part ineffective for preventing war without some means of compulsion. It is not enough for nations to agree to submit disputes to arbitration if there is no power to compel them to do so. We need not only a tribunal but also a policeman, or rather a sheriff and posse comitatus; and in the absence of any superior power to enforce the treaties it would seem necessary for the nations themselves to adopt some plan whereby they agree to restrain any one of their number from making war upon another before submitting its grievance to the tribunal. This may involve the use of force, a resort to war to prevent war, and we must honestly face that possibility. Any one who is not prepared to oppose unlawful force by force used to maintain law is simply aiding the doctrine that might makes right.

For Americans the participation in a League of Peace means a departure from traditions of non-interference in the affairs of other continents. But men who will not take part in the posse comitatus of a sheriff in enforcing the law, or quelling a riot, have no business to criticize his conduct or give him advice. It is sheer impertinence for us to frame plans for preventing war in Europe, or to instruct the nations there what they ought to do, if we are not to assume our share of the responsibility and burden. By the force of circumstances we have become one of the family of nations, and cannot avoid being put in jeopardy by breaches of the peace. If, therefore, we cannot maintain a position of complete political and moral isolation, we cannot refuse to take part in a League of Peace which we believe other nations ought to form.

The object of such a league should be to reduce the probability of war as much as possible; for no one not sanguine to a marvelously comfortable degree believes that by any contrivance war can be at once and forever banished from the earth; and to attempt too much means to accomplish less. The best aids in reducing the probability of war would appear to be publicity and delay; if the resort to arms could always be prevented until the matter in dispute had been submitted to public hearing before an impartial tribunal, even if its decision is not wholly satisfactory to the parties concerned, much would be gained. Of course, with human nature emotional and defective, it will not always be possible so to constitute a tribunal that its judgment will be fair; but it ought to be possible always to secure a fair hearing, a full public presentation of evidence and arguments, and that in itself would tend to avert war. Passion would have time to cool down, public opinion would have a chance to be formed both within the nation and in other countries, the military advantage of a sudden attack would be lost, and people would consider soberly whether the game was worth the candle.

The proposal for a League of Peace provides, therefore, for an agreement between all the great states in the world first, that before taking up arms they will submit their differences, if justiciable to an international tribunal, and if not justiciable to a council of conciliation; and second that they will enforce this by jointly declaring war on any member who attacks another before the matter has been so submitted and a reasonable time allowed for hearing and judgment. That the need of such a joint enforcement of the treaty would be highly improbable is self-evident. The knowledge that it would be used would be enough; but its whole effect depends upon the fact that it is sincerely intended, and would in any case be fully carried out if necessary. No doubt any agreement among nations may be abortive, or may break down at the time of trial, and hence it is wise not to make it too hard to fulfil. For this reason the plan does not contemplate a universal agreement to abide by, or enforce, the decisions of the tribunal or council. A nation that is perfectly willing to compel by force of arms delay and hearing, may well be reluctant to go to war to force another state to accept a decision which it does not think just.

It has been suggested that non-intercourse should be substituted in the plan for enforcement by arms; yet this would be far less effective in preventing war, and in fact more difficult to carry out.

A country that has bound itself to its neighbors to go to war under certain conditions may be expected to do so, but to upset all trade and industry by non-intercourse involves delay and strenuous commercial opposition at home hard to overcome.

War is a terrible thing, involving fierce passions, and it can be prevented only by strong, bold and rapid measures. The plan presented is not free from defects; it contemplates not a utopia, but an improvement; yet of all the proposals so far put forward it seems to offer the best prospects for removing this scourge.

Cambridge, Massachusetts

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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