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The Experiment That Failed

ISSUE:  Autumn 1941

A Great Experiment: An Autobiography. By Viscount Cecil. Oxford University Press. $3.50.

Viscount Cecil’s “A Great Experiment” is a great and indispensable book. It is not so much an autobiography of a man as it is the biography of an institution, the League of Nations; but then, Viscount Cecil is almost an institution himself. His life has been so closely intertwined with the life and fortunes of the League that his autobiography must inevitably become a biography of the Geneva edifice. One can only hope that this is the first of a series of more detailed, more fully documented volumes tracing the life of the League from its glorious conception to its final decay. No one is more qualified to undertake this painful task than Viscount Cecil, who for twenty years was one of the chief actors on the Geneva stage, and who writes so well. There is charm in the simplicity of his sentences in which the personal pronoun is never obtrusive. Not many people can write so objectively, so impersonally, and so coolly about themselves and their accomplishments.

The central problem of the book is how to explain British foreign policy during the past twenty years. In 1919 Britain held a position of unchallenged world supremacy. Almost every dream of the most ambitious imperialists had come true; every dangerous rival in the Near East and Asia had been eliminated; in Europe, all the small states, although allied to France, looked to London for leadership, Nothing stands out more clearly in Viscount Cecil’s narrative than the overwhelming prestige and influence of Great Britain; for year after year the fifty-odd nations assembled in the League followed London’s leadership, in matters of moment no less than in insignificant administrative details. Yet less than a score of years after attaining these heights the Empire has to fight for life in a struggle of unprecedented magnitude. How is one to explain this decline—a fall more precipitous than that of the Roman Empire?

The author of “A Great Experiment” has no answer to this crucial question. The answer has to be sought, I think, in the fields of sociology, economics, and cultural history, Viscount Cecil deals with effects, not with causes. British foreign policy, which was indeed “a particularly foolish form of national suicide,” was the effect of a vast array of forces operating in England. This book documents the tragic effects of this decline as, they were expressed in the field of foreign relations.

When the first World War came to an end, Britain had the choice of two policies. London might have decided that, glorious speeches about the “new era” notwithstanding, man, tainted as he is with original sin, can no more change his spots than the leopard; that men and nations are bound to remain as selfish, as narrow-minded, and as cruel as ever; that the law of tooth and claw must remain, as in the past, the norm of international life. Translated into political terms such a philosophy should have spelled a big navy and a strong air force, a firm colonial policy aimed to crush opposition before it could be organized, and in particular a careful, hard-boiled foreign policy directed to prevent the rise of dangerous rivals. On the other hand, London might have decided that 1919 marked the beginning of a new era in human affairs; that moral and intellectual progress made possible the substitution of law for force, the sword of justice for the sword of Mars; that security had to be sought in the collaboration of the collective conscience and power of humanity. Translated into political terms such a view would have meant world disarmament, the reduction of trade barriers, a progressive social and economic policy at home and in the colonies, and, above all, unflinching championship of collective security under the League of Nations. Consistently, logically, relentlessly followed, either one of these two policies, it must be emphasized, would have preserved British supremacy and, in addition, world peace. Never before had Britain such an opportunity to enforce a worldwide Pax Britannicum as after 1919.

Unfortunately, Britain followed neither alternative to its logical end. Successive British cabinets claimed to stand with the League; in reality they lost no opportunity to undermine the Geneva structure. Yet—and this is the significant thing—the British authorities refused to face the implications of their policy, and neither armed nor played Machtpolitik as it should have been played.


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