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The Law and the Facts

ISSUE:  Autumn 1928

State Security and the League of Nations. By Bruce Williams. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press. $2.75.

Dr. Williams’s study reminds one somewhat of that drafting device known as the pantograph, in which, while one pencil traces a design in small dimensions, another simultaneously traces it in larger dimensions. The small design, in this case, is made up of the abstract principles to which Dr. Williams succeeds in sticking with an inflexibility to the lay mind almost uncanny; the larger design, the complex, contradictory and more or less irrelevant concrete facts toward which the fancy of the ordinary reader keeps flitting.

The latter, endeavoring to emulate Dr. Williams’s own concentration, and hold to the matter in hand, feels a bit as he does on one of those revolving Coney Island platforms, on which the victim endeavors to clamp himself to the center of the circle while centrifugal force is constantly flinging him toward the periphery. In the center of the circle, in this case, are such topics as “the principle in international law that the state has a right to existence and self-preservation,” “the freedom of the state to initiate war at its own discretionary sovereign will,” the modifications of the “prevailing doctrine of neutrality” brought about by, the League Covenant, “the movement within recent years for a more effective juridical order in the society of states,” and so on, while at the periphery of the field are Vilna, the Tyrol, the Rhine, Mexico, Haiti, Nicaragua and innumerable other matters similarly alive, concrete and bothersome.

To mention the mood thus suggested may seem merely another way of stating the self-evident fact that such a work as this isn’t light summer reading, but the mood itself goes deeper—it is significant of the average citizen’s general sketchiness on this whole subject, his readiness to jump to generalizations and easy pictures, his lack of clear understanding of just what the League has grown into and of “the strength and diffusion of the sentiment for international solidarity.” It is precisely this general sketchiness which compels the close study which Dr. Williams has given to one corner of the field and gives such work as this its real usefulness.

The ideal which inspired President Wilson and the mood which made a whole continent turn to him as a sort of savior when he went to Europe, were just as “real,” in their way, as the various political and nationalistic “realities” which later interposed to shatter the dreams of both. It would be as idle to deny the one as to ignore the other, to brush the first aside, as merely a dream, because the second made its realization imperfect.

Dr. Williams’s work makes clear the countless difficulties encountered and the adjustments that have had to be made at every step in the League’s path, from the first hazy acceptances of Articles 10 and 16, down through the attempts to clarify and extend the principles expressed in these articles through the draft Treaty of Mutual Assistance and the Geneva Protocol, to the Locarno Agreements.

Is it true, as the late Lord Bryce said at the Williams-town Institute of Politics, in 1921, two years after the signing of the Covenant, that while in civilized countries “individual man is now under Law and not in a State of Nature towards his fellow-men, every political community, whether republican or monarchical, is in a State of Nature towards every other community—in the very condition in which savage men were before they were gathered into communities legally organized”?

Self-preservation is the “first law of life,” and every state “has a right to its existence.” But how absolute is this right? There may be states whose existence, in their actual boundaries, is not essential to society at large. Was Germany, in invading Belgium, “in a state of legitimate defence,” in which no law held but that of necessity? Suppose the first interest of society were justice, and that justice were violated when any state which had not failed in its duty was subjected to aggression for the supposed preservation of another? In this case, to take an illustration near at hand, what is happening at the present moment in Haiti and Nicaragua? Is justice being served, the “right to existence” being violated, or is something of each going on simultaneously?

Agreeing that another Great War might mean the “end of civilization” we get together, as civilized nations, to guarantee each other’s security. Does this mean that the present status quo is to last forever? How far can the analogy, between individuals and states be carried in subjecting the latter to a rule of law? There is no John Bull to personify England except in the cartoons. England is composed, in one sense, of an aggregation of more or less heterogeneous individuals, in another, of a government which may be one thing today, with Mr. Ramsay McDonald as Premier, and quite another thing tomorrow.

It is, again, one thing to define aggression, and quite another to ascertain the existence of aggression, and to say with certainty which state was first actually guilty of resorting to it. The breaking of the Covenant entails the immediate obligation on the part of league members of breaking off relations with the offending state, but should the carrying out of this obligation be similarly immediate on the part of all concerned? Are little Finland, Denmark, Norway, each of which could be invaded and quickly, crushed, to declare war against one of their larger European neighbors as promptly as, let us say, Chile or Costa Rica?

The above are samples, taken more or less hit or miss, from the countless questions that arise immediately the effort is made to turn the hazy notion of a society of na


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