The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter 16

The Regulation of War

§1. As has already been pointed out, any serious and unprovoked violation of strict international duty gives the State whose rights are violated a claim to reparation; and if reparation be obstinately refused, the offended State must be held to have a right to obtain it by force, with the aid of any other States that can be persuaded to join it. This exercise of force need not necessarily amount to war; for instance, if the property belonging to a State or any of its members has been unjustly seized by another State, reparation may be obtained by ``reprisals'',---i.e. by seizing the property of the offending State or its members, provided the public faith of the retaliating State is not pledged to its protection. It is possible that this exercise of force, if carefully limited to the exaction of redress, may be followed by negotiation and amicable settlement; but it is too probable that it will lead to the general rupture of peaceful relations---that substitution of physical conflict for verbal discussion, which we call war.

The refusal of reparation cannot be regarded as obstinate, if the inculpated State is willing to accept the decision of an arbitrator on the claims urged against it. And I think it very important that all who desire peace and justice should urge the adoption of this method of settling disputes, wherever there are not strong reasons for regarding it as impracticable; since an extension of arbitration seems the most hopeful means of reducing the danger of war among civilised States. At the same time, it is no less important to consider carefully the inevitable limitations of the sphere of practicable arbitration.

1. The violation of right may be a continuing evil, which requires immediate abatement as well as reparation; and the violence required for this abatement is likely to lead to further violence on the other side; so that the conflicting States may be drawn into the condition of war by a series of steps too rapid to allow of the delay necessary for arbitration, and involving so many fresh grounds of complaint, that the decision of the original dispute may easily sink into unimportance.

2. The interests at stake may be so serious that a State, believing itself able to obtain redress by its own strong hand, cannot reasonably be expected to run any serious risk of a wrong decision on the part of the arbitrator. And such a risk is likely to occur when the dispute is one that involves a disagreement on principles of international duty, widely extended among civilised States; since in such case it will be difficult to find an impartial and trustworthy arbiter. Thus, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it would have been difficult to find such an arbiter in Europe in any quarrel between a Catholic and a Protestant State; and in our own time, it would be difficult to find such an arbiter, in any quarrel caused by the claims of a nationality struggling for independence.

3. The weight of the consideration last mentioned is increased when we take into account the inevitable vagueness and uncertainty in which many important points in the determination of international duty are involved. This will appear from the present and preceding chapters, so far as the theoretical determination on principles is concerned; while in, the next chapter it will be shown that further difficulties arise when we try to settle the limits of strict---or ``legal''---international duty by reference to established usage. In consequence of these uncertainties and difficulties, even where there is no definite conflict of principles, the ties of interest and alliance that bind nations together may render it difficult to find an arbiter whose, absence of bias can be trusted when the question to be decided is of great importance.

A portion of the obstacles to arbitration just stated would certainly be diminished, if civilised nations could be induced to agree on the appointment of a standing Court of International Arbitration, to which questions might be referred for decision by the consent of disputant States. Still the danger of bias would not be removed; and it would still be very doubtful whether, in disputes in which serious national interests were at stake, the government of a powerful State would feel justified in incurring the danger,---even supposing it to be sincerely desirous of subordinating national interests to international justice. In such cases peace might often be more likely to be preserved by conciliatory efforts to find through direct negotiation a tolerable compromise between the conflicting interests of the disputants, than by insisting on arbitration.

Historically, the two causes of bias that I have distinguished have often operated together. The most serious wars of the European group of States have been the combined results of conflicting fundamental principles, religious or political, and conflicting national or governmental interests of great---real or supposed---importance: and where such conflicts arise, arbitration is rarely likely to be an acceptable means of preserving peace; since the conflict of principles makes it difficult to find an arbiter in whose decision both sides can sincerely acquiesce as just, while the magnitude of the interests at stake makes acquiescence in an unjust decision appear a supine and cowardly abandonment of patriotic duty.

4. We must also take note of the cases where open and avowed invasions of international rights are resorted to as a measure of self-protection on the part of the invading State, without any hostile intent,---as in the famous seizure by England of the Danish fleet in 1807. Such measures may be justified as necessary to the self-preservation of the State that resorts to them; but it can hardly be expected that the State that suffers from them will patiently submit to them, if it has any reasonable prospect of success in war.

Supposing war inevitable, we have to consider what rules can be laid down for the conduct of the States engaged in it, or of other States.

In the first place, we cannot lay down, on the principle of mutual non-interference, that it is the strict duty of any State, other than those between whom the quarrel has broken out, to take part in the war. If, however, there is general agreement as to the right and wrong of a quarrel, I think that it is, generally speaking, both the duty and the interest of neighbouring States to take the risk of threatening intervention to prevent manifest aggression, if there is a fair prospect of forming a league of States for the purpose of such intervention, so strong as to render resistance on the part of the aggressor improbable. I think that the formation of such leagues is the most hopeful mode of preparing the way for a permanent federation of civilised States, strong enough to prevent wars among its members. If, however, there is no general agreement as to the side on which justice lies, or if, for some other cause, it is impossible to form a league of decisive strength on behalf of what is recognised as justice, it will be generally both the duty and the interest of the neighbouring States to adopt the attitude of strict neutrality, in order to avoid useless and dangerous extension of the evils of war.

Accordingly, in formulating the rules which civilised opinion should attempt to impose on combatants, we must abstract from all consideration of the justice of the war; we must treat both combatants on the assumption that each believes himself in the right, and that his object in fighting is to obtain due redress for wrong, and adequate security against its repetition: since, whether this be so or not in any particular case, it would usually be idle to try to subject an unjust combatant as such to any special restrictions or disabilities in the conduct of his war. For, even supposing that there is a decided preponderance of opinion in the rest of the civilised world in favour of one of the combatants ; still the subjection of the other combatant to special disabilities could only be usefully enforced by a concert of nations which, if it can be made effective for this purpose, could probably be made effective for the prevention of the war altogether, and had much better be so employed.

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