The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter 18

Principles of External Policy

§1. In the three preceding chapters we have been considering the rules of international duty that should be maintained, by common opinion---and as far as possible applied in arbitration between States---in the interest of humanity at large. We have seen reason to adopt, at any rate as regards the relations of civilised and well-ordered States, a system analogous to what, in dealing with civil relations, is called Individualism, of which the fundamental rules prescribe avoidance of injury to person and property and enforcement of contracts; and we have examined the modifications of these rules,5 rendered necessary by the essential differences between States and individuals,---especially by the enlargement of the right and duty of self-protection, consequent on the want of a common government in the society of States. In the present chapter I propose to contemplate international matters from a somewhat different point of view, and to consider the principles and aims by which the action of a civilised government should be determined in dealing with the external relations of its State.

Here, first, a fundamental question has to be faced, as regards the general relation of national interest to international duty. It is sometimes frankly affirmed, and more often implied, in discussions on the principles of foreign policy, that a State is not properly subject---as an individual is commonly held to be---to any restraint of duty limiting the pursuit of its own interest: that its own interest is, necessarily and properly, its paramount end; and that when we affirm that it is bound to conform to any rules of international duty we can only mean, or ought only to mean, that such conformity will---on the whole and in the long run if not immediately---be conducive to its national interests. In my view all such statements are essentially immoral. For a State, as for an individual, the ultimate end and standard of right conduct is the happiness of all who are affected by its actions. It is of course true, for an individual no less than for a State---as the leading utilitarian moralists have repeatedly and emphatically affirmed---that the general happiness is usually best promoted by a concentration of effort on more limited ends. As Austin puts it---``The principle of general utility imperiously demands that [every individual person] commonly shall attend to his own rather than to the interests of others: that he shall not habitually neglect that which he knows accurately in order that he may habitually pursue that which he knows imperfectly.'' But---as the same writer is careful to add---``the principle of utility does demand of us that we shall never pursue our own peculiar good by means which are inconsistent with the general good'': accordingly, in the exceptional cases in which the interest of the part conflicts with the interest of the whole, the interest of the part---be it individual or State---must necessarily gave way. On this point of principle no compromise is possible, no hesitation admissible, no appeal to experience relevant: the principle does not profess to prescribe what states and individuals have done, but to prescribe what they ought to do. At the same time, I think it important not to exaggerate the divergence between the private interest of any particular State and the general interest of the community of nations. I conceive that it will be usually the interest of any particular State to conform to what we have laid down as the rules of international duty, so long as it has a reasonable expectation of similar conformity on the part of its neighbours;---at any rate in dealing with civilised, coherent, and well-ordered States, in whose case conquest could not be justified in the interest of the conquered State as a means of getting rid of the evils of disorder; or in the interest of humanity at large as a means of substituting a higher civilisation for a lower. And so far as the past conduct of any foreign State shows that reciprocal fulfilment of international duty cannot reasonably be expected from it, any State that may have to deal with it must, I conceive, be allowed in the interests of humanity, the extension of the right of self-protection which its own interests would prompt it to claim. From any point of view, it must be held right for a State to anticipate an attack which it has reasonable grounds for regarding as imminent, to meet wiles with wiles, as well as force with force, and in extreme cases to stamp out incurable international brigandage even by the severe measure of annihilating the independent existence of the offending State.

Again, it seems to be plain that, in its own interest, no less than in that of humanity at large, a State should incur some risk of sacrifice in order to avoid war, by accepting arbitration on all points of minor importance, or negotiation if an impartial arbiter cannot be found; and that it should make it a point of international policy to aim at improving the machinery of arbitration.

It is a different question whether it is the right policy to run the risk of war in order to prevent high-handed aggression by another State against a third. As we have seen, this cannot be imposed as a strict duty, on the view of international duty that I have adopted: and for any State to embark in a career of international knight-errantry, and send its armies about to take part in remote quarrels with which it had no special concern, would be hardly more conducive to the interests of the civilised world than it would be to those of the supposed quixotic community. Still, where the assailant is clearly in the wrong, it would seem to be the ultimate interest, on the whole, as well as the duty, of any powerful neighbouring State---even if its own more obvious interests are not directly threatened---to manifest a general readiness to co-operate in forcible suppression of the wrong. Indeed, unless we suppose that the mere exercise of superior force is kept under some check by the fear of the intervention of other States against palpable injustice, war between States decidedly unequal in strength will hardly retain its moral character at all: to treat it, even so far as I have done, as a sanction against the breach Of international duty would be solemn trifling. And I think that co-operation to prevent wanton breaches of international peace is the best mode of preparing the way for the ultimate federation of civilised States, to which I look forward. But in the present stage of civilisation, it would, I think, be a mistake to try to prevent wars altogether in this way. We may hope to put down by it palpable and high-handed aggression; but it is not applicable where there is a conflict of reasonable claims, too vague and doubtful to be clearly settled by general consent, and at the same time too serious to be submitted to arbitration. We may illustrate this by the present relations of France and Germany. Let it be granted that the war of 1870--71 was substantially an aggression on the part of the French, prompted by a quite inadmissible claim of France to prevent, or obtain territorial compensation for, the alteration of the balance of power caused by the unification of Germany: and that Germany, therefore, having repelled the aggression, had a right to take substantial guarantees against its repetition at the expense of France. It will still be widely held that the dismemberment actually inflicted was a punishment in which no civilised nation can be expected to acquiesce, so long as the portion torn away retains a preponderant desire for reunion. Accordingly, if at the present time France took an opportunity for going to war with Germany for the recovery of Alsace and Lorraine, the sympathies of impartial persons would largely incline in favour of France: at the same time, the claim of Germany to retain the provinces would seem at least so far defensible that it could not be regarded as a clear duty of neighbouring States to interfere on either side.

However this important question of policy is to be determined, it will be admitted that, on one ground or another, war must be regarded as a constant danger, the preparation for which constitutes the most important part of those internal functions of government which, as was before noticed, are indissolubly connected with its external functions. But as to the extent and manner of such preparation I conceive that it is impossible to lay down any useful general rules: the policy of each State must be so largely determined by relations to its neighbours, which vary from State to State, and may be fundamentally changed from time to time. Thus, the policy of a relatively small State will reasonably differ from that of a relatively large one; the policy of an island from that of a country with continental neighbours; and so forth.

So again, no general rules can be laid down as regards alliances, beyond the statement before given of the strong grounds for supporting purely defensive leagues as the best substitute and preparation for a federation able to maintain peace among civilised States.

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