Peace in our time--and other times: on the futility of antiwar covenants
After I made my flip comment in today's Petrov post about undeserving Nobel Peace Prize winners, I decided to actually look up the list of recipients over the years. And they haven't been as uniformly bad as I thought. Take a look.
However, the 1929 recipient, Frank Billings Kellogg, caught my eye.
Back in my school days, I remember hearing about the Kellogg-Briand Pact renouncing war. Kellogg, of course, was one of its co-authors.
The Pact had always seemed ironic to me; it was so clearly unrealistic, even without the benefit of hindsight. But nevertheless it expressed a sentiment for which countless people over the ages--and I number myself among them--have longed.
My mother had actually spoken of the Pact, as well; she mentioned a powerful memory of hers from when it had been newly signed. She was a fourteen-year old in high school then, and her teacher had turned to the class (later to be known as "The Greatest Generation," the one that survived and endured the coming Depression and WWII) that they should be thankful, because they were the luckiest children ever on the face of the earth: they would never know war. My mother reported feeling an overwhelming and glorious sense of relief and gratitude.
So it just goes to show: never trust one's teacher.
But what was going on with that pact, anyway? How could people have been so naive?
Both Kellogg (a fascinating man who rose from poverty and obscurity to become a trustbuster and Secretary of State) and the Frenchman who was involved, Aristide Briand, started out as lawyers. Perhaps that fact explains some of their predilection for international legal documents.
It turns out, though, that neither man was exactly a starry-eyed believer in the Pact itself. Here's a nice summary of what appears to have actually been going on:
French foreign minister Aristide Briand first suggested a treaty between the United States and France renouncing war as a method of settling disputes between the two countries. Secretary of State Frank Kellogg was furious because Briand proposed the treaty in a speech made directly to the American people, rather than going through diplomatic channels. If he accepted Briand's offer, he feared it would drag the United States into alliance with France in the event of another European war—which was what Briand had in mind. But if Kellogg declined, groups favoring such a treaty would attack him in Congress and in the press. Support for the treaty came from opposite ends of the political spectrum. For example, Nicholas Murray Butler, the internationalist president of Columbia University, believed a treaty would move America closer to the League of Nations, whereas isolationist senator William E. Borah, a pacifist, simply hoped that the treaty would end war.
Kellogg turned the tables on Briand by picking up an idea of Senator Borah's for a multilateral treaty. Both Kellogg and Briand knew that such a treaty lacked force, but Briand, already a Nobel Peace Prize winner, could hardly ignore public demand for an antiwar treaty...
Great celebrations accompanied the signing of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, but diplomats did not take the pledge seriously. In the United States, for example, the next order of business on the Senate floor after ratification was a bill appropriating $274 million to build warships.
So, what else is new?
But I'm interested in the Pact not only because it has a familial emotional resonance, but because I think it's an exaggerated example of just what is wrong with using international law in the service of ending war. International law no doubt has many uses, but one of them is not, I'm afraid, that old dream.
The problem is neatly summed up here, in a short article about the Kellogg-Briand pact:
Although 62 nations ultimately ratified the pact, its effectiveness was vitiated by its failure to provide measures of enforcement.
Ah yes: its failure to provide measures of enforcement. And whatever could those measures be? Why force, of course.
Any covenant that would work could only be successful because the signatories had no interest in going to war in the first place, in which case the piece of paper would only be a formality (that was known even way back in the Kellogg-Briand days, as the agreement explicitly reserved the right to self-defense). But still, the dream dies hard.