Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction/Chapter 1

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Our memories are still full of the vivid detail of an all-absorbing warfare; there is, as it were, a screen between us and the things which happened earlier even in our own lives. But the time has at last come to take larger views, and we must begin to think of our long War as of a single great event, a cataract in the stream of history. The last four years have been momentous, because they have been the outcome of one century and the prelude to another. Tension between the nations had slowly accumulated, and, in the language of diplomacy, there has now been a détente. The temptation of the moment is to believe that unceasing peace will ensue merely because tired men are determined that there shall be no more war. But international tension will accumulate again, though slowly at first; there was a generation of peace after Waterloo. Who among the diplomats round the Congress table at Vienna in 1814 foresaw that Prussia would become a menace to the world? Is it possible for us so to grade the stream bed of future history as that there shall be no more cataracts? That, and no smaller, is the task before us if we would have posterity think less meanly of our wisdom than we think of that of the diplomats of Vienna.

The great wars of history—we have had a world-war about every hundred years for the last four centuries—are the outcome, direct or indirect, of the unequal growth of nations, and that unequal growth is not wholly due to the greater genius and energy of some nations as compared with others; in large measure it is the result of the uneven distribution of fertility and strategical opportunity upon the face of our Globe. In other words, there is in nature no such thing as equality of opportunity for the nations. Unless I wholly misread the facts of geography, I would go further, and say that the grouping of lands and seas, and of fertility and natural pathways, is such as to lend itself to the growth of empires, and in the end of a single World Empire. If we are to realise our ideal of a League of Nations which shall prevent war in the future, we must recognise these geographical realities and take steps to counter their influence. Last century, under the spell of the Darwinian theory, men came to think that those forms of organisation should survive which adapted themselves best to their natural environment. To-day we realise, as we emerge from our fiery trial, that human victory consists in our rising superior to such mere fatalism.

Civilisation is based on the organisation of society so that we may render service to one another, and the higher the civilisation the more minute tends to be the division of labour and the more complex the organisation. A great and advanced society has, in consequence, a powerful momentum; without destroying the society itself you cannot suddenly check or divert its course. Thus it happens that years beforehand detached observers are able to predict a coming clash of societies which are following convergent paths in their development. The historian commonly prefaces his narrative of war with an account of the blindness of men who refused to see the writing on the wall, but the fact is, that, like every other going concern, a national society can be shaped to a desired career while it is young, but when it is old its character is fixed and it is incapable of any great change in its mode of existence. To-day all the nations of the world are about to start afresh; is it within the reach of human forethought so to set their courses as that, notwithstanding geographical temptation, they shall not clash in the days of our grandchildren?

In our anxiety to repudiate the ideas historically associated with the Balance of Power, is there not perhaps some danger that we should allow merely juridical conceptions to rule our thoughts in regard to the League of Nations? It is our ideal that justice should be done between nations, whether they be great or small, precisely as it is our ideal that there should be justice between men, whatever the difference of their positions in society. To maintain justice as between individual men the power of the State is invoked, and we now recognise, after the failure of international law to avert the Great War, that there must be some power or, as the lawyers say, some sanction for the maintenance of justice as between nation and nation. But the power which is necessary for the rule of law among citizens passes easily into tyranny. Can we establish such a world power as shall suffice to keep the law between great and small States, and yet shall not grow into a world tyranny? There are two roads to such a tyranny, the one the conquest of all other nations by one nation, the other the perversion of the very international power itself which may be set up to coerce the lawless nation. In our great replanning of human society we must recognise that the skill and opportunity of the robber are prior facts to the Law of Robbery. In other words, we must envisage our vast problem as business men dealing with realities of growth and opportunity, and not merely as lawyers defining rights and remedies.

My endeavour, in the following pages, will be to measure the relative significance of the great features of our Globe as tested by the events of history, including the history of the last four years, and then to consider how we may best adjust our ideals of freedom to these lasting realities of our Earthly Home. But first we must recognise certain tendencies of human nature as exhibited in all forms of political organisation.