Elevated principles

Hamilton Fish Armstrong

There are times when I wonder whether the debates we have about federalism and the international system really are as novel as we sometimes imagine. Maybe a lot of what we are saying has been said before.

A good example is the latest book to reach the top of my “to read” pile. “We or they” was written by Hamilton Fish Armstrong in 1936 (no, I hadn’t heard of him either before I bought this book) and sets out the political dilemma of the time regarding how to deal with the dictators. There is something compelling about books about the 1930s written at the time, much more compelling than most books written with hindsight, and I must confess to a large and unwieldy collection that I have accumulated over the years. “We or they” is one of the best: Edgar Mowrer’s “Germany puts the clock back” is another one that deserves to be read and chills the bones.

Something that has driven me for a long time is the question of what did they know, when. At what point in the 1930s was it obvious what would happen in the 1940s? The answer is that different people realised the problem at different times. Even when Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, it took the British two days before they realised that this was the real thing. Such was their horror of the first world war.

Writing in 1936 for an American audience (my edition was published a year later), Armstrong was clearly of the view that calamity may well lie ahead: his purpose was to recommend how to respond to it when it came (avoiding it would probably be too much to hope for. The title of the book is taken from a speech by Mussolini in 1930: Armstrong describes bluntly the jaw-dropping rejection of rational values, of science, of art, that marked that period. Not only did the dictators confess to this rejection, they proclaimed it proudly. “We do not know of or recognise truth for truth’s sake” – that was from a professor of philosophy under the Nazi regime.

Faced with this abomination, how should the democracies react? Armstrong himself is wary of war, but nevertheless is determined that there should be a collective response:

“The call is not for an attack on the dictators but for a general mobilisation against all their conceptions and practices; for an increase in the sense on interdependence between free peoples; and for energetic efforts at home to broaden the social and political bases that sustain a solid political union.”

He gets marked down, of course, for arguing for a political union without actually arguing for a political union. Lord Lothian, for example, writing at the same time, understood that advocating political union meant abandoning national sovereignty, while Armstrong does not quite make that intellectual leap.

Armstrong shares with Lothian, however, the concern that, in the face of present injustices, a defence of the status quo might actually be “disguising selfishness as respect for law”. (C E M Joad also wrote about this phenomenon in “Why war?”, which I comment upon here.) Armstrong recommends “a conscientious study to determine: (a), how far the economic grievances of dissatisfied states may be considered real and legitimate” – drawing a line between the legitimate and illegitimate demands of Germany in the 1930s proved impossible. (Lothian had wrongly supposed that such a line might be drawn.) Armstrong was alive to this danger: point (c) in his list was “how to make sure that concessions today did not simply lead to new demands and new threats tomorrow”.

A recurrent theme of this blog is the danger of ambiguity. All kinds of problems in international relations arise from this source, as Armstrong well explains. He is clear that:

“It would also be advantageous for liberal states to know as precisely as possible how other members of their group are going to act in a time of general crisis. False hopes must be shattered.”

This was an issue in the 1930s, it remains an issue now. Diplomacy is founded on secrecy and uncertainty: confidence between allies is important, and it also means that decision-makers can thereby be accountable to the citizen.

Another lesson for our times reads as follows:

“To state elevated principles without elaborating the exact means by which they are to be maintained merely adds to the feeling of easy optimism”.

When Tony Blair reflects on his efforts to bring democracy to the Middle East, or the euro to Britain, or even Britain to the mainstream of European opinion, he might do well to think about this. Armstrong wrote his book more than 70 years ago: it is a fresh read, sadly, even today.

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