The transformation of European diplomacy

Alfred H Fried (source Nobel Prize committee)

From “The restoration of Europe” by Alfred H Fried

Among the most immediate of the international problems which have to do with this reorganization is the transformation of European diplomacy. It has often been pointed out that diplomacy has changed little since the time of Cardinal Richelieu. This is very significant in view of the new tasks which confront it. The outbreak of this war made it clear that diplomacy had become a danger and that its reformation from tip to toe was a necessity. No thinking person will assert that ten or six or perhaps only three persons should decide whether millions are to have their heads cut off or not. A system that maintains such a possibility is not fit for our age. And the fact that there are still diplomats who are willing to accept such a responsibility is sufficient evidence of the untenability of the system. Only the consciousness that no accounts will have to be rendered to the people whose business they manage, or that those accounts will never be audited, can give present-day diplomats the courage to accept such a responsibility. In this age of complete publicity their trade, on which the happiness of generations and empires is so often dependent, is secret. They have no rebuke to fear but that of history; and that will not bother them until this earthly pilgrimage is done. They tell us that it is in the people’s interests that diplomatic negotiations be conducted in secret. But the people do not wish that secrecy; they would prefer to resign an advantage which may compel them blindly to risk their lives. The complexity of the modern world makes publicity an indispensable condition, the omission of which is disastrous. 

Secrecy is not the only danger of diplomacy. It is dominated by a spirit which would do honor to mediaeval chivalry. Any one who reads the diplomatic white papers published at the beginning of the war will observe with disgust this knightly relic of a vanished age. In those critical eleven days of European history the lives and happiness of millions were at stake, and the diplomats, coldly smiling, refused to discuss this matter or that, directly or at all. They preferred detours to direct negotiations; they refused peaceful methods of settlement for reasons of etiquette, or with an irrefutable reference to that idol of their cult, Prestige. The Moloch of the old sagas never devoured so many human beings as this modern idol. It is the proud achievement of his priesthood that, treating him in their secret negotiations with unprecedented respect, they have made his image seem alive, and have made it an influence in our age of machinery and of world-revolutionizing ideas. 

This is not the only idol which is supported and fed with human bodies. There is the antiquated conception of sovereignty, to which diplomacy gives an interpretation which long ago ceased to be inherent in it. A state is sovereign over its members, for whom it exercises sovereignty, when it is called upon to act for them. But that does not imply immovability, or a sheer iron inflexibility utterly opposed to the nature of the present-day world, in which no state could exist for an hour without reciprocal limitations and concessions. Modern diplomats use sovereignty as a bulwark behind which they hide when there is no rational justification for their actions. 

The diplomats know very well why they wish these idols respected. They find protection behind them, and their work is thus facilitated. We pacifists, who are trying to free humanity from its self-imposed burden, are often accused of playing all around the busy world instead of dealing with plain hard facts. That would be no accusation to the diplomats who control the destinies of Europe to-day. They do not have to bother with realities. If an obstacle they cannot overcome is in their way, they let the people split their skulls about it. For they must guard the idol of “prestige” and the dogma of “sovereignty,” and the old conception of war as a continuation of politics, if indeed “with other instruments.” They, who are the real Utopians, because they are not compelled to deal with realities, are considered wise heads and “practical politicians” because they use that pons asinorum which mankind still calls “other instruments of diplomacy.” The desire to end insanity is called Utopianism; to act insanely is statesmanlike wisdom. 

The world-war has shown the failure of such statesmanlike wisdom. An institution which can have such consequences can no longer enjoy the confidence of the peoples at whose cost the game is played and lost. It must be changed. We have no need of caste-diplomacy. Only such men as are already eminent in other fields, be it as scholars or as engineers or agriculturists or merchants or teachers, should be called to negotiate between nations. The essential condition for so important an office must no longer be noble blood or high patronage. A committee at least of the national assembly, in critical times the entire national assembly, should cooperate in all negotiations with foreign governments or their representatives. Never again should treaties which have not received parliamentary indorsement be binding. 

In some such way the system must be changed. There is nothing in the life of nations more outgrown and more dangerous. Something adapted to our age must replace it. 

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One of the chief conditions for the restoration and intelligent extension of the European community of nations will be the rapid and successful removal of the moral rubbish which the havoc of the world-war will leave behind. There will be other weapons beside those of steel to be silenced. The weapons of the mind, which have caused just as much devastation as have the Mausers and the shrapnel, must also come to rest. 

The outbreaks of hate which have occurred on both sides in this war were simply another kind of weapon. They must not be allowed to fight on when the cannon are silenced. Just as the mines will be removed from the mouths of the rivers and from the seacoasts, so the bombs of hate must be gathered up. Hate is the propagandist method of the apostles of force and the imperialists. Only in an atmosphere of hate and suspicion can they justify and carry out their ideas. When hostilities have ceased, the task of destroying hate must be begun immediately, and with energy and circumspection. 

We cannot, as was done after 1871, trust to the automatic disappearance of hate. We do not want to wait until the generations that have known the war are dead. The restoration of Europe must not be so long postponed. The convulsion was so mighty, the destruction so tremendous, that delay might make the evil incurable. The best chance for salvation is in losing no time. Ours is a rescue-work of the first importance. It is not enough to repair the visible damages of war by providing more care for invalids, by building orphan asylums and homes for the blind or by giving aid to widows; nor by glorifying war in monuments and halls of fame. More important than all these is that preventive action which will make it possible for the suffering peoples to meet again as human beings and in a manner worthy of human beings. Upon that is dependent the cooperation of the citizens of all civilized nations, and with it the salvation of mankind. 

The task will surely be lighter than after the last great European war. The aftermath of this war will be too awful; and we better understand why great nations are so stiff-necked in their antagonisms. Had France and Germany understood each other, the world-war would not have come. The task will be easier because the war could not destroy what pacifism had achieved toward such international understanding. Destructive though it be, the war cannot demolish the foundations of our decades of careful work. We may expect that the work of reconciliation, previously so well organized, will be resumed immediately after the war, and that it will not require complete reorganization. That will be a great advantage; for people from every country, stirred by the sights and horrors of war, will join us, eager to serve in the great campaign for the elimination of hate. A League of Europeans will arise, – not an association with a programme and statutes, but a free union of those who, aching with their own wounds, understand the anguish of the age and are ready to relieve it. This League of Europeans will consist of those men and women who have come to understand that the evils of war poison life even when the cannon are silent, and that they can only be overcome by an understanding which knows no national border-lines, and with the cooperation of all nations. Its members will be those who feel it their duty to forget their own pain and their own gaping wounds for the service of that which is above all nations, humanity. The civic heroism of peaceful activity will be manifest in their activity. They will be scorned and scolded, accused of lack of patriotism and of Utopianism. And yet they will be the true patriots and the truly practical politicians. 

This text is extracted from “The restoration of Europe”, by Alfred H Fried (1864-1921). It was first published in German in 1915; this translation was published in 1916. The author was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1911 – read more about him here. 

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