Front Page Titles (by Subject) WHAT SHOULD NOT BE THE POLICY OF ENGLAND IN THE EAST. ( From The Economist, 21 st October, 1876.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
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WHAT SHOULD NOT BE THE POLICY OF ENGLAND IN THE EAST. ( From “ The Economist, ” 21 st October, 1876.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 9.
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WHAT SHOULD NOT BE THE POLICY OF ENGLAND IN THE EAST.
The decisive moment seems to be fast arriving, and England will probably very soon have to determine what is to be her policy in the East of Europe. It is urged on the one hand, that we ought to go to war to save Turkey, or part of Turkey, and on the other hand, that we ought to go to war to destroy Turkey, and to form some new rule that shall be better for her subjects instead of hers. And we must consider what is said for each of these courses.
On behalf of the first, it is said that England, in 1856, guaranteed the integrity of the Ottoman Empire from external harm; that we expressly promised her, if any foreign State should attack her, to help her if required, and that we did so with an especial view to the very contingency which has now arisen—an attack by Russia. If, it is argued, Treaty promises are to mean anything, we are bound to help Turkey now with all our power. And it cannot be doubted that we did so promise; the words of the Treaty are as clear as any words can be, and there is no doubt that these words exactly express our intention at the time they were used. But this is not conclusive. Just as all private promises are subject to a certain exact limitation of time, however widely they may be worded, so Treaty promises are subject to a certain vague limitation by circumstances. An English statute of limitations says that we are not to sue a man on a bill or note after six years; and the rules of international obligation say that no nation is bound to perform a Treaty when the facts which it contemplated have wholly changed. Eternal promises, whether private or public, are impossible in a changing world. And certainly the change in the position of Turkey since 1856 is very great; sufficient, probably, to destroy the force of a Treaty promise if any change is to be allowed to do so. In 1856, the possession of Turkey by Russia would have been a serious menace to Europe, and especially to the freedom of Europe, to which she was hostile. But now the rise of Germany has so completely protected Europe against Russia, that it does not at all matter in this respect whether she takes Turkey or not; even if she does, Germany will still be an infinitely stronger power than she is. The principal motive for which we gave the guarantee no longer operates; even the very idea of it has almost passed out of memory. And as respects Turkey herself, the circumstances have changed much also. In 1856 it was still possible to hope that she would reform herself—that she would improve in money matters—that she would govern her country better, and, above all, treat her Christian subjects better. But Turkey, instead of reforming, has deteriorated. Her finances are worse than in 1856, her Government being weaker and worse for all good purposes; and as for her Christian subjects, we need not inquire how she treats them. The Bulgarian atrocities answer for that. Strong, therefore, as the treaty obligation to defend Turkey seems, and express as the words creating it are, we do not hesitate distinctly to say that we think it ought entirely to be disregarded, because the international statute of limitations has destroyed its binding power.
Secondly, it is said that, promise or no promise, we must keep up Turkey, or else Russia will obtain Constantinople. And no doubt the probability is that, if Turkey falls, Russia will obtain Constantinople—in fact, if not in name. No adequate force can be found to keep her out, instead of the Turks, who have so long done so. A set of Sclavonian, or Greek, or Roumanian States, if put in the place of Turkey, will be as powerless against her as Servia, Greece, and Roumania now are. There will be no fighting power in them, and if in a war Russia wants Constantinople she will be always able to take it for all which they can do. One premiss of this argument is good; if we want to keep Russia out of Constantinople we must keep the Turks in it, for they are the only effectual garrison which we can set to hold it. But the other premiss cannot be proved. No one has ever proved that Constantinople is so important to England as to justify a war, or a series of wars, in its behalf. It may be somewhat better for England that Russia should not have it; our commerce in the Black Sea may be more secure; our communications with India rather more certain. But these are insufficient benefits to justify a war. If you draw up a debit and credit account—the immense balance will be for peace. The cost of keeping Russia out of Constantinople is worse than the harm of letting her have it. Indeed, the notion that any great harm will happen in consequence is mainly a remnant of the old idea that Russia is already so great a power that Europe needs to be afraid of her. But as we have seen, that idea belongs to the pre-Germanic age, we need not now think of or regard it. Out of interest we need not fight for Turkey any more than from duty.
Some people say that without defending Turkey we should see that Constantinople is made a free city, under the guarantee of the five Powers; and that we should go to war, if necessary, to ensure this. And here, again, we admit that this guarantee might in itself be good. But we deny that it is worth a war. Indeed, probably, like most other guarantees, it would be found worth little when wanted. The only Power which has a great interest in making Constantinople a free city is England; and only a very sanguine mind can imagine Germany or Austria, or any great State of the continent, enforcing contracts by which England will gain and they will not. Such disinterested virtue is no part of international morality, as they understand it, and no object of a war can be more infinitesimal than the attainment of a paper promise, which only such virtue will perform.
It is sometimes also said that England must prevent Russia from being a naval power in the Mediterranean, must shut her into the Black Sea, and deny her the free use of the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus. But we deny that England has any such interest. There are already several other foreign fleets in the Mediterranean, against which England must, if necessary, hold her own, and it matters little to her if one more be added to them. And there is something monstrous, or, as Mr. Gladstone would say, anti-human, in the idea that the people who live on the Black Sea should not be allowed to use its outlets, because their doing so, perhaps, may lessen the naval power of a distant island. The harm done is quite incommensurate with the gain alleged.
It has also been suggested that, by way of precaution, we should occupy Constantinople now or soon, and hold it as a “material guarantee” for the security of English interests. But we must consider, too, that any Power which seizes on Constantinople now will probably have to remain there as long as human foresight can pretend to look. That Power will find the Turk in possession, and when it goes, it must reinstate him, or find some substitute, and it will be impossible to do either—for us, at any rate—for we should never now put back the Turk, nor could the mixed populations of Mohammedans and Christians which he has governed provide any form of government with which we should be, or with which we ought to be, satisfied. An occupation of Constantinople by us now would mean its occupation for an indefinite period, and that occupation could not be confined only to Constantinople any more than the Indian Empire could be confined to Calcutta. The inevitable law which compels highly civilised nations to conquer their semi-civilised neighbours would operate in this case as in others.
And if by the security of English interests is meant the preservation of our naval supremacy in the Mediterranean, and the consequent safety of the road to India, what is proposed is the wrong remedy. If our naval power in the Mediterranean is not sufficiently great we must augment it, and it will be far easier and cheaper to do so than to occupy Constantinople or any part of the territory of Turkey. We see what is the cost of augmenting our navy, but we cannot at all calculate the result of beginning war on Turkish land, or of beginning to govern any fragment of it.
And we need not now at all discuss whether England should fight for the possession of Egypt or not. Egypt is not, for such purposes as we now have in hand, an integral part of the Turkish empire; she is only a tributary subject to a quit rent; if Turkey were to break up and she were to become independent, the existing state of things would be so very little changed that England would scarcely lose anything. And as to attempts on Egypt by Russia, or any other Power, they are no part of our present, Eastern politics, which in themselves are so complicated that we need not look out for difficulties which do not belong to them.
For these reasons we think it manifest that England ought not to go to war for Turkey; and we must now see if England ought to go to war against her. For so doing it is often said that England has undertaken by Treaty to see after the rights of her Christian subjects—that she violates these rights, and that she must take the consequences. But we have lately shown at length that this idea of a Treaty duty is a mistake, and the Treaty of Paris, so far from saying that the Powers who signed it should have a right to interfere for the Turkish Christians, says expressly that they shall have no right. That Treaty was framed to prevent in future such attempts at interference as had just caused the Crimean war, and nothing, therefore, could be less in its way than to lay the foundation for new attempts.
Then it is said that as England maintained the Turkish Empire in 1855, England is responsible for the atrocities Turkey has now committed in Bulgaria. But, as we have before shown, such atrocities were the inevitable incidents of the break-up of the Turkish Empire—happen when it might. Twenty years ago they would have happened, and been much worse—if Turkey had not then been maintained. The utmost that can be said is that we are responsible, for we then prolonged the existence of a bad Government, and, therefore, we ought to see that the subjects of it get a good one instead. But the answer to this is that we have no power to do so. The Christian subjects of Turkey are scattered through many provinces—in Asia and Europe. The duty which we have applies equally to them all, and performing it as to them all is impossible. Even in the provinces near the Danube, which have been so much spoken of, we have no means of establishing a good form of Government. The fate of these provinces is entirely in the hands of the great military Empires in their neighbourhood. What they choose to say as to them must be done, and we cannot alter it. If it suits the purpose of any of them to patch up a temporary independent State, they will no doubt be very happy to get a guarantee for that independence from England. But we shall have no power of giving effect to that guarantee, and it will be only a burden for us without really benefiting any one. To put the matter plainly, if we now went to war with Russia against Turkey, during the war Russia would take these provinces, at the peace she would keep them, and we could not get at them. We may have done wrong in 1854 in postponing the ruin of Turkey, but that ruin will bring awful evils when it comes, which at least the present generation have been spared by what we did. We shall only do further evil if we now interfere with events which we cannot regulate, and of which all we know is that their issue will be tremendous.
We think, therefore, that England ought to keep clear from the impending struggle, and not to interfere with it on either side. But we are not at all sure that she will be able to do so. On the one hand, some old ideas urge her to help Turkey, and other old ideas urge her to take Constantinople, either of which would be opposing Russia; and, on the other hand, an overpowering new sentiment makes her wish to interfere to improve the state of the Turkish Christians, which would be to help Russia. Any accident at any moment may augment either of these already strong forces, till it becomes overpoweringly great, and may draw us into the conflict.