Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE DECLARATION OF PARIS. ( From The Economist, 17 th March, 1877.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
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THE DECLARATION OF PARIS. ( From “ The Economist, ” 17 th March, 1877.) - 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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THE DECLARATION OF PARIS.
The recent debate in the House of Commons on Mr. Percy Wyndham’s proposal, that the Government should put an end as soon as possible to our engagement to abide by the Declaration of Paris in regard to the usages of maritime war, demonstrates very satisfactorily that under neither a Liberal nor a Tory Government is there any substantial chance of our drawing back from that engagement. The truth is that it is a mere fallacy to say that it is in the interest of peace and commerce to make war as terrible, and as destructive to commerce, as it may be. That might possibly be the case if it were but true that whenever there was war at all, everybody was at war, and, further, that the sufferings of a great number of combatants would in any way tend to make the conclusion of peace an object of common desire. But neither of these propositions is true. In a world so complex as ours it would be of course simply absurd to assume that all nations could be implicated seriously in the quarrels of one or two. You might just as well assume that in a populous country like England, all the citizens would be seriously injured by every brawl and every murder. And just as in a well-governed country the aim of the police, and of all who have to keep order, is to prevent disorder from spreading,—to keep the mischief which disorder causes as isolated as may be,—so in Europe it should clearly be the object of those who look after the working of international rules and laws, to prevent as much as possible the mischiefs of war from spreading amongst those who are not implicated in the quarrel,—to keep the intercourse of the neutrals as free and safe as it is possible to keep it, and to cut off, as far as may be, the contagion of the ill-feelings which war engenders from spreading to those who are at present at peace. This was the object of the Declaration of Paris,—to protect as much as possible the interests of neutrals in a time of war,—to eliminate causes of sore feeling which, while of no primary importance to the prosecution of the war, are very likely to widen the area of the struggle,—in a word, so to insulate the acts of violence as to render it much less likely than it otherwise would be, that neutral nations, from the wanton injury done to their interests while they stay out of the war, should be induced to take an active part. And unquestionably this is the true policy. For no wilder dream than the notion that, the greater the number of sufferers, the stronger will be the tendency towards peace, was ever conceived. All experience shows that it is the wars in which a great many different States are concerned which are the most difficult to bring to a conclusion. If England or France had participated in the American Civil War, it is all but impossible that it could have closed when it did. If Russia or Austria had intervened in the short, though bloody war of 1870, the chances are that peace might not have been concluded even now. If France had struck in between Prussia and Austria in 1866, the war would certainly not have lasted only seven weeks. The more complicated the grievances and bitternesses, the more difficult they are to heal. There never was a worse blunder than the supposition that the more States there are to suffer by a sanguinary quarrel, the sooner will the motives prevail for bringing it to a conclusion. Let the belligerents spare the neutrals in every possible way, if they do not want to be fighting for ever. It is in the interests of those who remain at peace that the principles regulating the natural limitations of war should be considered and decided on; not in the interests of those who are eager to inflict the most injury they can, in the shortest time, on their antagonist. That, no doubt, is the real object of war; but, then, who will deny that even when at war a nation has, and ought to have, a great many other even more important objects than the object of striking a crushing blow at his enemy? It is usually much more important even for a belligerent nation not to cut itself off from its fellowship with other nations than even to make its antagonist succumb. And if it were not so, it is certainly much more important for the nations which remain at peace to be allowed to profit to the full by that peace, than it is for those who are at war to inflict the greatest possible damage, in the shortest possible time, on those with whom they are at war. It may not be always easy to reconcile the immediate interest of a belligerent with the best interests of the neutrals. But when that is impossible, the best interests of the neutrals ought to prevail. And even if it were true, instead of false, that the worse the injury war inflicts, the sooner it is likely to come to an end, even in that case, a war of somewhat longer duration, which does not ruin neutrals as well as belligerents, would be a less evil to the world than a war of shorter duration which had inflicted on pacific peoples almost as much suffering as on those which were at strife.
It was from considerations of this kind that the rules agreed upon at Paris, to the effect that privateers are to be given up, that a blockade to be binding must be in some sense effective, that neutral bottoms cover enemies’ goods, and that neutral goods are to be respected even in enemies’ bottoms, were agreed upon. And the debate and division to which Mr. Percy Wyndham’s abortive resolution gave rise, proves unanswerably that, notwithstanding some unfortunate opinions dropped by some of the Conservative leaders when in Opposition, it would be quite impossible to detach England from the adhesion she gave to these wholesome rules, tending as they do to moderate the exasperation caused by war—or, at least, to guard against that class of exasperations which are likely to drag others into the contest. A majority of 114 (170 against 56), obtained under a Government most of whose leading members had formerly committed themselves against the Declaration of Paris, puts the seal on those international rules, and should defeat entirely the hopes of those who, like Mr. Percy Wyndham and Lord Esslington, endeavoured to persuade us to retire from our agreement.
Nor do we doubt, as we have in former years often argued, that the immunities conceded by the Declaration of Paris to neutral goods and ships, might well be extended to all private property at sea, without in any way crippling seriously the resources of maritime war, and with the greatest possible advantage to the world. No doubt that carries a reasonable restriction a little further. Yet as far as we can see, it does not in the least diminish the advantages of a great naval power in a maritime war, while such a rule would—if honestly observed—prevent a very great and very superfluous disturbance of trade. As our present rules stand, the only additional effect of respecting all private property at sea would be this,—that the commercial marine of a maritime power need not be transferred at once in time of war to some neutral power or powers, so that the carrying, which it previously did under its own flag, would be now done under some other flag. That is the present effect of our rules, and a very useless and mischievous effect it is. No naval power which happens to be at war can rely so implicitly of course on naval escorts for all its commercial marine as to make it possible that its carrying trade should go on undiminished. The real effect, therefore, of a declaration of war is to impose a heavy fine on the shipowners of the powers thus engaged in maritime war, all the shipowners on both sides being compelled, of course, to transfer their ships to the shipowners of neutral nations at what must be in all probability, a very heavy loss. That is a bonus to the shipowners of the neutral powers, and a heavy fine on a particular class in the nations which go to war, but it has no tendency of any importance to diminish the naval resources of the powers at war, and certainly none to increase them. Of course if the commercial ships of the enemy continued to put to sea under the old flag, that would be a great opportunity to his antagonist for striking a blow at his commerce. But shipowners are not so silly as all that. They will transfer the ships they cannot use to some neutral shipowner, who will of course be likely to have an increase of demand for his ships exactly equal to the gap caused in the carrying trade by the withdrawal of the belligerent’s ships from that trade. Hence, while the effect of leaving it legitimate to capture the private ships of your enemy, is not at all to diminish the general resources at that enemy’s command, it is to disarrange seriously the machinery of the carrying trade for no good purpose. Nevertheless, we must freely admit that there is a difficulty about affirming the immunity from capture of all private property at sea,—except contraband of war destined for either belligerent—and it is simply this, that there is no one to complain to any purpose if the agreement is not respected. We may of course, if we please, agree to respect the private property of our enemies when at sea, but if we don’t keep our word, who is to call us to account for it? Not our enemy, for he is already doing all in his power to call us to account; and clearly not any neutral power which has not been aggrieved, and would not wish to run the risk of a quarrel for the sake of enforcing abstract justice. Thus, reasonable as the development of the rules about maritime war, agreed on in 1856 at Paris, into a fresh rule securing the immunity of all private property at sea certainly is, we must admit at once that we do not see by whom, if it is broken, it is to be enforced. It must be a purely voluntary engagement, binding, of course, in honour on all who give it, but if disregarded, not disregarded at the cost of making a new enemy by that disregard. No doubt the observance of most international rules of this kind is more or less spontaneous. The organisation of the police of Europe does not yet admit of enforcing any of them. But still the rest of them are morally enforced to some extent by remembering that if we disregard them we shall make a host of enemies among the neutral powers, as well as be conscious of our own dishonour. But this rule would be one of honour alone. And we cannot say that we regard this motive as one sufficient to secure its due observance by the maritime States of Europe, or that we see much chance of any other and stronger motive. Still, we seriously believe that if all the maritime powers both knew their own interests, and were adequate guardians of their own honour, they would spontaneously engage to respect all private property at sea, and to restrict their navies to the blockades of the coasts and ports of the enemy, to the sealing up of navies of inferior power in those ports, and to the attack and capture of the enemy’s fleets. That is all that can really be done by any navy now to disable an enemy, unless we decline to weigh the enormous disadvantage of making enemies of numbers of neutrals, against the temporary advantage of inflicting a little more suffering on the enemy.
The above was the last article which Walter Bagehot wrote in the Economist, the week before he died. In the same number appeared the announcement that the new Act respecting Treasury Bills had received the Royal assent.