Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter 96: Foreign Policy and Territorial Extension - The American Commonwealth, vol. 2
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
chapter 96: Foreign Policy and Territorial Extension - Viscount James Bryce, The American Commonwealth, vol. 2 
The American Commonwealth, with an Introduction by Gary L. McDowell (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1995). Vol. 2.
Part of: The American Commonwealth, 2 vols.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Foreign Policy and Territorial Extension
So far I have had to say nothing, and now I need say but little, of a subject which would have been constantly obtruding itself had we been dealing with any country in Europe. To every country in Europe foreign relations are a matter of primary importance. The six great powers of that continent all think it necessary to protect themselves against one another by armies, fleets, and alliances. Great Britain, seeking no extension of territory and comparatively safe from attack at home, has many colonies and one vast dependency to protect, and is drawn by them, far more than by her European position, into the tangled web of Old World diplomacy. To all these powers, and not less to the minor ones, the friendly or hostile attitude of the others is matter of vital consequence. Not only, therefore, must immense sums be spent on warlike preparations, but a great establishment of officials must be maintained and no small part of the attention of the administration and the legislature be given to the conduct of the international relations of the state. These relations, moreover, constantly affect the internal politics of the country; they sometimes cause the triumph or the defeat of a party; they influence financial policy; they make or mar the careers of statesmen.
In the United States, nothing of the kind. From the Mexican war of 1845, down to the Spanish war of 1898, external relations very rarely, and then only to a slight extent, affected internal political strife. As they did not occupy the public mind they did not lie within the sphere of party platforms or party action. We have hitherto found no occasion to refer to them save in describing the functions of the Senate; and I mention them now as the traveller did the snakes in Iceland, only to note their absence, and to indicate some of the results ascribable to thereto.
Though the chief and obvious cause of this striking contrast between the great western Republic and the powers of Europe is to be found in her geographical position on a continent where, since she bought out France and Spain, she has had only two neighbours, one comparatively weak on the south and one naturally friendly on the north, much must also be set down to the temper and convictions of the people. They are, and have usually been, pacific in their views, for the unjustifiable, because needless, war with Mexico was the work of the slaveholding oligarchy and opposed to the general sentiment of the people. They have no lust of conquest, possessing already as much land as they want. They have always been extremely jealous of a standing army, the necessary support of ambitious foreign policies. They have been so much absorbed by and interested in the development of their material resources as to care very little for what goes on in other countries. As there is no military class, so also there is no class which feels itself called on to be concerned with foreign affairs, and least of all is such a class to be found among the politicians. Even leading statesmen are often strangely ignorant of European diplomacy, much more the average senator or congressman. And into the mind of the whole people there has sunk deep the idea that all such matters belong to the bad order of the Old World; and that the true way for the model Republic to influence that world is to avoid its errors, and set an example of pacific industrialism.
This view of the facts may appear strange to those who remember that the area of the United States proper, which in 1783 was about one million square miles, is now something over three and a half millions.1 All this added territory, however, except the cessions made by Mexico in 1847, came peaceably by way of purchase or (in the case of Texas) voluntary union; and all (with the possible exception of Alaska) consists of regions which naturally cohere with the original Republic, and ought to be united with it. The limits of what may be called natural expansion have now (subject to what will be said presently) been reached; and the desire for annexation is no stronger than at any preceding epoch, while the interest in foreign relations generally has not increased. For a time a sort of friendship was professed for Russia, more for the sake of teasing England than from any real sympathy with a despotic monarchy very alien to the American spirit. But at present absolute neutrality and impartiality as regard the Old World is observed; and a remarkable proof of the desire to abstain from engagements affecting it was given, when the United States government declined to ratify the International Act of the Berlin Conference of 1885 regulating the Congo Free State, although its minister at Berlin had taken part in the deliberations of the conference by which that act was prepared. And it was after much delay and some hesitation that they ratified (in 1892) even the Brussels International Slave Trade Act.2
Such abstinence from Old World affairs is the complement to that declaration of a purpose to prevent any European power from attempting to obtain a controlling influence in New World affairs which was made by President Monroe in his message of 1823. The assertion is less needed now than it was in Monroe’s day, because the United States have grown so immensely in strength that no European power can constitute a danger to them. It would no doubt lead the government to consider international questions arising even in South America as much more within the scope of their influence than any, not directly affecting their own citizens, which might arise in the Old World, but the occasions for applying such a principle are comparatively few, and are not likely to involve serious difficulties with any European power.
The notion that the United States ought to include at least all the English- and French-speaking communities of North America is an old one. Repeated efforts were made before and during the War of Independence to induce Canada, Nova Scotia, and even the Bermuda Islands to join the revolted colonies. For many years afterwards the view continued to be expressed that no durable peace with Great Britain could exist so long as she retained possessions on the North American continent. When by degrees that belief died away, the eyes of ambitious statesmen turned to the South. The slaveholding party sought to acquire Cuba and Puerto Rico, hoping to turn them into slave states; and President Polk even tried to buy Cuba from Spain. After the abolition of slavery, attempts were made under President Johnson in 1867 to acquire St. Thomas and St. John’s from Denmark, and by President Grant (1869–73) to acquire San Domingo—an independent republic—but the Senate frustrated both. Apart from these incidents, the United States showed no desire to extend its territories, save by the purchase of Alaska, from the Mexican war down to 1898.
The results of the general indifference to foreign politics are in so far unfortunate that they have often induced carelessness in the choice of persons to represent the United States at European courts, the ambassador to Great Britain being usually the only one who has really important negotiations to conduct, and cause very inadequate appropriations to be voted for the support of such envoys. In other respects her detachment has been for the United States an unspeakable blessing. A very small army sufficed, and it was employed chiefly in the Far West for the repression of Indian troubles, troubles which have now come to an end. In 1890 the army consisted of about 25,000 privates and a little over 2,000 officers. The officers, admirably trained at West Point, the famous military academy which has maintained its high character and its absolute freedom from political affiliations since its first foundation, have been largely occupied in scientific or engineering work. Only a small navy seemed to be required—a fortunate circumstance, because the navy yards have sometimes given rise to administrative scandals. The cry sometimes raised for a large increase in the United States fleet surprised and still surprises European observers; for the power of the United States to protect her citizens abroad is not to be measured by the number of vessels or guns she possesses, but by the fact that there is no power in the world which will not lose far more than it can possibly gain by quarrelling with a nation which could, in case of war, so vast are its resources, not only create an armoured fleet but speedily equip swift vessels to attack the commerce of its antagonist. The possession of powerful armaments is apt to inspire a wish to use them. For many years no cloud rose on the external horizon, and one may indeed say that the likelihood of a war between the United States and any of the great naval powers has appeared too slight to be worth considering.
The freedom of the country from militarism of spirit and policy here described conduced not only to the slightness of a branch of expenditure which European states find almost insupportable, but also to the exemption of this Republic from a source of danger which other republics have found so serious—the ambition of successful generals, and the interference of the army in political strifes. Strong and deep-rooted as are the constitutional traditions of the United States, there have been moments, even in her history, when the existence of a great standing army might have menaced or led to civil war. Patriotism has not suffered, as Europeans sometimes fancy it must suffer, by long-continued peace. Manliness of spirit has not suffered because so few embrace the profession of arms; and the internal politics of the country, already complicated enough, are relieved from those further complications which the intrusion of issues of foreign policy bring with them. It need hardly be added that those issues are the very issues which a democracy, even so intelligent a democracy as that of the United States, is least fitted to comprehend, and which its organs of government are least fitted to handle with promptitude and success. Fortunately, the one principle to which the people have learnt to cling in foreign policy is, that the less they have of it the better; and though aspiring politicians sometimes try to play upon national pride by using arrogant language to other powers, or by suggesting schemes of annexation, such language is generally reprobated, and such schemes are usually rejected.
To state this tendency of national opinion does not, however, dispose of the question of territorial expansion; for nations are sometimes forced to increase their dominions by causes outside their own desires or volitions. The possibilities that lie before America of such expansion deserve a brief discussion.
Occupying the whole width of their continent from ocean to ocean, the Americans have neighbours only on the north and on the south. It is only in these directions that they could extend themselves by land; and extension on land is, if not easier, yet more tempting than by sea. On the north they touch the great Canadian confederation with its nine provinces, also extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and bound together by transcontinental railways. Its population is rapidly increasing, especially in the Northwest, and although legally subject to the British Crown and legislature, it is admittedly mistress of its own destinies. It was at one time deemed a matter of course that the United States would seek to annex Canada, peaceably if possible, but if not, then by force of arms. Even so late as 1864, Englishmen were constantly told that the first result of the triumph of the Federal armies in the War of Secession would be to launch a host flushed with victory against the Canadian Dominion, because when the passion for war has been once roused in a nation, it clamours for fresh conquests. Many were the arguments from history by which it was sought to convince Britain that for her own safety she ought to accede to the wily suggestions which Louis Napoleon addressed to her, deliver the slave states from defeat and herself from a formidable rival. Since those days Canada has become a far more tempting prize, for part of her northwestern territories between Lake Superior and the Rocky Mountains, then believed to be condemned to sterility by their climate, has proved to be one of the richest wheat-growing districts on the continent. The power of the United States is now far greater than in 1865, nor would it be easy for Britain and Canada effectively to defend a frontier so long and so naturally weak as is that which separates the dominion from its neighbours on the south. Yet today the possibility of absorbing Canada is seldom mentioned in the United States. Were it ever to come about, it would come about at the wish and by the act of the Canadians themselves, not as the result of any external force.
There are several reasons for this. One is the growing friendliness of the Americans to Britain. Considering how much commoner than love is hatred, or at least jealousy, between nations, considering the proverbial bitterness of family quarrels, and considering how intense was the hatred felt in the United States towards England in the earlier part of last century,3 rekindled by the unhappy war of 1812, kept alive by the sensitiveness of the one people and the arrogance of the other, imprinted afresh on new generations in America by silly schoolbooks and Fourth of July harangues, inflamed anew by the language of a section of English society during the Civil War, it is one of the remarkable events of our time that a cordial feeling should now exist between the two chief branches of the English race. The settlement of the Alabama claims has contributed to it. The democratization of Britain and the growth of literature and science in America have contributed to it. The greater respect which Europeans have come to show to America has contributed to it. The occasional appearance of illustrious men who, like Dr. Phillips Brooks and Mr. J. R. Lowell, become dear to both countries, has counted for something. But the ocean steamers have done perhaps most of all, because they have enabled the two peoples to know one another. Such unfriendly language towards Britain as still appears in the American press has been chiefly due to the wish to gratify a (now small) section of the Irish population and will vanish when the last traces of enmity in Ireland to England have passed away. Thus the old motives for an attack upon Canada are gone. But there is reason to think that even if Canada were separated from the British Empire, the Americans would not be eager to bring her into the Union. They would not try to do so by force, because that would be contrary to their doctrines and habits. They have a well-grounded aversion, strengthened by their experience of the difficulties of ruling the South after 1865, to the incorporation or control of any community not anxious to be one with them and thoroughly in harmony with their own body. Although they might rejoice over so great an extension of territory and resources, they are well satisfied with the present size and progress of their own country, which, as some remark, is at least big enough for one Congress.
As respects Canada herself, her material growth might possibly be quickened by union, and had the plan of a commercial league or customs union formerly discussed been carried out, it might have tended towards a political union; but, the temper and feelings of her people, and the growth of a vigorous national sentiment among them, have not been making for their union with the far larger mass of the United States, which they regarded with a jealousy that has declined only as they felt themselves to be rising to the stature of a nation holding an assured and respected place in the eyes of the world. Their life, and that not as respects politics only, may seem less intense than the life of their neighbours to the South. But it is free from some of the blemishes which affect the latter. Municipal governments are more pure. Party organizations have not fallen under the control of bosses. Public order has been less disturbed; and criminal justice is more effectively administered.
This is not the place for considering what are the interests in the matter of Great Britain and her other colonies, nor the prospects of the schemes suggested for a closer practical union between the mother country and her swiftly advancing progeny. As regards the ultimate interests of the two peoples most directly concerned, it may be suggested that it is more to the advantage, both of the United States and of the Canadians, that they should continue to develop independent types of political life and intellectual progress. Each may, in working out its own institutions, have something to teach the other. There is already too little variety on the American continent.
Fifteen hundred miles south of British Columbia the United States abuts upon Mexico. The position of Mexico offers a striking contrast to that of Canada. The people are utterly unlike those of the United States; they are Roman Catholics, more than half Indian in blood and preserving many Indian superstitions, easygoing, uncultured, making little advance in self-government, whether local or national, increasing but slowly in numbers,4 making very slender contributions to literature or science. They have done little to develop either the mineral or agricultural wealth of their superb territory, much of which, in fact all the interior plateau, enjoys a climate more favourable to physical exertion than that of the southernmost states of the Union. The export and import trade of the ports on the Gulf and the Pacific is in the hands of German and English houses; the mines of the north are worked by Americans, who come across from Texas and Arizona in greater and greater numbers. Two railways cross Northern Mexico from United States to the Pacific and others traverse the great plateau from the Rio Grande as far as the city of Mexico. In the northernmost states of the Mexican federation the American interests are already large, for much of the capital is theirs, their language spreads, their pervasive energy is everywhere felt. As the mines of Colorado and Arizona become less and less attractive, the stream of immigration may more and more set out of the United States across the border. It has long been feared that if American citizens should be killed, or their property attacked, the United States government would be invoked, and should the government of Mexico relapse into that weakness out of which Presidents Juarez and Diaz raised it, a difficult position would arise. American settlers, if their numbers grow, might in such a case be tempted to establish order for themselves, and perhaps at last some sort of government. In fact, the process by which Texas was severed from Mexico and brought into the Union might conceivably be repeated in a more peaceful way by the steady infiltration of an American population. Traveller after traveller used to repeat that it was all but impossible for a comparatively weak state, full of natural wealth which her people do not use, not to crumble under the impact of a stronger and more enterprising race. It was argued that all experience pointed to the detachment of province after province from Mexico and its absorption into the American Union; and that when the process had once begun it would not stop till, in a time to be measured rather by decades than by centuries, the petty republics of Central America had been also swallowed up and the predominant influence, if not the territorial frontier, of the United States advanced to the Isthmus of Panama.
If the United States were a monarchy like Russia, this might well happen, happen not so much from any deliberate purpose of aggression as by the irresistible tendency of facts, a tendency similar to that which led Rome to conquer the East, England to conquer India, Russia to conquer northwestern Asia. But the Americans are most unwilling that it should happen, and will do all they can to prevent it. They have none of that earth hunger which burns in the great nations of Europe, having already dominions which are still far from fully peopled. They are proud of the capacity of their present population for self-government. Their administrative system is singularly unfitted for the rule of dependencies, because it has no proper machinery for controlling provincial governors; so that when it found regions which were hardly fit to be established as states, it gave them a practically all but complete self-government as Territories. Administrative posts set up in a dependent country might be jobbed, and the dependent country itself maladministered. Hence the only form annexation can with advantage take is the admission of the annexed district as a self-governing state or Territory, the difference between the two being that in the latter the inhabitants, though they are usually permitted to administer their domestic affairs, have no vote in federal elections. If Chihuahua and Sonora were like Dakota, the temptation to annex these provinces and turn them into states or Territories would be strong. But the Indo-Spaniards of Mexico have not as yet shown much fitness for the exercise of political power. They would be not only an inferior and diverse element in the Union, but an element likely, if admitted to federal suffrage, to injure federal politics, to demoralize the officials who might be sent among them, and to supply a fertile soil for all kinds of roguery and rascality, which, so far as they lay within the sphere of state action, the federal government could not interfere with, and which in federal affairs would damage Congress and bring another swarm of jobs and jobbers to Washington.
One still finds in the United States, and of course especially in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, some people who declare that Mexico will be swallowed, first the northern provinces, and the whole in time. It is “manifest destiny,” and the land and mining-claim speculators of these border lands would be glad to help destiny. But the feeling of the nation disapproves a forward policy, nor has either party any such interest in promoting it as the Southern slaveholders had long ago in bringing in Texas. The question, which had seemed remote, came suddenly to the front when the fall of President Diaz was succeeded by confusion, civil war, and brigandage in Mexico. Disorder was rampant when these pages were passing through the press, nor could the issue be foreseen. It was however clear that all the best opinion in the United States desired to avoid armed intervention, fearing to be thereby drawn into an occupation of the country which would throw upon the United States grave responsibilities and involve its government in many difficulties.
I have already observed that the United States government formerly desired and seemed likely to acquire some of the West India islands. The South had a strong motive for adding to the Union regions in which slavery prevailed, and which would have been admitted as slave states. That motive has long since vanished. The objections which apply to the incorporation of Northern Mexico apply with greater force to the incorporation of islands far less fit for colonization by the Anglo-American race than are the Mexican tablelands. Till the acquisition of Puerto Rico in 1898–99 one islet only, Navassa, between Jamaica and San Domingo, belonged to the United States.5
One spot there had long been shewn a disposition to in which the Americans had, ever since 1843 (when there was for a time a risk of its being occupied by England), declared that they felt directly interested. This is the island group of Hawaii, which lies 2,000 miles to the southwest of San Francisco. They conceived that the position of these isles over against their own Western coast would be so threatening to their commerce in a war between the United States and any naval power, that they could not suffer the islands to be occupied by, or even to fall under the influence of, any European nation, and though no nation had of late years such an influence, the United States government was considering the purchase of land for a naval station at Pearl River in Oahu when the events of 1898 led to their annexing the whole of it.6
The fate of western South America belongs to a still more distant future. When capital, which is accumulating in the United States with extraordinary rapidity, is no longer able to find highly profitable employment in the development of western North America, it will seek other fields. When population has filled up the present territory of the United States, enterprising spirits will overflow into undeveloped regions. The nearest of these is western South America, the elevated plateaux of which are habitable by Northern races. The vast territories in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia,7 for which the Spaniards have done so little, and which can hardly remain forever neglected, offer a tempting field for the extension of the commercial and political influence of the United States, but the growth of Argentina, Brazil, and Chile into powerful states, and their jealousy of any action looking to such extension, have created a new factor in the situation. They already resent the too frequent references made by politicians and the press in the United States to the Monroe Doctrine as applicable to the southern continent; and the wisest among North American statesmen have now recognized that the less they dwell upon that doctrine, the better will be the relations of their own country with the great republics of the south, and the greater her influence for peace and progress in the Western Hemisphere.
 As to the new transmarine dominions, see next chapter.
 In 1906 the U.S. government signed, though with some reservations, the general act of the Algeciras Conference for regulating the affairs of Morocco.
 Tocqueville, for instance, says (vol. ii, ch. 10): “On ne saurait voir de haine plus envenimée que celle qui existe entre les Américains des Etats Unis et les Anglais.” And very old men will tell you in America that their recollections are to the same effect.
 The population of Mexico is about 14,000,000, of whom I believe less than 10 per cent to be pure whites, perhaps 30 per cent of mixed race, and the rest Indians mostly quite illiterate.
 As to Puerto Rico, see next chapter.
 See next chapter.
 These four countries have a total area of about 1,580,000 square miles, with a settled population not exceeding 9,000,000, besides an unascertained number of uncivilized Indians.