W.T.Stead, the Ottoman Turks and the Public Law of Europe

An article in the NY Review of Books of October 2018 entitled The Suffocation of Democracy by Christopher R. Browning states the following, in a mindless anti-Trump piece of pseudo-history:

“Today, President Trump seems intent on withdrawing the US from the entire post–World War II structure of interlocking diplomatic, military, and economic agreements and organizations that have preserved peace, stability, and prosperity since 1945. His preference for bilateral relations, conceived as zero-sum rivalries in which he is the dominant player and “wins,” overlaps with the ideological preference of Steve Bannon and the so-called alt-right for the unfettered self-assertion of autonomous, xenophobic nation-states—in short, the pre-1914 international system. That “international anarchy” produced World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Great Depression, the fascist dictatorships, World War II, and the Holocaust, precisely the sort of disasters that the post–World War II international system has for seven decades remarkably avoided.”

There have, of course, been no World Wars during the last 7 decades but there have been a plentiful supply of wars during that period which have killed 10s of millions all the same. Donald Trump hasn’t started a World War yet or even started any war, to the best of my knowledge. That actually sets him rather apart from his predecessors. In fact, unless I have been missing something, he has even been attempting to wind up some of the wars of that his illustrious and peace-loving predecessors began.

But that is not the point of the matter. Every right-thinking person feels that the current President of the U.S. is the worst thing that ever befell the American people and the world in general so let us not waste our time disputing the matter. Our words would be wasted anyway on those who do not think, but only feel.

What is a more serious matter is the assertion that the Public Law of Europe of the 19thCentury led to the catastrophe of 1914, and then the further catastrophes following on from that.

The Public Law of Europe? What on earth is that, you might say? 

It was the system, built by all the Treaties concluded by the Great Powers and lesser States from 1815 onwards during the period sometimes known as the “British Peace of a Century”(1815-1914). Or as the author calls it “the unfettered self-assertion of autonomous, xenophobic nation-states.”

But surely if the Public Law of Europe was so bad how did it lead to the “British Peace of a Century”pray tell?

In fact, if we look at the Public Law of Europe, and ask why it produced, in the end the catastrophe of 1914, and the catastrophes that followed, we find something quite interesting but disturbing for our Liberal totalitarians. We find that the “British Peace of a Century”was undone by a “peace-loving”British Foreign Secretary who subverted the Public Law of Europe in the interest of the Balance of Power.

Who says so? One of the most substantial Liberals of the late 19thCentury/early 20thCentury, William Thomas Stead.

W.T. Stead’s main political ambition was to bring about an alliance between England and Russia – which he felt was the only way of securing the future peace of Europe and Asia.For decades he called for a revolution in British Foreign Policy and campaigned for it in books, newspapers and periodicals. But when it was achieved, he began to notice something had changed that threatened the peace, stability and security of the world which he also campaigned for as a good Liberal. He described it, started to expose it and tried to campaign against it without quite putting his finger on it. And then he went to the U.S. on a speaking tour on the Titanic. 

In 1911 Stead published‘Tripoli and the Treaties; or Britain’s duty in this war.’ This was a book protesting against Italy’s invasion of Ottoman Libya and asking why Britain was not lifting a finger to protest or prevent it.  

Stead was outraged that Britain was unprepared to defend the International Treaties it had signed up to in 1856, 1871 and 1878 – part of the Public Law of Europe – which guaranteed the integrity of the Ottoman Empire and failed to follow through on its pledges to go to war to defend it.

Stead was no sympathiser with the Ottomans and described himself as having written more abuse against the Ottoman Turks than any man alive. He had always seen the British defence of the Ottoman Empire as a hypocrisy founded on primarily an anti-Russian position and as a Gladstonian Liberal, he had been in favour of a “bag and baggage”policy toward the Turk in Europe. But he was outraged at what the British Foreign Secretary was doing to endanger the peace and stability of the World.

Stead was, of course, aware of the other hypocrisy he was himself engaging in – as a Briton criticising other nations for seizing foreign peoples’ territories. But he saw something very momentous in Edward Grey’s appeasement of the Italian aggressors when previous British Foreign Secretaries had so often threatened war with much greater Powers, like Russia, for the same principles in Foreign Affairs.

Stead smelt a rat and instinctively knew that something that really threatened the peace and stability of Europe was afoot. 

The following passage of Stead’s is an argument that I had not come across expressed elsewhere, when I drew attention to it about 10 years ago. I thought I was mistaken in seeing anything of significance in it. But I did feel it odd that the great anti-Turk went so far to defend the Turk on principle. And then, a couple of years ago, I found someone who also, saw it as significant and referred to it in his writings for the Continental Times. 

This was W.T. Stead’s friend, Sir Roger Casement.

I think that although Stead could not see the real reason behind Grey’s actions in relation to the Ottoman Empire he is observed the momentous revolution in British Foreign Policy that was tearing up the treaties on which the peace of Europe and beyond rested and which ultimately led to the Great War on Germany and Ottoman Turkey:

“‘The Treaty of Paris, of 1856,’ said Mr. Gladstone, ‘is the public law of Europe.’ That law was reaffirmed at the Conference of London in 1871, and again re-enacted at the Berlin Congress of 1878. Great Britain took a leading part in 1856, in 1871, and in 1878 in defining and in defending this public law of Europe. It has been invoked time and again by successive Foreign Ministers of both parties to resist the isolated action of any Power in the affairs of the Ottoman Empire. It has been used repeatedly to silence the repeated demands made by the friends of Humanity in this country that something drastic should be done to suppress anarchy in Macedonia or to punish massacre in Armenia. 

The doctrine of the European Concert formally embodied in the Treaty of Paris is that each of the great Powers binds itself to abstain from isolated action in the affairs of the Ottoman Empire. Any intervention must be collective. The Powers constituted themselves a Board of Trustees for the protection of the Sick Man’s estate. and bound themselves by a solemn treaty to abstain from any isolated action. That remains to this day the recognised public law of Europe on which the peace and security of the modern State system depends… It absolutely forbids any isolated action by any single Power in any part of the Ottoman dominions, it guarantees the integrity of the Ottoman Empire and it expressly prescribes that in the case of any dispute arising between any of the signatories and the Ottoman Government, no recourse shall be had to arms until the other signatory Powers have had an opportunity to compose the quarrel by peaceable mediation. 

The action of the Italian Government in suddenly launching an expedition to seize Tripoli, which is part and parcel of the Ottoman Empire, without offering any of the other signatories of the Treaty of Paris an opportunity to compose the dispute by mediation, was not only a gross breach of treaty faith, it was a deliberate violation of the public law of Europe. 

How was it met by the British Government? By protest, by warning, by remonstrance, by a declaration that Great Britain would not tolerate this breach of the public law of Europe? 

Lord Granville in 1871, and Lord Salisbury in 1879 had confronted a much mightier Power than Italy, and that in a much more questionable quarrel, with the resolute statement that Great Britain was not prepared to tolerate the trampling under foot of the public law of Europe and the contemptuous tearing up of treaties to which the signature of Great Britain was attached. 

But we are living in other days, when the spirit of Gladstone and Salisbury no longer inspires our Foreign Office. The action of our present Government appears to have been limited to issuing a Declaration of Neutrality! 

Is this an adequate discharge of the duties and obligations of Great Britain in the present crisis? 

That we have a duty need not be argued, because it has not been and cannot be disputed. Great Britain is one of the great Powers of Europe which has taken a leading part in the past — perhaps the leading part — in framing the treaties which embody the public law of Europe with regard to the Ottoman Empire of which Tripoli is an integral part. We have fought in one great war to secure the right to an equal voice in the settlement of all Turkish questions, and we have faced without flinching the possibility of having to wage war single-handed in defence of that right.” (pp.9-11)

Writing about the Ottoman defeat in the war with Russia of 1877/78 Stead explained how the Public Law of Europe worked and how Britain upheld it to ensure observance to International Law, bringing the Russians to order by the threat of force:

“The war ran its course. The Turkish armies in Europe and in Asia were defeated, and the victorious Russians only halted at the gates of Constantinople. Before the Russians imposed their treaty of peace upon the vanquished Turks, although the British Government had declared its neutrality, it did not hesitate to intervene. 

On January 14, in view of the reports which had reached Her Majesty’s Government as to the negotiations for peace which were about to be opened between the Russian Government and the Porte, and in order to avoid any possible misconception, Her Majesty’s Government instructed Lord A. Loftus to state to Prince Gortschakoft that, in the opinion of Her Majesty’s Government, any treaty concluded between the Government of Russia and the Porte affecting the Treaties of 1856 and 1871 must be a European treaty, and would not be valid without the assent of the Powers who were parties to those treaties. 

With this warning before them the Russians concluded the preliminary Treaty of San Stefano, and sent it round to the other Powers with an intimation that portions of it affecting the general interests of Europe could not be regarded as definitive without general concurrence. But this did not satisfy the British Government. They insisted that every single article of the new treaty must be submitted to the Powers for their approval. 

As Russia appeared to hesitate, the British Government beat the war-drum with vigour. The Reserves were called out, the Sepoys were brought from India; six millions were voted for military preparations; the British fleet was ordered to force the Dardanelles and anchor in the Sea of Marmora. Lord Salisbury, on April 1, issued his famous Circular, in which, after citing the Protocol of 1871, he declared in the most categorical fashion: — 

‘It is impossible for her Majesty’s Government, without violating the spirit of this Declaration, to acquiesce in the withdrawal from the cognisance of the Powers of articles in the new treaty which are modifications of existing treaty engagements, and inconsistent with them.’ 

Threatened in Europe and in Asia with war by sea and land, and menaced also by Austria, Russia consented to recognise this extreme interpretation of the Treaty of Paris, and submitted her treaty, lock, stock and barrel, to be revised, mutilated, and transformed by the Congress of Berlin. 

At Berlin the representatives of the Powers converted the Treaty of San Stefano into the Treaty of Berlin, and while doing so they expressly re-enacted the articles of the Treaty of Paris which were not affected by the articles in the new treaty. Among these re-enacted and doubly confirmed articles are Seven and Eight, which assert the principle of collective dealing with the Porte, which guarantee the independence and integrity of the Ottoman Empire, and which bind each of the contracting Powers to afford the co-signatories an opportunity of mediation before having recourse to force. 

Here we have the plain, straightforward story of the public law of Europe as it was made in the first instance, and then emphasized and insisted upon by the British Government. We see how that the essential principle of the law of nations was formulated by a British Government in our own capital and accepted by all the Powers, including Italy. We see how, on the only two occasions on which their authority was threatened British Governments, one Liberal, the other Conservative, instantly asserted their authority and proclaimed their readiness to defend it by arms, with or without allies. In deference to the energetic action of these British Governments, the principle has been unanimously accepted by all the Governments of Europe. Here, if anywhere, is the traditional policy of Great Britain. Here, if anywhere, we may expect to find applied the principle of continuity which has been proclaimed by successive Administrations of both parties.” (pp.13-16)

Stead wrote about the way Britain had previously threatened war against anyone who dared threaten the Public Law of Europe, even though that might mean acting unilaterally against a most powerful State. But suddenly it was so different:

“We come, therefore, to the examination of the action of our present rulers with no room for uncertainty as to the principles upon which they were expected to act. 

The public law of Europe specifically sets forth (1) that no Power having a dispute with the Porte shall have recourse to arms until after it has invoked the friendly mediation of its co-signatories; and (2) that no modification whatever of the existing arrangements of the Ottoman Empire shall be made without the concurrence of all the signatory powers. 

How, then, has Sir Edward Grey applied these principles when he was suddenly faced with the intimation that Italy was going to war with the Turks for the purpose of seizing Tripoli?

We are, of course, left in the dark as to the action of the Foreign Office, and we can only infer what has been done or what has been left undone by the evidence of known facts, and the meagre admissions of the Foreign Secretary. What everyone would have expected would have been done if the Foreign Office had been occupied by Lord Palmerston, Lord Granville, or Lord Salisbury would have been a sharp unmistakable public intimation to the Italian Government (1) that her proposed action was a flagrant violation of the public law of Europe (Article 7 & 8) of the Treaty of Paris ; and (2) that whatever arrangements she might attempt to carry out by force of arms in Tripoli would have no validity until they had received the concurrence of the signatory Powers. That much, at least, might have been regarded as certain. But Lord Palmerston or even Mr. Gladstone might have gone further and have intimated that if the Italian Government persisted in so high-handed a defiance of the essential principle of the law of nations. Great Britain would be compelled to consider the necessity of intervening to defend the public law of Europe. 

That was what might have been done. If even the first stern warning had not been backed up by an unmistakable intimation that Italy might have to reckon with the British fleet, everyone knows the invasion of Tripoli would never have taken place. 

But Sir Edward Grey did none of these things. He, the custodian of British honour, the keeper of the great trust which we have inherited from our fathers, does not appear to have uttered one word of protest, of remonstrance, or of warning. 

Neither does he appear to have offered his services as mediator between Italy and Turkey. For a whole month the nation waited in vain for a single word of information as to what he was doing to protect the public law of Europe from this insolent and defiant assault. 

…Unless our traditional policy was thrown to the winds and the principle of continuity abandoned, we had a right to expect from the British Foreign Secretary the very next day a declaration couched in the spirit, if not in the actual words, of his predecessors to the effect that the status of the African provinces of the Ottoman Empire is by the Treaties of Paris and Berlin a matter which must be dealt with by the signatories of those treaties acting in concert, and that until their consent was duly had and obtained any alleged or attempted alteration of the status quo in Tripoli was ipso facto null and void.” (pp.16-17)

Here lies the reason why the Public Law of Europe was undermined and led to the catastrophe of 1914, and all the events that followed. It was nothing to do with the system, which actually worked, and had kept the peace – relatively – for a century in Europe.

It was all to do with its subversion by the British Foreign Secretary, who, having instituted a revolution in British Foreign Policy brought the whole house down. 

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