World War I and Commercial Rivalries: The American Founders on Solving Trade Disputes Threatening the Union
Supporters of the proposed United States Constitution of 1787 frequently warned that there was no mechanism under the Articles of Confederation to prevent what they saw as the inevitable commercial rivalries between the states from escalating into armed conflict. Such rivalries had begun to appear through protectionist trade laws enacted by various states. Another event was the dispute between Virginia and Maryland over fishing and navigation in Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River. The end, the Federalists charged, would surely be the dissolution of the union into some number of quarreling confederations.
The Anti-federalists had several responses. First, Number IX of the Articles authorized Congress, on petition by any state, to provide for the appointment of a court to resolve any conflict between that state and another. Second, they pointed to the Mount Vernon Conference of 1785 which had settled those very divisive claims between Virginia and Maryland. Third, they declared that it was fanciful to claim that republics, especially those with commercial relations as close as those within the Confederation, would go to war with each other. The history of republics wagered against such eventualities, they asserted. As William Grayson, a moderate opponent of the Constitution, put forth at length before the Virginia ratifying convention, the states were bound by mutually reinforcing commercial bonds and interests. He sarcastically described the Federalists’ panicky and hyperbolic claims as predicting that Pennsylvania and Maryland would attack like Goths and Vandals of old, and that “the Carolinians, from the south, (mounted on alligators, I presume), are to come and destroy our cornfields, and eat up our little children!” Such specters were “ludicrous in the extreme.” Others repeated Grayson’s contentions even more forcefully, often combined with sneering attacks on the writers of The Federalist.
Alexander Hamilton, among others, rejected Grayson’s dismissal of the danger. In essay No. 6 of The Federalist, he asserted that immediate national interests, including economic advantage, are more likely to precipitate war than more general and remote objects, such as justice or dominion. He asked rhetorically,
“Have republics in practice been less addicted to war than monarchies?…Are not popular assemblies frequently subject to the impulses of rage , resentment, jealousy, avarice, and of other irregular and violent propensities?…Has commerce hitherto done any thing more than change the objects of war? Is not the love of wealth as domineering and enterprising a passion as that of power and glory? Have there not been as many wars founded upon commercial motives, since that has become the prevailing system of nations, as were before occasioned by the cupidity of territory or dominion?”
It was as to these questions that Hamilton invoked the guide of experience for answers.
That experience he found in the history of Sparta, Athens, Rome, and Carthage. All of them he classified as republics, the last two as commercial republics. He detailed the numerous ruinous wars in which they engaged. Moving forward in time, he then indicted the commercial republic of Venice for its wars in Italy and the 17th-century commercial Dutch Republic for its wars with England and France. Britain came in for scorn as particularly bellicose for commercial advantage. Worse yet, Hamilton charged, the king was at times dragged into wars he did not want, by “the cries of the nation and importunities of their representatives,” so that there have been “almost as many popular as royal wars.” He singled out wars for commercial advantage between Britain and France and Britain and Spain. One of those wars between Britain and France overthrew a network of alliances which had been made two decades earlier. He acidly asked, “Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age, and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct, that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?”
In addition to commercial incentives for war, Hamilton pointed to personal motives of rulers and other prominent individuals, or to intrigues hatched by influential advisers, as prompting wars between republics. Thus he blamed the Peloponnesian War, so disastrous to Athens, on the personal motives of the great statesman Pericles. England’s ill-advised war with France Hamilton assigned to the machinations of Henry VIII’s chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey, and his pursuit of political influence.
Whatever the merits of Hamilton’s predictably slanted analysis of specific historical events, his message was that political theory disproved by experience is not a sound basis for public policy. A more recent scenario which fit his skepticism about pacific republics was the Great War from 1914 to 1918, which led to the collapse of the 19th-century European political order and to revolutionary political and social change. The antagonists were the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Ottoman Turkey against the Triple Entente of Britain, France, and Russia. The latter group was eventually joined by Italy, Japan, and the United States. Of the major participants, Germany, Britain, France, and the United States were commercial and industrial powerhouses. They were also outright republics or had sufficient political power vested in parliamentary bodies to qualify as quasi-republican constitutional monarchies. Each also had substantial overseas territories, Britain by far the most. Of the rest, Russia and Japan were rising industrial and commercial nations. In particular, Germany and Britain had considerable commercial interaction, but it likely was exactly that commercial and colonial competition which the British saw as a threat. The prewar German naval buildup did nothing to calm British nerves.
There was also a complicated system of alliances which emerged shortly before the war. This reshuffling of international arrangements changed the dynamics of the relatively stable post-Napoleonic international order in Europe which had even survived disruptive processes of unification in Germany and Italy and disunion in the old Austrian Empire. True, there had been revolutionary tremors and limited wars, such as between Prussia and Denmark, and Prussia and Austria, and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Skillful diplomacy, in particular by the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, had prevented any conflict of an existential nature from arising. Bismarck had isolated France after 1871 through alliances with Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, first through the Three Emperors’ League, and then through the Triple Alliance of 1882 and the Reinsurance Treaty of 1887. Relations with Britain were preserved through family relationships and Britain’s preoccupation with her empire overseas. He had also smoothed frictions between the rival empires, Russia and Austria-Hungary, through the Congress of Berlin in 1878, and among various colonial powers through a conference in the same city in 1884.
Even after Bismarck was forced out of office, it appeared that strengthened international legal norms would prevent wars. International arbitrations settled disputes. Two Hague Conventions, the London Naval Conference of 1909, and the London Conference of 1912 convinced “the right kinds” of Europeans that large-scale war was anachronistic. The foreign offices of the various governments, staffed with forward-looking and educated internationalists, surely would extend the great-power stability of the 19th century’s Concert of Europe. Ignored was that these multinational conferences and conventions left some number of participants dissatisfied and nursing grudges. This was particularly true for the Balkan countries. While trying to establish their independence from the crumbling Ottoman Empire, they warred with the Turks, the Austro-Hungarians, and each other and resented their fates being controlled by larger powers. Over time, these perceived affronts to national honor during a time of heightened national consciousness overrode the rational self-interest served by commercial considerations. Moreover, various treaties and diplomatic agreements overlapped and indeed conflicted with each other. Alliances increasingly shifted around, which begot international uncertainty during an age of domestic demographic changes, increasing political militancy, and unequal industrial and technological prowess.
This new system of alliances had another potentially destabilizing element. It allowed the relatively weaker participants to act like big players on the international stage, counting on their more powerful allies to back them up. Instead, the bravado and exaggerated sense of national honor of less important states dragged the major powers into a disastrous conflict. Everything changed when a Bosnian Serb nationalist, supported by secret nationalist societies and Serbian military intelligence, assassinated the reform-minded presumptive heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on June 28, 1914.
After some delay, during which it was hoped that the assassination might become just another deplorable act that would result in an appropriate punishment for the captured perpetrators, the Austrians responded. Having received some halting assurances from the German government that they would back Austria-Hungary’s response to Serbia, the Austrians sent an ultimatum to the Serbs. Serbia only partially accepted the Austrian demands, mobilized its army, and briefly sent troops into Austro-Hungarian territory. In quick response, Austria began partial mobilization of its army and, on July 28, 1914, declared war on Serbia.
At this stage, the conflict might yet have become another limited skirmish. But the Russian government, some of whose ministers had been informed of the plot ahead of time and whose military intelligence likely helped the plotters, had promised the Serbs that Russia would come to Serbia’s aid against any attack by Austria-Hungary. When Austria-Hungary began partial mobilization, Russia within two days ordered full mobilization of its forces. Fearing the large number of Russian troops, Austria-Hungary in turn mobilized fully. Germany, coming to her ally’s assistance, did likewise on July 31, 1914. At the same time, Germany issued a demand of neutrality to Russia. When Russia failed to acquiesce, a state of war existed on August 1. France, pursuant to a treaty with Russia from 1892, had rejected German demands for neutrality and had ordered a general mobilization the previous day. On August 3, 1914, Germany declared war on France. Britain, pursuant to her treaty obligations to France under the Triple Entente of 1907, declared war on Germany on August 5, 1914, after the latter ignored Britain’s demands for withdrawal from occupied Belgium. Italy, as was her wont during 20th-century wars, initially refused to stand by her treaty obligations to Germany and Austria-Hungary and eventually switched sides to the Entente.
The war took on a dynamic of its own. Occasional peace feelers went nowhere, in part because of objections by military leaders. There was, however, another equally significant hurdle, namely, political opposition based on the respective publics’ sentiments that their sacrifices demanded something more than a muddled armistice. It must be remembered that the war initially was very popular and welcomed with an almost giddy celebration of patriotic zeal by the citizenry of the combatants. Hamilton’s observation about monarchs having “continued wars, contrary to their inclinations, and sometimes contrary to the real interests of the state” due to public pressure, was being realized.
The Great War, infelicitously dubbed “the war to end all wars,” ended in the collapse of the Ottoman, Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian monarchies. It also severely damaged the British and French empires around the world. The revolutionary chaos it unleashed and the national resentments its end ignited soon produced totalitarian movements and another world war. The tens of millions killed in those wars and the even higher number murdered by those ideological totalitarian regimes during the 20th century are a grisly monument to man’s potential to do evil, often cheerfully. The war should have put paid to the conceit that the world of human self-interest and passion can be readily subordinated to a legal artifice designed by a cadre of internationalists. Such idealism sounds marvelous in a university faculty lounge or in a graduate seminar in international relations, but, as Margaret Thatcher observed, “The facts of life are conservative.”
As fundamental challenges to the post-World War II United States-led international order have arisen over the past two decades, much debate has erupted over what system will replace it. The current conflict in Europe has once again tested the notion that commercial relations will make war obsolete. Russia has been dissuaded neither by Western economic pressures and commercial ostracism nor the military aid by NATO to Ukraine from taking a course of action which her government and people see, rightly or wrongly, as important to their national identity. One hopes that these broader fundamental geopolitical changes, such as the apparent emergence of a multi-polar international order, do not lead to the type of destruction World War I caused a century ago. But such hopes must rest on diplomacy based on experience, not on smug nostrums about pacific republics or the bonds of commerce.
Joerg W. Knipprath is an expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty. Professor Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow.
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