A Reviewer's Notebook - 1969/9

If, as President Richard Nixon has said, the Era of Confrontation is giving way to the Era of Nego­tiation, it would seem to follow that we are in for a period of treaty making. The conventional wisdom is that treaties are highly desirable. But Laurence W. Beil­enson, a Los Angeles lawyer who was a U.S. liaison officer with the Chinese army in World War II, thinks that "treaty-reliance" is a "disease." In an elaborate study called The Treaty Trap: A History of the Performance of Political Treaties by the United States and European Nations (Public Affairs Press, $7.00), Mr. Beilenson proves that the "paper chains" of treaties between sovereign nations have never succeeded in holding "against interest." The "bad guys" (Kaiser Wilhelm, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler) have cynically re­garded treaties as "scraps of pa­per." But the "good guys" (demo­cratically elected governments) have had just as lamentable a record of performance—or may­be we should say nonperformance. Some statesmen, of course, have been more hypocritical than oth­ers. The least hypocritical ruler was Joe Stalin, who wrote in 1913 that "a diplomat’s words must contradict his deeds—otherwise what sort of a diplomat is he? Words are one thing—deeds some­thing entirely different. Fine words are a mask to cover shady deeds. A sincere diplomat is like dry water or wooden iron."

Since we are apparently about to enter into some sort of nuclear treaty with the Soviet Union, the most immediately relevant chapter in Mr. Beilenson’s book is the one which details the record of the Bolsheviks as members of the "diplomatic club." The commu­nists began by repudiating both the debts and the treaties made by the Czars and the Kerensky re­gime, although they subsequently claimed the benefits of the older Russian treaties. In the first im­portant Bolshevik treaty, that of Brest-Litovsk, Lenin promised the Germans that his government would engage in no agitation against the German State. But the minute the Soviets had opened an embassy in Berlin they began to carry on subversion, dispensing "grossly underestimated" sums of money to provoke a Bolshevik revolution inside Germany. "Yes, of course, we are violating the treaty," said Lenin, "we have vio­lated it thirty or forty times…. Napoleon hunted the Germans for violating the [Tilsit] peace treaty, and the present [Napoleon] will hunt us for the same reason. Only we shall take care that he does not catch us soon."

The 1933 U.S.-U.S.S.R. treaty of recognition included antisub­version promises. So did Soviet treaties with Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Iran, Italy, France, Japan, and other nations. Meanwhile the Comintern, the Soviet trade mis­sions, the various Russian embas­sies and the local communist par­ties, all went about the business of "subversion as usual." Even during World War II, when it was to Stalin’s interest to keep on good terms with his Western allies, there was a history of Soviet treaty breeches. Despite the prom­ise to England to render "assist­ance… of all kinds," the Soviets refused the use of their airfields to enable the British to drop arms and food to the Polish Home Army in Warsaw in 1944. At Yalta Stalin promised to apply the "prin­ciple of the Atlantic Charter"—i.e., the right of free elections—to East European nations. But the Yalta document was systematically violated from the start. It was perfidious of the Soviets to make their deal with Hitler to carve up Poland in 1939. But here Stalin trapped himself; he trusted Hitler to keep his bargain. It was the only known instance of Stalin’s succumbing to the "disease of treaty-reliance."

A Tradition of Broken Treaties

In the matter of "breeches of treaties not to subvert," says Mr. Beilenson, the Soviets have "made a new high." But in other types of breech the U.S.S.R. has merely emulated the West. The ancient Greeks were chronic treaty break­ers. After years of exhausting war Athens and Sparta and their re­spective allies swore in the Treaty of Nicias to refrain "for fifty years" from bellicose activities in­cluding "fraud or damage by land or sea." What followed was "seven years of cold war" in which neither Athens nor Sparta gave back the territories they had promised to return. After seven years of subversion Athens and Sparta were at each others’ throats once more. It did not matter that Athens was a democracy and Sparta a tyr­anny; both city states violated their agreement from the day it was signed.

If one may make a generaliza­tion based on Mr. Beilenson’s evi­dence, the most peaceful periods in the world’s history have been those in which the fewest treaties have been negotiated. Louis XIV of France was always forging new "paper chains" and breaking them at his convenience. Despite his own perfidies, Louis XIV suffered from the "disease of treaty-re­liance," says Mr. Beilenson; "it would be tiresome to recount all the promises for which Louis paid Charles II of England, which Charles regularly broke." In the "Humpty Dumpty period" of the eighteenth century Charles VI of Austria, who had no sons, entered a whole series of treaties designed to protect the lands he was leav­ing to his beautiful daughter, Maria Theresa. He gave up trade advantages and territory to guar­antee the "Pragmatic Sanction" that was to defend the "female heirs of the House of Austria. But if Maria Theresa hadn’t been a woman of mettle she would have been done in by her "guarantors," including the Prussian "monster," Frederick the Great, who made agrab for Austrian Silesia the mo­ment that Charles VI died. Maria Theresa "turned to those from whom she had no promises," and they saved her for reasons of "sen­timent and interest," which proved "more dependable than treaties."

Peace Without Treaties

Comparatively few treaties were signed during the nineteenth cen­tury, which Mr. Beilenson calls "the peaceful century." The U.S. behaved badly toward its French ally in the years after Yorktown, when John Jay "purposely de­ceived France" in his efforts to reach a satisfactory peace agree­ment with Britain. But thereafter the U.S. kept relatively clear of "paper chains" for more than a hundred and forty years. We did break our word to Colombia when President Theodore Roosevelt used a U.S. cruiser to prevent Colom­bian troops from interfering with the Panamanian revolution. This particular treaty breech was in our "interest," for it gave us the Panama Canal. We owned up to our own duplicity when we paid Colombia $25 million in 1922 in settlement of Colombia’s claims.

Since we refused to sign the Versailles Treaty, we weren’t party of acquiescing in many of the treaty breeches of the twenties and the thirties. But the Kellogg­Briand Pact did link us in a general way to the "Versailles sys­tem." "The paper structure" of those years, says Mr. Beilenson, "was the strongest ever erected." But, despite the "paper chains," the Japanese invaded Manchuria, the Germans rearmed secretly, the Italians seized Ethiopia, the Brit­ish let the Germans build sub­marines in violation of the naval clauses of Versailles, and nobody bothered to stop Hitler when, in defiance of treaty obligations, he invaded the Rhine demilitarized zone in 1936.

The moral of the tale is to sign treaties "selectively, sparingly, and cautiously." And when you do sign them, be skeptical of their value; even "inspectors," watching for breeches of arms limitation guarantees, can be bribed. Above all, be wary of electing rulers who are prone to attacks of the "dis­ease of treaty-reliance." Even Stalin got caught in that particu­lar trap.


ENEMIES OF THE PERMA­NENT THINGS by Russell Kirk (New Rochelle, N. Y.: Arlington House, 1969, 311 pp.) $7.00.

Reviewed by Robert M. Thornton

The tone of this Kirk miscellany is more positive than the title in­dicates; the accent is on such friends of the permanent things as T. S. Eliot, Max Picard, Ray Brad­bury, George Orwell, C. S. Lewis, and Eric Voegelin. Intelligent com­mentary on the work of such men is cheerful reading for those who are tired of being told over and over again that this is an age of change, and that we must adapt to the new. Of course things change—sometimes for the better, but often for the worse. It is absurd, therefore, to discard tested ways of doing things—religious beliefs, moral codes, customs and manners—simply because they are old. Age, as a matter of fact, counts in their favor, indicating that the belief or practice has survival value.

Kirk argues persuasively against the modern inclination toward the abnormal in art, literature, and politics, and against the new style men "who think in slogans and talk in bullets," the "terrible sim­plifiers" who "reduce politics to catch-phrases;… who promise social, rather than personal, sal­vation." "A norm," he explains, "means an enduring standard. It is a law of nature, which we ig­nore at our peril. It is a rule of human conduct and a measure of public virtue."

Happily, the agony of our time is producing books that point the way ahead, and this is one of them. 

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