Thursday, September 11, 2008

Finland -- Should France and GB have tried harder to rescue

Should France and Great Britain have tried harder to rescue Finland in 1939?

On page 14 of Politics Among Nations, Morgenthau writes that “. . . political realism takes issue with the ‘legalistic-moralistic approach’ to international politics. . .”

“In 1939 the Soviet Union attacked Finland. This action confronted France and Great Britain with two issues, one legal, the other political. Did that action violate the Covenant of the League of Nations and, if it did, what countermeasures should France and Great Britain take? The legal question could easily be answered in the affirmative, for obviously the Soviet Union had done what was prohibited by the Covenant. The answer to the political question depends, first, upon the manner in which the Russian action affected the interests of France and Great Britain; second upon the existing distribution of power between France and Great Britain, on the one hand, and the Soviet Union and other potentially hostile nations, especially Germany, on the other; and, third, upon the influence that the countermeasures were likely to have upon the interests of France and Great Britain and the future distribution of power. France and Great Britain, as the leading members of the League of Nations, saw to it that the Soviet Union was expelled from the League, and they were prevented from joining Finland in the war against the Soviet Union only by Sweden’s refusal to allow their troops to pass through Swedish territory on their way to Finland. If this refusal by Sweden had not saved them, France and Great Britain would shortly have found themselves at war with the Soviet Union and Germany at the same time.

“The policy of France and Great Britain was a classic example of legalism in that they allowed the answer to the legal question, legitimate within its sphere, to determine their political actions. Instead of asking both questions, that of the law and that of power, they asked only the question of law; and the answer they received could have no bearing on the issue that their very existence might have depended upon.”

Comment: I’m sure Finland would have appreciated Sweden letting French and British troops come to their aid in 1939, but had they done so it would not have gone well for France and Great Britain. The Germans were capable of generating more harm than they could handle without adding the USSR. Morgenthau is using this example to show that they would have been better off using Political Realism to evaluate their course of action and that Sweden saved them from making a terrible mistake.

Morgenthau wrote, “The main signpost that helps political realism to find its way through the landscape of international politics is the concept of interest defined in terms of power.” We can see the application of that in this example. It wasn’t in the best interest of Britain and France to go to war against Germany and the USSR at the same time. They hadn’t the power to defeat these two nations, but even assuming that they thought they did (which I doubt), they would be lessening their chances by this course of action.

This also illustrates what is most unpleasant about Political Realism. It subordinates morality and legalism to Political Interest. It was morally and legally right for Great Britain and France to come to Finland’s aid, but Morgenthau would say that Great Britain and France were not entitled to risk the existence of their nations in order to do what was morally and legally right. They needed to do what was in the best interest of their nations.

It is hard to argue against Morgenthau’s conclusions, but surely we cannot discount all our treaties simply because it might put us at risk if we meet our obligations? On the other hand, I wonder what our obligations are to the weak nations of the world, especially those with strong aggressive neighbors. What, for example, are our legal and moral obligations to the former Soviet Socialist Republics? If we had obligations of that sort to Georgia then we seem to have followed Morgenthau’s advice and put National Interest above them.

Lawrence Helm

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