The Washington Treaty of 1871 and Sovereignty Today

kearsarge vs alabama

USS Kearsarge sinks CSS Alabama off the coast of Cherbourg, France in 1864

There is the temptation among American Civil War buffs to view that conflict as a purely American affair. Brother fought brother and everyone was American, etc. But this assumption is just as wrong as if you to assume that the Syrian or Congolese Civil Wars have little outside involvement.

From the beginning, the governments of Britain and France pulled heavily for the Confederacy. They saw the emerging industrial and commercial might of the United States as a grave threat to their Atlantic supremacy and the order they had barely established after the Crimean War with Russia. With the US distracted by what would become the bloodiest conflict in all of its history, France seized the opportunity to install a puppet regime in Mexico. After the Trent Affair in 1861 (when British ships were boarded and Confederate agents on them arrested in international waters) Britain upped the ante, sending threatening noises of war and violating neutrality by building blockade runners stocked with weapons shipments which would slip into Gulf ports such as Mobile Bay and New Orleans. This in turn would shape the Union naval strategy for the rest of the war, with David Farragut’s famous battles being the actions to close those ports.

Despite Gladstone’s and Queen Victoria’s southern sympathies, once the Emancipation Proclamation was declared after the Union victory at Antietam in 1862, general British public opinion turned against the south. But the rich business of economically and logistically aiding the Confederacy continued among the entrepreneurs of the Liverpool dockyards. Confederate agents remained extremely active in Canada, and even planned (though did not execute) a biological warfare attack by infecting New York City army hospitals with Yellow Fever.

In light of this dangerous situation, only one power expressed open support for the Union cause. The navy of the Russian Empire sent squadrons of warships to dock in both east and west coast ports of the United States should Britain or France get any ideas about attacking the strung out Union blockade. Sealed orders on board the Russian flagship contained instructions that should any outside power attack the United States during the war against secession, the Russian fleet was to sail and engage said power’s naval forces. Tsar Alexander II was not about to let Anglo-French meddling deprive him of potential allies all around the world.

After Gettysburg and Vicksburg the attractiveness of supporting the Confederate cause abroad dried up. And yet those British built commerce raiders with their British cannons continued to wreak havoc on the US whaling and trading ships. The CSS Alabama-the most effective commerce raider in all of history to this day-was a particular sensation in the press. It was finally sunk, as pictured above, by the sloop of war USS Kearsarge after an intensive hunt throughout Europe.

But the end of the war in 1865 did not bring an end to the international repercussions of that conflict. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was ready for another war against Britain on the charges of the immense damage its ships and weapons had done-even if in Confederate hands. He considered the war to have been effectively over more than a year before it finished-and its prolongation a direct result of British interference. Britain, therefore, should pay the costs of the Union for late 1864 and 1865.

Meanwhile, in the now occupied south, US forces under General Sheridan began their own weapon smuggling operation to the forces of Benito Juarez who were fighting the French backed Hapsburg pretender in charge of the occupation of Mexico. The tide had already turned in Mexico’s favor, but the new weapons surely sped things up. Rather than overtly violating neutrality, US forces tended to simply leave weapons stockpiles at certain places on the border and then disappear, expecting that in the night Mexican agents would come, cross the border, and take them without anyone ‘knowing’ otherwise. Two could play at the cloaked interference game.

The French were eventually driven from Mexico. But the economic reparations demanded by the United States on Britain remained, poisoning relations between the two countries, who had remained steady rivals since 1775, with little to no respite even further.

But then came the Franco-Prussian War, the rise of an immensely powerful German state, a major economic and industrial boom in Russia, and several naval arms races between Britain and France. Britain could no longer blithely sit on the top of the world, uncaring as to its relations with other major powers. As the furthest away power, the US represented the safest option to begin a re-orientation of British policy. With the Americans agreeing to drop their more outlandish claims and also paying reparations for events like the Trent Affair, Britain agreed to pay damages and acknowledge guilt related to the neutrality violations of British built commerce raiders. Since then, the two countries have enjoyed quite amicable relations by and large, with the notable exception of a major breakdown in the 20s and early 30s in the aftermath of the failure of Wilsonian idealism.

So, what does the Washington Treaty of 1871 have to do with us today? Well, functionally, quite little. But I would like to float the idea that in the case of the Syrian Civil War the issues of outside backing of internal rebel movements is once again a major issue in great power diplomacy. Russia plays a much more direct role supporting the government, but remains committed to stopping its allies from being overwhelmed by foreign-supported forces. Meanwhile, in the United States and other countries, a backlash is growing in the general public to a policy which is increasingly clear should never interfered in the first place, and failing that, is backing the wrong side. Like the Union, the Syrian government is a flawed but multicultural organization, like the Confederacy the rebellion in Syria belongs overwhelmingly to a much narrower demographic. While the rebellion in Syria is much more justifiable than the southern rebellion was, it has come with time to be if anything even more scary and destabilizing for its region. Meanwhile, the US now plays the role of 19th Century Britain, its people increasingly coming to look with horror over who they are backing while the policy elites blithely continue on an expensive course of confirmed failure. Motivated as much by personal sympathies as strategic concerns, if not more so, as the recently declassified Hillary Clinton emails strongly imply.

In our extremely globalized world, upholding national sovereignty, particularly of small and weak states, seems almost an antiquated idea. But perhaps it is time to realize that quite often it can serve big power interests. I am not so naive to believe that strong countries will not interfere with the internal politics of smaller ones. There are in fact many instances where this serves vital strategic interests. But I do think it is time to make it something people think upon as a dangerous action one should only pursue in extremity-and this means there should be repercussions. Russia is doing to the Ukraine what America, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia do to Syria. It doesn’t like the government so it plays brinksmanship with rebel forces as its allies. Rwanda has decades of experience with similar actions in the Congo. These turn into frozen conflicts that simply drag out suffering on the ground, as per Secretary of War Stanton’s presumption of British actions in the 1860s.

My favorite aspect of Cold War history to study when it comes to diplomacy is the Non-Aligned League. I do wonder if there could be such a small-state-in-hotspot alliance in the future. A league of nations who might share little in the way of domestic structure or big power friends but remain committed to domestic sovereignty against outside interference. The fact remains that nations like Syria and Ukraine could make quite good cases for reparations from other nations for neutrality violations in internal conflicts. Even though the great powers could never be forced to pay, the mere PR of such a move might grant small states a bit of a reprieve in today’s world as journalists picked up on the story. It would certainly make them more sympathetic.

Plus, rather than pay it itself the United States could always split the difference between Saudi Arabia and the Clinton Foundation to get the money for its reparations to Syria.

Anyway, have a musical number. Maybe one day they will write one that replaces Georgia with Donetsk or Raqqa.

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