THE absurdity of the contemporary cult of exaggerated nationalism could hardly be better illustrated than by the present disturbance over the Suez Canal.
The high seas, because of their size and their omni-directional passage ways, are a gift of God to petty man which the latter can hardly destroy, though in times of 'war man does his best to cut off their use to an enemy.
Modern enterprise added to God's gift of waterways this artificial passage which saves thousands of miles travelling and carrying along a far quicker route from the East to the industrialised West. Such a project loses all its meaning and advantage if nations do not agree to allow free passage to all through this Canal, enforcing only a payment of dues for the cost and upkeep of the artificial waterway.
Any nation which attempted to restrict its use to itself and its friends could not possibly hope to reap an advantage commensurate with the loss entailed by the denial of free passage to all. The long-run commercial advantages of such free passage completely outweigh any apparent advantages of monopoly.
Yet such is the state of modern civilisation that in the two great wars lives and money were freely spent in ensuring that the Canal was closed to the enemy, while Britain to whom the Canal is a commercial lifeline felt obliged to maintain a military suzerainty over Egypt in self-defence.
One might have believed that with the general hopes that world-war was a thing of the past and with the enforced retirement of Britain from Suez, all nations would have seen the inherent stupidity of looking upon the Canal as a potential national asset and at last honestly seen it as what it is, namely an enrichment of the whole world always to be used as such.
The nations of the Near and Middle East cannot perhaps be too severely blamed for succumbing to the disease of exaggerated nationalism in reaction to the military and commercial use made of them by the Great Powers for so many decades.
Nor can one really quarrel with Colonel Nasser for nationalising a waterway which passes through Egyptian territory. Not only has he a right to do so in terms of modern political practice, but he can fairly claim that the financial profits of the use of the Suez Canal should go to the country through which it has been cut.
But it can hardly be doubted that Colonel Nasser sees in the nationalisation of the Canal an instrument of military and commercial sanction which he can bring to bear against other nations with strategic and cornmercial interests in the Near and Middle East.
In doing this, he is deliberately using an international asset, of value to all people, whatever their policies and ideologies, to further his own nationalistic ambitions.
It is exaggerated nationalii-rn gone mad, and we wish we could honestly say that in doing so he has broken all precedents. But of course he has not. The precedents have been made h' the Allies in two world wars and by Britain in insisting as long as she was able to hold the Canal by force.
Is it possible now, with wise statesmanship and real honesty, to take advantage of this crisis to look at the facts in the face and settle the future of the Canal realistically and to the advantage of the whole world fairly?
We believe it could be done if the Great Powers, including Russia, made up their minds to forget the prejudices of the past, thus irritated feelings. and their ideologies, and thought only in terms of the general advantage.
The most obvious necessity is to distinguish between Nasser's nationalisation decree which should be accepted and the conditions of the future international use of the Canal by the whole world.
The bellicose reaction of Britain and France is understandable in view of Nasser's record and it may well prove a decisive factor in persuading Nasser to look at the facts of the case. But it would be tragedy if any direct action were taken except in conditions which proved beyond all doubt that Egypt was prepared to deny or to make unduly onerous (e.g. by excessive charges) the free passage to all through the Canal.
Were direct action taken, shots of such clear conditions, it would surely be aggressive action.
The most serious weight must be given to the patent fact that in the present condition of the world and of this country and the Commonwealth it is extremely hard to see how military action which succeeded in its immediate purpose of holding the Canal could have anything but disastrous longterm results for Britain. Not only would thr cost be prohibitive in our present economic conditions, but the vital oil of the Middle East would almost certainly put out of our reach by the Arab countries. It is not defeatism, but commonsense, to face these truths.
It is to be hoped that the nations of the world, under the authority in the end of the United Nations, will be able to agree to a permanent international convention about the free use, under fair conditions, of the Suez Canal. Then the breach of such conditions by any nation, including Egypt, would create a situation within which military sanctions could be justified.
In this way, good could come out of evil and a great step forward taken to weaken the force of exaggerated nationalism and to order the world in terms of commonsense and common advantage.