THL whole story of the Suez crisis, so far as it has gone, has raised in almost classic form what is at bottom the greatest political problem of our times. In short, this is: how can legitimate rights and interests be defended when, even in the last resort. recourse to force is no longer admitted by world public opinion ?
There seems to be little real doubt that the British and French governments were prepared at the start to use force to defend what they firmly believed to be their legal rights. On that basis their policy was at least logical and consistent.
As soon as it became clear, for a variety of reasons, that force, whether military or through effective economic sanctions, was really out of the question, the bottom dropped out of the whole plan.
From then onwards it became plain that Nasser held all the trump cards. Whatever the interested nations might do and whatever even Nasser himself might have agreed to ceased to have any permanent and solid value. Egypt held and holds the Canal, and so long as Egypt is not forced by military or economic means to yield the physical control of the Canal to others, Nasser or a successor of Nasser would always be in a position to denounce any agreement, however international.
THE fact is that at no time in
history has it been permanently possible to maintain the legal force of international agreements unless they were either in the admitted interests of the agreeing parties or backed by a sufficient force to deter the would-be challenger,
It is lamentable that this should be so, but it is and it remains the basic truth behind international history.
Now we appear to have reached the stage when the use of force as between sovereign nations is morally impossible and, usually, physically disastrous. This, of course, is not entirely accurate. Communism has developed a technique of unscrupulous propaganda (in itself virtually amounting to moral force) which can and has prepared a free country for an engineered political revolution whose ultimate effect is the same as conquest by force. Furthermare, in the game of bluff the Soviet, as a dictatorship commanding a widely accepted ideology, can play much harder than the West and take risks which public opinion in the West dare not envisage.
Nevertheless, there are signs that even Moscow realises that the risks of world war are ton great today to be lightly assumed and that it proposes to attain its ends by more subtle means.
If then it is basically true that sovereign nations cannot be relied upon to keep international obligations, save through fear of the sanction of war or because such agreements are of value to all the parties interested, it becomes obvious that modern diplomacy must aim at concluding agreements which arc patently of common value to the agreeing parties. And since conditions change in course of time it is equally important that such agreements should be patent of modifications suited to new conditions.
This is an extremely hard truth, especially for the great nations of the West whose diplomatic outlook is largely governed by precedents and conditions of a past when they had no serious rivals.
There is a die-hard element in this country, as well as in France, which still automatically reacts to any challenge by a small nation in terms of prestige, fears of appeasement, gunboat warfare, as though we were still living in the past. It is a futile reaction unless we are in fact prepared to use force — a force which in nine cases in ten would have suicidal results as has become so clear in the case of the Suez crisis.
UNDER this original impetus, all kinds of exaggerated arguments have been used to whip up bellicose reactions at home. Even the closing of the Suez Canal would not bring this country economically to its knees. According to Mr. Stokes it would only raise the price of petrol by a penny a gallon. But the hostility of the whole Arab world would be as ruinous to Britain as to the Arab countries themselves and play directly into the hands of Communism.
It is indeed, perfectly obvious that this is a case where both parties can only gain, not only by an agreement over the Canal but by large economic understandings between the two sides who are complementary to one another.
We may rightly deplore Nasser's tearing-up of the 1888 Convention, but instead of indulging in hysterics, like children. all our efforts should now be based on furthering the ways and means of improving the relations between Britain and the Arab countries to their mutual profit.
The only possible long-run guaranteee that Nasser (or a successor) will not do what he will always be able to do, namely close the Canal or discriminate against us, is a situation in which such action will be as injurious to a friendly Egypt and the Arab countries as it would be to us.
The appeal to the Security Council may have some facesaving value, but no Security Council, no legalism, no bullying can settle the present quarrel, or guarantee harmonious relations in the future. This can only be done by a fresh start with an unprejudiced political and economic conference between the contending parties to hammer out conditions which will prove to the common advantage of both sides.