JAMES H. ECOB,
American Institute of Social Service.
New York, Oct. 21, 1914.
The Guarantee of Belgian Neutrality
So much has been said about Belgian neutrality, so much assumed, and it has been such a stumbling block in the way of any real and comprehensive understanding of the causes and purposes of the great European catastrophe, that it may be well to examine the basis of it and endeavor to get an exact idea of the scope and obligation.
Of course, we are considering here the question of guaranteed neutrality, not the ordinary neutrality enjoyed by all States not at war, when some States are at war; the difference between ordinary neutrality and guaranteed neutrality being that no State is under any obligation to defend the ordinary neutrality of any other State against infringement by a belligerent, and no belligerent is under any special obligation to observe it. Guaranteed neutrality is, therefore, purely a question of specific agreement between States.
On the 19th day of April, 1839, Belgium and Holland, which from 1815 to 1830 had formed the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, signed a treaty of separation from, and independence of, each other. It is in this treaty that the original pledge of Belgian neutrality is to be found. The clause of the treaty reads: “Belgium in the limits above described shall form an independent neutral State and shall be bound to observe the same neutrality toward all other States.” On the same day and at the same place, (London,) a treaty, known in the history of diplomacy as the Quintuple Treaty, was signed by Great Britain, France, Prussia, Austria, and Russia, approving and adopting the treaty between Belgium and Holland. A little later, May 11, the German Confederation, of which both Austria and Prussia were members, also ratified this treaty.
In the year 1866 the German Confederation was dissolved by the war between Austria and Prussia, occasioned by the Schleswig-Holstein question. In 1867 the North German Union was formed, of which Prussia was the leading State, while Austria and the German States south of the River Main were left out of it altogether. Did these changes render the guarantees of the Treaty of 1839 obsolete and thereby abrogate them, or at least weaken them and make them an uncertain reliance? The test of this came in the year 1870, at the beginning of hostilities between France and the North German Union. Great Britain, the power most interested in the maintenance of Belgian neutrality, seems to have had considerable apprehension about it. Mr. Gladstone, then Prime Minister, said in the House of Commons: “I am not able to subscribe to the doctrine of those who have held in this House what plainly amounts to an assertion that the simple fact of the existence of a guarantee is binding on every party to it, irrespective altogether of the particular position in which it may find itself when the occasion for acting on the guarantee arises.”