The Significance and Impacts of The First Hague Peace Conference

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In order to understand and summarise the significance of The First Hague Peace conference, it is imperative to locate it not only within the twentieth-century, but as a derivative of nineteenth-century political events. One segment of World War 1 historians who focused on diplomacy either ignored or argued that the conference had little relevance citing the failure of international law to avert the war in 1914.

The Hague Peace conference was summed up as a facet of the road to war showcasing the unrealistic and utopian goals of some of the participants who espoused to set rules for war, limit armaments and create a system of obligatory arbitration for resolving disputes peacefully. Others prescribe the peace conference as a terminus a quo for the twentieth century expansion in international law, international organisation and highlighting the nascent international judicial system despite the fact that the raison d'etre of the 1899 peace conference was not dispute resolution but rather the avoidance of war.

While the stir created by the Czar’s plan increased popular expectations of the congregation, and politicians recognised the historic significance of the conference, responsible diplomats had low expectations and perceived it as a political manoeuvre. Moreover from prior experience, statesmen predicted specific coalitions of states, and planned the conference on these expectations. At the Hague in 1899, the broad lack of interest in arms limitation doomed the topic. Even if the political will had been present, the framing of the proposals as general disarmament, rather than restricted arms control, reduced the probability that anything important would be achieved. Defining the project as disarmament characterised it with earlier proposals which were posed for political capital more than practical results. The initial program spoke only of limited steps but the broad scope of the project, together with popular anticipation that the conference would yield great results, increased the political stakes. In contrast, its predecessor at Brussels in 1874, political leaders were obliged to have substantial results by the close of the conference, rather than merely drafting a working text for future study.

The Hague agenda items relating to the rules of war instantly evoked unresolved issues from 1874. The 1874 conference was seen as a model for political alignment in 1899. The Belgians were particularly concerned that Britain would not renew its leadership role in representing the interests of small countries. However, Great Britain at both conferences sought to organise a coalition of small powers to avoid the creation of a “code of conquest.” Major-General Sir John Ardagh framed the British position on the laws of war within this context.

Moreover, the Brussels Conference established a working method intended for the Hague Conference that has been somewhat obscured in hindsight. The Brussels Conference was more a discussion for airing opinions than for the negotiation of binding mechanisms. Indeed, the conference was initially inspired by non-governmental organisations seeking further codification before the proposal was taken over by governments. At Brussels, the final protocol of the conference was signed by all the delegates as an accurate summary of their discussions. The summaries would then be sent home for further deliberations on whether it would be codified as a binding treaty. Despite the fact that the British delegate signed the document under this understanding, Great Britain opposed much of the code and eventually ended the project by refusing to sign or ratify a binding agreement the following January.

The Hague Conference was primarily envisioned as a forum to debate and discuss views and perspectives on how arms could be limited rather than for the immediate objective of limiting armaments. It was in part for this reason that political questions were to be excluded. Russia, as the conference organiser, envisaged that the best approaches of limiting armaments could be discussed as a concept, then experts could iron out the details and present governments with an official proposal for a binding agreement after the conference. Similarly to the earlier gathering of 1874, the aim was to produce a general statement which might later be used to produce a binding treaty. However, the 1899 conference received far greater publicity and sparked public expectations that the drafts produced at the conference would ultimately become binding agreements, hence limiting open discussions of the issues. The resemblance between these proposals and past ones namely the earlier efforts in 1816, 1831, and in the1860s is evident. Like these calls by Russian Czar Alexander I, French King Louis Philippe and French Emperor Napoleon III, respectively, disarmament was a response to the threat of unrest posed by excessive government expenditure. The First Hague Peace Conference differed from these other initiatives in the manner of the announcement.

The Russian Circular of 1898 was a diplomatic shock even to Russia’s ally France. Notwithstanding the public astonishment, the 1898 circular did not change significantly from past proposals. Disarmament had been a common political tool used for both domestic audiences and the international community. Differences in opinion could be used to embarrass rebellious nations, while common positions on armaments indicated wider agreement on diplomatic matters. In terms of specific armaments proposals, the Hague Peace Conference followed the model set at St. Petersburg in 1868 with the British government anticipating a refinement of earlier limitations on needlessly cruel weapons. In 1898, the advent of quick-firing artillery led Russia to seek a moratorium to spare the industrialising country the expense. As in 1868, the British negotiators were reluctant to renounce technological advantages, and both the Admiralty and the War Office opposed virtually every limit on the agenda. However, the Admiralty was willing to advocate limits that would bolster its strategic position. Notably, Salisbury’s government undertook a previously unpublished and unreported secret naval arms control initiative with Russia shortly before the Hague Conference. Thus, British opposition was never complete.

The Czar’s motives have been questioned by scholars since the issuance of the first circular of 1898, the call came as a surprise to the European powers, even to Russia’s ally France, whom leaders assumed would have been consulted prior to issuing such a circular. The latest acquisition of quick-firing artillery by Germany and Austria-Hungary in all probability played an important role. The Russian Minister of War Aleksei Kuropatkin suggested a bilateral arrangement with Austria-Hungary to adjourn the excessive expense of supplying the Russian Army with this new gun. However, while financial concerns, in other words Russia’s attempt to remove the burden of keeping pace with the armaments build-up occurring in Great Britain and Germany, provided an initial impetus for discussing armaments, the sincerity of the Czar in seeking to halt the arms race should not be underestimated. Russian policy drew on precedents dating to the beginning of the nineteenth century, when Czar Alexander I had called for a system of stability and peace through international law at the height of the Napoleonic Wars.

The nineteenth century offered precedents for the calling of peacetime conferences to discuss the rule of international law in regulating war. Conferences leading to the Geneva Conventions of 1864 and 1868, as well as the St. Petersburg Conference of 1868 and the Brussels Conference of 1874, were all called to discuss military issues, although questions of the laws of war played more of a role than disarmament. Notably, Czar Alexander II called two of these four conferences. In order to draw a further parallel, the Russian call for the 1868 St. Petersburg Conference also followed the development of a new weapon, an exploding bullet introduced by the Czarist army.

Therefore, when the industrially underdeveloped empire faced the introduction of another technologically advanced weapon into world arsenals, a call for a limit could provide a solution as it had in the past. However, the Russian Council of Ministers soon widened the plans from a bilateral discussion with the Hapsburg Monarchy to a general multilateral discussion on the limitation of armaments. The shift to a multilateral conference reflected concerns within the Russian government about the political repercussions of making a direct request to Austria-Hungary, whose government would surely disfavour a negotiation excluding its ally Germany.

Furthermore, a call made to Austria-Hungary alone would demonstrate Russian weakness. The limited goal of regulating a single type of military ordnance suddenly expanded into a scheme to limit overall military expenditures. Conversely, while political considerations required a discussion among more states, the expansion of the agenda to more topics made it less politically feasible. In the initial conference call in the summer of 1898, the Czar sought an international discussion on means of ensuring peace, and above all of limiting the progressive development of existing armaments. Like the 1874 Brussels gathering, the conference was initially intended to generate ideas rather than to reach legally binding conclusions, possibly formulating and compiling principles of general disarmament in an informal and non-binding practice. The participants would not have to take a determined position since they were at great liberty to openly challenge the possibilities of arms limitations and agree to a resulting legal document which will be circulated among the powers.

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In order to prevent the failure of the conference following some international developments as well as maintaining the Czar’s initial enthusiasm, the second circular of 30th of December 1898 contained in addition to the initial agenda, the preliminary exchange of ideas between the Powers and expanding the topics from arms limitations, the inclusion of other issues such as the possibility to prevent future armed conflicts by pacific means, arbitration and the completion of two earlier non-ratified documents, the 1874 Brussels Declaration on the rules of war and the 1868 Geneva Convention extending humanitarian rules to war at sea.

In the likely event of participating states disagreeing to reach a consensus on disarmament then achieving some accomplishments in the field of international arbitration would save the conference from failure. One caveat stressed by the Czar stipulated that a great power should not host the conference, but rather a smaller state should do so with the implication to prevent unwarranted influence on the debates. The Netherlands accepted sponsorship and issued invitations for the conference to be held at The Hague, in May of 1899.

As stated above, the widespread opinion among the great powers is that the conference would produce few tangible results. The propose to limit military expenditures appeared deliberate to allocate Russia more time to develop its economy in peace before beginning a military buildup. France who was not consulted by Russia before the issuance of the circular not only felt abandoned by its ally, it showed little interest in the project as an arms agreement might prevent it from retaking Alsace-Lorraine by force. Similarly the United States declared their position by not accepting any limitation on their military since their peacetime army was far smaller than the European ones. Both Italy and Austria-Hungary opposed arms limits, and Japan would only accept a limit after its fleet had increased to the level of the great powers.

Germany, despite its reluctance, objections laden stance and belief that the idea of disarmament will not dissipate, participated at the conference and emphasised its objection to hinder its ability to arm itself. Germany pertinacious resistance to commit to the project at large led to the general European resignation to attendance at the conference, intermingled with concerns for possible entanglements in unmanageable disarmament schemes.

Since Great Britain had opposed technological limitations at the St. Petersburg Conference in 1868, Russia in 1899, advocated for two types of limitations in order get under the skin of the British government. These limitations were quantitative in terms of troops or military expenditures and qualitative in terms of new technologies. Based on prior dealings with the British, the Russians delegates anticipated that the latter restrictions would be unpopular with Salisbury’s government. Great Britain opposed quantitative limitation by a categorical refutation of the concept of disarmament arguing the inability to create an international force in planning documents prior to the conference.

This argument, strengthened by the implication that disarmament could not be examined and discussed effectively was proclaimed by both the British War Office and the Admiralty. Yet the British government was not wholly opposed to arms control, and secretly offered a naval limit to Russia. The government also favoured limited regulations that would cement British naval predominance, such as banning naval mines, torpedoes, and submarines, or general naval program reductions which would preserve its relative superiority. Russia’s caning plan to isolate Great Britain failed when the British government accepted the Russian agenda stipulated in the second circular which contained topics deemed to be unpopular by Britain goading it into obstructing the discussion and hence being isolated from the continental powers consequently strengthening Russia position.

Britain’s political mastermind and superiority was on display when its government despite opposing nearly every element listed for discussion, managed to avoid becoming the scapegoat for the failure of the program. Britain’s position regarding disarmament is the real concerns about the legal challenges despite the fact that Britain, being well versed, possesses substantial experience in arms limitations and security-related law. This legal proficiency could be not only applied to mould the security environment without aspiring to a utopian world government but also to strengthen the arguments against unwanted arms limitations.

The British government questioned the value of disarmament, fearing a limit on armed forces could be circumvented, as previously demonstrated by Prussia following the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807. Salisbury advanced the arguments that troops could be trained while remaining unarmed ready to organize in case of war, vessels built exclusive of armament to be equipped in times of need.

He also emphasised the need to establish an inspecting and restraining power to act as international police who would be bestowed with complex tasks of enforcing obligations both in time of peace and war. Furthermore, the War Office’s position was that Britain, with its smaller population, relied upon technology to maintain its position as a great power and that the perpetual see-saw of superiority works for peace by making states unwilling to go to war while rearming. A limited agreement on new technology, such as the ban on exploding bullets, could only succeed if it did not alter the outcome of war. In 1868, the ban on exploding bullets was approved, and was maintained as the weapon had never become integral to military tactics.

A broader interdiction on all technologies would fail for the practical reason that states would eventually find it in their interest to develop new weapons. Major-General Sir John Ardagh stressed the imperial necessity for technology in “savage warfare.” If the more advanced states no longer harnessed their technological innovations to defend, the backward states would gradually achieve the same technological level. Moreover Britain could not maintain its great empire if it had to put down uprisings by natives armed with the same quality weapons, and ultimately British safety would be imperilled by the “uncivilized races.”55 Ultimately, he opposed every point on the czar’s agenda, with the exception of arbitration, on which he expressed no opinion, finding all restrictions on war or weaponry to be impossible.


It was not my intention to assess the proceedings and outcomes of the 1899 Conference but merely to draw out its significance. There is no doubt that the hopes aroused by the tsar’s Rescript had been considerable, principally within the embryonic peace movement. As de Martens noted in the immediate aftermath, no prior conference had ‘aroused so many hopes and so much opposition as the Conference at The Hague’. It is evident that the accomplishments were both a help and a hindrance. On the one hand, it substantiated a model, establishing foundations that future conferences could build upon with the support of a vibrant and enthusiastic peace movement. On the other, the hopes inspired by the 1899 meeting led to even broader aspirations in 1907, particularly regarding disarmament.

At the same time, despite the genuinely positive outcomes of 1899 – notably the establishment of the Arbitration Treaty – it clearly failed to prevent conflict or arrest the growth of armaments. The limits of international law were unmasked during the First Hague Peace Conference in 1899. Another factual impression was the prevalent political and diplomatic opposition hence the almost immediate rejection of disarmament in favour of making gains in the domain of international arbitration. Sovereign nations refused to accept grand disarmament proposals predicated on a radical revision of the international system, through such means as the creation of an international police force. In fact, international tensions increased between 1899 and 1907, greatly diminishing the prospects for arbitration and disarmament. While these opinions were widely stated, they belied a certain disingenuousness.

Like technical objections to limitations, legal objections were highlighted in order to dispose of a subject that not one of the great powers truly wanted to discuss. The challenges of limiting the continental arms race proved too large, and political will utterly lacking, to take such a step. Yet arms control was possible, but depended on the circumstances of the political relationship in question as well asthe characteristics of the weapons system being regulated.

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