Peace Palace 100: Great Powers and Common People in a Century of War and Peace

by Chris Borgen

[Travel and other expenses related to my participation in the “100 Years Peace Palace” program provided by the Government of the Netherlands and Radio Netherlands Worldwide.]

August 28th marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It was also the 100th anniversary of the completion of the Peace Palace at The Hague. Two dreams from two eras. The pursuit of these two related dreams—for racial and economic justice within the U.S. (and other countries) and for the peaceful resolution of disputes between countries—are stories in which citizen activism played an important role in framing the issues and options for political elites.

This idea of the interconnection of Dr. King’s vision with those of the peace activists who played a part in setting the stage for the Hague Conferences of 1899 and 1907 and the subsequent construction of the Peace Palace and its institutions was a theme that was noted throughout the commemorations at The Hague.  Perhaps nowhere more so than in the celebration of the work of Bertha von Suttner, an influential author and peace activist who was the only woman to attend the 1899 conference.

In a speech delivered at “Pro Concordia Labor,” an event honoring von Suttner organized by Professor Hope May, US War Crimes Ambassador Stephen Rapp said:

…that 1899 conference and its results would not have been achieved without the citizens’ movement that made it happen.  Grotius had been an advisor to princes, and famously for a time was imprisoned by one of them.  They ruled the world of the 17th Century.  But by 1899, citizens had the power to affect the decisions of governments, and a citizens’ movement led by Bertha von Suttner, demanded the convening of the Hague conference and motivated its decisions.

Bertha von Suttner went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905. At the centennial festivities at the Peace Palace this August, she also became the first woman to have a bust in the Peace Palace.

Ambassador Rapp had come to the celebrations at The Hague directly from an annual meeting of the chief international prosecutors of the various international tribunals sponsored by the Robert H. Jackson Center and other institutions, that takes place at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York. In doing this, he noted the historical link to von Suttner:

On leaving the sessions this year, I discovered that Bertha von Suttner had come to Chautauqua in the summer of 1912 to speak in the same amphitheatre before a crowd of thousands…  It is reported that von Suttner spoke at Chautauqua about the need to resolve disputes between nations in court and not on the battlefield, and about how the Permanent Court of Arbitration would be a forum for such peaceful settlements.  Back here in The Hague, a palace to house that court was rising.  Now 100 years later we honor von Suttner, and the civic activism that can move nations.

It may seem strange to celebrate the centennial of the Peace Palace when today’s great powers are at odds over what to do in the face of carnage in Syria.  Whether public opinion is—or even should be—taken into account in such decisions of “high politics” is also at issue.  But it is in exactly such circumstances that we do well to remember the circumstances surrounding the construction of the Peace Palace and its institutions.  In Governing the World: The History of an Idea, author Mark Mazower writes:

[I]n terms of real political achievements, the palace was not much more than an act of faith in the future. The second Hague conference itself had been set back a year by the Russo-Japanese War, and when it did finally meet, the public reaction in pacifist circles was again one of enormous disappointment. There was no initiative to rein in the arms race already under way between the major powers and no real support for the idea of creating an international police force to compel the results of international arbitration to be accepted by disputant states… (Mazower, 82-83)

And, of course, one year after the 1913 inauguration of the Peace Palace the Great War had begun. The dream of peace, once again deferred. But, even in the midst of world war, the product of the work of von Suttner and others gave cause for hope.

One glimmer of hope was in the progress on “a new machinery of interstate arbitration,” (Mazower, 83) in the establishment of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. As I discussed in a previous post, the PCA actually ended up largely dormant for decades. However, its establishment and subsequent housing in the Peace Palace institutionalized peaceful interstate dispute resolution as never before. From the PCA, states moved on to build international tribunals such as the Permanent Court of International Justice and today’s International Court of Justice.  (And the PCA is today busier than ever, albeit primarily in investor-state dispute resolution.)

Mazower’s book frames the story of the rise of interstate arbitration not only in terms of great power politics, but, importantly, in the role of citizen activism, especially that of William Randal Cremer. Cremer organized for worker’s rights and electoral reform in Britain, became an MP, and was the first Briton to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1903. In his Nobel acceptance speech, “The Progress and Advantages of International Arbitration,” Cremer connected the establishment of interstate arbitration with citizens’ activism, the “pilgrims of peace” who sought alternatives to war, and that the establishment of such arbitration was primarily a “people’s victory.” (See Mazower, 83-84)   (For more on Nobel Peace Prize Laureates as norm entrepreneurs, see Roger Alford’s post and article.)

The word “palace” evokes royalty. But what Bertha von Suttner, William Randall Cremer and Martin Luther King, Jr. remind us is that the pressure for the peaceful resolution of disputes by states is often a rallying call of the general public. The Hague Conventions, the Peace Palace, and the PCA (and later the UN) were not the sole result of popular activism… far from it. But such activism played a critical role in forming the tone and tenor of the times in which politicians and diplomats acted.

Whether judicial interstate dispute resolution will become an important force in questions of “high politics” is still, one hundred years later, somewhat of an open question.  As Mazower makes clear, even such well-known figures of international law as Westlake and Root were skeptical about the efficacy of an international judiciary, as opposed to consensual interstate arbitration. (Mazower 91-92)  But what is possible in politics is something for each generation to decide.

Commemorating the centennial of the Peace Palace in the midst of strife is not ironic. 1913 was not a time of peace and neither is it today. The centennial marks what, nonetheless, has been accomplished so far.  And, in juxtaposition to the wars in Syria and elsewhere around the world, it shows just how far we still have to go.

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  1. […] Borgen‘s next installment on the Peace Palace at 100 is now available at Opinio Juris here.  This third installment, titled, Peace Palace at 100: Great Powers and Common People in a Century […]