Honour's Role in the International States' System

Article excerpt


Studying the First World War's origins, James Joll (1918-1994), Professor of International History at the University of London, offered this insight: "In the late 20th century we perhaps find it easier to conceive of foreign policy as being motivated by domestic preoccupations and by economic interests than by ... considerations of prestige and glory. It does not necessarily follow that the men of 1914 thought in the same way as we do." (1) To recapture that age which ended during the First World War, this essay analyzes the meaning of "honour" as a staple of European political philosophy. The significance of the "word of honour" is then located in the context of European courtly society, where a king's honour is explored in relation to that of his country and in the "international of kings" that was the European States' system until 1917-18. Attention is then directed to discourse about "honour" and "interest" as rhetoric of British foreign policy. It is suggested that the idea of honour was at that time consciously exploited for political ends. Examples are used to show that countries actually fought for honour, which is portrayed as one of the causes of the First World War, and directly relevant to Great Britain's decision to confront Germany in 1914. Thereafter, focus shifts to "national honour" as recognized by public international law, breach of which then met the sanction of dishonour. Attention is paid to wartime interest in a new legal paradigm and its reception by the governments in London and Washington. This is followed by a description of the architecture of the 1919 peace settlement, which embodied a new law-based order, antithetic to both honour and aristocratic diplomacy. Finally, the shift from honour to law is tested by looking at the discourse used at the League of Nations when Hitler unilaterally denounced key treaty provisions.

A. What is Honour?

An answer comes from French magistrate, parliamentarian, historian and aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859):

   (1) It first signifies the esteem, glory, or reverence that a man
   receives from his fellow men; and in this sense a man is said 'to
   acquire honour' (conquerir de l'honneur). (2) Honour signifies the
   aggregate of those rules by the aid of which this esteem, glory, or
   reverence is obtained. Thus we say that 'a man has always strictly
   obeyed the laws of honour'; or 'a man has violated his honour'. (2)

According to German archivist and military historian Karl Demeter: "Honour can be either a condition or a reflex, subjective or objective: it can be purely personal or it can be collective." (3) Similarly, University of Chicago anthropologist Julian Pitt-Rivers observed: "Honour is the value of a person in his own eyes, but also in the eyes of his society. It is his estimation of his own worth, his claim to pride, but it is also the acknowledgement of that claim, his excellence recognized by society, his right to pride." (4) Honour is a manifestation of what U.S. political philosopher Francis Fukuyama describes when he points to man's desire for recognition: "People believe that they have a certain worth, and when other people treat them as though they are worth less than that, they experience the emotion of anger. Conversely, when people fail to live up to their own sense of worth, they feel shame, and when they are evaluated correctly in proportion to their worth, they feel pride." (5)

Honour's significance is something the 21st century grasps poorly, because as honour, the concept is now virtually obsolete and the "vocabulary of honour has acquired archaic overtones in modern English." (6) De Tocqueville shrewdly perceived that honour's obsolescence parallels the eclipse of aristocracy: "The dissimilarities and inequalities of men gave rise to the notion of honor; that notion is weakened in proportion as these differences are obliterated, and with them it would disappear. …