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Great Britain's Interpretation of its Obligations 
as a Guarantor of the 1839 Treaty



      Since Germany was obligated not to violate Belgian neutrality, but did anyway, the remaining issue was whether Great Britain, as a guarantor of the 1839 Treaty, had a legal right or duty individually to intervene in order to prevent the violation of the treaty by a signatory.[1]   The text of the treaty did not expressly state whether the guarantee was individual or collective in nature; nor did it state what the guarantors were bound to do in order to protect Belgian neutrality.  The treaty merely stated that the five powers guaranteed the perpetual neutrality of Belgium.  Given the lack of precision as to the nature of the guarantee, interpretations of the obligations it imposed varied widely during the years of Belgian neutrality leading up to 1914.  Most interpreters considered the guarantee to be collective, not individual upon each guaranteeing state, such that there was no individual obligation to guarantee neutrality against any and all violators.[2]   Thus, at the most, the guarantors were bound to consider collectively a response to the violation, but if no course of action were agreed upon, each guarantor would be authorized to interpret the guarantee as it saw fit.[3]   However, it would seem incorrect as a matter of interpretation to deny the right to intervene individually under the guarantee, because when Germany (one of the guarantors) violated the guarantee, a consensus among the five powers on how to respond naturally would have been impossible.[4]   Thus, the guarantee would have been illusory if the only right to intervene was a collective right, and indeed, scholars in 1914 were clear that there was an individual right for a guarantor to prevent the violation of the treaty.[5]

       Whether Great Britainís right to intervene was also a duty is much less clear.  Some thought the treaty of 1839 bound the British to protect Belgium, and in 1870, the British government had acted as though it was obligated to take any necessary measures to prevent a violation of Belgian neutrality.[6]   However, the bottom line of much of the rhetoric from the 1870 parliamentary debates over the nature of the guarantee and its obligations focused on Britainís moral obligation in favor of Belgium.  For example, Lord John Russell declared that his country had ìonly one path of honor,î and even Mr. Gladstone, who had argued against a strict treaty obligation that would force Britain to intervene against her wishes, stated that Britain had ìan interest in the independence of Belgium which is wider than that which we may have in the literal operation of the guarantee.î[7]   Gladstoneís answer in 1870 became the solution for Foreign Minister Grey and his cabinet in 1914.  On July 29, the cabinet examined its treaty obligations and concluded:  ìIt is a doubtful point how far a single guaranteeing State is bound under the Treaty of 1839 to maintain Belgian neutrality if the remained abstain or refuseî and that ìThe Cabinet consider that the matter if it arises will be rather one of policy than legal obligation.î[8]   Of course, the cabinetís decision in 1914 to be guided by policy rather than legal obligation did not mean that Great Britain was under no obligation to protect the neutrality and independence of Belgium under the 1839 Treaty.[9]   Rather, it is insightful to show the assumptions under which the British government was operating and the degree to which it felt constrained in deciding how to react to the downward spiral of European relations.

       At the beginning of August, the British government was sharply divided on whether the escalating tensions in Europe should draw the island country into the continental war.  Some cabinet members, led by Grey, thought that Britainís national interest required the preservation of France in a war with Germany, because otherwise Germany would dominate the continent and likely try to overrun Britain itself.[10]   However, Grey could not get a majority of his cabinet to agree with that argument.  In fact, it was anticipated that if the British government declared war on Germany, possibly half of the cabinet would resign in protest.[11]   Even the naval plan by which France had left the defense of her northern coast to the British was not enough to unite the cabinet in support for intervention, leading the French ambassador Cambon to state that if the British did not join the war effort, France would never forgive her.[12]   Thus, Grey shifted his push for intervention to the question of a possible German violation of Belgian neutrality, rightly believing that the defense of Belgium was an issue that could unite his divided cabinet, as well as public opinion.[13]   Indeed, upon hearing the news of the German ultimatum to Belgium, the cabinet members who had fought for non-intervention saw the potential violation of Belgian neutrality as an infringement of British interests substantial enough to merit British involvement in the war, and voted (although still not unanimously) in favor of a British ultimatum to Germany. 

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Footnotes

1.     James Garner, International Law and the World War, 1920, Vol. II, p. 227.
2.     Id.
3.     Id.
4.     Id. at 228.
5.     Id.
6.     Id. at 229.
7.     Id. at 229-230.
8.     Daniel H. Thomas, The Guarantee of Belgian Independence and Neutrality in European Diplomacy, 1830's-1930's, 1983, p. 511.
9.     Id.
10.   Barbara Tuchman, p. 91
11.   Id. at 114. 
12.   Id. at 95.
13.   Thomas, supra note 8, at 509.