Peace Conferences

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PEACE CONFERENCES are those international conferences in which the United States has participated in an effort to establish procedures for settling international disputes without resort to war. A wide range of tactics has been employed at one time or another in pursuit of this goal, and these have enjoyed varying degrees of success.


Arbitration—that is, the voluntary submission of a dispute to an impartial body for a decision that the disputants agree in advance to accept—is the oldest method by which U.S. diplomats have sought to alleviate international tensions. The first arbitration agreement in which the United States participated was written into Jay's Treaty of 1794 with Great Britain. The Treaty of Ghent of 1814, also with Great Britain, established arbitration boards to handle conflicts over boundaries arising out of the settlement. The most notable nineteenth-century example of arbitration in which the United States was involved was the Treaty of Washington of 1871, in which Great Britain and the United States agreed to submit to an arbitration commission claims arising from the raids of the Alabama and other British-built Confederate warships on Union vessels during the American Civil War.

By the turn of the century, considerable sentiment had built up in favor of having the United States sign with other nations bilateral treaties providing for the automatic submission of certain classes of disputes to arbitration. Secretary of State Elihu Root negotiated a series of twenty-four such agreements in 1908 and 1909, of which the Senate ratified all but three. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan renewed some of the Root treaties in 1913 and 1914 and negotiated others.

These agreements had little practical effect. The tendency of arbitration boards to resolve conflicts by merely splitting the difference between disputants made American diplomats reluctant to employ the procedure for the settlement of significant territorial or financial issues. Disputes involving vital interests were regularly excluded from arbitration treaties, and the Senate insisted on the right to reject the use of arbitration in each case. As a result, arbitration was employed only rarely as a means of settling international disputes, and then only in situations of minor significance.


The use of mediation in the resolution of international conflicts has been less frequent, but overall it has proved more effective where tried. The United States accepted Russian mediation in setting up negotiations with Great Britain leading to a settlement of the War of 1812. In general, however, a sense of American exceptionalism led the country more often to serve as mediator in the disputes of others than to accept foreign mediation over crises in which the United States was directly involved. American diplomats rejected British attempts to mediate the two most important U.S. conflicts of the nineteenth century, the Mexican War of 1846–1848 and the Civil War. On the other hand, the United States has, with varying degrees of success, employed mediation in its relations with Latin America. The United States successfully mediated an end to the struggle between Spain and the Latin American countries of Chile, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia in 1869, but failed in several efforts between 1879 and 1884 to mediate the War of the Pacific between Chile, Peru, and Bolivia. President Theodore Roosevelt also employed mediation successfully in two important situations: settlement of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 and resolution of the first Morocco crisis at the Algeciras Conference of 1906. President Woodrow Wilson made several efforts to mediate World War I between 1914 and 1916, none of which was successful.

International Organization

World War I marked a shift away from both arbitration and mediation as means of defusing international crises but saw the rise of international organizations for that purpose. An unwillingness to enter into binding overseas commitments led Americans to avoid participation in such organizations, so that throughout the nineteenth century the country only associated itself with such innocuous international arrangements as the Universal Postal Union and the Geneva Convention on the treatment of the wounded in warfare. One partial exception was American membership in the Commercial Union of the American Republics (later the Pan-American Union) in 1889, but its primary function was the facilitation of trade, not the peaceful resolution of disputes. In the early twentieth century, the United States participated regularly in conferences devoted to humanizing the rules of warfare—the most significant of which were the Hague Conferences of 1899 and 1907—but these produced no significant action to prevent war.

American involvement in World War I greatly increased U.S. interest in the possibility of creating an international organization to prevent war. Wilson had endorsed this concept as early as 1916, and, following the Allied victory in 1918, he devoted great effort toward the establishment of such an organization as part of the peace settlement. The result was the League of Nations, an international organization of states whose members were obliged, in the words of Article X of the covenant, "to respect and preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all Members of the League." Article XVI required members to apply economic and, if necessary, military sanctions against aggressors. Wilson himself did not see this as an ironclad commitment to resist aggression anywhere at any time, but many Americans, including a substantial portion of the Senate, did. Because of this, and because Wilson refused to accept reservations making clear the nonbinding nature of the commitment, the Senate refused to approve U.S. membership in the League of Nations.

Nonetheless, the United States did not exclude itself from other international peacekeeping efforts in the interwar period. The United States called the Washington Naval Conference of 1921–1922, which imposed limitations on the construction of certain classes of warships, and participated in conferences at Geneva (1927 and between 1932 and 1934) and at London (1930), which attempted, generally without success, to extend the disarmament agreements reached at Washington, D.C. Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg was a prime mover behind the multilateral Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 (Pact of Paris), the signatories of which renounced the use of war as an instrument of national policy except in cases of self-defense. The question of U.S. membership in the Permanent Court of International Justice, established by the League of Nations in 1920, was also widely debated during the period, although because of the Senate's refusal to accept membership without reservations, the United States never joined.

World War II revived interest in the possibility of creating an international structure to maintain peace. Convinced that the United States had made a great mistake by refusing membership in the League of Nations, State Department planners began working, even before the United States entered the war, to create a new international organization to safeguard peace in the postwar period. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull carefully sought to avoid Wilson's mistakes by consulting Congress at every step of this process. Their efforts paid off when the Senate endorsed U.S. membership in the United Nations in July 1945, by a vote of eighty-nine to two.

The United Nations resembled the League of Nations in its structure, but unlike the league, it did not require member nations automatically to apply sanctions against aggressors. The General Assembly, in which all members had one vote, could only recommend action. The Security Council could take action but only with the approval of its five permanent members: the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, France, and China, each of which had the right of veto. In the end, the United Nations could be effective only if the great powers were in agreement; in disputes between the great powers themselves the world organization could do little.

At the insistence of the United States, a provision was inserted into the UN charter allowing members to create regional security organizations outside the framework of the world organization. As tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union intensified, revealing the limitations of the United Nations as a peacekeeping agency, the U.S. government began looking toward the formation of such organizations as a means of promoting security; it was a prime mover in the establishment of the Organization of American States in 1948, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization in 1954, and the Central Treaty Organization in 1959. The relative ineffectiveness of the latter two, together with a general feeling that the United States had become overcommitted, caused the U.S. government to deemphasize the role of regional security organizations by the mid-1960s. American interest in the United Nations also remained low, partly because of the continuing inability of that organization to deal effectively with conflicts involving the great powers and partly because of the decreasing influence of the United States in the world body as a result of the proliferation of new member-states in Asia and Africa.

Peace Negotiations since the 1960s

After the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the United States relied with increasing frequency on direct negotiations with its principal adversary, the Soviet Union, as a means of relaxing international tensions. The 1970s saw a series of U.S.-Soviet summit meetings aimed at ending the arms race and solving pressing international problems such as the Vietnam War. After President Richard M. Nixon's visit to China in 1972, this tactic was applied more and more to relations with this country as well. Direct negotiations bore fruit in the form of arms-control agreements such as the 1971 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, both with the Soviet Union. They also led to the establishment of full diplomatic relations with China in 1979. Despite a brief escalation of tensions with the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, this general policy of détente dominated U.S. foreign policy through the end of the Cold War.

The 1970s also saw a renewal of interest among American diplomats in mediation, particularly in the Middle East. In 1974, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger enjoyed some success in mediating differences between Egypt and Israel following the 1973 Yom Kippur War. President Jimmy Carter continued this process in the Camp David Accords, signed in 1978, in which Egypt granted diplomatic recognition to Israel.

But while the end of the Cold War might have been expected to offer new opportunities for the United States, as the only remaining global superpower, to mediate international disputes, the actual results were mixed. Attempts by President Bill Clinton to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians, despite promising starts in Washington, D.C. (1993), and at the Wye River Plantation in Maryland (1998), had little practical effect. American mediation of a war in the Balkans was more successful, leading in 1995 to an agreement among the governments of Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia in Dayton, Ohio. However, it failed to bring lasting peace to the peninsula, which erupted in bloodshed once again over Kosovo in 1999.

Finally, the post–Cold War era brought with it a new willingness to rely on international organizations such as the United Nations, as improved relations with Russia and China permitted the Security Council occasionally to align in favor of action against so-called "rogue states" such as Iraq in the 1990s. This also led to increased U.S. involvement in multilateral peacekeeping missions dispatched to various locations in Africa and the Middle East. The purpose of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the post–Cold War world also broadened to include peacekeeping operations in Europe, specifically, intervention against Serbia in crises over Bosnia and Kosovo. A further sign of NATO's changing mission was the expansion of the organization in 1999 to include several eastern European countries that had previously been allied with the Soviet Union. At the start of the twenty-first century, therefore, direct negotiations and international organization remained the most common and overall the most effective mechanisms for the resolution of disputes between nations.


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John LewisGaddis

John E.Moser

See alsoArbitration ; Hague Peace Conferences ; League of Nations ; North Atlantic Treaty Organization ; United Nations Conference ; Washington Naval Conference ; andvol. 9:The Fourteen Points .

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Peace Conferences

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