Hague Conferences

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the war matrix
intentions and results

The Hague conferences of 1899 and 1907 were the product of a paradox. On the surface the nineteenth century seemed to have addressed successfully the escalation of war in the Revolutionary/Napoleonic Era. The reconstructed Europe that emerged from the Congress of Vienna (1814–1815) did not seek the utopian solution of ending war altogether. Instead it addressed warmaking in contexts of limitation and projection. Domestically, the midcentury conflicts from the Crimea in 1853–1856 to the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878 could be legitimately characterized as "cabinet wars" in the traditional style. Fought for definable, understandable purposes, interfacing force and negotiation, they were ultimately settled on terms acceptable not only to the participants, but the other Great Powers as well.

the war matrix

To limitation, the European states increasingly added projection: directing aggressive impulses outward in an emerging age of imperialism. The British historian and journalist A. J. P. Taylor's comment that World War I might have been averted had Austria-Hungary possessed an extra-European empire has aged better than most historical one-liners. Great-power rivalry was more often defused than exacerbated by frictions generated by territory disputes involving unfamiliar places.

Imperialism's stakes might be high, but even the most belligerent governments did not perceive them as mortal. In disagreements over such geographically remote flecks on the map as Penjdeh, which engaged British and Russian diplomats in 1887; and Fashoda, which took Britain and France to the brink in 1898, there was always room for negotiation. The Great Game remained a game.

Imperialism's wars also directed public belligerence and military aggressiveness beyond Europe's frontiers. The remote locations provided an aura of glamour to what was usually a hard and bloody slog. The enemies were usually sufficiently alien in culture and appearance to make their annihilation a matter for scorekeeping rather than regret. The disparities of force made the final outcomes comfortably certain. In an era when mass spectator sports were just beginning to emerge, imperialism's conflicts provided an opportunity for readers of newspapers with headlines such as "Boers sabered by moonlight" to support their chosen "team."

Beneath this relatively comfortable surface, however, stress points multiplied as the century progressed. Arguably beginning with the writings of Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831), visibly developing in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), was an increasing tendency in Europe's armies to abstract the nature of conflict. War was projected as existential, embodying no limits and tending to develop unchecked its capacities for violence and destruction. This process of reification was enhanced by the rise of general staffs, whose self-defined reason for being was to diminish war's apocalyptic impact by systematic planning. The synergistic development of military technology after 1871, in particular a network of increasingly effective weapons from magazine rifles to heavy artillery, further encouraged projections of mutually destructive total war. Finally, the spiraling expenses of keeping pace with Europe's escalating arms race were increasingly understood as mere harbingers of the costs, human and material, a general European war would incur.


Imperialism's conflicts were also showing uncomfortable aspects, suggesting the transition from the state wars of the nineteenth century to the total wars of the twentieth. Civilian infrastructures were increasingly targeted as part of military operations. "Pacification" increasingly denied distinctions between combatants and civilian populations. Violence acquired an ideological dimension, with European troops and their local auxiliaries indiscriminately smiting enemies understood as symbolizing not merely the "other," but the alien, set apart by unbridgeable chasms of culture and race.

Across Europe, developing grassroots peace movements called attention to these manifestations, but they were handicapped by their identification with intellectuals, radicals, and women. The first concrete step toward addressing the upward spiral of violence in warmaking came from the unlikely source of Imperial Russia. On 24 August 1898, Tsar Nicholas II (r. 1894–1918) issued an imperial rescript (decree) calling for an international peace conference. On a pragmatic level, the Russian government sought international recognition for its recent commercial and political gains in China. Nicholas and his advisors, however, were also concerned with recent Western technical advances Russia could match only at disproportionate expense. A Polish banker, Jan Bloch, published The Future of War (1899), which predicted a mutual attrition that would ultimately destroy the old European order. Nicholas had met with Bloch personally and was sufficiently concerned to raise the argument that something must be done at the highest levels.

No state could afford to ignore the Russian initiative in the context of growing public anxiety about the risks of future war. Just what was to be done, however, remained obscure. Other governments—including the United States, making its debut on the great-power stage in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, pressed for clarification. The Russians replied with an eight-point list. The specifics of its first half proposed a freeze on the size and budgets of armed forces with a view to eventual force reductions, and the banning of weapons and technologies more advanced than the ones in use. The second half called for codifying and revising the laws of war—or more accurately, the laws governing the conduct of war.

It was the second half that dominated discussion when the conference finally met at The Hague in 1899. The participants—Russia included—showed from the beginning a general unwillingness to take any concrete initiatives on arms limitation, let alone arms reduction. War remained the last resort of states, as it had been the final argument of kings. If the peace movement could not be ignored nationally or internationally, cultures of belligerence were no less widespread and no less influential in the Western world. Considered as a disarmament conference, The Hague was a failure. The meeting did, on the other hand, produce a spectrum of statements addressing behavior in war and binding on the "high contracting parties": a Convention on the Law and Customs of War on Land, another on maritime war, and separate declarations prohibiting the discharge of explosives from balloons, the use of projectiles diffusing asphyxiating gas, and the use of expanding bullets, more commonly known as dumdums.

Little of the material in these formulations was new. Prior to the middle of the nineteenth century, the "laws of war" existed as custom, as principle, as national laws and military regulations, and not least in religious teachings. In a culture whose defining passion was classification, this was unacceptably vague. In 1856 the Declaration of Paris codified maritime law. In 1868 an international conference at St. Petersburg banned weapons that unnecessarily aggravated suffering. The Brussels Conference of 1874 denied belligerents unlimited power to injure an enemy.

intentions and results

The Hague's documents had a common intention: to collate and rationalize the laws and customs of war, defining them more precisely and mitigating their severity as far as possible. Article 1 of the annex to the Convention on Land Warfare, for example, defined belligerent status as requiring a chain of command, a distinctive emblem recognizable at a distance, arms carried openly, and operations conducted "in accordance with the laws and customs of war." Articles 5 through 20 establish the rights and responsibilities of prisoners of war—including a clause stating "any act of insubordination" warrants adopting "such measures of severity as may be necessary." Article 22 reiterates that the right to injure an enemy is not unlimited. Article 23 prohibits, among other things, refusing to take prisoners, and destroying enemy property unnecessarily. Articles 25–28 forbid bombarding undefended towns and require taking "all necessary steps" to spare public buildings in a bombardment zone—unless they are being used for military purposes.

The Convention recognized the right of spontaneous armed resistance to invasion, and granted such resisters belligerent status if they observed the laws and customs of war. It required occupiers to respect, "unless absolutely prevented," the laws of the occupied territory. Like all international law, however, that of The Hague was weighted heavily in favor of sovereign states. Punishment for violations was vague and limited: a few references to responsibility and a few more to compensation. The Conventions' mitigating aspects were nevertheless sharply challenged by armies and governments masking fears of weakness beneath assertion of state sovereignty. Germany in particular took a lead in that criticism, prefiguring its behavior in 1914–1918. In 1907 a second Hague Conference clarified a spectrum of disputed issues, most of them involving naval war. A third conference was intended for within eight years of the second.

World War I intervened. For four years the assumptions and principles of the Hague negotiators were tested to the point of destruction. Yet despite being honored as much in the breach as in the observance, despite being regularly challenged on pragmatic and principled grounds, the Law of the Hague has shaped the conduct of two world wars and dozens of lesser conflicts, extending into the twenty-first century. The robust common sense of its fundamental principles may be anything but utopian. When acted upon, the Hague Conventions provide correspondingly workable ground rules that even the most ideologically motivated combatants in practice find sufficiently welcome to denounce their absence.

See alsoArmies; International Law; Pacifism; Science and Technology.


Best, Geoffrey. Humanity in Warfare. New York, 1980.

Roberts, Adam. "Land Warfare: From Hague to Nuremberg." In The Laws of War. Constraints on War in the Western World, edited by Michael Howard, George J. Andreopoulos, and Mark R. Shulman, pp. 116–139. New Haven, Conn., and London, 1994.

Dennis Showalter

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Hague Peace Conferences (1899, 1907) were the largest diplomatic conferences between the Congress of Vienna and the outbreak of World War I. Czar Nicholas II of Russia, calling for limitation of armaments, proposed the first conference (1899) at the Dutch seat of government. Representatives of twenty‐six governments attended. President Theodore Roosevelt, responding to wishes of peace movement leaders, in 1904 proposed a second conference, and the czar officially called the 1907 conference. Forty‐four governments attended.

The Russians originally proposed discussion only of limitation of armaments at the 1899 conference, but expanded the agenda to include the laws of war on land; extension of the 1864 Geneva Conventions to the sea; and international arbitration. These topics made the conference acceptable to governments determined to oppose arms limitation. At the same time, peace movement leaders and some journalists, who labeled the proposed meeting a “Peace Conference,” welcomed addition of arbitration to the agenda. The 1899 conference accomplished little in regards to armaments. The German delegates opposed limits on armies; the British on navies. U.S. naval delegate Capt. Alfred T. Mahan, famed historian of seapower, made clear his opposition to limiting armaments. The Russians proposed bans on new firearms, submarines, and ships with rams, and prohibitions against throwing projectiles or explosives from balloons or “similar means.” The conference did nothing about new firearms or submarines but negotiated declarations against expanding (“dumdum”) bullets, poison gas, and the aerial use of explosives from balloons. Renewal of the balloon declaration was the only arms limitation of the 1907 conference. German opposition convinced the Russians that limitation should not appear on the 1907 program; an Anglo‐American resolution recognizing the seriousness of the arms race was only a gesture.

The Hague conferences made important advances in codification of the laws of land warfare. General Orders No. 100, The Union army code announced in 1863 strongly influenced the unratified Declaration of Brussels (1874). The 1899 conference concluded a comprehensive convention based on that declaration, which proved its worth during the Boer and Russo‐Japanese Wars. The 1907 conference revised that convention and concluded two related conventions: one concerned neutral rights and duties on land; the other required formal declarations before beginning hostilities. Angry over the surprise Japanese attack on Port Arthur, Manchuria, in 1904, the Russians urged agreement on this convention. Generally respected during World War I, this convention was often disregarded thereafter, notably by the Japanese when they attacked on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The 1899 conference achieved little for the laws of war at sea. The Russian program called for extension of the 1864 Geneva convention which protected victims of war on land to the sea, and this was done; but there was little discussion of larger matters. An American proposal that the conference consider immunity of private property at sea from capture—a traditional U.S. principle—was blocked by the British.

The 1907 conference, however, dealt seriously with war at sea, for the Russo‐Japanese War had presented neutrals with numerous maritime problems. The conference concluded a new convention about the Geneva rules at sea and conventions about the status of merchant ships at the beginning of hostilities, conversion of such vessels into warships, submarine mines, and the maritime rights and duties of neutrals. British, German, and American delegates obtained Convention XII, which provided for an international prize court, but there was general recognition that the restrictions on capture in Convention XI were inadequate for decisions by the proposed court. The British called a special conference to consider blockades and contraband. The result was the Declaration of London (1909), a careful statement of prize law; but when the British House of Lords blocked ratification, other governments also delayed action. During the first months of World War I, American efforts to secure the adherence of the belligerents failed, largely because of British objections. The project for an international prize court was soon forgotten.

International arbitration agreements were major achievements of the Hague conferences. The 1899 conference framed a convention setting forth principles and procedures. British and American proposals resulted in the Permanent Court of Arbitration—a list of judges named by signatory powers from which parties to an arbitration could select a panel of judges. U.S. delegates at the 1907 conference called for a worldwide agreement to make arbitration obligatory in a very limited sense and a Court of Arbitral Justice that would have had a few judges sitting continuously. The Germans defeated agreement on obligatory arbitration; several small nations, particularly in Latin America, defeated the court proposal by insisting upon equal representation for all member governments. The United States, however, secured a convention requiring that no nation use force to collect debts unless arbitration had been offered and refused.

The 1907 conference called for a third conference in 1915, but the outbreak of war in 1914 prevented that meeting. Much of the work of the Hague conferences survived. The League of Nations in 1920 adopted a world court statute based on the 1907 court project. The United States never adhered to that statute but in 1945 accepted the United Nations version. The Hague conventions on warfare were of large importance during the two world wars and other wars. Since World War I, the Hague idea of limiting armaments through multinational negotiations has often inspired the calling of large international conferences.
[See also Arms Control and Disarmament; Internationalism; Neutrality; Peace and Antiwar Movements.]


Merze Tate , The Disarmament Illusion: The Movement for a Limitation of Armaments to 1907, 1930.
Calvin D. Davis , The United States and the First Hague Peace Conference, 1962.
Warren F. Kuehl , Seeking World Order: The United States and International Organization to 1920, 1969.
Calvin D. Davis , The United States and the Second Hague Peace Conference: American Diplomacy and International Organization 1899–1914, 1976.

Calvin D. Davis

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HAGUE PEACE CONFERENCES (1899, 1907), which met at the Hague in the Netherlands, reflected a contemporary peace movement, alarm over the growing alliance system and arms race, early agitation for some type of world organization, and desires to codify international law. The first conference was prompted by Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, who in a rescript issued on 24 April 1898 sought "the progressive development of the present armaments" and "the most effective means of insuring to all peoples the benefits of a real and durable peace."

Delegates from twenty-six states, including the United States and Mexico from the Western Hemisphere, assembled for the first conference from 18 May to 29 July 1899. The U.S. delegation was headed by Andrew D. White, the U.S. minister to Russia and former president of Cornell University. The conference reached modest agreement on rules of land and maritime warfare. The agreements outlawed three innovations in weapons (asphyxiating gases, expanding or "dumdum" bullets, and projectiles or explosives from balloons), but the conferees failed to make headway on limiting arms. On 29 July every participating nation agreed to the Convention for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes, which advanced the concept of resolving differences through mediation by a third party, international commissions, or the international tribunal at the Hague. It was stipulated, however, that the arbitration was not compulsory and did not extend to questions involving national honor or integrity. The U.S. delegation insisted on a reservation concerning disputes involving application of the Monroe Doctrine. To facilitate arbitration, the delegates created the Permanent Court of Arbitration, essentially a list of judges from which powers could select a panel if the need arose.

The second conference met from 15 June to 18 October 1907. In 1904, fifteen representatives of the Inter-parliamentary Union, an association of legislators from various nations, had met in St. Louis, Missouri. Under the leadership of Representative Richard Barthold (Republican from Missouri), the legislators agreed to work toward a second conference. In his 1904 annual message, President Theodore Roosevelt proposed the meeting but graciously allowed the tsar to take credit. Forty-four governments sent delegates, this time including nineteen from the Americas. Joseph H. Choate, a former ambassador to Great Britain, headed the U.S. delegation. Armament discussions again failed, but conventions developed on laws of war, naval warfare, and neutrality, plus one renouncing the right to use force to collect debts. The 1907 convention renewed the declaration prohibiting the charge of projectiles from balloons but did not reaffirm the declarations concerning gas and bullets. A revised Convention for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes included a provision for an International Court of Prize, which served as a court of appeal in case neutral ships were captured in wartime. Delegates could not agree on how to create a court of arbitral justice, something strongly supported by the United States, but the relevant commission unanimously adopted a resolution supporting "the principle of obligatory arbitration." The conference adopted a revised version of the Drago Doctrine, formulated on 29 December 1902 by Louis M. Drago, the foreign minister of Argentina. That doctrine specified that European powers must not use armed force to collect national debts owed by American nations to foreign creditors.

Peace workers anticipated a third conference in 1915, because the delegates in 1907 had believed periodic meetings were the best way to handle international problems. Although World War I ended that hope, suggestions for another assembly appeared well into the 1930s. The assumptions implicit in such thinking, plus the precedents of 1899 and 1907 in the form of conventions, declarations, and stated desires, contributed substantially to later and more fully developed international institutions, including the League of Nations, the United Nations, and international courts of justice.


Davis, Calvin D. The United States and the First Hague Peace Conference. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1962.

———. The United States and the Second Hague Peace Conference: American Diplomacy and International Organization, 1899–1914. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1975.

Kuehl, Warren F. Seeking World Order: The United States and International Organization to 1920. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1969.

Justus D.Doenecke

Warren F.Kuehl

See alsoInternational Court of Justice ; International Law ; Peace Conferences .

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Tsar Nicholas II summoned peace conferences at The Hague in the Netherlands in 1899 and 1907. His gestures appealed to pacifist sentiments in the West, but his primary motives were quite pragmatic. He hoped the 1899 conference would ban the rapid-fire artillery being developed by Austria-Hungary, Russia's rival in the Balkans. Russia could neither develop nor purchase such weapons except at great expense. Finance Minister Serge Witte urged that such money be spent instead on modernizing Russia's economy. Having called the conference, the Imperial government found itself tied in knots. Its war minister warned that Russia would need more and better arms to achieve its goals in the Far East against Japan and in the Black Sea region against Ottoman Turkey. Russia's major ally, France, objected to any limitations because it sought new arms to cope with Germany. Before the conference even opened, St. Petersburg assured Paris that no disarmament measures would be adopted.

The 1899 Hague Conference did not limit arms, but it did refine the laws of war, including the rights of neutrals. It also established an international panel of arbiters available to hear cases put before it by disputing nations.

A second Hague conference was planned five years after the first, but did not convene then because Russia was fighting Japan. Nicholas did summon the meeting in 1907, after Russia began to recover from its defeat by Japan and from its own 1905 revolution. It was during the 1905 upheaval that Vladimir Ilich Lenin first articulated his view on disarmament. The revolutionary task, he said, is not to talk about disarmament (razoruzhenie ) but to disarm (obezoruzhit' ) the ruling classes.

The Russian delegation in 1907 proposed less sweeping limits on armaments than in 1899. However, when some governments proposed a five-year ban on dirigibles, Russia called for a permanent ban. Nothing came of these proposals, and the second Hague conference managed only to add to refinements to the laws of war.

See also: lenin, vladimir ilich; nicholas ii


Clemens, Walter C., Jr. "Nicholas II to SALT II: Change and Continuity in East-West Diplomacy." International Affairs 3 (July 1973):385-401.

Rosenne, Shabtai, comp. (2001). The Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907 and International Arbitration: Reports and Documents. The Hague: T.M.C. Asser.

Van den Dungen, Peter. (1983) The Making of Peace: Jean de Bloch and the First Hague Peace Conference. Los Angeles: Center for the Study of Armament and Disarmament, California State University.

Walter C. Clemens, Jr.

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Hague Conferences, term for the International Peace Conference of 1899 (First Hague Conference) and the Second International Peace Conference of 1907 (Second Hague Conference). Both were called by Russia and met at The Hague, the Netherlands. Neither succeeded in the main announced purpose of effecting a reduction in armaments, but a number of declarations and conventions respecting the laws of war were adopted and were later ratified by many states. Ratified prohibitions of aerial bombardment and of the use of submarine mines and poison gas proved ineffective, but more heed was given to conventions respecting the rights of neutral shipping (particularly respecting contraband) and the protection of noncombatants. A substantial achievement was the founding by the First Hague Conference of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, popularly called the Hague Tribunal. However, at the second conference the United States failed in its effort to secure the establishment of a world court. A third conference, scheduled for 1916, was canceled because of World War I. In the attempt to formulate certain rules of international law, the Hague Conferences furnished an example for both the League of Nations and the United Nations.