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The Forgotten Peace

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Michael Small

Chapter 8. Looking back from today

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1From the vantage point of today, what is there of interest in a failed peace conference that took place more than ninety years ago? It does not lie in its impact on the course of the Mexican Revolution. From that vantage point, it appears as an inconsequential Edwardian diversion from the course of a titanic struggle.

2Primarily for this reason, almost all historians of the Revolution have dealt with the conference in a few lines, or at most a few pages, if they have covered it all. The only monograph I have been able to find that is completely devoted to the topic is the study done for the Chilean diplomatic academy by Guerrero Yoacham (1966), who was able to draw on some diplomatic papers left by the Chilean mediator, Suárez Mujica. The studies by Rosario Solveira (1994) and Ulloa (1971) also substantially cover the conference, drawing on Argentine and Mexican sources respectively, as well as the published U.S. diplomatic documents. In English, Link (1956) does a superb job narrating the events that led up the conference and very efficiently dispatches the event in seven pages. Grieb (1969) has reviewed all the Mexican, British and American sources, and covers the conference in a more detailed chapter in his monograph dealing with the United States’ relations with Huerta. The only contemporary accounts we have are the valuable essay by Severance (1914), which was based on newspaper reporting, and the remarkable scrapbook of clippings collected by Rómulo Naón. There have been no Canadian studies that I can find that cover the conference. The first serious history of Canadian–Latin American relations, Oglesby (1976), contains a chapter headed “Canadians and the Mexican Revolution, 1910–1928,” but dismisses the conference in three paragraphs.

3Even Niagara Falls, which is a well-documented place, contains no landmarks to commemorate this unusual chapter in inter-American diplomacy. The Clifton House Hotel, where all the meetings took place, burned down in 1932 and in its place there stands today a quiet park, the Oakes Garden Theatre.

4Nevertheless, some interest lies in the exceptional fact that the Niagara Falls Peace Conference occurred in the first place and in the symbolism of what was at stake there, when viewed through the lens of modern concerns.

5First, the conference must have been one of the few occasions in the history of the United States when its government has allowed third countries to mediate a conflict between itself and another state. The United States has long been accustomed to playing this kind of role, formally or informally, in other countries’ disputes. Even before 1914, the United States under Theodore Roosevelt was asked to mediate an end to the Russo-Japanese War. Rarely has the United States found it convenient to agree to mediation by other, weaker states to resolve a conflict in which the United States itself is a major party. This fact alone makes the Niagara Falls Conference an exceptional event.

6Second, the conference took place in an era when international instruments for the peaceful resolution of conflicts were in their infancy. Much of the enthusiasm at the time around the conference derived from its perceived potential to give impetus to those instruments. Today we live in a world that is rich—indeed, some would argue, overburdened—with international norms, agreements, and institutions that attempt to promote collective security and resolve conflicts peacefully. Their effectiveness in constraining the actions of great powers may be questioned, but in the absence of such norms and institutions, all attempts at peaceful conflict resolution become one-off exercises. The difficulty the A.B.C. powers had in securing consensus on the minimum conditions to launch their mediation demonstrates the value of having multilateral mechanisms already in place, with established ground rules for these kinds of initiatives.

7Third, the conference participants were far ahead of their time in recognizing the inextricable linkage between resolving “internal” political issues and addressing “international” ones when dealing with foreign interventions in a civil war. Given the impossibility, for most of the 20th century, of discussing anything in the formal institutions of inter-American diplomacy that smacked of “international interference in the internal affairs of other states,” it is fascinating to see how unencumbered the A. B. C. mediators were by such ideological constraints. It is not that the defence of sovereignty was unimportant to the A.B.C. powers. Great power interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states had been a preoccupation of Latin American diplomats for decades. The Argentine statesmen Calvo and Drago had led the way in the early days of the Pan-American movement in arguing for limits to foreign powers’ claims to override the domestic jurisdiction of states, for example in dealing with claims to enforce the payment of international debts. However, a fear that peaceful third-party mediation of internal conflicts could be exploited by great powers to undermine sovereignty was not a preoccupation for the A.B.C. governments. Reading this brief slice of the record of U.S. intervention in the Mexican Revolution makes it understandable why post-revolutionary Mexican foreign policy has been stamped by this suspicion. It has taken more than eighty years of internal political and economic evolution in Mexico and a more recent transformation of its relationship with its all-powerful neighbour to make Mexicans comfortable with discussing international norms and instruments for defending human rights and promoting democracy. The same transformation in thinking about the limits of sovereignty has yet to be consolidated in the Western Hemisphere, for much the same reasons. In other regions of the world it has hardly begun.

8We currently live in an era of contested “humanitarian interventions” intended to change the regimes of other states for the good of their peoples. The arguments Wilson advanced for intervening in the course of the Mexican Revolution look remarkably modern: the refusal to countenance the overthrow of democratically elected governments; the need for broad-based economic and political reforms to consolidate democracy; the inherent instability of narrowly based, tyrannical regimes and the negative spillover effects they can have on their neighbours. Some of the methods he used to implement his vision for Mexico, such as sending in gunboats and seizing a port, today look old-fashioned. Others remain very much a part of a great power’s foreign policy arsenal, notably cutting off rogue states’ access to credit and (selectively) applying arms embargos. Some of the most serious mistakes Wilson made in Mexico look depressingly familiar from other chapters of U.S. foreign policy, including trying to back one side in a civil conflict in order to influence its objectives, overestimating the international appeal of stated American ideals, and underestimating the power of other peoples’ sense of nationalism. Against this panoply of methods for intervention, the one option that Wilson pursued for a time, and that still looks attractive to middle-power practitioners of peaceful conflict resolution, is mediation. Hence the potential interest of the Niagara Falls Conference for the A.B.C. mediators’ modern counterparts. Failure can teach as much if not more than success can. The ultimate failure of the mediators’ well-intentioned initiative was not to engage the President of the United States directly within the moral framework that he used to justify his policies.

9Finally, and more modestly, there are some observations for Canada to be drawn from this completely forgotten chapter in our diplomatic history. Canada played no role of substance in the conference, but it did provide the venue, and the Canadian press and public followed events closely. Canada was deliberately chosen as a safe, neutral location for this highly experimental venture by the five other countries involved. The conference was the first occasion when an event of major political importance to both the United States and Latin America took place in Canada. For this reason alone, it is worth recalling in an era when Canada has made its relations with the rest of the Western Hemisphere a priority for its foreign policy.

10The conference was also one of the very rare occasions when Canada has ever provided the venue for any kind of international peace talks. For all the activism that Canadians have displayed in international peacekeeping and peacemaking, very little of that activity has been conducted in Canada itself. Distance from modern zones of conflict may be part of the reason, but in 1914 our geography was the reason why Canada was selected as the location for the conference. The curious fact remains that since 1914 there have been very few other occasions when it has ever been “Mediation Time in Canada.”

© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 2009

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