conferenceparis

27 March 1916 – Economic Unity

The latest in a series of high-level strategic meetings, a conference begins in Paris today at the Quay d’Orsay with the object of solving mutual problems through a consultative process. The gathering is largely a formality, however, for the Tsarina has recently fired war minister Alexei Polivanov, who at least seemed to understand the material deficits that still reduce Russian fighting power, while General Yakhov Zhilinskiy, the Russian military attaché in France, has little understanding of his Army’s supply problems. Italian Prime Minister Antonio Salandra and his Baron Sidney Sonnino have more needs than answers.

Nevertheless, beyond the happy platitudes about a united effort against the Central Powers — vows inked in the blood of recent counteroffensives to Verdun at the Isonzo and in Belarus — there is important progress, at least from the allied perspective. The published resolution speaks of allied unity in the economic war, an emerging aspect of the conflict.

1. The representatives of the allied Governments assembled in Paris on the 27th and 28th of March, 1916, affirm the entire community of views and solidarity of the Allies. They confirm all the measures taken to realize unity of action and unity of front. By this they mean at once military unity of action, as assured by the agreement concluded between the General Staffs, economic unity of action, the organization of which has been settled by the present conference; and diplomatic unity of action, which is guaranteed by their unshakable determination to pursue the struggle to the victory of their common cause.

2. The allied governments decide to put into practice in the economic domain their solidarity of views and interests. They charge the Economic Conference, which will be held shortly in Paris, to propose to them measures adapted to realize this solidarity.

3. With a view to strengthening, co-ordinating, and unifying the economic action to be exercised in order to prevent supplies from reaching the enemy, the conference decides to establish in Paris a permanent committee upon which all the allies will be represented.

4. The conference decides:

(a) To continue the organization begun in London of a Central Bureau of Freights.
(b) To take common action with the shortest possible delay with a view to discovering the practical methods to be employed for equitably distributing between the allied nations the burdens resulting from maritime transport and for putting a stop to the rise in freights.

In short, the 37 men representing Belgium, Serbia, Japan, Portugal, Italy, Russia, France, and Britain have trade on their minds, both as an offensive weapon and as a war cost to be imposed on the German nation. The chief of the British blockade effort, Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, is present in Paris along with his recently-minted Minister of Blockade, Lord Robert Cecil; their discussions with the French delegation, which is by far the largest cohort present, are the most consequential event of the conference.

A French law adopted in September 1914 recognizes both nationality and territoriality as principles of blockade, meaning that products are targeted both for being shipped by German firms and for being sent to Germany. British law has so far recognized only a territorial principle in its blockade, but Cecil has just instituted a black list policy against firms doing business with Germany. In effect, it works much the same as the French method, which also has unofficial blacklists. Led by technocrat Étienne Clémentel, the French delegation prefers the broad reach of its system, whereas the British Foreign Office wants to manipulate neutral trade partners individually; in the end, the cross-channel partners agree to a compromise using both approaches.

In the months to come, a Comité Permanent International d’Action Économique will be established in Paris to oversee the strategic economy of the Entente allies. Seeking to squeeze the Central Powers out of their foreign markets as well as blockade them from accessing world trade, the pact is unveiled in June — to the great concern of the United States.

The American Secretary of State has the embassy in Paris closely monitor these developments, objecting strenuously to black lists and interference with neutral mail. Provisions which subsidize and nationalize industries are of equal concern with the allied regimentation of European markets for their own benefit. Fearing the US will also be squeezed out of Europe, the Wilson administration will go to war in part to maintain American access. He will engage the postwar peace process with the same point in mind. Today’s conference is a point on a historical line leading inexorably to the creation of the transatlantic relationship between Old World and New.

This new spirit of strategic cooperation among the Entente powers has other consequences. Despite throwing money at Russian supply issues, for example, the largest army in the alliance is still desperately short of shells, guns, grenades, rifles — basically, everything needed for a sustained conflict in the age of mass fire. Hoping to resolve the problem, which is not being made better by current political conditions in Petrograd, Britain sends Lord Kitchener on an inspection tour of Russian war industries and training posts to see what improvements can be made. Thanks to a German sea mine, he will never arrive.

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A map of the European conflict through 1916. A united economic blockade requires restrictions on neutral trade