First Hague Peace Conference

The First Hague Peace Conference convened at the invitation of Russian czar Nicholas II to discuss nonmilitary means of solving international problems. Twenty-six nations agreed to establish a voluntary permanent court of arbitration, a still-existing international court in the Netherlands.

Summary of Event

As announced by the Russian foreign affairs minister on August 24, 1898, Czar Nicholas II issued an “imperial rescript” inviting the powers with diplomatic representatives at the court of St. Petersburg to participate in an international conference aimed at a “possible reduction of excessive armaments which weigh upon all nations.” Hague Peace Conference, First (1899)
Netherlands;Hague Peace Conferences
Nicholas II
Russia;and First Hague Peace Conference[First Hague Peace Conference]
[kw]First Hague Peace Conference (May 18-July, 1899)
[kw]Hague Peace Conference, First (May 18-July, 1899)
[kw]Peace Conference, First Hague (May 18-July, 1899)
[kw]Conference, First Hague Peace (May 18-July, 1899)
Hague Peace Conference, First (1899)
Netherlands;Hague Peace Conferences
Nicholas II
Russia;and First Hague Peace Conference[First Hague Peace Conference]
[g]Netherlands;May 18-July, 1899: First Hague Peace Conference[6390]
[g]Russia;May 18-July, 1899: First Hague Peace Conference[6390]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;May 18-July, 1899: First Hague Peace Conference[6390]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;May 18-July, 1899: First Hague Peace Conference[6390]
Pauncefote, Sir Julian
White, Andrew Dickson
Mahan, Alfred Thayer

The czar’s initiative was greeted with different responses. The growing number of pacifists and humanitarians hailed the move as evidence that the czar’s promise of peace and progress would be brought to fruition soon after the arrival of the new century. They sincerely believed that a utopian ideal was about to be realized despite the source of the initiative and the signs of war that seemed to lurk everywhere. The antiwar advocates had representatives on the Continent, although they were particularly strong in Great Britain and the United States. In those two countries, militarism was not deeply rooted, even though 1898 was the year of the Spanish-American War and the confrontation between Great Britain and France at Fashoda.

There was hope that the reduction of armaments would make war less likely and that the products and profits of the rapidly expanding Western industrial complex could be brought to bear on world problems. Arbitration could solve international grievances, as had actually happened in the successful negotiations for damages resulting from the depredations caused by the Alabama
Alabama, CSS and other Confederate cruisers during the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865). In 1889, humanitarians were also able to point to the formation of the Interparliamentary Union and the convening of the first Pan-American Congress Pan-American Congress (1889-1990)[PanAmerican Congress (1889-1990)] (1889-1890) as examples of international problems being solved without resorting to war.

On the other side, contemporary political realists of every stripe were suspicious of the czar’s motives and were alarmed over possible consequences. It was obvious that the bellicose Emperor William William II (emperor of Germany)
[p]William II (emperor of Germany)[William 02 (emperor of Germany)];and First Hague Peace Conference[First Hague Peace Conference] II of Germany, who was already committed to the continuance and expansion of newfound German strength, would not, under any circumstances, agree to disarm an empire created by force of arms. While on friendly terms with Russia, France was shocked at not being consulted by its ally before the proposal was made. The thought of maintaining the status quo as established by the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) was totally unacceptable.

Nevertheless, Germany and France, along with twenty-three other nations, accepted the invitation. The reasons for acceptance varied, but generally it was held that the czar should not be offended, and it was unlikely that any enforceable action could come out of such a conference. Furthermore, to decline the invitation would have put a nation in a bad light with liberals, pacifists, humanitarians, socialists, and similar groups.

On close examination, Russian motives do not appear to have been entirely altruistic. The naïve Nicholas II may have been more idealistic than his ministers, but it was clear by 1898 that Russia, already lagging behind the West in economic and industrial development, was unable to compete in the armaments race. The financial burden alone was too great. The Russian finance minister decided that a ten-year international moratorium on armaments could bring the leading military states down to the Russian level.

On May 18, 1899, the First International Peace Conference convened at The Hague in the Netherlands. Among those who attended the conference and who were genuinely interested in the cause of peace were Sir Julian Pauncefote, Pauncefote, Sir Julian who represented Great Britain and served as British ambassador to the United States, and Andrew Dickson White White, Andrew Dickson , who represented the United States and served as the American minister to Russia.

Delegates to the Hague Peace Conference.

(The Co-Operative Publishing Company)

The voices that were most influential at the conference in the long run belonged to blunt military-naval experts and apostles of military strength such as Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan Mahan, Alfred Thayer of the United States, Admiral Sir John Arbuthnot Fisher of Great Britain, and Colonel Gross von Schwarzhoff of Germany. Basing their arguments on individual, sovereign responsibility, their clamor for the necessity of preparedness carried the day. Confronted by the irrefutable military realities of the international situation, the goals of the conference were not realized.


The means for preventing armed conflict were approved unanimously by the twenty-six nations present and participating in the conference. International commissions of inquiry were authorized to appease, investigate, and prevent conflict. More important, participants devised a permanent court of arbitration that was authorized to hear and judge disputes that were voluntarily brought to its purview. Although it was not a permanent sitting court, it drew from a pool of jurists who could arbitrate in any given situation. The weakness of this approach was less in its structure than in the reluctance of nations to risk their influence and prestige. Perhaps Nicholas II put it best when he remarked that “Peace is more important than anything, if honor is not affected.”

Further Reading

  • Cooper, Sandi E. Patriotic Pacifism: Waging War on War in Europe, 1815-1914. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. This work contains scattered references to both Hague Peace Conferences within a European context.
  • Davis, Calvin D. The United States and the First Hague Conference. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1962. Davis explores reasons for the successes of the first conference and what he believes are its more significant failures. Davis also argues that the conference was for the most part unsuccessful in its goals and thus was a failure.
  • Hull, William I. The Two Hague Conferences and Their Contributions to International Law. Boston: Ginn, 1908. Reprint. New York: Garland, 1972. Hull presents a positive assessment of the peace movement’s internationalist direction.
  • Marchand, C. Roland. The American Peace Movement and Social Reform, 1898-1918. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972. Emphasizes in brief references the relationship of the conference and the American peace movement.
  • Ralston, Jackson H. International Arbitration from Athens to Locarno. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1929. Places the origin and outcome of the First Hague Peace Conference in its historical context.
  • Tuchman, Barbara. “The Steady Drummer: The Hague, 1899 and 1907.” In The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914. New York: Macmillan, 1966. A popular account of the personalities and highlights of both Hague conferences.

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Related Article in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i><br />

Bertha von Suttner. Hague Peace Conference, First (1899)
Netherlands;Hague Peace Conferences
Nicholas II
Russia;and First Hague Peace Conference[First Hague Peace Conference]