The Clinton Connection

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The Kurhaus Hotel in The Hague shortly after the First International Peace Conference. Hillary Clinton chose to stay here while visiting The Hague because she was a great admirer of Bertha von Suttner, who held many influential salons in the hotel. 

During a visit to The Hague in the Netherlands last June, my husband and I spent several nights at the beautiful seaside Kurhaus Hotel. There, during the late spring and early summer of 1899, Bertha von Suttner and her husband Artur had hosted frequent salons, to which they invited delegates and guests attending the International Peace Conference taking place in the city. Over a century later, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted on staying at the Kurhaus during a spring-time conference related to the situation in Afghanistan. According to Steven van Hoogstraten, a former director of the Carnegie Foundation, Clinton chose the hotel because she was a “great admirer” of Bertha von Suttner. Clearly, the secretary felt a strong connection to the first female Nobel Peace Prize winner and wished, however symbolically, to follow in her footsteps. One question, however, haunted us after our stay: would the appreciation have been mutual?

Because she was a woman, Bertha was not allowed to take part in the official proceedings of the First Hague Peace Conference.* Even so, having secured funding as a freelance journalist, she traveled to the Hague with high hopes for the event. On the opening day, she wrote in her private journal, “This is the first time since history began to be written that the representatives of the governments have come together to find a means for ‘securing a permanent, genuine peace’ for the world.”

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State representatives–men only–from many nations gathered at the First International Peace Conference in The Hague.

For Bertha, this meant substantive actions toward global disarmament and the formation of an international court of arbitration. Since she couldn’t participate directly in the conference’s daily discussions, she organized many end-of-day activities as a way of gathering information and, whenever possible, negotiating strongly in favor of reducing weapons production and decreasing military fortification throughout the world. Sadly, despite some small successes and concessions related to arbitration, the conference ultimately failed to live up to her expectations.

Like Bertha before her, Clinton held private meetings and small salons at the Kurhaus as part of her diplomatic mission. Unlike Bertha and her fellow pacifists, however, Clinton’s responses to international conflict often called for militaristic solutions and a substantial build-up of the weapons of war. During her tenure at the State Department, the administration negotiated a substantially larger number of arms sales than the Bush/Cheney administration had during its previous term.** Gun control, a controversial issue within the United States, obviously remains problematic on the international front as well. As such, Secretary of State Clinton’s approach to security and conflict resolution stood sharply at odds with Suttner’s core beliefs about disarmament.

Perhaps Clinton’s appreciation of Bertha related more to their roles as powerful women in traditionally male-dominated environments, and yet one would hope that the admiration didn’t stop short at gender identification. While Bertha applauded and supported various women’s issues of the day, such as suffrage and access to education, she placed the moral imperative of pacifism ahead of them and prioritized her efforts accordingly. In fact, she spent a great deal of energy trying to keep the philosophy of pacifism free from any simplistic male/female dichotomy. She was well aware that women could be just as militaristic as men. By the same logic, a man’s allegiance to the peace movement didn’t require or result in any sort of “feminization.”

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Today, a bust of Bertha von Suttner greets visitors in the main lobby of the Peace Palace in The Hague.

During her lifetime, Bertha’s dreams of disarmament and a “permanent, genuine” world peace would remain just that: distant dreams. Her pacifism was frequently mocked as idealistic, impractical, and unpatriotic. Criticism came from all quarters, causing her to respond, “The moral element has to penetrate all questions of politics. Only then can we win. … We must not become ‘practical politicians.’” (Letter to Alfred Fried, March 23, 1898)

With all this in mind, it’s easy to imagine that a meeting between Suttner and Clinton might have turned cool despite whatever high regard one held for the other. Bertha had already experienced firsthand the dismissive attitude of another female leader, Queen Wilhemina of the Netherlands, who, despite hosting the Peace Conference at her palace in The Hague, remained opposed to the pacifist agenda. Bertha described their encounter this way: “The young Queen, graciously smiling, asks me, just as she probably asks most of the others, if this is the first time I have ever visited The Hague and how I like it. I include in my reply my observation that my sojourn in Holland is made particularly happy by the greatness of the cause that brought me there. The gracious little sovereign nods at that but says nothing.”

NOTES:

* It’s worth pointing out that many international peace gatherings preceded The Hague Peace Conference, which was a “first” in that it brought together state representatives from foreign governments rather than members of the various peace congresses throughout the world. Women played a strong and active role in these congresses. In fact, Bertha was both founder and president of the Austrian peace society and served as vice-president of the international association that organized nearly-annual gatherings throughout Europe and the United States.

** For more details about these weapons sales agreements and links to State Department records, see this article in the International Business Times.

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