The Rights of Neutral Nationsby Adam Smith
Third, we next show what is due to neutral nations from the belligerent powers.
The rule of justice with respect to neutral nations is, that they should suffer no injury as they have offended no party.
In a war between France and England, the Dutch should have the liberty of trading to both countries, as in peacetime, because they have injured neither. They can trade to them freely unless when they:
- carry contraband goods, or
- are going to a besieged town.
However, a neutral bottom will not protect the enemy’s goods. The bottom’s hostility does not forfeit the neutral power’s goods. There is some difference between the practice of ancient and modern nations with respect tothe ius postliminii or the recovery of what was lost.
The ancient maxim in wartime was that we are always in the right and our enemies always in the wrong.
- Whatever is taken from the enemy is justly taken.
- Whatever is taken from us is unjustly taken.
On this account, if a Carthaginian had sold to a Roman a Roman ship taken in war, the former owner took it back whenever he could, because it was unjustly taken from him on the above principle.
Now it is quite the opposite.
- We consider everything done in war as just and equitable.
- We do not demand nor take back any captures made in it.
If an English ship were taken by the French and sold to the Dutch and came to a British harbour, the former British owner has no claim to her. For he had lost all hopes of it, when it had gone into the enemy’s possession. There is a very great difference in the conduct of belligerent nations towards a neutral nation in a land war, from what it is in a sea war.
This is more the effect of policy than humanity. When an army retreats and the conqueror pursues into a neutral nation, it often becomes the seat of war unless it has power to hold out both army and conqueror. Little or no satisfaction is given for damages. But in a sea war, a ship taken from the most inconsiderable neutral power is always restored because it injures their commerce more to take their ships than anything else
But I think this is unsatisfactory because a land war hurts commerce more. The real reason is that a small country cannot assert its neutrality in a land war, but it can do so in a sea war. A small fort can oblige the greatest nation to respect its harbour’s neutrality.