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“Lord Salisbury and Foreign Policy at the Close of the 19th Century”

  • J.A.S.Grenville

“The End of Isolation: British Foreign Policy 1900-7” – G.W. Monger”

“The Anglo-Japanese Alliance, 1894-1907” – I.H.Nash”
“The Foreign Office and Foreign Policy, 1898-1914” – Zara Steiner.
“The Policy of Entente: Essay on the determinants of British Foreign Policy” –

K. Wilson.

For most of the 19th century Britain filled the international stage. Because it was the only industrialised nation, it could influence the world stage without fear of threat from any other state. The growth of the British Empire was an ostentatious symbol of this influence . Therefore, Britain’s aim was to safeguard its global position and that meant that there had to be peace. Britain’s commercial power depended on maintaining its global interests.
After 1870 these favourable circumstances began to work against British interests. Other countries also managed to become industrialised countries and to compete against Britain’s economic and political ascendancy – Germany, the United States, France, Russia and Japan.
The big problem for Britain was how it should respond to these new challenges? Britain’s tradition was to keep away from alliances with other countries in case it was drawn into wars. This was particularly true of its attitude towards Europe. Britain’s main interest in Europe was to keep some sort of balance of power, and to ensure that that balance was not destroyed. It was in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna that this balance was created, and it continued in existence until the third quarter of the 19th century. However, with the unification of German in 1870 and the unification of Italy in 1870, there was a blow to the balance. During the period 1870-1900 Germany grew in economic power: by the end of the century it was the strongest economic power on the Continent.
Another aspect of Britain’s problems was empire growth in Africa and Asia during the period 1870-1900. There was growth in the size of the French and Russian Empires in particular, and these represented a serious threat to the British Empire, particularly to its territories in India. By the end of the century the Empire was regarded as essential to Britain’s economic and social power. Free trade ensured that imports, especially food imports, into Britain protected the standard of living of the working class, and the profits that came from the investments of the middle class maintained the interests of capitalism in Britain. The British governing class depended on keeping the Empire as a source of work and employment. Therefore, the protection of the Empire was vitally important to Britain, especially the safety of the seas linking the East and Britain – the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal. Britain, if necessary, could conscript millions of inhabitants of the Empire.
As British Foreign Secretary Salisbury (1886-1902) stuck to a policy of “Splendid Isolation” (though it’s debatable how isolated Britain was under him). After his resignation in 1902, Lord Lansdowne was appointed Foreign Secretary. Politicians had already discovered how dangerous it was for Britain to be isolated. The South African War, 1899-1902, revealed great weaknesses in Britain’s military and foreign position. Even though the British navy was stronger than the French and Russian navies, together they could provide Britain with a hard fight and threaten its empire.
The big problem was with which country should it ally itself? It had to respond to a problem which came from two stages: the European stage and the world stage. On the European stage the power of Germany had upset the balance and it was creating a different pattern. The continent was divided into two armed groupings – Germany and Austria-Hungary and Italy on the one hand, and France and Russia on the other. The alliance between France and Russia represented the greatest threat to Britain, because together they could threaten the British Empire. But at the same time, Germany’s military strength created a threat to the peace of Europe and therefore a threat to Britain’s own safety. Also, with the growth of the German navy, Germany represented a long-term threat to Britain’s world power.
As a result of this complexity created by the need to devise a policy to meet circumstances which existed in two theatres, the motives behind British foreign policy between 1902 and 1914 have attracted intense discussion among historians; and so the policy seems in the view of some historians to be unclear in terms of its objectives. However, the ultimate aim of foreign policy was the same as in the 19th century, namely the protection of Britain’s worldwide interests without having to go to war. How to realise this objective was the problem.

  1. 1899-1901: The Effort to Succour Germany

Britain’s international problem was crystallised during this period by the crisis which arose in China. China was on the verge of breaking up during this period, and Chinese trade was becoming more important to British businessmen. Keeping China stable was also important for British interests in India. It had this crisis during the conflict with the Boers in South Africa; therefore, it was essential to get a quick answer to the problem.

Britain’s great fear was that China could fall under the influence of Russia. Russia was already threatening British interests on the northern borders of the Indian Empire, and it was also threatening to take advantage of China’s weakness in Manchuria. Unfortunately, Germany was not willing to join an alliance with Britain in China without Britain first joining the alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary in Europe.

  1. The Alliance with Japan, 1902

Because of the failure to succour Germany, Britain turned to Japan. Japan too was fearful of Russian ambitions in China, especially in Korea. Ian Nish questions the value of the traditional interpretation of this alliance. In his opinion the alliance did not mean that Britain was abandoning its policy of isolationism. The terms of the alliance were limited to China and Korea only; and it meant that either country could remain neutral if the other was invaded by another country. Only if two countries attacked either country would the other country have to defend it. The purpose of the alliance, therefore, was to reinforce Britain’s efforts to keep China stable in the face of the Russian threat. Note that the interests of the Empire were uppermost in the thoughts of British diplomats at the time. Their hope was that the alliance would safeguard peace in Asia. But that’s not how things went. The alliance was a means which brought war between Russia and Japan in 1904.

J. A. S. Grenville sees it as an alliance which led to a limiting of Britain’s freedom in the world, and to a hardening of the two armed camps in Europe. Britain’s greatest concern following this alliance was that it could lead to war between Britain and Russia and France, Russia’s ally, the two states Britain feared most. Note therefore that the alliance with Japan, which was inspired by the need to protect Britain’s empire in the Far East, led to the entente with France, which in turn affected Britain’s policy towards Europe.

  1. The Entente with France, 1904

The main stimulus for this was the war which broke out between Russia and Japan. G. W Monger sees this as a key factor. Again, in his opinion, it was Britain’s concern for its territories in India, and its geographical links in Egypt, which mainly prompted it. Note that a joint understanding regarding imperial interests lay at the heart of the entente, that is French recognition of British control over Egypt and in exchange British recognition of French interests in Morocco. Keith Wilson argues that the purpose of the entente was that it could eventually lead to a joint understanding with Russia.

Therefore, according to these historians, the main aim of the entente was not stopping Germany as such; though it could be argued that it could be used for that purpose. The truth is that Germany was a strong power and was growing in strength. Its navy was growing day by day; its industry was growing just as quickly; Kaiser Wilhelm II was determined to play a world role. With the defeat of Russia in the war in 1905, the Kaiser could take advantage of the international situation by testing the strength of the entente between Britain and France.
The Kaiser visited Tangiers in 1905 and assured the Sultan that he would support him against France. But the plan went wrong. Instead of deserting France, Britain backed France in the crisis. Military negotiations were begun and there was a break with the traditional policy of depending totally on the might of the navy. The entente with France was becoming increasingly an anti-German joint understanding. The situation was worsened by the growing size of the German navy.
D. The Entente with Russia 1907
Why wasn’t the entente with France turned into a real alliance? Not doing so gave Germany an ambiguous signal - there was no certainty that Britain would back France in a real war. One argument which could be used is this: wouldn’t an alliance have convinced Germany not to go to war against France as Britain would have had to support France? Wasn’t an entente creating an uncertain world?
By 1906 Britain had a new Foreign Secretary - Lord Grey, an Imperial Liberal. Grey used the entente as a weapon to assimilate Germany on the one hand and on the other to protect Britain’s imperial interests in North Africa. Grey could not have turned the entente into an alliance anyway because the Liberal Party would not have allowed him to do so. It was an anti-war party; an alliance with France would have been tantamount to forcing Britain to adopt a stronger war policy such as adopting conscription.
Grey was criticised by Keith Wilson because he furthered the frustration of the Germans. It must be remembered, however, that the original aim of the entente was to assimilate France in order to promote entente with Russia. Russia was the great enemy in Asia. A Russian attack on India’s northern border was feared. After being defeated in the 1904-05 war, Russia agreed to the entente. It was not an alliance, but rather an agreement to recognise the interests of both countries in Persia. Russia’s right to influence southern Persia was recognised.
This entente too has caused discussion. G. W Monger believes that the need to stop Germany was the main purpose of the entente. Zara Steiner, however, insists that the aim was stopping Russian power in the East, a view confirmed by Keith Wilson.
However, it’s possible to offer a different interpretation. C. J. Bartlett, in his book ‘British Foreign Policy in the Twentieth Century’ says that Grey himself suggested on several occasions that Germany was the real threat to Britain. On one occasion he suggested that Germany was preparing for ‘a coming struggle with England’. The main evidence he had to prove this was the German navy and its strong growth.
Therefore in accepting this interpretation, the naval element may be interpreted as the factor that shifted the perspective of British foreign policy from the world stage to the European stage. This is further reflected by two important developments: (a) the reorganisation in naval policy under Fisher and his determination to move the remainder of Britain’s war ships from the Mediterranean to the home seas, as a result of the Entente Cordiale with France and (b) the increase in the shipping race with the launch of the Dreadnought in 1906. This gave a further push to the naval rivalry with Germany, worsening relations between the two. It was this perhaps which eventually convinced Grey to see Germany as Britain’s main enemy rather than France and Russia.
On the other hand, Zara Steiner insists in her chapter, ‘The Myth of Rivalry’, that Britain did not have any concrete reason for coming into confrontation with Germany. She sees the naval rivalry as a relatively unimportant factor considering that the two countries did not have any commercial or colonial issues over which to argue. It’s true that naval supremacy played a vitally important role in Britain’s strategy, but even the Foreign Office expert Eyre Crowe questioned the extent to which the growth of the German navy was an intentional expression of Germany’s determination to challenge British supremacy. She also said that the threat from Franco-Russian supremacy was just as dangerous to Britain’s power. The problem, however, was that Britain could not on any count associate itself with the Central Alliance as that in turn would have given rise eventually to German supremacy over the whole of Europe. Therefore, Britain preferred to come to some sort of joint understanding with France and Russia in Asia and Africa, and perhaps use that as a weapon to stop Germany in Europe, that is Germany was feared in Europe because it was strong.
It must be stressed, however, that Britain’s response to Germany’s naval growth by building yet more warships was an unmistakeable sign that conflict between them was inevitable. At the time of the Agadir Crisis in 1911 for example, Grey had responded by insisting that Britain was free to stay on good terms with Germany in spite of the entente with France. At the same time, Britain continued to see a threatening France and Russia as a worse danger than a threatening Germany. If Germany aggravated Britain, that would not necessarily be a threat to British interests, but if Britain aggravated Russia that country could cause problems for Britain in Central Asia.
Therefore, as the international situation developed after 1911, it seemed increasingly that Britain without exception would side with France and Russia in a crisis. Grey thought that perhaps an agreement could be reached with Germany regarding the Berlin-Baghdad railway for example. The great fear by then was that Russia could upset the cart by breaking with France and allying itself with Germany.
There is also one other argument for criticising Britain after 1902, based on the belief that Britain could have given much more attention to the fate of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Another criticism is associated with J.A.S Grenville who insists that Britain did not have enough confidence in its international bearing to succeed. He believes that Britain’s policy was to keep things calm between the major countries. He is doubtful of Grey’s policy and the extent to which Germany was a real threat to Britain. On the other hand, Grey’s worst fears were realised in the summer of 1914 when Germany attacked Belgium. The hope at that time was that Britain would keep to a neutral policy, which suggests that British policy was not strong enough to stop Germany anyway. One must also remember the popular desire for war. Note how the war was welcomed eagerly by the multitude in every country in 1914.
E. The Naval Factor
By the late 19th century the belief in maritime power as a basis for state power was gaining influence - note the popularity of Alfred Mahan’s books in the nineties on the influence of maritime power in history, works which had much influence on the Germans. Britain’s navy had already started to fade. However in 1889 the Naval Defence Act was passed, which announced a seven-year naval programme. Over £21 million was spent on modernising the navy to enable it to face the challenge of France and Russia, the two great enemies with their alliance in 1894. This expenditure was a reflection of the increasing influence of technological change. In addition, new countries were appearing on the horizon to challenge Britain’s power on the seas - Japan and America. Japan defeated China in 1895 and America defeated Spain in the 1898 war regarding Cuba.
The most dramatic development during the first ten years of the century, however, was the growth of the German navy. The great mind behind this was Admiral Von Tirpitz. He saw a strong navy as a weapon which could be used to gain concessions for Germany from other countries. The basis for this was the Naval Act 1898 which provided it with a substantial navy. Strategically he saw the navy as a weapon against Britain. He anticipated using the navy in one place only, namely the North Sea, whereas Britain’s navy was scattered over the seas of the world. The weakness in Tirpitz’s strategy was a failure to differentiate the navy as a military weapon and as a diplomatic weapon. However, it’s a mistake to see all this as a signal of inevitable conflict between the two countries. On the other hand, an expression of concern was seen in Britain regarding the growth of the German navy, e.g. the ‘Times’ expressing concern, particularly when it was discovered that it was Germany’s intention to concentrate its navy in the North Sea.
However, the importance of the naval race between Britain and Germany must not be overemphasised. One must remember Britain’s worldwide role and its concerns regarding Russia and France. After Japan’s defeat of Russia in 1905, Britain could withdraw its ships from the Far East. In the West, Britain knew that America was now mistress of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Also, through the Entente with France, Britain could give less attention to its usual position in the Mediterranean Sea and more attention to the waters around Britain itself. This is the policy which was followed by Fisher from 1904 onwards.
Fisher implemented radical reforms. He removed a number of old ships and released more sailors for reserve ships which reinforced the navy around Britain itself. He also changed the distribution of warships abroad, and in the Far East he concentrated the navy there on Singapore.
The real revolution was the close understanding which came following the Morocco Crisis in 1904-05. As a result of this, military talks began between Britain and France. Also, in June 1905 Fisher ordered the first research work to be done regarding how to fight a maritime war against Germany in an alliance with France. This reached a peak with the launch of the Dreadnought in 1906 which gave another twist in the military rivalry between Britain and Germany.

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