Was British Foreign Policy Before the First World War Truly Concerned with the Balance of Power in Europe?

At the beginning of the 20th century, the British Empire was one of the largest the world had ever seen. With the Japanese alliance of 1902, Britain, it could be suggested, ended the tradition of ‘Splendid Isolation’ as it was categorised by Lord Salisbury. Debate exists over the intention of the following years.

During a period of rapprochement, Britain became more closely tied to the French. This, as has been suggested by Philip Pedley, was in part due to the personalities of the ‘new men’. Edward VII was a Francophile (he certainly liked their prostitutes) and he embarked upon a state visit which went down very well. At the Foreign Office at the same time there was emerging a generation of civil servants who were distinctly anti-German in temperament. Eyre Crow didn’t like the Germans very much at all (despite having been born in Germany and speaking with a German accent himself); he constantly warned against what he perceived to the German threat to British dominance. Lord Lansdowne was not exactly anti-German, but he was far more willing to be friendly with the French; he was related to Talleyrand, for one thing, and this gave him a kind of cultural affinity with one of Britain’s oldest enemies. This argument implies that the interest of British statesmen in the European project was more derived from personality than politics. It also casts doubt on the true intentions of British political figures when they acted with regard to Europe. If personal dislike or national affinity played a part, the idea that British policy was inspired by a genuine desire to act on the European stage is lessened to some extent. But when we assess the extent to which British policy pointed in a particular direction, the personalities of those involved can be largely discounted; reasons for action can be largely irrelevant when discussing the shape that action took.

In 1902, Britain and Japan signed a treaty – the symbolic end of ‘Splendid Isolation’ – and a naval alliance was created. According to the treaty, if there was a war between one of the signatories and two major European powers, the other would intervene. Britain would count on Japanese support if she was attacked by France and Russia; Japan also secured British favour in case a Russian attack on Japan threatened to bring in the French.

On the back of this agreement, Britain was able withdraw a lot of ships from the Far East. This meant that she could bring them back to Europe – and just in time for the beginning of the naval race. It must be remembered that at this time Britain controlled a great deal of the Far East; the majority of the whole empire was east of Suez. This being so, it does seem that British policy during this period saw a European re-orientation. But it could also be argued that Britain was still looking out for colonial interests at this time; Japan, after all, could be useful in protecting colonial territories from the Russians, a perennial threat to Britain’s empire.

In 1904-5 Russia and Japan went to war. Russia started the war but promptly lost it. France – another formidable foe of the British as colonies and influence went – kept out of the matter. This, it could be argued, signalled the strength of the British alliance with Japan. France did not join with its ally in fighting in the Far East; the war was not extended but contained.

The 1904 Anglo-French Entente (the Entente Cordiale) was agreed. It was not, however, an alliance. Primarily it concerned colonial matters, which is significant. Britain and France settled their rivalry in Egypt, which had existed since the 1880s – when Disraeli practically bought the Suez Canal. (Also in the 1880s, Britain had taken over the running of Egypt’s bank, potentially monopolising the financial and business opportunities which that nation presented to willing colonial powers.) Morocco was regarded as a future economic bonanza – it had nitrates and other mineral resources – and the British said the French could have primacy there. Many said that the British did worse out of the agreement: Britain already effectively controlled Egypt, after all, and did not desperately need to have this status confirmed. This ending of colonial friction was necessary in order to achieve a better relationship with Russia, which Britain could be argued to have greatly needed. Another aspect was the perception of such a deal in Germany.

British manoeuvres of this era do seem to have a colonial tilt, and not just in the events themselves. Britain and France ended some sources of colonial tension, and together they also allocated areas of colonial dominance. By and large, this can be seen as an effort to safeguard British colonial interests in the long term, even if that meant slight temporary disadvantage. Similarly, British attempts to achieve closer and more harmonious diplomatic relations with Russia can be viewed through the prism of the 19th century ‘Great Game’, in which both powers jockeyed to dominate the nation of Afghanistan in order to achieve a commanding position with regard to India. Britain fought numerous Afghan Wars and expended much treasure in the defence of the ‘Jewel in the Crown’. It is reductionist to rule out entirely the possibility that Indian considerations played a central role in British diplomacy of this period, even in ostensibly European matters.

The First Moroccan Crisis was a deliberate German attempt to break the Anglo-French Entente in 1905-6. The idea was to provoke an international crisis, during which latent Franco-British rivalry would re-emerge. The timing seemed good for Germany: Russia was mired in fallout from the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, tumult which was only exacerbated by the 1905 Revolution and Bloody Sunday. Thus there was no real chance of war between Germany and France. Ideally, Germany wanted to break the Franco-Russian alliance as well. This demonstrates that Germany was worried about the Anglo-French Entente; it seemed to her that this arrangement concerned the European balance of power. In this, it can be argued, British foreign policy at least appeared to have a European focus, which suggests that the nation and her statesmen truly were concerned with the European balance of power.

At the Algeciras Conference 1906 everything went badly for Germany. She secured only the backing of Morocco and Austria-Hungary; the master plan had failed. The other nations (Britain, the United States, Spain, Russia and Italy) all backed France. The Germans expected the British to revert to type, but, despite press opinion going the other way, Britain did not. Britain’s leaders maintained the Entente agreement on protectorates, seeing Germany as a dangerous international troublemaker. Germany also expected Spain and Italy to back her proposition, and the Americans to act against European imperialism. They did not. This is interesting, as this British action was again about colonial affairs – at least it seemed so first and foremost. Germany felt humiliated, however, and her policymakers worried about the state of affairs in Europe, perhaps signalling that the focus of this action again appeared to be local.

Signed in August 1907, the Anglo-Russian Entente represented a continuation of the retreat from isolation. It was not an alliance, and it was primarily colonial in essence. The Russians pledged to give up all claims to Afghanistan and to recognise British interests in Tibet. Further, Persia would be divided into Russian and British sections, and there was to be a buffer zone in between. Britain got southern Persia, where all the oil was and still is; what later became BP was initially called Anglo-Persian oil. Both nations recognised Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. But the new British foreign minister, Sir Edward Grey, was on record as saying that the new Russian alliance, in combination with the Anglo-French Entente, could be the thing to stop Germany – if such stopping were needed. The nature of this confession suggests that Britain was interested in the European situation, but the actual action itself need not. An alignment with Russia could be seen as a wise move in purely colonial terms, not just as an aspect of European triangulation.

In summary, it appears that Britain’s major foreign policy concern remained colonial. All actions aimed at either deterring Russia or allying with her could be seen to have ulterior imperial motivations. Similarly, actions leading up to or promoting Anglo-French alliance can also be seen as a planned route to detente between the two participants of the ‘Great Game’. The shift in personalities of personages involved in the Foreign Office, as described by Philip Pedley, does not necessitate a change of national objectives. Britain’s interests remained, at least for this period, tied up with India and the empire east of Suez, as illustrated by the alliance with Japan in 1902.