How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
NOTHING in foreign comment on British policy surprises an Englishman more than the frequent attribution to British statesmen of all parties and in all times of an almost machiavellian subtlety in the design and an unalterable persistence in the execution of their plans. Such a picture of ourselves seems to us to lack even the resemblance of a caricature to the original, and to attribute to the conduct of our foreign relations the one characteristic which whether for good or evil it most conspicuously lacks. Yet the charge is constantly made -- sometimes as a reproach, sometimes with admiration and almost with envy -- and as certainly believed. What is the explanation and wherein lies the truth?
Both are perhaps to be found in a characteristic of British psychology. The German is by nature a systematizer. He excels in organization. He likes to see where he is going, to foresee as far as may be the accidents of the route and to be assured of good accommodation at the end of his journey. "According to plan." How often did not the phrase recur during the war in German bulletins? "The plan" was at once their security and their danger -- often their most efficient instrument but sometimes their master. The Englishman on the other hand finds such systematic planning irksome and uncongenial. He submits himself to it with reluctance even when circumstances impose it on him and, even while submitting, he distrusts the process in which he is engaged, doubts his power to pierce the mists of the future, and secretly relies on his capacity to meet emergencies as they arise. In difficult times there is no more common ending to a political discussion between Englishmen than the phrase: "Well, I suppose we shall muddle through somehow." It could never occur to a German or a Frenchman to seek consolation in such a reflection.
The difference is indeed as marked between the mental processes of Englishmen and Frenchmen, and here the contrast has been drawn with delightful humor by an observer of much experience and complete impartiality. "Two peoples," writes Professor Madariaga, "closely allied by ties of race and language, whose long intimacy of peace and war might have been expected to develop an accurate mutual knowledge, will offer us an unrivalled illustration of the psychological obstacles which beset all international work. . . . France and England are often in Geneva at loggerheads. Not that their interests cannot be made to agree. As national interests go, their differences are more often than not bridgeable in themselves, given a little time and good-will. Thus it is not altogether impossible to bring the French and the British delegates to see eye to eye. Only that their eyes are so different. . . . Time and again I have seen the French non-plussed at the illogical and empirical vagueness of the English, and the English shocked and irritated at the unseemly yet unreal clarity of the French." "The whole difficulty," he continues, "comes from the particular region in which the center of gravity of their respective psychologies is situated, which in the Frenchman is above, and in the Englishman below, the neck. The Frenchman thinks with his head, and with nothing but his head; the Englishman thinks -- or rather, as he himself says, 'feels somehow' with everything but his head, and, provided he does not allow his head to meddle with it, he is generally right."[i]
When I first met with this passage I happened to be Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. It struck me as so acute an analysis of the characteristic mental processes of two nations which have so much difficulty and yet so great a need to understand one another that I permitted myself to read it to the Permanent Under-Secretary of State, now the British Ambassador in Washington. He did not resent it or deny the soft impeachment. On the contrary he exclaimed, "Isn't that good? I see myself. I constantly come into your room and say: I have a sort of a feeling that this would do or that wouldn't." And we laughed as we looked together into the mirror which Professor Madariaga had held up to our English nature.
"The Frenchman," says Professor Madariaga, "trusting thought, is apt to distrust life and therefore he endeavors to imprison future life in present thought; while the Englishman, who trusts life and mistrusts thought, refuses to foresee and is content to cross the bridge when he comes to it -- even at the risk of having to ford the river on finding that there is no bridge at all."
It results from these different psychologies that it is, or should be, much easier for a German or Frenchman to state his reasons for a course of action than for an Englishman. In the case of a German it is the result of "a plan" and easily develops into a system; in the case of a Frenchman it is the consequence of a logical process of thought, leading irresistibly to equally logical conclusions. But the Englishman follows neither process. He distrusts logic at all times and most of all in the government of men, for instinct and experience alike teach him that men are not governed by logic, that it is unwise to treat political issues as exercises in logic and that wisdom more often lies in refraining from pressing sound arguments to their logical conclusion and in accepting a workable though illogical compromise. After all, logic lost us the Thirteen Colonies.
Recognizing in ourselves this distaste for systematic thought and this inherent distrust of long-prepared solutions, we are at a loss to understand criticisms which impute to us schemes we have never entertained and a subtlety of thought of which we feel ourselves incapable. We are not ashamed of being called empirical; we admit -- we may even boast -- that we are guided less by logic than by instinct and we are prepared to confess that when we "feel somehow" that a certain course is wise or right, we are apt to take it without more ado. If you ask the average Englishman, therefore, what are the permanent bases of British foreign policy, he will probably reply that there is nothing permanent about it, and, if pressed further, say: "Oh, I suppose Peace. We are 'a nation of shopkeepers,' you know." If you want more, he will have to think.
Yet there must be some foundation for the very opposite view taken by foreign observers and, perhaps, such underlying unity as exists in British foreign policy is more easily perceived by a foreigner than by a native, just as family likenesses are quickly recognized by strangers, whereas members of the family circle see only the individual differences.
If, then, we are to find some influences permanently at work in moulding British foreign policy, we must surely seek them in causes which are equally permanent. The influence of geography on history is a commonplace of modern thought and the geographical situation of Great Britain has been in fact the dominant factor in determining her development whether consciously planned or, as has happened far more often, instinctively pursued.
Three geographical facts have been decisive for the course of British history and explain as they dictate the main principles of British policy and the preoccupations of British statesmen. First, Great Britain is an island, but, secondly, this island is separated only by a narrow streak of water from the Continent of Europe. Thirdly, this island has become the center of a wide-flung empire whose arterial roads are on the oceans and through the narrow seas.
Great Britain is an island state. She has no land frontiers. Her pretentions to become a continental power, to expand as her rivals were expanding, by continental conquest or inheritance, were finally settled by the Hundred Years War. Since then she has looked to the sea as at once her defense and her opportunity. Her land forces have been kept at a minimum. They have never been sufficient to wage a continental war except in alliance with some great military power; but, thrown into the scales on one side or the other in a struggle between the continental giants, their weight and the bull-dog tenacity of the race when once engaged in a fight have more than once been decisive of the issue. At sea, on the other hand, she has -- until these latter days when she has admitted American parity -- jealously guarded her naval superiority, for to deny the passage of the narrow seas to her enemy was her only defense, to keep them and the oceans open to her own ships was a necessity of her daily existence and a condition of her imperial power.
But though Great Britain is an island, detached from the Continent and prone to regard herself as unaffected by those cares which occupy the first place in the minds of the inhabitants of continental countries, the waters which divide her from western Europe are so narrow that she can never for long remain indifferent to what happens on the opposite shores of the Channel or the North Sea. Steam brought the coasts nearer and rendered the movement of ships independent of the winds which played so large a part in the days of Nelson and Cornwallis. The development of aeronautics has further impaired our insular security and has given fresh force to the secular principle of British policy that the independence of the Low Countries is a British interest, that their frontiers are in fact our frontiers, their independence the condition of our independence, their safety inseparable from our own. It was to secure the independence of the Low Countries that we fought Spain in the sixteenth century, that we fought Napoleon in the nineteenth and that we fought Germany in the twentieth. Here, at any rate, we find a permanent basis of British policy, recognized and reaffirmed by the guarantee we have given in the Treaty of Locarno to the frontiers of Germany and her neighbors on the west.
"The treaties of Locarno," wrote Mr. H. A. L. Fisher, now Warden of New College and formerly Minister of Education in Mr. Lloyd George's government, "correspond exactly with this conviction. Let it be clearly understood that it is not against Germany that the Treaties of Locarno, which form the existing basis of British policy in Europe, are directed. The British guarantee, a factor of the first importance in the political orientation of the new Europe, is a support only for the power which loyally observes the limits prescribed by the Treaties of Peace. It is neither France, nor Germany, nor Belgium which is the eventual enemy indicated by the Treaties of Locarno. The enemy is the aggressor whoever he may be. It is therefore not in the interest of any one power or of a group of powers nor of the balance of power in Europe that these treaties were made. The great object was the peace of the west. If you seek the ultimate cause of this great diplomatic act, you will find it in the necessity of composing the quarrel between France and Germany, of tranquilizing public opinion and of giving to France and Belgium such a feeling of security as will facilitate the reduction of armaments and the restoration of individual and commercial prosperity."[ii]
I add that to bring Germany into the League of Nations and so secure to her her rightful place in the counsels of Europe was a not less essential feature of the Treaties in the eyes of the British Government. More than one hundred years before, at the close of the Napoleonic wars, Castlereagh had renewed the Quadruple Alliance directed against any recrudescences of danger from France and had then secured the association of France in the counsels of the four Powers which formed it. "To give France her Concert, but to keep our security" were the words by which he described the aim of British policy. Substitute Germany for France and the definition held good for his successors a century later. There is, after all, some continuity in British foreign policy.
There have been times in her history when England has sought to free herself from all interest in or dependence on the affairs of the Continent, but they have never lasted long nor has the result of such isolation, whether "glorious" or not, been encouraging. Nature has placed our island too close to the shores of Europe for us to remain unaffected by the storms which burst there, whilst the development of communications and the course of scientific invention have increased our vulnerability. There are many who would be glad to see England as free from European entanglements as the United States, though as the Great War shows even America may be involved by a general European conflagration. But for us the peril is closer, the danger more imminent, and we best insure against it not by abstention until war has actually broken out but by throwing our weight before-hand into the scale of peace. It is at least arguable that, if the German Government had known for certain in 1914 that Great Britain would join France and Belgium in resistance to any aggression, the Great War would have been averted. It may be added that a deliberate and purposeful abstention from all part and interest in continental affairs is the one course of policy which might provoke a European combination against us by driving France into the arms of Germany and causing both to heal their quarrels at our expense.
It is true that the Great War had its immediate origin in the murder of the Archduke in Bosnia and it is of course possible that a cause equally remote might again involve the Western Powers in conflict. This is an argument which has often been invoked by continental nations, and occasionally by a section of British opinion represented by Lord Cecil, as a reason why we should extend our guarantee to other and more distant frontiers -- as, for instance, by assuming the additional responsibilities of the Geneva Protocol of 1924. Exponents of this view argue that the wider our guarantee the less the probability that we shall ever be called upon to implement it, which is something like saying that if only you ask enough ladies to marry you, you need never marry at all. But this view has never commended itself to the British people and it has found still less favor with the Dominions.
But only in the case where her interests are immediately at stake and where her own safety must be directly affected by the result of any change has Great Britain ever consented to bind herself beforehand to specific engagements on the Continent of Europe. Her attitude was defined in a passage of the statement on the Protocol of 1924 which was read by the British Foreign Minister to the Council of the League of Nations in March of the following year:
Since the general provisions of the covenant cannot be stiffened with advantage, and since the "extreme cases" with which the League may have to deal will probably affect certain nations or groups of nations more nearly than others, His Majesty's Government conclude that the best way of dealing with the situation is, with the coöperation of the League, to supplement the covenant by making special arrangements to meet special needs. That these arrangements should be purely defensive in character, that they should be framed in the spirit of the covenant, working in close harmony with the League and under its guidance, is manifest. And, in the opinion of His Majesty's Government, these objects can best be attained by knitting together the nations most immediately concerned, and whose differences might lead to a renewal of strife, by means of treaties framed with the sole object of maintaining, as between ourselves, an unbroken peace. Within its limits no quicker remedy for our present ills can easily be found nor any surer safeguard against future calamities.
The Treaties of Locarno were the definite embodiment of this policy in the public law of Europe. For the rest, the influence of Great Britain is used everywhere, and particularly at and through the League of Nations, on the side of peace; but if war should nevertheless break out she has no special obligations apart from those which are common to all the states members of the League of Nations except her ancient Treaty with Portugal and the Convention of the Straits. The Portuguese Treaty embodies a guarantee of the Portuguese Colonial possessions but it is held that Great Britain is sole judge of the occasion and the extent of any assistance she might feel called upon to give. The Convention of the Straits is an outcome of the Great War and is of interest as redefining the British position in regard to the approaches to Constantinople and the Black Sea. But both documents must now be read in connection with the Covenant of the League and it is to the League that Great Britain would today address herself in the first instance if trouble arose in either sphere. Great Britain, indeed, now takes the League as the foundation of her foreign policy and finds in the development of the League's influence the best guarantee of peace and, consequently, the best security for British interests. Her rôle at Geneva, as interpreted by successive governments, is, whilst remaining faithful to old friendships, to seek a reconciliation with former enemies, to act as a link between the Great Powers and to help where she can to bring them together -- as France and Germany at Locarno, and, more recently, Italy and France in the naval conversations at Rome and Paris. Above all it is the endeavor of British statesmen to prevent Europe from falling back into two hostile camps. Her own relations with all the Powers are and have for some time been excellent. British advice is often sought, and I think it is fair to claim that its impartiality is recognized and that it accordingly receives a gratifying measure of consideration.
The one exception to this general statement is Russia. His Majesty's present advisers have, indeed, renewed the diplomatic relations which were broken off by their predecessors after a long series of provocations patiently borne and warnings constantly ignored. But though ambassadors have been exchanged, relations remain uneasy. The two Governments are not agreed upon the meaning of the document which they signed, and Mr. Henderson has been driven to protest more than once against breaches of the agreement. Great Britain makes no pretension to dictate the form of government which other nations shall adopt, but she expects that nations with which she is in formal relations shall abstain from interference in her domestic affairs, shall respect her institutions, and not excite to enmity against her either at home or abroad. It is too soon to say whether the Soviet Government will conform to those established rules of international comity without which formal diplomatic relations are a sham.
I have dealt so far with the consequences of Great Britain's insular position on the very fringe of the Continent of Europe. Even here her policy is always influenced and sometimes conditioned by the existence of the Empire across the seas. Outside Europe the maintenance of her imperial communications and the interests of the Dominions, colonies and dependencies become dominant. But for India and the Dominions of Australia and New Zealand, there would have been no British occupation of Egypt, no reconquest of the Sudan for civilization, and the great work accomplished by Lord Cromer and his assistants would have remained unattempted. The fact that Egypt commands in the Suez Canal the main artery of communication between England on the one hand and India and Australasia on the other is what took us to Egypt and keeps us there. We cannot afford to see Egypt and the Canal dominated by another country any more than the United States could tolerate the domination of the Panama Canal by a foreign power. We cannot therefore allow abuses or disorders to arise in Egypt which would justify or excuse foreign intervention; but, subject to this over-riding necessity, it is the policy of Great Britain to leave the management of Egyptian affairs as far as possible to the Egyptians themselves, and to confine our interference to the defense of our vital interests and the discharge of our obligations to other nations to whom we have formally declared that we should regard any interference by them in the internal affairs of Egypt as "an unfriendly act" and "any aggression against its territory as an act to be repelled with all the means at our command."
In the Sudan the conditions are somewhat different. We were responsible for its reconquest from the devastating tyranny of the Mahdi and his successors, and we pledged our word to its people that the old misrule of the pashas should not be restored. Here, therefore, we have a direct and immediate responsibility to the people themselves for the form and character of their government, and we claim and exercise the power necessary to fulfil our pledge. The Condominium has been maintained. The British and Egyptian flags are hoisted together over the Government buildings at Khartum, but since the murder of Sir Lee Stack, Egyptian troops and officials have been withdrawn and all effective control has been in British hands.
Passing to the Near and Middle East, we find that here also the permanent basis of British policy is fixed by the existence of the Indian Empire. No British Government desires to extend its liabilities in the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf or on the shores of the Indian Ocean, and, indeed, in Iraq we are reducing them as rapidly as the circumstances of the case and our mandatary obligations to the League of Nations admit; but the safety of our communications is vital to us. With no aggressive intentions ourselves, we shall be content if no other Power cherishes aggressive designs. Our interest lies only in the maintenance of peace and of the status quo. Stable governments, able to defend their independence and to preserve their territory from attack, best serve British interests alike in Iraq, Persia and Afghanistan. The experiment of dividing Persia into Russian and British spheres of interest, though made in the interests of peace and in the hope of preserving the integrity of Persia, was not a success. The war put an end to it and it is never likely to be revived.
Passing now to the Far East, it may be said that our relations with Japan from the moment of the rebirth of that island empire have been of the most friendly and cordial character. The alliance concluded in 1905 was finally terminated in 1921 after its terms had been modified on an earlier occasion, both the modification and the final termination being made out of deference to American sentiment; but the relations of the two countries, though no longer those of allies, have remained of the most cordial character.
The interests of Great Britain in China are entirely commercial. There, more than anywhere else, our policy is the policy of "a nation of shopkeepers." At no time have we cherished any territorial ambitions, at no time have we desired conquest or annexations. Throughout the troubled years which preceded and have succeeded the Boxer rebellion the object of British policy has been to safeguard the integrity of China and to preserve the open door for traders of all nations; and here, as elsewhere, British interests would best be served by the establishment of a strong national government able both to preserve internal order and to protect Chinese territory from external aggression.
His Majesty's Government were a party to the decisions of the Washington Conference of 1921. They were not responsible for and they deeply regretted the long delay which occurred before the Tariff Conference assembled in Peking and the failure of that Conference to reach agreement. In particular they viewed with grave concern the proposals then made by certain Powers that foreign control over the customs revenue of China should be tightened and extended instead of being relaxed as was contemplated at Washington. Meanwhile, China had become a prey to civil war, the authority of the Peking Government had almost disappeared and a powerful Nationalist Government was in process of establishment in the south. In these circumstances the British Government of the day defined their policy in a statement published in December 1926, in the course of which they said:
During all these civil wars it has been the consistent policy of His Majesty's Government to abstain from any interference between the warring factions or rival Governments. Despite the disorders which civil war engenders and the grievous losses inflicted on the vast commercial interests, both Chinese and foreign, His Majesty's Government have declined to associate themselves with any particular faction or to interfere in any way in the civil commotions. His Majesty's Government believe that the Powers have adopted a similar attitude and that this is and will continue to be the only right attitude to maintain.
The situation which exists in China today is thus entirely different from that which faced the Powers at the time they framed the Washington treaties. In the present state of confusion, though some progress has been made by means of local negotiation and agreements with regional Governments, it has not been possible for the Powers to proceed with the larger programme of treaty revision which was foreshadowed at Washington or to arrive at a settlement of any of the outstanding questions relating to the position of foreigners in China. The political disintegration in China has, however, been accompanied by the growth of a powerful Nationalist movement, which aimed at gaining for China an equal place among the nations, and any failure to meet this movement with sympathy and understanding would not respond to the real intentions of the Powers towards China.
His Majesty's Government, after carefully reviewing the position, desire to submit their considered opinion as to the course which the Washington Treaty Powers should now adopt. His Majesty's Government propose that these Governments shall issue a statement setting forth the essential facts of the situation; declaring their readiness to negotiate on treaty revision and all other outstanding questions as soon as the Chinese themselves have constituted a Government with authority to negotiate; and stating their intention pending the establishment of such a Government to pursue a constructive policy in harmony with the spirit of the Washington Conference but developed and adapted to meet the altered circumstances of the present time.
It is on these lines, uninterrupted by the change of government in England, that British policy has since proceeded. Realizing that the old treaties were out of date and desiring to put our relations with China on a footing better suited to present conditions, we have been prepared to relinquish the special rights secured by the older treaties just in proportion as the Chinese Government is able to replace the security which they afforded by such a system of law, order and administration as will guarantee to our nationals the rights which peaceful traders are accorded in any civilized State. Considerable progress has already been made upon these lines, but the salvation of China can be worked out only by the Chinese themselves, and the rate and extent of progress must be determined by the ability of the Chinese Government to preserve internal security, to protect life and property and to afford foreigners the ordinary guarantees given by a just system of law and its impartial administration.
I have left to the last the consideration of British relations with America, certainly not because they are less important in the eyes of Englishmen than our relations with Europe or the east, but because to treat them fully would require more space than is at my disposal in this article, whilst the sole aim and purpose of British governments, from whatever party they are drawn, can be stated in a single sentence without ambiguity or qualification.
It is an axiom of British policy that we should always seek to preserve the most friendly relations with America. Sentiment and interest combine to impose this attitude upon us. War between us is, we hope, unthinkable; it would be a crime not only against our own peoples but against civilization. I can say with confidence, after a Cabinet experience of more than a quarter of a century, that such a possibility has never entered into Great Britain's consideration of her requirements for defense and has never influenced the strength of the forces maintained by her, whether on land or sea. The three-thousand-mile frontier which marks the boundary between the United States and Canada remains unfortified -- at once the symbol and the pledge of enduring peace between the British Empire and the United States.
But merely to preserve peace would be a wholly inadequate and negative expression of British policy. We desire much more than the maintenance of peace. We wish by all means in our power to remove all causes of friction, to wipe out the memory of old quarrels and to place and keep our relations on a footing of cordial friendship and good understanding. It has not always been easy. American comment on, and even intrusion in, English affairs has not always been friendly or even fair. American diplomacy has sometimes been rough and its expression unnecessarily harsh and wounding to a proud though happily not very sensitive nation.[iii] No doubt we too have sometimes blundered, failing to take sufficient account of American susceptibilities or to make our own purpose clear or, again, misunderstanding the American point of view. Such errors of conduct or differences of opinion are perhaps inevitable from time to time, but they need not and should not impair our friendship if they are treated on both sides with common sense and mutual forbearance.
It can safely be said that no government will ever command or retain the support of the British people which is thought for a moment needlessly to jeopardize the good relations of the two peoples. It is our earnest prayer that, in whatever differences the future may bring forth, we may meet with a like spirit across the Atlantic ocean.
[i] Salvador de Madariaga: "Disarmament." New York: Coward-McCann, 1929.
[ii] H. A. L. Fisher: "La Politique Etrangère de la Grande Bretagne." Conférence faite à la Fondation Universitaire de Bruxelles, 1929.
[iii]Cf. President Cleveland's Venezuela Message.