Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
THIRTY-FIVE years have passed since Sir Edward Grey left the office of Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, which he had held longer than any man in Britain's history, in the middle of the world war which was the climax of his life's work for peace. It was Grey who determined the form of the French-Russian-British Entente, as it was Grey who was held responsible when the arrangements which he had made failed to restrain the Central Powers. He was pursued by a volley of abuse from a generation of critics: "weak," "stupid," "vacillating," "an amateur diplomat." Shaw's gibe set the fashion on both sides of the Atlantic: "an incompetent Machiavelli."
Events disposed of the abuse. The generation of the twenties condemned Grey for failure to maintain British neutrality in the First World War; in that era of debunking, "the German menace" became the favorite myth. Even so able an historian as Harold Nicolson found the Germans under Hindenburg and Ludendorff merely rather admirable Elizabethans. In due course Hitler's demonstration of what German domination of Europe actually meant put an end to this interpretation, and the publication of G. M. Trevelyan's biography, "Grey of Fallodon," on the eve of the Second World War, gave us Grey at his full stature. Nevertheless, history seems still to treat Grey paradoxically. Though his political judgment was in important respects more penetrating than that of any major statesman of his time, and the fineness of his character is everywhere generously recognized, who names this Foreign Minister "great"?
Edward Grey was drawn into the field of foreign relations by his appointment as Parliamentary Under-Secretary to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Lord Rosebery, in Gladstone's Ministry of 1892. He was 30. He had earlier served as Private Secretary to Sir Evelyn Baring (later the famous colonial administrator, Lord Cromer) and then to H. C. E. Childers, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The brilliantly-gifted Rosebery, then engaged in a sharp inter-party conflict with the Little Englanders among the Liberals, could hardly have picked his young understudy by chance. Grey had been dismissed from Oxford for idleness, but his feat in taking the Tory seat in Northumberland from the Percy family at the age of 23 had revealed his qualities. His strength was his simplicity of speech and grasp of essentials. In campaigning they were a product of careful, and hated, preparation. "I had no difficulty in making a speech when I had something to say," he said of his first contest. "Then it was only a matter of arranging one's materials. But to find new materials for speeches was a most wearisome matter, and I soon became nauseated by it." Grey had no pose. Perhaps the tendency of a later age to undervalue him is to some extent a result. Statesmen, like actors, perform on a stage; it seems to be easier to understand them when they play a part than when they play themselves.
The post of Under-Secretary was one of much responsibility, since Grey spoke in the Commons for a Foreign Minister in the Lords. He was retained in the post under Lord Kimberley when Rosebery succeeded Gladstone as Prime Minister. His famous statement in the House in 1893 that Britain would look upon a French occupation of territory of the Upper Nile as an unfriendly act was made virtually on his own responsibility. He confessed at the end of his life that he did not know whether it had been wise. It may have challenged France to action which caused much embarrassment. It may have averted the disaster of a Franco-British war. At any rate, the strength which he displayed as Parliamentary Under-Secretary left him without a serious rival in his party for the position of Foreign Secretary for the next 20 years.
When the Liberals resumed office in 1905 there was a strong effort, by Germany and by a section of the Liberal Party, to reverse the trend of British policy which, through the Lansdowne Agreement of 1904, had moved toward rapprochement with France. In a notable preëlection speech Grey took the initiative in defeating the attempt. Even his mentor Rosebery misjudged the full situation and advised the reversal. Grey stood firm. In the Moroccan crisis of 1905, which broke as he took office, he repulsed decisively von Bülow's effort to destroy the budding agreement with France, under circumstances of much political confusion and extreme personal anguish caused by his wife's sudden death.
Precisely what--and who--is "professional" in government is seldom made plain by those who most confidently disparage "amateurs." But we may note certain of Grey's credentials. Unlike most predecessors and colleagues of Cabinet rank he never shifted his field. He never yielded to the impulse, ruinous to so many in diplomacy, to say more than he meant in order to please the man he was talking to. He never promised what he could not produce. Quite apart from whether he should have said different things, the words he used were the words he intended to use. In his delicate conversations with Cambon, Grey spoke in English and the French Ambassador in French, by mutual consent without an interpreter and with Grey under the most intense pressure, external and subjective, to soften hard truths; but the question of misquotation never arose. And Grey's written minutes are models of precision.
Nor was there ever a question of where responsibility lay within the Foreign Office. Grey's ambassadors and permanent officials were men of highest caliber--Hardinge, Cromer, Nicolson, Crowe. Has any Foreign Minister ever had a more brilliant group? There were important differences of opinion between certain of them and Grey. Grey took the decisions: he was master in his own house, as Professor Trevelyan says. And the notion that he must have neglected his work because of his enjoyment of the countryside is superficial, a result again, perhaps, of the frankness with which he expressed his desire to get away from London. On a few occasions in that nerve-racking 11-year stretch John Morley substituted for him during brief vacations; otherwise the stream of dispatch boxes sought him out everywhere.
His work was his duty, however, not his pleasure. He travelled abroad almost not at all. The Foreign Office messages found him, when not in London, in Hampshire or Northumberland or Scotland. In his book, "Twenty-Five Years," there is an interpolation in a factual narrative of an episode of 1911, dealing with an ultimatum sent by the British Government to the despot Abdul Hamid, which reveals the complexity of his character. Surely no important political memoir can hold a passage like it.
There are a few days in the first part of May when the beech-trees in young leaf give an aspect of light and tender beauty to English country which is well known but indescribable. The days are very few, the colour of the leaves soon darkens, their texture becomes stiffer; beautiful they are still, but "the glory and the dream" are gone. Unless Whitsuntide is unusually early, Sundays in the first half of May are the only days on which those who have business in towns can be sure of a whole day spent in the country at leisure. The first Sunday in May was a little too early for the perfection of the beeches in the country round my Hampshire cottage; the second Sunday in May was the perfect day. In my calendar it was known as "Beech Sunday," a day set apart and consecrated to enjoyment of the beauty of beech-leaves and to thankfulness for it. It was my habit on that morning, each year, to bicycle to a beech-wood some nine miles from the cottage. There I lunched once every year on that day at the foot of a certain tree. . . . I thought of it, looked forward to it, counted on it.[i]
But Abdul Hamid's failure to capitulate to the ultimatum until Sunday, May 13, caused Grey to miss the beech trees that year. The disappointment seems to have risen in his mind 15 years later with irresistible force. All his life he was looking for meanings other than those which politics offers. The effect that this preoccupation may have had on his political imagination at crucial times is one of the incalculables of his career.
Grey visited India in 1887. In 1897 he went to the West Indies with a commission of inquiry. In 1914 he accompanied King George V on a state visit to Paris. He crossed the Channel on no other occasion before the First World War. In one major respect, at least, his comprehension of Britain's foreign relations plainly suffered from this restriction of first-hand knowledge--the failure to perceive the degree of closeness between the political and military aspects of diplomacy and the obligations which they incur. In Grey's mind "diplomatic" and "military" were related, but distinguishable. So they are; the question is one of degree, and since it is so, and is ever in process of development, it will forever be debatable. But today few will doubt that Grey differentiated the two kinds of measures too sharply. His failure to bring the fact of military collaboration with France to the attention of the entire British Cabinet until 1912 was a result of his belief that, until then, it had not increased the degree of obligation assumed in the political agreement. We see that the error was damaging to Grey's reputation, and confusing to those who followed him: it furnished a point of attack for those who later sought to discredit the entire policy of support for France in favor of an opposite policy of neutrality, with such tragic effect upon the political judgment of Englishmen and Americans in the interwar years.
Perhaps a better theoretical knowledge of continental military literature would have saved Grey from this mistake. In any case, he might have absorbed this useful lesson by a process of osmosis, had he at some time immersed himself in continental life. European thought about the relationship of political and military was more sophisticated than British thought, still reasoning in the main from the uncontradicted experiences of centuries of sea power which made Britain seem able to take as much or as little of a European war as she saw fit. We may note, however, that such cosmopolitan colleagues as Ripon, Campbell-Bannerman, Haldane failed to correct Grey's error. Morley, who had roamed the Continent, saw the significance of the Franco-British military consultations so little, even when the facts were laid before him in writing, that in all good faith he later denied having known about them. Foreign reporting is a complex business. Travel in itself is not the key that turns the lock.
And one further aspect of Grey's competence should be noted --his success in the negotiations with the United States in the Mexican problems of Wilson's early years and later in the dangerous problems of blockade and submarine warfare, in which his fairmindedness and patience did much to save Wilson from the consequences of a narrow legalism. Most revealing of all perhaps was the skillful diplomacy through which Grey dislodged Leopold from the Congo and brought healing to that offensive sore. These matters were not unconnected with one another, or with the major problem of Germany. Grey's ear had caught the early, often contradictory, yet arresting intimations of a new force in international politics, one on which all other questions hypothetical and immediate, including the question of the future of the German Empire, would presently depend--the force of world opinion. In the question of the Congo slave trade it came (outside Britain) only from the United States. To England and America only, among the Powers of the world, did the questions of the right and wrong of Leopold's transactions seem interesting. Grey's estimate of the significance of this new element of world politics was the most important single piece of foreign reporting of the years before the First World War. It was presently to save his country, and Europe. Grey saw the picture whole.
Yet Grey's policy failed of its objective. It did not avert the first German war. His speech to the Dominion delegates in 1911 is a fair sample of the position he took. There is no "appreciable danger of our being involved in any considerable trouble in Europe," he said to the delegates, "unless there is some Power or group of Powers which has the ambition of achieving what I call the Napoleonic policy. That would be a policy on the part of the strongest Power in Europe, or of the strongest group of Powers in Europe, of first separating the other Powers outside their own group from each other, taking them in detail, crushing them if need be, and forcing each into the orbit of the strongest Power." This, of course, was a warning that there was danger. The Dominion delegates knew which was the strongest Power in Europe; all knew Grey meant Germany. Yet he did not name Germany. Should he have done so? This was the precondition for an effort to transform the loose French-Russian-British Entente into a binding alliance to resist German expansion. Should he, that is to say, then and on every other fitting occasion, have described the danger from Germany in stronger terms, as a means of preparing Britain and the Dominions to fight?
The construction and maintenance of a defensive alliance to meet the threat of war from a Great Power is diplomacy's hardest task. From its inception it confronts the potential aggressor with a check to his plans, and thus it challenges him instantly to adopt the one measure most likely to separate any allies--the infliction upon one of them of a defeat which the others are unable or unwilling to prevent. And since the formation of such an alliance implies the shift from a passive to an active policy by the threatened nations, it puts into the hands of their antagonist the conqueror's most powerful political weapon--the opportunity to make the victim appear the aggressor. Every conqueror is a lover of peace, as Clausewitz remarked. No one so sincerely dislikes a "warmonger" as the invader who wishes to cross a border unopposed. The fighting begins only if the victim resists the invader; similarly, an armament race begins only when the weaker state looks to its defenses. And only the aggressor can offer to every antagonist a sure method of avoiding war: surrender. In the diplomatic conflict which ensues, the high cards are in the hands of the most warlike Power. Little wonder that even in the days when public opinion played a small part in the maintenance of an alliance, defensive coalitions were unstable quantities.
In the classical view of the problem, "only well-defined systems, geared to a concrete purpose and comparatively modest in scope, can take a firm grip on international realities."[ii] The question of scope is thus the crucial one. If the alliance is to succeed in its purpose of discouraging a Great Power from the use of war as an instrument of policy, it must embrace a sufficient number of states to make its strength preponderant; but at the same time it must maintain its concreteness of purpose, for if that is lost, the cohesiveness of the coalition and all its utility disappear with it. In the classical view, no more than a very few Powers can hope to maintain a clear view of their common interest.
An incident which took place not long before Grey first entered politics suggests the complexity which had been added to this problem by the development of modern parliamentary government. In 1889, Hatzfeld, the German Ambassador in London, told Lord Salisbury, on Bismarck's instructions, that peace could best be secured by an Anglo-German defensive alliance against France. Salisbury, professing gratification at the proposal, nevertheless replied: "We unfortunately no longer live in Pitt's time, when the aristocracy ruled and we could conduct an active policy. . . . Now the democracy rules, and with it come personal and party government, which has made every English Government absolutely dependent on the aura popularis. This generation can only be taught by events."[iii] The reply was somewhat disingenuous, since one may guess that Salisbury himself was none too sure where the threat to Britain actually lay. But it indicates well enough the dilemma which the problem of an alliance presents to the Foreign Secretary of a democracy. To wait for events of war to make plain the need of a commitment to fight is to lose any hope that the alliance will forestall the war; but to make the commitment before public opinion in all the allied countries is convinced of its necessity is to risk starting the war and losing alliance and war both. In short, the formation of the alliance brings matters to a head, and invites an attack at the most vulnerable point of the coalition--the area in which the immediate interests of the allies are most uneven. The Soviet-supported attack upon Korea in our own time, with its apparent ultimate aim the destruction of the North Atlantic Alliance, is the simple illustration. Grey's description of the hallmarks of a Napoleonic policy has a grim familiarity.
But the immense differences in the particulars of Grey's problem and our own throw a sharp light backward. Until the evidence of Soviet aggression was unmistakable, the implementation of a policy of collective security by the West did not enter the field of practical politics. The determination to "contain" the U.S.S.R. followed the armed invasion of Greece by Soviet-auxiliary troops. To read the government of a great nation out of the community of law-abiding states is a terrible matter. To do it literally by reading is impossible. Grey deliberately did not look extensively into the writings of the Pan-German expansionists. He wished to keep as free as possible from emotional judgments. But he did not misread the Germany of his own time.
Dangerous to Europe Germany had certainly become. She was looking for something: "a place in the sun"--an expression of general restlessness more than a particular program. The German diplomatic method was that of ransom--to spring to an exaggerated position and negotiate to be brought out of it. In so far as her fleet-building program had a rational objective it was to force England to be neutral if Germany engaged in a war with France. With so erratic, vain, childish, intelligent, irresponsible a man as Wilhelm II in command of the strongest country in Europe, and the strongest army in the world, anything could happen. The dangerous results of Bismarck's successful bullying of the German people and their neighbors were real and mounting.
Yet this was but half the picture. The fact was that Germany was a deeply respected nation. The world's scholars still turned to her for inspiration and guidance. In our time, a Great Power has lowered an Iron Curtain about its borders and thus provided a yardstick for measuring its aggressive intentions. There was no Iron Curtain around the Reich. In the 1900's German citizens went freely abroad, sought and welcomed for the gifts they brought with them. Bernard von Bülow, Foreign Minister and then Chancellor, Bismarck's heir (or so he called himself), was cultivated, witty, cosmopolitan. He was a former Hussar, but a career diplomat. He thought he safely could build the navy which von Tirpitz and Wilhelm wanted if he talked about it soothingly. He thought he could divide Britain and France if he rattled the sword. He was an accomplished courtier and spent prodigious amounts of energy and time in court feuds. It was impossible to tell where he stood in regard to Russia, since he did not perceive the significance in that connection of a German attachment to the fortunes of the dissolving Austro-Hungarian Empire. He wanted no war with England. He was apparently not averse to a war with France, if he could separate England from her. He left for posthumous publication an incredibly petty, vindictive and naive autobiography which revealed him a mountebank. "The only man who ever succeeded in committing suicide after his death," the Kaiser is said to have remarked.
Grey's policy was intended to cope with a government of which von Bülow was typical--that is to say, to deal with it by firmness but not by threats. His policy recognized that the German Empire was off balance; but it assumed that there was hope that time, and the experience of self-government which time might bring to the German people, would restore them to balance without a terrible bloodletting. In a word, Grey chose not to bring matters to a head.
Moreover, there was Russia. The unity of French and British interests, though perceived only recently, was established. To maintain it was Grey's unswerving purpose. But a binding alliance intended to amass preponderant force against Germany was an alliance that must make binding commitments to the Tsarist Empire. Grey had had experience of Russia. He called the Tsarist Empire "a despotism without discipline." With brilliant assistance from Nicolson and Hardinge, and from Morley in the office of Secretary of State for India, he had arranged the settlement with Russia which divided Persia into British and Russian spheres of influence, thus effecting a truce in Russian-British conflicts in Southwest Asia and making possible the loose arrangements of the Entente. But the open conflict was ever on the point of boiling up again: the simple sequel to the arrangement had been a Russian military occupation of her sphere. Grey was also well aware of Russian intrigues in the Balkans. And always vivid in his memory was that odd episode in the North Sea when the Russian fleet, setting out for the Far East, had met a group of British fishing boats and blazed away with all their guns. No one had ever found out how the guns happened to go off.
Grey's policy, then, was to play for time. A policy of drift? Not necessarily. There were two sides even to the Russian coin. Campbell-Bannerman had read everyone's thoughts in his calculated indiscretion of 1905: La Duma est mort! Vive la Duma! Stolypin was assassinated in 1911, yet it was in the period of his land reforms that Lenin despaired of revolution in his lifetime. Five years, Bismarck believed, are the furthest any statesman can hope to read the future. Suppose Grey had had five years more? We must force our minds back and remember, again, that his problem was not to meet a peril that had matured, but to prevent a perilous situation from crystallizing. The German Empire was not a self-proclaimed and demonstrated enemy of Western civilization. It was a nation which considered itself bone and sinew of European society. Grey's problem was to hold it there. If the relationship of Triple Alliance and Triple Entente were allowed to harden there could be but one outcome.
Grey's policy was sound; his analysis broad and remarkably steady, considerering the strength of the cross-currents hammering against him. The valid charge against him is that he did so little with his policy. He believed, and often said to the German Ambassador, that the arrangements of the Entente did not preclude the development of friendlier relations between England and Germany--always with the proviso that such a development was not to be at the expense of France. He sought to dampen the acrimony of German-British press exchanges; and indeed on the eve of the war England's relations with Germany did seem to be improving. He was certain that war would be ruinous and always thought there was a hope that in crises the realization of its destructiveness would restrain governments from the irrevocable step. But there he stopped.
Obviously, restraint upon Germany was necessary if she was to be held. In the event--in July 1914--the ease with which Germany took the bit in her teeth and chivvied Austria-Hungary into complete intransigence verified the accuracy of the French estimate that much restraint would be needed. Where could it be obtained? Grey had no atomic bomb which might hold the German Army within its frontiers while he conducted a campaign for a vast increase in the size of the British Army; and indeed he had no reason to believe that really preponderant force could be amassed by the Entente. Britain had an expeditionary force of seven divisions, prepared by Haldane, Grey's closest political associate and closest friend, for use on the French left flank. There is no evidence that Grey knew of the Schlieffen Plan for attack through Belgium, but it seems almost inconceivable that he did not. Knowledge of it would not have conferred upon him the power to prevent a European war, however, as is sometimes said. In 1910, Sir Arthur Nicolson, recommending to his chief the reconstruction of the Entente as a binding alliance, assured him that "Great Britain, France and Russia were more than equal to any combination." But they were not. The German General Staff had figured correctly that they were not. Even after they had strained every nerve to develop their resources they were barely equal in strength to the combination against them; and in 1917 their strength became inferior. The one hope of restraint powerful enough to avoid the final break between Alliance and Entente lay in lifting the whole issue into a larger framework. Grey sensed that there was a larger framework; indeed he saw it. He did everything except speak out about it.
In the course of a discerning analysis of Grey's conduct of office Algernon Cecil has speculated on some of the "ifs" of the situation. If Grey had made an early flat statement that Britain would fight for Belgian independence . . . if Italy had placed her troops in support of the French right flank . . . if Theodore Roosevelt had been the American President. . . . If, that is to say, all the Powers had acted together!
That the 1917 partnership of the Allied and Associated Powers could have been called into being in the prewar years by a common bond of hostility to Germany is unimaginable. Yet there was a common interest, very near the surface and rooted in the political force which is still the strongest by far of any in the twentieth century: not the common interest in avoiding war, but the common interest in national freedom. Its corollary was the need of all to protect the freedom of each. Wilson worked the principle out for himself later. Is it inconceivable that he would have accepted a lead from Grey in this direction a little earlier? Grey's understanding of the American democracy was sympathetic and penetrating. From the time he took office he put British-American relations first among British interests, not only in his thoughts but explicitly. "The growing friendship with the United States . . . is first in our policy," he said in 1905. "Your Continent is making a new race and a new type," he wrote to Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. And though he noted that a common language helped draw Britain and America together, he placed the emphasis elsewhere. "More than all this, I should say that some generations of freedom on both sides have evolved a type of man . . . that looks at things from a kindred point of view, and a majority that has a hatred for what is not just or free."[iv]
"Disarmament" had come to a blind alley. Germany would have none of it, nor indeed, after war had come so close in 1906, could any of the European Powers risk it. But just over the stone wall was room for movement, and, perhaps, a few years' time in which the problem of Germany might evolve. Had Grey ventured to discuss his problem, in the generous terms in which he saw it, with his own people and in the hope that a wider audience would listen, one thing, at least, might have been accomplished. It might have prepared Britain, and Grey himself, to deal with the issue of Serbia when it so suddenly arose. For it was the issue of Serbian independence, not Belgian independence, that in the event was primary and crucial. Grey was caught off guard, and in his hasty proposal for mediation between Austria and Russia over Serbia's fate he committed a serious error of judgment. He had not intended to depart from his fixed policy of support for France, and when French alarm made clear to him the danger of his move he quickly withdrew the suggestion. But he had undercut the principle on which his policy was based. The German deduction was that the solution most expedient for her was a localized war--in short that she could hold the ring while Austria destroyed Serbia. With that decision the situation crystallized. Whether the German General Staff would have reflected before sending those fatal promptings to Vienna in July if the principle for which the First World War was about to be fought had been brought a little nearer the front of men's minds in Britain and the Dominions and America can be only the final speculation.
Grey was marvellously close to his own people, though for much of his life he underestimated his influence with them. Perhaps it must be said that he possessed great influence with the British people for the very reason that he never tried to use them. In that case, however, we must go on to say that he failed of greatness in his work because he did not try to use his influence. But this north-country Englishman was a tall man, and the direction in which he was looking for justice and freedom for the peoples of the world is the direction in which the world has moved. Whether the structure of alliances that the parliamentary nations have devised to meet the new Napoleonic threat will be powerful enough to discourage the Soviet adventurers from an irrevocable trial at arms, no man can tell. Yet through all the natural hazards of the situation, the Atlantic Alliance which is the focus of power in the free world has held. It has held because underlying it, and making good its deficiencies, is the world-wide organization which, hesitantly, imperfectly, yet so far effectively, has drawn short-term and long-term interests of free nations closer in the areas where they are most uneven. This is the indispensable function of a world organization; and this is the particular in which the classic formulation of the conditions of a defensive alliance has had to be amended to meet the realities of the modern world.
[i] "Twenty-Five Years," by Viscount Grey of Fallodon. New York: Stokes, 1925, p. 124.
[ii] "Diplomacy, Old and New," by André Géraud ("Pertinax"). Foreign Affairs, January 1945.
[iii] "Britain in Europe, 1789-1914," by R. W. Seton-Watson. New York: Macmillan, 1937, p. 566.
[iv] "Grey of Fallodon," by G. M. Trevelyan. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937, p. 133.