THE contributions of Sir Austen Chamberlain and of Mr. John W. Davis to "The Foreign Policy of the Powers"[i] present a curious contrast. The underlying assumptions and the general implications of Sir Austen's paper are that British policy is governed by clearly defined principles which promote the immediate security of the Empire and the general peace of the world. Mr. Davis, on the other hand, takes the view that America's policy because of a failure to "join the concert of nations" is no longer "adequate to preserve her peace and insure her prosperity." I should like to raise the question whether this very assumption, that the British policy is adequate and the American inadequate, is not today a serious obstacle to a meeting of minds and to the practice of coöperation by the English-speaking peoples. I believe it is. I believe that the accepted idea that America is "isolationist" and that Great Britain is a member in good standing of a concert of the Powers is an illusion which masks and then distorts the relations between Britain and America.


The ideal of Anglo-American coöperation to preserve the peace of the world is supported by certain general considerations. As between Britain and America there are no disputed frontiers. There are no disputed spheres of influence in Asia, Africa, or the Americas. There is commercial rivalry in certain parts of the world but it does not have and does not threaten to have any serious political consequences. For neither government thinks that it could or should advance its commercial interests by political expansion and both are well aware that political stability and equal opportunity in Asia, South America and continental Europe would be more profitable than a régime of special privileges.

Neither government is interested in extending its empire. Not only does neither covet the possessions of the other, but neither covets the possessions of any other Power. In fact, both are going through a process of contracting their imperial responsibilities. The United States is withdrawing from the Philippines. It has renounced whatever ambitions it may ever have entertained to convert the Monroe Doctrine into an instrument for the domination of Latin America. It is seeking to disentangle itself from the internal affairs of the Central American countries and of the Caribbean archipelago. A corresponding process of imperial devolution is under way in the British Empire -- in the recognition of the increasing autonomy of the Dominions, in the progress towards self-government in Egypt and India.

It may be said, I think, that in both countries the controlling view as to empire is that they must see to it that, as the dependent peoples become independent, they do not through weakness and misgovernment become the prey of other imperial Powers. To be sure, there are in both countries some who regard empire as profitable because it provides special privileges. But I think it is a correct reading of the facts to say that imperialism of this kind would have no decisive influence with British or American opinion today were it clearly established that the emancipated nations could really maintain their independence.

The United States has promised to leave the Philippines though there are few Americans who do not believe that eventually the Filipinos will fall under Japanese domination. The United States would undoubtedly resist today, as it has in the past, any European or Asiatic conquest or political penetration in the Western hemisphere. It would resist it, however, not to obtain the conquest for itself, but to avert the political entanglements of a new foreign imperialism close at hand. British imperial policy appears to be inspired by much the same view. In Egypt, the Near East, and in India, it is not the profits of empire but the fear of other imperial ambitions which causes the British to relax their hold so cautiously. Were it not for the conviction that Germany, Italy, Russia, and Japan are expanding empires, the British would be far readier to contract their empire and take the risks of self-government by the dependent peoples.

Thus Britain and America do have fundamentally the same outlook on world politics. They are not rivals. They are both concerned about the rise of imperial Powers which have ambitions that cannot be satisfied except by a profound disturbance of the existing political constitution of the world. When to this underlying community of interest there is added community of speech and tradition, it is but natural to ask why Britain and America do not stand together more effectively than they do in order to protect themselves and to preserve the peace.


The answer to that question is to be found, I think, by noting that while the vital interests of the two Powers are not in conflict, while in general their outlook and the desiderata of their policies are the same, their most immediately pressing needs are not identical. Because their interests are so nearly alike and yet are not identical, there is much misunderstanding due to false expectations and consequent disappointments. Their vital interests have different foci. They are threatened in different degree from different quarters. The result is that the paramount interests of one Power are only secondary interests of the other. And it is this difference in importance that makes difficult a coöperative diplomacy.

Thus the most vital of all British interests is the independence of the Low Countries. "Their frontiers," says Sir Austen, "are in fact our frontiers, their independence the condition of our independence, their safety inseparable from our own." It was to defend this interest, he adds, that Britain fought Spain in the Sixteenth Century, Napoleon in the Nineteenth Century, and Germany in the Twentieth. It was to defend this interest that Britain has been drawn out of her island isolation to guarantee the neutrality of Belgium, to undertake the commitments of Locarno, to make Mr. Stanley Baldwin's declaration of July 30, 1934, that "when you think of the defense of England, you no longer think of the chalk cliffs of Dover; you think of the Rhine," and more recently to renew the entente with France.

The British interest in European peace is focussed primarily upon this projection of her frontier into the Low Countries and the Rhineland. The American interest in European peace is obviously more generalized. Whereas Britain would and must engage all her forces to defend her strategic frontier in the Low Countries, it is not possible to imagine the United States making any such engagement. For the vital center of the American defense lies in another part of the world, at the Panama Canal and the approaches to the Canal. When British publicists chide the United States for its political "isolation" they usually forget that while their frontiers are in the Low Countries and the Rhine, the American frontier is on two oceans connected somewhat precariously by the Canal.

The fact that the paramount American interest is geographically so remote from the paramount British interest is sufficient to explain why the United States does not take the position of an equal partner with Great Britain in maintaining the status quo in Western Europe. This is now the radical difficulty of American adherence to the League. Whether it would have existed had the United States joined the League in 1920 is a question that men will differ over for a long time to come. The Covenant imposes equal obligations on all its members. But all its members do not have equal interests in all the vital matters with which the League is concerned. For a small Power this conflict between obligation and interest is not so important because not much would be expected of a small Power when it was not directly interested. But so lenient a view of its obligations would not be taken towards a great Power, and intuitively the American nation has felt this.

American opposition to membership in the League has grown stronger as the demonstration has become more conclusive that the primary concern of the League is European peace and that European peace is for the time being identified with the maintenance of the status quo. A disinterested membership in the League would be theoretically possible for America on the assumption that the existing frontiers of Europe were as acceptable to all concerned as are the existing frontiers between Canada and the United States. It would be theoretically possible also on the assumption of a general agreement to modify the frontiers. But in view of the fact that peace in Europe today has become identified with the maintenance of the status quo by superior force, the United States, when it participated in European politics, would have to choose either to enter an implied alliance with the dominant coalition or to become a disturber of the peace, such as it is, by encouraging the revisionist Powers and discouraging the coalition. This would be a dangerous entanglement in the literal sense of that ancient but pregnant phrase, and its dangers would be even less pleasant to contemplate because they had been incurred in a region where the immediate vital interests of America are not at stake. Let any Briton who thinks that this is a selfish calculation ask himself what British policy would be if by some miracle of geographic change the Straits of Dover were not twenty-one miles wide but three thousand miles wide. If he has any doubts about what the answer would be, he can find a clue to it in the foreign policy of Canada and Australia.

Next in importance to the defense of the homeland comes the defense of the British line of communications with India and the Dominions of Australia and New Zealand. This interest, as Sir Austen points out, is the primary explanation of the British concern with Egypt, Palestine, Iraq and Persia. Now it is also an American interest that British sea power should have assured access to the Pacific Ocean. But the route which passes Gibraltar and Malta, the Grecian archipelago and the Dardanelles, Suez, Arabia, the Persian Gulf, on the way to India, to Singapore and to Hong Kong is strategically inaccessible to American sea power and is obviously a British concern, not an American. The American equivalent of this British route to the East has as its focal points the Panama Canal, Hawaii, Guam, Alaska, and the Philippines.

In the Pacific and in Eastern Asia the similarity, without identity, of the British and American interests has been made very plain. Great Britain has a large economic interest in China whereas America has a relatively small one. The British, being primarily engaged in Europe, until the Washington Conference of 1921 defended their Chinese interests by an alliance with Japan. The American interest in the Far East is primarily one of concern with the growth of the Japanese imperial power. It has been defended in the past by supporting the independence and integrity of China and by the recognition of Russia as a Great Power in Eastern Asia. America, in other words, has sought for security in the Pacific by a policy which is very much like Britain's traditional method of insuring her security in Europe. She has endeavored to create a balance of powers which would restrain the Japanese and the Russians and other imperial powers as the British sought to restrain first the French and then the Germans. In Europe, the British policy has been sublimated and generalized at Geneva and Locarno; in Asia, the American policy has been sublimated and generalized in the Washington Treaties.

The Manchurian affair put the "collective system" to a test and the test showed that France and Britain were not prepared to uphold it outside the region of their primary interests. Their specific and vital interests in Europe prevented them from acting on behalf of their general and secondary interests in Eastern Asia. When the collective system was tested in 1931-1932, it worked precisely as Americans feared it would work. Relying upon it, the United States took a position in Asia which left it exposed, without support, and embarrassed. Britain and France held back in Asia just as the United States would hold back in Europe when faced with a similar aggression against the collective system.


In the light of actual experience it no longer makes much sense to discuss Anglo-American relations in such stereotyped phrases as "American isolation" and British internationalism. In the Manchurian affair, which touches the long-term vital interests of the United States, American policy was not in the least isolationist. The American Government was quite prepared to play a leading part, in fact more than an equal part, in a collective system dealing with a region that is of great importance in the future of the world. Britain and France were the isolationist Powers in that affair, and it was their guarantee not ours which could not be depended upon.

While recrimination can serve no purpose, the moral of the experience is clear and understanding will be promoted by recognizing it candidly. American isolation is one of the optical illusions of the present era. American policy is conditioned by its vital interests just as is British policy. Thus America is isolationist as to continental Europe, but it has never been and is not now isolationist in the region of the Caribbean or the Pacific Ocean. The British ardor for the League is a reflection of British interest in British security; the lack of British ardor for the collective system in the Far East is a reflection of a greater concern with European security. So it is with us. President Harding who was elected in 1920 as a result of a rebellion against the League signed a whole series of treaties in 1922 which applied the League's principles to the Orient. In 1931 Secretary Stimson stood forth as the protagonist of League principles and Sir John Simon did not.

It is for these reasons that I suggested at the beginning of this article that it is misleading and promotes misunderstanding to discuss Anglo-American relations on the assumption that Britain is actuated by a greater sense of international obligation than is the United States. The policies of the two countries are conditioned by the fact that they are subject in unequal degree to the pressure of widely separated emergent imperial Powers. If Japan were Germany or Germany were Japan, a single collective system would easily bring Britain and America into active coöperation and an equal partnership.

An understanding of the difficulty of coöperation is not in itself, of course, a solution of the difficulty. But it is the necessary preliminary to a search for a solution in that it tends to remove misunderstandings based not upon realities but upon illusions. Until those illusions are cleared away, Americans dealing with Britons will feel themselves unjustly accused of a selfish isolation and will feel moreover that the accusation is hypocritical. Americans under the spell of this illusion, will continue to make promises in Europe that American opinion will not ratify. Britons, seeing this, will feel that America is utterly undependable, and will be tempted to make engagements elsewhere which, if consummated, would destroy all possibility of Anglo-American coöperation.


It would seem that the first step in the development of Anglo-American political coöperation must be a clearer definition of British policy in the region of its primary interests, which is Europe, and of American policy in the region of its primary interest, which is the Pacific. For both countries this would seem to require a reconsideration of certain traditional policies.

The traditional British method of obtaining security as against continental Europe is to keep the command of the sea and use it to maintain a balance of power as between continental armies. Today, however, the actual situation does not fit the traditional formula. In narrow waters the aeroplane and the submarine are a threat to sea power such as it has not known for centuries. On the continent France is at last a satisfied Power. Germany, on the other hand, is unmistakably an unsatisfied Power. Thus Britain is no longer certain that she can command the sea; she is no longer impregnable to invasion. At the same time she cannot promote her security by attempting to hold evenly a balance of power between a strong France which shares the British interest in the status quo and a potentially stronger Germany which menaces the status quo.

What position Britain will eventually take in respect to Europe, it is impossible now to predict. But to American eyes it appears that the British people have not yet taken a definite position, that they are deeply divided in their own minds as to what position to take, that they do not really know whether to seek their security by the traditional method of the balance of power as between France and Germany, under the form of the League, or to seek security by alliances. It is this very uncertainty of the British attitude which makes very difficult any sort of effective American coöperation to maintain peace. If the British policy is to be based on the balance of power, American coöperation would involve a more intimate and continuing concern in European politics than can reasonably be expected. If the British policy is one of alliances, it is clearly out of the question for America to join the alliance or to be part of a system in which it was outside the alliance. Above all, as long as the security of Europe is so uncertain, either British policy is likely to keep Britain so much engaged in Europe that it cannot be depended upon for any effective coöperation under the collective system in any other part of the world.

In respect to the Pacific and Eastern Asia, the United States finds itself in a quandary which is not unlike that of Britain in Europe. The traditional method of promoting American security has been to maintain a balance of power. The Washington Treaties sought to stabilize this policy under the forms of a collective system. But the balance of power does not exist. Russia is preoccupied in her European territory. China is in the midst of a prolonged revolution which prevents her from protecting effectively her own independence and integrity. Britain and the other European Powers cannot assume responsibilities in the Far East. This leaves the United States in a position where it alone is capable of offering genuine opposition to the Japanese advance.

The United States is, therefore, forced to reconsider her whole Far Eastern policy on the assumption that China, Russia, and the European Powers cannot or will not oppose the growth of the Japanese imperialism. What Asiatic policy the United States can and should adopt is no more clear to Americans than a continental policy is clear to the British. But it is clear that this very uncertainty makes it difficult for Britain to coöperate with America in the Pacific and will preoccupy America to the exclusion of any responsible action in Europe.


It should perhaps be said in order to avoid misapprehension that when I speak of coöperation I mean effective action, which in diplomacy always involves ultimately the risk of war, and not merely consultation, observation, and negotiation undertaken with the reservation that if words fail, nothing further shall be done. Whatever else happens in Anglo-American relations, they should not be poisoned by deceptive promises that cannot be made good in a crisis which may be vital to the one nation or to the other. It may be that conditions are such that for the time being Britain must clarify her policy in Europe and America her policy in the Pacific on the assumption that neither can expect, in the sense in which I have just defined it, the coöperation of the other. It may be, too, that when this clarification of their respective policies has taken place, each will have reduced the risks in the sphere of its primary interests sufficiently to liberate it for dependable coöperation with the other in the sphere of its secondary interests. This is to say that until Britain has settled the European question and feels secure in Europe, it will play no effective rôle in Asia, and until America has settled the Asiatic question and feels secure in the Pacific, it will play no effective part in Europe.

For while both nations sincerely desire peace both in Europe and in Asia, the defense of their own vital interests compels them to concentrate their energies. They are unable at present, I believe, though I regret it, to coöperate politically where coöperation implies or involves the risk of war in the widely separated spheres of their paramount interests. To recognize this is not to rule out coöperation. It is to direct it to the field where it is possible. Obviously, there is nothing in the situation which I have described to prevent coöperation in economic affairs. There are difficulties here, too, but they are not such deep difficulties as lie in political coöperation. It is, therefore, towards currency stabilization, the removal of barriers to trade, and the promotion of commerce that the impulse to coöperate can best be directed. There it can find work to do. There good will can find expression in good works. There the habit of coöperation can be confirmed until, under other political conditions, it can be broadened into a common policy for the maintenance of peace.

[i] Published for the Council on Foreign Relations by Harper and Brothers (New York, 1935). The essays by Sir Austen Chamberlain and John W. Davis appeared originally in FOREIGN AFFAIRS, Vol. 9, No. 4, and Vol. 10, No. 1.

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  • WALTER LIPPMANN, special writer for the New York Herald-Tribune and other newspapers; author of "A Preface to Morals," "The United States in World Affairs," and other works
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