Xi’s Costly Obsession With Security
How a Quest for Control Threatens China’s Economic Growth
BRITISH DOCUMENTS ON THE ORIGINS OF THE WAR, 1898-1914. Edited by G. P. Gooch and Harold Temperley. London: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1927-1938, ten volumes.
"IF there is war between France and Germany it will be very difficult for us to keep out of it. The Entente and still more the constant and emphatic demonstrations of affection . . . have created in France a belief that we should support her in war. . . . If this expectation is disappointed the French will never forgive us . . . we should be left without a friend and without the power of making a friend and Germany would take some pleasure, after what has passed, in exploiting the whole situation to our disadvantage. . . . On the other hand the prospect of a European War and of our being involved in it is horrible" (III, 299). In these words Sir Edward Grey, confiding his innermost thought in a personal note written at the time of the Algeciras crisis in February 1906, summarized the dilemma confronting British policy. And from then until the outbreak of the World War this same dilemma was upon many other occasions to confront English statesmen. The publication of "British Documents on the Origins of the War," just completed after more than ten years of painstaking work, now enables us for the first time to give a true picture of the evolution of British policy toward Europe, to appreciate its nuances, and to understand its motives.
In the second half of the nineteenth century Great Britain clung to the policy of isolation, though not always as strictly as those who guided British policy would have us believe. For, at least during the years from 1887 to 1892, England and the Triple Alliance had been drawn into close collaboration by the Mediterranean Agreement. Nevertheless, in 1898 Joseph Chamberlain was justified in saying, "We have no allies. I fear that we have no friends." From that moment English statesmen gradually became aware of the dangers of this situation. Chamberlain foresaw that Great Britain might "run head on into a combination of the Great Powers" which would try to settle vital questions of European expansion without taking account of English interests. He saw that complete fidelity to the policy of isolation was incompatible with the development of the British Empire.
The dangers Britain ran as a result of her isolation were brought home to her statesmen at the close of 1904 by Japan's defeat of Russia. This event had modified the European balance of power. Now that Russia, its army weakened, would for several years be unable to resume her rôle as a "counterbalance" on the Continent, should not Great Britain fear the predominance of Germany? True, German hegemony after the war of 1870-71 had not interfered with English interests. But Bismarckian Germany was a continental Power, whereas the Germany of Wilhelm II was fast becoming a great naval Power. Fear of the formation of a combination hostile to Britain's world-wide interests, anxiety to maintain the balance of power on the Continent, and, above all, the uneasiness provoked by German naval rivalry (particularly after 1906) -- these factors explain the evolution of British foreign policy and the formation of the Triple Entente.
What was the true import of this new English policy? To what extent was the British Government willing to coöperate with France and Russia? To what point was it disposed to enlarge its responsibilities? The test for Anglo-French relations came during the Moroccan crises; for relations with Russia, during the Bosnian crisis in 1908-09.
As regards the Moroccan question, Great Britain promised France (treaty of April 8, 1904) diplomatic support, nothing more. Was that guarantee sufficient for French interests? German policy -- i.e. Holstein's -- thenceforward anticipated that in any threat of a French-German clash over Morocco, the British Cabinet would hesitate to embark on an adventure. After the Tangier coup of 1905 the Foreign Office became fully aware of this German belief. Lord Lansdowne, Foreign Secretary in the Conservative Cabinet, accordingly declared -- in order to cut short, he said, the insinuations of the German press -- his community of views with the French Foreign Minister. A month later he even announced his willingness to join France in a study of all possible eventualities, without waiting for a threat of German aggression (III, 94-95). The French Ambassador in London, Paul Cambon, declared that this general understanding "was equivalent to an alliance." The English proposal was not followed up because the French President, Rouvier, fearing to "exasperate" Germany, brushed aside the idea of Anglo-French collaboration and engineered Delcasse's resignation.
But six months later, on the eve of the Algeciras Conference, Rouvier himself solicited the support of Great Britain. At that time the Conservative Cabinet was no longer in power. The Liberal successor to Lord Lansdowne, Sir Edward Grey, was not bound by his predecessor's offer. Nevertheless, he admitted that Great Britain might be induced to assume new responsibilities. If the diplomatic support which she had promised France were not enough to halt German aggression, he would then consider armed intervention. "My opinion," he wrote on January 15, 1906, in a personal letter to the British Ambassador in Paris, "is that if France is let in for a war with Germany arising out of our agreement with her about Morocco, we cannot stand aside, but must take part with France." Sir Edward authorized the British General Staff to get in touch with the French General Staff in order to study the necessary technical arrangements, but he took care to stipulate that the conversations were not to bind the governments and that the British Cabinet was to be free to decide, when the time came, whether those arrangements should or should not be carried out. "A deliberate engagement pledging this country in advance before the actual cause of the war is known or apparent, given in cold blood goes far beyond anything that the late Government said or as far as I know contemplated" (III, 216). This engagement would have given the character of an "alliance" to the Anglo-French Entente, and neither Parliament nor British public opinion would allow the Government to give such a promise in advance.
At the same time that Grey was evading the requests of the French Government he also was giving Germany a warning. In a personal, unofficial statement he told Wolff-Metternich, the German Ambassador, that in the event of a Franco-German conflict he believed Great Britain could not remain neutral. Would it not have been better for England to declare herself frankly? Germany would not then have dared to risk war (III, 229). This was the opinion of certain high officials in the Foreign Office, of Sir Charles Hardinge for one. But Grey was not of that mind. He believed that his personal warning to the German Ambassador would have sufficient "moral effect." He anticipated, besides, that France, uncertain about English intervention, would be obliged to make "some sacrifices" to Germany -- enough, perhaps, to avert war. Nevertheless it was his private conviction that if Germany provoked an armed conflict, Great Britain would have to intervene.
In 1911, during a new Franco-German crisis, England pursued the same policy. European peace had been endangered by Germany's dispatch of the Panther to Agadir on July 1. What was Great Britain to do? Would she agree to send warships to the Moroccan coast jointly with France? The Cabinet -- the King himself -- refused. "We are bound and prepared to give them diplomatic support, but we cannot go to war in order to set aside the Algeciras Act and put France in virtual possession of Morocco," wrote Grey. "If we go to war it must be in defense of British interests." At what point, then, did the defense of English interests start? Whenever Germany tried to "humiliate France"? But "there is no case for that at present." The opinion of the British Government was, then, that France ought to negotiate and offer Germany "compensation" (VII, 405).
This reserve and advice alarmed the French Prime Minister. Would England desert France? No, for General Wilson, Director of Military Operations at the British War Office, arrived at that moment (July 20) to confer with the French General Staff on "les conditions de la participation éventuelle d'une armée anglaise" in a Franco-German War (VII, 640). Although that conference bound the two governments no more than the preceding ones, it had the effect of reassuring the French. Besides, the British Cabinet, through Grey's statement to Metternich and through Lloyd George's famous speech of July 21, again "warned" Germany; and this warning, bolstered by an order to the fleet to stand ready, was energetic enough to cause the German Government to relinquish its demand for the whole of French Congo as "compensation." Did that mean that France could now depend on English support if her negotiations with Germany were broken off? Not at all. Twice -- on July 28 and on August 22 -- Cambon asked Grey what Great Britain's attitude would be in such an event. Grey's reply was the same: ". . . no definite decision could be come to until we knew what was the actual situation when the failure took place" (VII, 433). For Great Britain to decide on armed intervention, public opinion would have to feel that Germany was responsible and that France "has no reasonable or honorable means" of avoiding war.
The British Government, without ever giving France a definite pledge, did therefore recognize that her interests might oblige her to take part in a Franco-German war. With Russia, however, Britain was much more reserved. With that country she undertook no engagement, not even diplomatic, beyond those concerning Asiatic questions contained in the Agreement of 1907. Yet the Foreign Office, Sir Edward Grey, even King Edward VII, seemed to attach great value to this new Anglo-Russian friendship. "In seven or eight years' time," wrote Hardinge, "a critical situation might arise, in which Russia, if strong in Europe, might be the arbiter of peace. . . . For this reason it was absolutely necessary that England and Russia should maintain towards each other the same cordial and friendly relations as now exist between England and France" (V, 195).
But when the crucial moment for Russia arrived, British policy was reserved. In the Bosnian crisis of October 1908 the Russian Foreign Minister, Isvolsky, would have liked to count on Great Britain's effective support. He received only kind words. He had hoped to obtain, in "compensation" for Austria-Hungary's annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a revision of the Straits Convention: he asked that the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles be "opened" to Russian men-of-war, and to them alone. Grey would not accept this "unilateral" solution. In vain Isvolsky insinuated that England's refusal might be "fatal" to the Anglo-Russian entente. The British Cabinet made no promise and simply left Isvolsky with a vague hope. And when Russian diplomacy demanded territorial compensation for Serbia, a demand which Austria-Hungary definitely refused to entertain, Grey confined himself to stating that he would give Russia "diplomatic support" but that "it must not be expected that we should push matters to the point of provoking a conflict" (V, 416). To risk European war for such an end would be "out of all proportion to the interests involved." Diplomatic action was futile, because the Central Powers were well aware that England would no more go to war to protect Russia's interests than would France.
Was it not from that moment to be feared that Russia, disappointed, would cherish a grudge against Great Britain and would let the Triple Entente "languish, and possibly die"? Perhaps it would have been expedient, in order to prevent Russo-German conciliation, to give Russia guarantees "by bringing it nearer to the nature of an alliance . . ." (V, 764). This was the opinion of Sir Arthur Nicolson, British Ambassador in St. Petersburg. Grey, however, held that English public opinion would not find an alliance with Russia acceptable. "Wait and see," he said, in effect. And he was right, for Russia, in spite of her pique, ended by affirming her strong desire to preserve the Entente. Thus England kept to a "middle-of-the-road" policy, as Trevelyan has expressed it. She maintained close collaboration with France without making a definite engagement; she humored Russia without giving her real support.
But, though the British Government found the Triple Entente a useful "barrier" to German ambitions, it none the less looked upon any such idea as the "encirclement" of Germany as "nonsense." After each international crisis the British Cabinet tried to negotiate with Germany: it wished to find a friendly solution for Anglo-German naval rivalry which would allow the English fleet a sufficient margin of superiority. But how could Germany be made to accept naval limitation? She must be offered "compensation," for instance, a British promise of neutrality or of non-aggression. Grey had refused to consider such a proposal in 1909 and 1910, for he did not wish to weaken the Anglo-French Entente. Colonial compensation, then? This would have suited England, but Germany did not seem to relish it.
In 1911 negotiations were still going on. After the Agadir crisis the British public became uneasy. When the danger was past, they could see how narrowly they had escaped being involved in a war. They had now learned that Germany was going to make a new effort to increase her naval forces; they therefore wished to limit future risks. The Cabinet, taking account of this state of mind, was disposed to enter into a "friendly conversation" with the German Government. Even if this attempt had failed, it would not have been without value: it would have shown Parliament and the public that the Government had done its best to avoid an armaments race. It would have justified the necessity of another effort. On November 28, 1911, Grey declared to the House of Commons that if Germany wished a place in the African sun, Great Britain would not hinder her. On December 20 he told the German Ambassador that Great Britain did not intend to "thwart German interests everywhere" and that it would welcome, for example, the extension of German colonial territory: ". . . if the Congo should be for sale it would be no object of ours, as some people supposed, to prevent German territory from extending across Africa from East to West as it would do if Germany purchased part of the Congo between Angola and German East Africa and eventually acquired Angola . . ." (VI, 480).
It was during 1912 that Great Britain's European policy became more definitely oriented. The failure of attempts at Anglo-German rapprochement bound France and England more closely together. These facts have been well known; but the "British Documents" now clarify the motives of British policy.
The Anglo-German negotiations revolved around three questions: naval armament, colonial expansion, a political agreement. In order to obtain a limitation on Germany's naval construction, the British Cabinet considered giving her opportunities for colonial development. But the German Government was not satisfied with this offer and demanded that Great Britain promise to modify her attitude on European questions. After Haldane's "mission of investigation" in February 1912 -- in which he showed more good will and optimism than clairvoyance -- the conferences continued for six weeks. The British Cabinet wished to modify the "bases of agreement" which had been established ad referendum by its envoy. On the question of naval armament, the German Admiralty at first approved only a slight decrease in the speed of its construction program; on March 12, however, it consented to a limitation of the program itself. But this was contingent on Britain's making a political concession, and upon this point agreement was not possible. The German Government wished England to promise "benevolent neutrality should war be forced on Germany." The British Cabinet would consider only a formula of "non-aggression." "England will make no unprovoked attack upon Germany and pursue no aggressive policy towards her" (VI, 537, enclosure). The German Government declared this formula unsatisfactory; on March 19 it declared that since it had received no promise of "neutrality" it would place before the Reichstag a proposal to increase the navy. On March 22 it carried out this threat and on April 10 both governments acknowledged the failure of negotiations.
Thus it was a question of general policy which prevented Anglo-German rapprochement. By insisting on a promise of British neutrality, German diplomacy hoped to destroy the Anglo-French Entente Cordiale. The British Cabinet was well aware of this. However, for Britain to promise Germany neutrality would, said the high officials in the Foreign Office, mean abandoning the policy she had pursued ever since 1904, and would encourage another "coup d'Agadir." Besides, "a day might come when a German Government might desire to crush France" (VI, 539). Could Great Britain permit this? If she remained neutral in such a war, she would at its conclusion find herself isolated, helpless and face to face with a victorious Germany. That was the argument which Grey put before the German Ambassador. Prime Minister Asquith was firmly decided not to subscribe to a promise of neutrality, regardless of the eagerness displayed by certain members of his Cabinet to do "something" to gain Germany's good will. "Even if there were no Entente, Great Britain would be obliged to refuse for her own sake." How could she avoid "going to the aid of France in case Germany attacked her on some pretext or other and seized the port of Calais?" And exactly how could one define, with sufficient precision, the term "aggression"?
It therefore was not mere fidelity to its friendships which dictated the decisions of the British Government, but the necessities of Britain's general interests. "The continued existence of a strong and independent France was of vital interest to this country" (VI, 564, Minutes), observed Sir Eyre Crowe, Assistant Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.
The French Government anxiously watched the Anglo-German negotiations. It made an attempt to warn Great Britain against the danger of even a "formula" of non-aggression; but it took this step only at the end of March, when the critical moment had already passed. After the failure of the negotiations France continued to be uneasy. Must the Entente remain at the mercy of "the favorable or unfavorable inclinations of a cabinet"? The French Prime Minister, Raymond Poincaré, asked "how far France could count upon British support in the event of any difficulties with Germany." He asked that the reply on this point be in the form of a diplomatic note: in that way the Entente would be consolidated and confirmed. With the full approval of Mr. Asquith, Sir Arthur Nicolson, then Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, replied that it was impossible. To revise the Entente, "to give it more or less the character of an alliance," to make an agreement which would tie the hands of the British Government, would be a challenge to Germany; the great majority of public opinion and the Cabinet could not embark on this course (VI, 576).
For the moment France's entreaties were in vain. But the British Cabinet could not evade them for long. The increase in Germany's naval forces obliged the British Admiralty to recall part of its Mediterranean fleet to the North Sea. Thereafter the safety of British communications in the Mediterranean could no longer be guaranteed without the collaboration of the French fleet. Paul Cambon hastened to propose this collaboration. France, he said, could undertake the "care of the whole of the Mediterranean" (X, part 2, 383). But did anyone think France would render this service to England without asking a return?
The time had come to make a decision. As Sir Arthur Nicolson said: ". . . we shall very shortly have to decide our future policy in regard to our relations with France and Russia" (X, part 2, 383). In exchange for a naval agreement which would assure the protection of British interests in the Mediterranean, France would try to obtain "an understanding . . . which would . . . be very much of the character of a defensive alliance" (X, part 2, 384). Should she be given satisfaction? Yes, replied Sir Arthur, because it would be "the cheapest, simplest and safest solution" (X, part 2, 385). Grey supported this point of view. In July 1912 the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, and Grey proposed to the French Naval Attaché that the respective rôles of the English and French naval forces be determined, and asked the French to concentrate the whole of their fighting fleet in the Mediterranean. They added, however, that this naval agreement would not "bind their governments."
In doing so they were well aware that France would not negotiate on these terms but would seize the opportunity to win that confirmation of the Entente which she had asked in vain three months before. It was not possible, said Paul Cambon, for France to strip the English Channel without assurances from Great Britain. Twice, at the end of July and in the middle of September 1912, Poincaré announced that he could not accept a definite naval agreement unless Great Britain gave satisfaction to the French point of view. It was around this "political formula" that discussion centered. Unable to obtain from the British Cabinet a formal pledge to intervene in a continental war, the French Government fell back upon its request for a promise of concerted action by the two Powers in case war threatened. "I don't see any harm in Cambon's formula; indeed it is almost a platitude," Asquith observed (X, part 2, 412).
An exchange of letters between Grey and Cambon on November 21 and 22, 1912, produced the following compromise. On one hand, the two governments confirmed that their military and naval staffs had engaged in an "exchange of views," but declared that these technical plans did not imply "an engagement to co-operate in war" and were not of themselves executory. On the other hand, it was agreed that in case of a threat of war the two governments would immediately survey the situation in order to "discuss . . . what measures they would be prepared to take in common." If military action was decided upon," the plans of the General Staffs would at once be taken into consideration . . ." (X, part 2, 416). This was the first time that the Anglo-French Entente was mentioned in writing in so far as the general policy of the two countries was concerned; but there was no question of an alliance because Great Britain refused to give a formal engagement. True, the British Cabinet had contracted a "moral obligation." But in declaring that it reserved its liberty of decision it allowed French policy to continue under the weight of uncertainty. In the eyes of Asquith, this was the advantage of the solution.
In order to appreciate the practical value of this accord it is sufficient to examine the attitude of the British Government fifteen days later, when a European conflict again threatened. The war between the Balkan countries and the Ottoman Empire, which had been going on since the middle of October, had precipitated first an Austro-Serb crisis, and then an Austro-Russian crisis. Austria-Hungary wished to keep the Serbs from gaining access to the Adriatic. Russia protested. Germany backed up Austria-Hungary, while France promised Russia to stand by their alliance. In case of a general conflict, what attitude would Great Britain assume? When this question was put to the British Foreign Secretary by the French Ambassador on December 4, Grey replied that the moment to raise the question was not yet at hand. The attitude of his government hinged on public opinion, which in turn "would depend upon how the war broke out," on whether Serbia took a provocative attitude or whether Austria-Hungary was "clearly aggressive." If the situation became serious, added Sir Edward, "I thought that public opinion would first require an attempt to secure that Germany, France and England kept out of the trouble" (IX, part 2, 328).
In 1912 -- as in 1906 and in 1911 -- the policy of Britain was to avoid giving a promise to France. Grey told the Russian Government that the question of a Serbian port on the Adriatic "is not really worth a European war." At the same time Germany, as before, received a warning, this time from the King himself. On December 5 Prince Henry of Prussia, brother of Wilhelm II, visited George V. The Prince asked whether, in case of a war between Germany and Austria-Hungary on one side and Russia and France on the other, Great Britain "would come to the assistance of the two latter Powers." "Undoubtedly yes under certain circumstances," replied the King. Prince Henry, without asking what the circumstances would be, expressed his surprise and regret. "Of course," wrote the King to Grey in relating this conversation, "Germany must know that we could not allow either of our friends to be crippled" (X, part 2, 452). Grey found this royal declaration to be "very fortunate." While Great Britain "is not committed in the event of war," and public opinion "is . . . very averse to a war arising out of a quarrel about Servia," nevertheless, in the event that Austria-Hungary were to attack Serbia "aggressively," or Russia, in assisting Serbia, were to be attacked by Germany, or France were finally to be drawn into the conflict, "it might become necessary for England to fight . . . for the defense of her position in Europe and for the protection of her own future and security" (X, part 2, 453).
British diplomacy made every effort to avoid this hypothetical situation. During the course of the long Balkan crisis it maintained a pacific attitude and preached conciliation. Even when the conflict presented problems which touched directly on British interests (such as the threat of a Bulgarian occupation of Constantinople or the Italian occupation of islands in the Ægean Sea) British action remained prudent.
After the Balkan crisis of 1912-13 the peace of Europe became more and more precarious. Austria-Hungary was not resigned to the consequences of the Treaty of Bucharest and tried to form a Balkan coalition against Serbia. Germany took advantage of the Ottoman Empire's weakness to reorganize the Turkish Army. Russia encouraged Serbia's ambitions. Throughout Europe the armaments race heightened the nervous tension, thereby adding another menace to peace.
In this situation the rôle of Great Britain was pivotal and the great continental Powers looked to her for guidance. In January 1914, when the appointment of a German, General Liman von Sanders, to the command of the First Corps of the Turkish Army in Constantinople precipitated a grave crisis, a Russian inter-ministerial conference studied the chances of victory in case of a European war. France and Russia, said Sazonov, "were hardly in a state to deal a mortal blow at Germany," without Britain's support in the form of a blockade which would paralyze the enemy. The German Government, in spite of the warning it had received from King George in November 1912, did not believe that Great Britain would necessarily be hostile, and several times it questioned its Ambassador in London on the attitude England would adopt in case of conflict. Asquith told the House of Commons on March 24, 1913, that Great Britain had entered no engagement. But, in order to insure peace, would it not have been better to proclaim the solidarity of the Triple Entente? That was the opinion of certain English diplomats, among them Sir George Buchanan, Ambassador to Russia. But the Cabinet was of a different mind. Consequently, during 1913 British foreign policy followed the same course as before: it did not relinquish the hope of a détente in Anglo-German relations and it refused to transform the Triple Entente into a Triple Alliance. To be sure, difficulties at home, where the Irish problem was becoming more and more serious, absorbed the public's attention and made the government cautious.
Naval rivalry remained the major problem in Anglo-German relations. But, after the failure of the Haldane mission, renewed negotiations on the subject of armament limitation were out of the question. Unquestionably the British Cabinet still watched for opportunities: in 1913 Winston Churchill threw out the suggestion of a "naval holiday," to which Germany turned a deaf ear. It was only concerning extra-European questions that the two governments entered into discussions (January 1913), at the express wish of the new German Foreign Minister, von Jagow. What was the spirit in which the British Government engaged in this attempt? It evidently felt that by favoring German expansion, by allowing Germany a larger place in the sun, it might exercise a calming influence over the general situation. Did it also hope that its complaisance would lead the German Government to resume "naval conversations"? The British documents do not reveal. They do, however, show that Grey had no illusions about the way to negotiate with Germany: "The Prussian mentality is such that to be on really good terms with it one must be able to deal with it as an equal." Yet the superiority of the British Navy remained in his eyes an ineluctible necessity. "If our Fleet was not superior to the German Fleet, our very independence would depend on Germany's goodwill" (X, part 2, 455).
Two questions dominated these Anglo-German conversations: Central Africa and Asia Minor.
In Central Africa the Germans had dreamed, especially since 1911, of laying the foundations of a "Mittelafrika." They also had designs on the Belgian Congo and they longed to give effect to the agreement concerning the Portuguese colonies which they had made with England in 1898. Grey did not discourage these ambitions -- quite the contrary. "As to the future," he declared, "it is clear . . . that the Germans would like the division of the Portuguese Colonies to take place as soon as possible. So should I . . ." This affair was most delicate -- "somewhat exasperating" -- since Portugal was an ally of England. But, as Portugal was unable to develop her colonies, she would very likely be obliged to put them up as security against loans which she would want to contract; otherwise the colonies would remain so impoverished they might revolt. In case either hypothesis eventuated -- a sale authorized by the Portuguese Government or a revolt in the colonies -- Britain's guarantee of Portugal's colonial domain was ipso facto abrogated (X, part 2, 266, 312, 323).
These, then, were the possibilities visualized in the Anglo-German pourparlers. The agreement signed on October 20, 1913, divided the Portuguese colonies into British and German spheres of influence and specified what action the two countries could take if Portugal asked for a loan or if the internal affairs of the colonies became unsettled. In the end the intervention of the two Powers, first economic then political, could lead to annexation. In that event Germany was to receive the northern part of Mozambique, the major part of Angola and the territory of Cabinda (north of the mouth of the Congo). The German colonies would then have a long common frontier with the Belgian Congo. We have incontestible proof that at the beginning of 1914 the German Government saw in this Anglo-German agreement a means for initiating a vast program of expansion in Central Africa at the expense of Belgium. We also know that in 1911 and 1912 Great Britain foresaw -- "in the distant future" -- the passing of the Belgian colony "to other hands," though she thought it unwise to negotiate on this subject with Germany. "We should probably be rather worse than better off as regards making a full and public revelation of our policy and aims," wrote Sir Eyre Crowe (X, part 2, 281). What was Britain's position on this question at the beginning of 1914? The new documents give no clue -- a regrettable lacuna.
In Asia Minor the chief object of Anglo-German negotiation was the Baghdad Railroad. For six years Great Britain, as well as France and Russia, had impeded this German enterprise. In 1913 she accepted an arrangement which provided that British interests were to be respected in the Persian Gulf region. On June 15, 1914, long technical discussions finally resulted in the signature of a preliminary agreement. According to this document, Great Britain agreed to open her financial market to the Baghdad Company. In return, Germany renounced her right to extend the railway beyond Basrah, thereby losing her access to the Persian Gulf. English, German and Dutch interests were to join in exploiting the petroleum fields of Mesopotamia. This agreement was a success for Germany: as Under-Secretary of State Zimmermann pointed out, she gained a sphere of economic expansion in a region where Great Britain's interests had been preponderant "for centuries."
These negotiations could have had important consequences on general policy. They ought to have had, said Jagow, a happy effect "on public opinion in both countries" (X, part 2, 223). But the signatures had not yet been exchanged. The British Government, although it had agreed in October 1913 to sign the agreement pertaining to the Portuguese colonies, put off ratification. Why? Apparently because of opposition from France. The British had negotiated the agreement without consulting Paris; they had sought "to appease Germany" by sacrificing, not their own interests, but those of other countries. According to Paul Cambon, the publication of the text of the Anglo-German agreement caused an "explosion" in French public opinion. The British Ambassador in Paris, Sir F. Bertie, echoed this belief. Why did Britain take this risk? It was logical that Grey should decide on postponement in order to humor the French. But did he not regret leaving the matter suspended in mid-air? He had given Germany certain satisfactions in principle; he could now employ delay in their realization as a means of inducing her to resume naval negotiations. This interpretation, it is true, is merely a "hypothesis," conditioned by the present state of our knowledge.
While the British Cabinet was negotiating with Germany, it received urgent entreaties from France and Russia. At the beginning of 1914, therefore, the "enlargement" of the Triple Entente was once again proposed. Russo-German tension, which had been serious during the winter of 1913-14 at the time of the Liman von Sanders mission, and which caused a prolonged press controversy in March 1914, explains why the St. Petersburg authorities were anxious. If the Triple Entente -- "whose existence is no more proven than that of a sea serpent," said Sazonov -- is transformed into a defensive alliance, "openly announced in all the newspapers of the world," peace would be assured, for Germany would not dare run the risk of war. The Russian Ambassador in London, Count Benckendorff, never tired of repeating this argument to Grey. At the beginning of April the Tsar himself expressed a desire "to see a closer bond of union established between England and Russia, such as an alliance of a purely defensive character." And, as the British Ambassador remarked that this wish could not be realized at the moment, Nicholas asked that the Anglo-Russian entente be at least confirmed and extended, either by the conclusion of an arrangement providing for coöperation between the General Staffs such as already existed between England and France, or else "by some written formula which would record the fact of Anglo-Russian co-operation in Europe" (X, part 2, 537).
Sir George Buchanan was convinced that Russia was "rapidly becoming so powerful that we must retain her friendship at almost any cost. If she acquired the conviction that we are unreliable and useless as a friend, she may one day strike a bargain with Germany and resume her liberty of action in Turkey and Persia. Our position then would be a very parlous one" (X, part 2, 538). The Anglo-Russian entente had, he pointed out, always been fragile, and the Tsarist régime, dubious of the value of close ties with "weak" and democratic countries like England and France, might very well be planning to improve its relations with the German Empire, "which in any case . . . has the appearance of stability and where the monarchical system is firmly established" (X, part 2, 533). Nevertheless, no one in the Foreign Office would admit the possibility of an alliance between England and Russia. The high officials most inclined to an active policy, Sir Eyre Crowe and Sir Arthur Nicolson, had in mind only "an interchange of views between the respective naval staffs, without in any way binding the Governments . . ." (X, part 2, 537, Minutes).
While Sir Edward Grey did not dismiss this idea, neither did he show enthusiasm: "We had better postpone discussion of anything as long as we can," he wrote on the margin of the report. But when King George visited Paris on April 23 and 24 the French Prime Minister, Gaston Doumergue, insisted "on the necessity for doing something to make relations with Russia more secure." He admitted that "an Alliance between Britain and Russia was out of the question," but could not the British Government "at least promise to discuss matters with Russia, if necessary?" Grey made a characteristic reply: ". . . it was more difficult for us in the case of Russia than in the case of France -- I would not say to enter into engagements, for we had no engagements with France -- but to hold out to Russia any hopes of assistance from us . . . If there were a really aggressive and menacing attack made by Germany upon France, it was possible that public feeling in Great Britain would justify the Government in helping France. But it was not likely that Germany would make an aggressive and menacing attack upon Russia; and, even if she did, people in Great Britain would be inclined to say that, though Germany might have successes at first, Russia's resources were so great that, in the long run, Germany would be exhausted without our helping Russia. Besides this, the French Government were a free Government, while the Russian Government were not; and this affected the sympathy of public opinion in Great Britain" (X, part 2, 541).
Nevertheless, in the middle of May the British Cabinet authorized the opening of negotiations between British and Russian naval staffs. These conferences were kept strictly secret; Germany must not be given an inkling of them, nor should they be exposed to radical criticism. When an English newspaper alluded to them Grey hastened to issue a denial. Their progress was slowed up by the British Government's dissatisfaction with the activities of Russian agents in Persia. At the moment of the Sarajevo murders nothing had yet been accomplished.
Through these apparent contradictions in Britain's policy, which sometimes disconcerted her partners, it is possible to perceive a logical evolution. From 1904 to 1914 British statesmen were ceaselessly on guard against a Germany determined to become a great naval Power. They were firmly convinced that they would have to throw their forces into the balance if a war broke out between the continental Powers. The Entente Cordiale had been welded more firmly by the General Staff conferences and the letters of November 1912; while in 1914 Anglo-Russian conciliation was about to assume a more definite form.
None the less, British policy never viewed France and Russia in the same light. England was indifferent to a possible Austro-Russian conflict; only a Franco-German war would really disquiet her. Even while continuing to seek a détente in Anglo-German relations, Grey, Asquith and the Foreign Office recognized that the interests of Britain were tied to those of France. Still, they had no desire to make a promise, to assume an obligation in advance, to transform the entente into an alliance.
But would not such a promise have guaranteed peace? If the Germans had been convinced that Britain was to intervene in a continental war, would they not have been more moderate? British statesmen were not unaware of that possibility. Why, then, did they resist every French supplication? They preferred, they said, to leave to English public opinion the responsibility for making the decision at the proper time. This was the solution that conformed with the political traditions of the country, the only one which would make possible "the mobilization of moral forces" in the event of war. England also feared that for her openly to take sides might, by irritating Germany, increase the danger of war. In short, she decided to leave her final decisions in doubt: she would keep France and Russia from assuming too firm an attitude toward Germany and compel them to make concessions. To Grey's mind all these political nuances were aimed at assuring peace.
In July 1914 England merely followed her traditional policy. But her peaceful intentions and her hesitations brought about the very result she wished to avoid.