THE USES AND ABUSES OF DIPLOMATIC HISTORY: THE CASE OF BRITISH FOREIGN POLICY, 1902-1907
"In 1870, British hegemony rested on a combination of economic and naval supremacy that looked indefinitely durable. Two short decades later, however, that picture had completely changed. The simultaneous rise of the United States, Germany, and Japan altered the distribution of power, forcing Britain to revamp its grand strategy. Pax Britannica may have technically lasted until World War I, but London saw the writing on the wall much earlier—which is precisely why it was able to adjust its strategy by downsizing imperial commitments and countering Germany’s rise. In 1896, Britain began courting the United States and soon backed down on a number of disputes in order to advance Anglo-American amity. The British adopted a similar approach in the Pacific, fashioning a naval alliance with Japan in 1902. In both cases, London used diplomacy to clear the way for retrenchment—and it worked. Rapprochement with Washington and Tokyo freed up the fleet, enabling the Royal Navy to concentrate its battleships closer to home as the Anglo-German rivalry heated up. It was precisely because Britain, while still enjoying preponderant strength, looked over the horizon that it was able to successfully adapt its grand strategy to a changing distribution of power. Just like Britain in 1870, the United States probably has another two decades before it finds itself in a truly multipolar world. But due to globalization and the spread of new manufacturing and information technologies, global power is shifting far more rapidly today than it did in the 19th century".Charles Kupchan, "Second Mates". The National Journal. 15 March 2012, in www.nationaljournal.com. Attending the New America Foundation's recent seminar on the so-called 'Pacific Century', one was struck by the fact that a number of commentators as the gathering employed the example of Great Britain's naval, military and diplomatic re-deployment in the year 1900 to 1907, as an example of what the USA, either is doing, can do or should be doing. As a former diplomatic historian, what seems clear to me (if not necessarily most of the commentators who by definition are not historians but either professors of International Politics or Political Scientists, or (God forbid!) in the area of 'security studies', is how confused and in fact erroneous is this 'historical example', which is held up to present-day policymakers. In the case of Mr. Kupchan, his rendition of the changes in British policy, are under-mined by the fact that the British initiated such changes from a position of strength, not weakness and far from the UK making concessions, it was the other powers vis-`a-vis the UK (with the exception of the USA), which made the most concessions. As anyone who is familiar with the pre-history of the 'revolution' in British foreign policy in these years may recall, the Anglo-French entente of 1904, saw more French concessions than British ones. This being of course a natural state of affairs, given the outcome of the Fashoda Crisis of 1898 1. Similarly, the Anglo-Japanese treaty of 1902, saw the Japanese rather than British make the most concessions in order to make the alliance a reality. Finally, it was the Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese War and the instability engendered by the Russian Revolution of 1905, which resulted in St. Petersburg, rather than London making most of the concessions in order to come to an agreement 2. The only power of note, which did not make any substantive concessions to the British in this time period was the USA 3. As confused is the idea, promulgated at last week's seminar (but also found in Kupchan's article) is that the changes in British policy in these years, made conflict less likely. On the contrary, the whole point of the changes in question is that they indeed made the worst of all conflicts (an Anglo-German war) more likely. It was only by this realignment of its military forces and its diplomatic commitments, that the UK was sufficiently equipped (in every sense of the word) to forcefully intervene in the various diplomatic crises that emerged in Europe up to the outbreak of the Great War: the First Moroccan Crisis, the Second Moroccan Crisis, and the Great War itself. Similarly, it seems to me, that while per se the recent 'pivot' of American forces from the Near and Middle East to the Orient, does not per se necessarily mean that conflict between the PRC and the USA, is any nearer (indeed I feel that the change in American strategy, makes actual conflict less likely), if one were to adhere to the British analogy, in point of fact, one would indeed believe precisely that. As that indeed is what occurred in the summer of 1914. One may conclude by urging 'caveat lector'! 1. William Langer, The Diplomacy of Imperialism, 1890-1902. (1935), pp. 551-564, and passim. 2. John Charmley, Splendid Isolation? Britain, the Balance of Power and the Origins of the First World War. (1999), pp. 295 and passim. 3. Kenneth Bourne, Britain the Balance of Power in North America, 1815-1908. (1967), pp.339-400 and passim.