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The End of “Splendid Isolation”
[T]he Queen cannot help feeling that our isolation is dangerous.1
—Queen Victoria, January 14, 1896
Isolation is much less dangerous than the danger of being dragged into wars which do not concern us.2
—Lord Salisbury, 1896
For as long as he had served the queen, Lord Salisbury had sought to keep Britain free of power blocs. “His policy was not one of isolation from Europe . . . but isolation from the Europe of alliances.”3 Britannia would rule the waves but stay out of Europe’s quarrels. Said Salisbury, “We are fish.”4
When the queen called him to form a new government for the third time in 1895, Lord Salisbury pursued his old policy of “splendid isolation.” But in the years since he and Disraeli had traveled to the Congress of Berlin in 1878, to create with Bismarck a new balance of power in Europe, their world had vanished.
In the Sino-Japanese war of 1894–95, Japan defeated China, seized Taiwan, and occupied the Liaotung Peninsula. Britain’s preeminent position in China was now history.
In the summer of 1895, London received a virtual ultimatum from secretary of state Richard Olney, demanding that Great Britain accept U.S. arbitration in a border dispute between British Guiana and Venezuela. Lord Salisbury shredded Olney’s note like an impatient tenured professor cutting up a freshman term paper. But President Cleveland demanded that Britain accept arbitration—or face the prospect of war with the United States.
The British were stunned by American enthusiasm for a war over a patch of South American jungle, and incredulous. America deployed two battleships to Britain’s forty-four.5 Yet Salisbury took the threat seriously: “A war with America . . . in the not distant future has become something more than a possibility.”6
London was jolted anew in January 1896 when the Kaiser sent a telegram of congratulations to Boer leader Paul Kruger on his capture of the Jameson raiders, who had invaded the Transvaal in a land grab concocted by Cecil Rhodes, with the connivance of Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain.
These two challenges, from a jingoistic America that was now the first economic power on earth, and from his bellicose nephew in Berlin, Wilhelm II, revealed to the future Edward VII that “his country was without a friend in the world” and “steps to end British isolation were required. . . .”7
On December 18, 1897, a Russian fleet steamed into the Chinese harbor of Port Arthur, “obliging British warships to vacate the area.”8 British jingoes “became apoplectic.”9 Lord Salisbury stood down: “I don’t think we carry enough guns to fight them and the French together.”10
In 1898, a crisis erupted in northeast Africa. Captain Jean-Baptiste Marchand, who had set off from Gabon in 1897 on a safari across the Sahara with six officers and 120 Senegalese, appeared at Fashoda in the southern Sudan, where he laid claim to the headwaters of the Nile. Sir Herbert Kitchener cruised upriver to instruct Marchand he was on imperial land. Faced with superior firepower, Marchand withdrew. Fashoda brought Britain and France to the brink of war. Paris backed down, but bitterness ran deep. Caught up in the Anglophobia was eight-year-old Charles de Gaulle.11
In 1900, the Russian challenge reappeared. After American, British, French, German, and Japanese troops had marched to the rescue of the diplomatic legation in Peking, besieged for fifty-five days by Chinese rebels called “Boxers,” Russia exploited the chaos to send a 200,000-man army into Manchuria and the Czar shifted a squadron of his Baltic fleet to Port Arthur. The British position in China was now threatened by Russia and Japan.
But what awakened Lord Salisbury to the depth of British isolation was the Boer War. When it broke out in 1899, Europeans and Americans cheered British defeats. While Joe Chamberlain might “speak of the British enjoying a ‘splendid isolation, surrounded and supported by our kinsfolk,’ the Boer War brought home the reality that, fully extended in their imperial role, the British needed to avoid conflict with the other great powers.”12
Only among America’s Anglophile elite could Victoria’s nation or Salisbury’s government find support. When Bourke Cockran, a Tammany Hall Democrat, wrote President McKinley, urging
him to mediate and keep America’s distance from Great Britain’s “wanton acts of aggression,” the letter went to Secretary of State John Hay.13
Hay bridled at this Celtic insolence. “Mr. Cockran’s logic is especially Irish,” he wrote to a friend. “As long as I stay here no action shall be taken contrary to my conviction that the one indispensable feature of our foreign policy should be a friendly understanding with England.” Hay refused even to answer “Bourke Cockran’s fool letter to the president.”14
Hay spoke of an alliance with Britain as an “unattainable dream” and hoped for a smashing imperial victory in South Africa. “I hope if it comes to blows that England will make quick work of Uncle Paul [Kruger].”15
So it was that as the nineteenth century came to an end Britain set out to court old rivals. The British first reached out to the Americans. Alone among Europe’s great powers, Britain sided with the United States in its 1898 war with Spain. London then settled the Alaska boundary dispute in America’s favor, renegotiated the fifty-year-old Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, and ceded to America the exclusive rights to build, operate, and fortify a canal across Panama. Then Britain withdrew her fleet from the Caribbean.
Writes British historian Correlli Barnett: “The passage of the British battlefleet from the Atlantic to the Pacific would now be by courtesy of the United States,” and, with America’s defeat of Spain, “The Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico, now American colonies, were gradually closed to British merchants by protective tariffs, for the benefit of their American rivals.”16
Other historians, however, hail the British initiative to terminate a century of U.S.-British enmity as “The Great Rapprochement,” and Berlin-born Yale historian Hajo Holborn regards the establishment of close Anglo-American relations as probably “by far the greatest achievement of British diplomacy in terms of world history.”17
With America appeased, Britain turned to Asia.
With a Russian army in Manchuria menacing Korea and the Czar’s warships at Port Arthur and Vladivostok, Japan needed an ally to balance off Russia’s ally, France. Germany would not do, as Kaiser Wilhelm disliked Orientals and was endlessly warning about the “Yellow Peril.” As for the Americans, their Open Door policy had proven to be bluster and bluff when Russia moved into Manchuria. That left the British, whom the Japanese admired as an island people and warrior race that had created the world’s greatest empire.
On January 30, 1902, an Anglo-Japanese treaty was signed. Each nation agreed to remain neutral should the other become embroiled in an Asian war with a single power. However, should either become involved in war with two powers, each would come to the aid of the other. Confident its treaty with Britain would checkmate Russia’s ally France, Japan in 1904 launched a surprise attack on the Russian naval squadron at Port Arthur. An enraged Czar sent his Baltic fleet to exact retribution. After a voyage of six months from the Baltic to the North Sea, down the Atlantic and around the Cape of Good Hope to the Indian Ocean, the great Russian fleet was ambushed and annihilated by Admiral Heihachiro Togo in Tshushima Strait between Korea and Japan. Only one small Russian cruiser and two destroyers made it to Vladivostok. Japan lost two torpedo boats. It was a victory for Japan to rival the sinking of the Spanish Armada and the worst defeat ever inflicted on a Western power by an Asian people.
Britain had chosen well. In 1905, the Anglo-Japanese treaty was elevated into a full alliance. Britain now turned to patching up quarrels with her European rivals. Her natural allies were Germany and the Habsburg Empire, neither of whom had designs on the British Empire. Imperial Russia, Britain’s great nineteenth-century rival, was pressing down on China, India, Afghanistan, the Turkish Straits, and the Middle East. France was Britain’s ancient enemy and imperial rival in Africa and Egypt. The nightmare of the British was a second Tilsit, where Napoleon and Czar Alexander I, meeting on a barge in the Neiman in 1807, had divided a prostrate Europe and Middle East between them. Germany was the sole European bulwark against a French-Russian dominance of Europe and drive for hegemony in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia—at the expense of the British Empire.
With Lord Salisbury’s blessing, Joe Chamberlain began to court Berlin. “England, Germany and America should collaborate: by so doing they could check Russian expansionism, calm turbulent France and guarantee world peace,” Chamberlain told future German chancellor Bernhard von Bulow.18 The Kaiser put him off. Neither he nor his advisers believed Britain could reconcile with her old nemesis France, or Russia, and must eventually come to Berlin hat-in-hand. Joe warned the Germans: Spurn Britain, and we go elsewhere.
The Kaiser let the opportunity slip and, in April 1904, learned to his astonishment that Britain and France had negotiated an entente cordiale, a cordial understanding. France yielded all claims in Egypt, and Britain agreed to support France’s preeminence in Morocco. Centuries of hostility came to an end. The quarrel over Suez was over. Fashoda was history.
The entente quickly proved its worth. After the Kaiser was persuaded to make a provocative visit to Tangier in 1905, Britain backed France at the Algeciras conference called to resolve the crisis. Germany won economic concessions in Morocco, but Berlin had solidified the Anglo-French entente. More ominous, the Tangier crisis had propelled secret talks already under way between French and British staff officers over how a British army might be ferried across the Channel to France in the event of a war with Germany.
Unknown to the Cabinet and Parliament, a tiny cabal had made a decision fateful for Britain, the empire, and the world. Under the guidance of Edward Grey, the foreign secretary from 1905 to 1916, British and French officers plotted Britain’s entry into a Franco-German war from the first shot. And these secret war plans were being formulated by Liberals voted into power in public revulsion against the Boer War on a platform of “Peace, Retrenchment, and Reform.” Writes historian Robert Massie,
[O]n January 16 , without the approval of either the Prime Minister or Cabinet, secret talks between British and French staff officers began. They focussed on plans to send 100,000 British soldiers to the Continent within two weeks of an outbreak of hostilities. On January 26, when Campbell-Bannerman returned to London and was informed, he approved.19
As Churchill wrote decades later, only Lord Rosebery read the real meaning of the Anglo-French entente. “Only one voice—Rosebery’s—was raised in discord: in public ‘Far more likely to lead to War than Peace’; in private ‘Straight to War.’ ”20 While praising Rosebery’s foresight, Churchill never repudiated his own support of the entente or secret understandings: “It must not be thought that I regret the decisions which were in fact taken.”21
In August 1907, Britain entered into an Anglo-Russian convention, ending their eighty-year conflict. Czar Nicholas II accepted Britain’s dominance in southern Persia. Britain accepted Russia’s dominance in the north. Both agreed to stay out of central Persia, Afghanistan, and Tibet. The Great Game was over and the lineups completed for the great European war. In the Triple Alliance were Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. Opposite was the Franco-Russian alliance backed by Great Britain, which was allied to Japan. Only America among the great powers remained free of entangling alliances.
“You Have a New World”
Britain had appeased America, allied with Japan, and entered an entente with France and Russia, yet its German problem remained. It had arisen in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war. After the French defeat at Sedan and the abdication of Napoleon III, a united Germany stretching from France to Russia and from the Baltic to the Alps had emerged as the first power in Europe. Disraeli recognized the earthshaking importance of the unification of the German states under a Prussian king.
The war represents the German revolution, a greater political event than the French revolution of the last century. . . . There is not a diplomatic tradition, which has not been swept away. You have a new world. . . . The balance of power has been entirely destroyed.22
Bismarck had engineered the wars on Denmark, Austria, and France, but he now believed his nation had nothing to gain from war. She had “hay enough for her fork.”23 Germany should not behave “like a nouveau riche who has just come into money and then offended everyone by pointing to the coins in his pocket.”24 He crafted a series of treaties to maintain a European balance of power favorable to Germany—by keeping the Austro-Hungarian Empire allied, Russia friendly, Britain neutral, and France isolated. Bismarck opposed the building of a fleet that might alarm the British. As for an overseas empire, let Britain, France, and Russia quarrel over colonies. When a colonial adventurer pressed upon him Germany’s need to enter the scramble for Africa, Bismarck replied, “Your map of Africa is very nice. But there is France, and here is Russia, and we are in the middle, and that is my map of Africa.”25
As the clamor for colonies grew, however, the Iron Chancellor would succumb and Germany would join the scramble. By 1914, Berlin boasted the world’s third largest overseas empire, encompassing German East Africa (Tanganyika), South-West Africa (Namibia), Kamerun (Cameroon), and Togoland. On the China coast, the Kaiser held Shantung Peninsula. In the western Pacific, the House of Hohenzollern held German New Guinea, German Samoa, the Bismarck Archipelago, the Marshall, Mariana, and Caroline islands, and the Northern Solomons, of which Bougainville was the largest. However, writes Holborn,
Not for a moment were Bismarck’s colonial projects intended to constitute a revision of the fundamentals of his continental policy. Least of all were they designs to undermine British naval or colonial supremacy overseas. Bismarck was frank when he told British statesmen that Germany, by the acquisition of colonies, was giving Britain new hostages, since she could not hope to defend them in an emergency.26
By 1890, Bismarck had been dismissed by the new young Kaiser, who began to make a series of blunders, the first of which was to let Bismarck’s treaty with Russia lapse. This left Russia nowhere to turn but France. By 1894, St. Petersburg had become the ally of a Paris still seething over the loss of Alsace-Lorraine. France had broken free of the isolation imposed upon her by Bismarck. The Kaiser’s folly in letting the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia lapse can hardly be overstated.
While Germany was a “satiated power, so far as Europe itself was concerned, and stood to gain little from a major war on the European continent,” France and Russia were expansionist.27 Paris hungered for the return of Alsace. Russia sought hegemony over Bulgaria, domination of the Turkish Straits to keep foreign warships out of the Black Sea, and to pry away the Austrian share of a partitioned Poland.
More ominous, the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894 stipulated that a partial mobilization by any member of the Triple Alliance—Austria, Italy, or Germany—would trigger hostilities against all three.28 As George Kennan writes in The Fateful Alliance,
A partial Austrian mobilization against Serbia, for example (and one has only to recall the events of 1914 to understand the potential significance of this circumstance) could alone become the occasion for the launching of a general European war.29