Doing the impossible

James Joll

  • Retreat from Power: Studies in Britain’s Foreign Policy of the 20th Century edited by David Dilks
    Macmillan, 213 pp, £10.00, February 1981, ISBN 0 333 28910 2

Before the First World War the British Foreign Office claimed that it based its policy on the maintenance of the Balance of Power, and that Britain, remaining aloof from European entanglements, could use her influence to preserve that balance and to prevent any other European power from disturbing it. In the 1980s, the foreign policy of every country is conditioned by the state of the nuclear balance of power, and Britain, like other small states, has very little opportunity to conduct an independent foreign policy on a world scale. British foreign policy today is ineluctably shaped by Britain’s economic decline. This not only means that the day-to-day stuff of foreign policy consists of arguments about agricultural prices and fishing quotas, but also that the primacy of foreign policy has given place to the primacy of domestic policy, not in the sense that foreign policy is conditioned by considerations of party and parliamentary politics, though this is occasionally the case, but in the sense that decisions are dominated by overriding economic considerations. The Foreign Office itself has comparatively little say. In Sir Edward Grey’s day, before 1914, it could operate without much regard for the other departments of government: now this autonomy has disappeared, and foreign policy is only one among several ways in which Britain seeks uneasily to find a way out of her economic difficulties.

The two volumes of Retreat from Power are made up of a number of detailed studies which illuminate particular aspects and episodes of British foreign policy in the period of the decline and fall of the British Empire. The articles are papers which have either been delivered in the flourishing school of international history in the University of Leeds or are by scholars who have some connection with that university. Some have already been printed elsewhere, but a number of them appear here for the first time. Professor David Dilks has provided, in his introduction to each volume, a lucid and dispassionate account of the main lines of development of British foreign policy, and a framework into which the individual essays can be fitted.

Nearly all these detailed studies demonstrate the increasing awareness in the Foreign Office of the constraints under which foreign policy has to be conducted. Even in 1914, the British Empire was already overextended and the aim of the Government was to preserve Britain’s position in the world rather than add to her burdens. And although, at the end of World War One, Britain had acquired new areas in addition to those which she already controlled in Africa and the Middle East, these increasingly turned out to be sources of weakness rather than of strength. In the interesting opening essay in this book, ‘British Power in the European Balance 1906-1914’, Keith Wilson shows that, however strongly the Foreign Office asserted that it was basing its policies on the maintenance of the Balance of Power as an abstract principle, England’s choice of an association with France and Russia, as against Germany, was the only way of maintaining her position as a world naval power and of securing the defence of the Empire, especially of India. If Britain were to keep the balance of power in her favour, she was bound to become involved in a system of continental alliances, however much she would have preferred to retain a free hand and however much Grey assured his liberal supporters that she was in fact doing so. Along with the idea of splendid isolation, Britain’s freedom of manoeuvre was disappearing.

From then on, successive British governments were trying to preserve Britain’s position as a world power while becoming increasingly conscious of the dwindling of British resources. By the 1930s, it was quite clear how inadequate Britain’s forces were for the military and diplomatic tasks which confronted her. ‘The plain fact which cannot be obscured,’ Sir Thomas Inskip, the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence, said in February 1938, ‘is that it is beyond the resources of this country to make proper provision in peace for the defence of the British Empire against three major powers in three different theatres of war.’ Sir Robert Vansittart, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, had put the same point more succinctly three years earlier: ‘We are greatly overlanded.’

We now have ample evidence that, in the 1930s, ministers and their service advisers were more and more aware that they were being asked to do the impossible in planning for a possible war against Germany, Italy and Japan, in north-west Europe, the Mediterranean and the Far East – a dilemma very well summed up in Professor Michael Howard’s essay on British military preparations for the Second World War. In these circumstances, the policy of appeasement becomes more comprehensible. The moral condemnation which it provoked at the time fades away when we are confronted with the prudential and utilitarian considerations on which the Chamberlain Government based its foreign policy. Moreover, as Professor W. N. Medlicott shows in two important articles on ‘Britain and Germany – The Search for Agreement’ and on ‘The Hoare-Laval Pact Reconsidered’, the differences of opinion between the Foreign Office and Chamberlain and his advisers were not nearly as great as some people in the Foreign Office subsequently claimed. Even Sir Robert Vansittart often took, at the time, a line rather different from the one which he maintained in his memoirs that he had consistently followed. For all the alarm which he felt about German policy, he was a consistent advocate of colonial concessions to Germany: ‘No lasting bargain can be made with present-day Germany without the payment of a high price ... We cannot immorally seek that price, or connive at its being sought, at the expense of others – that is, in Europe ... Such expansion can therefore only be pursued at our expense – that is, in Africa – by the restitution of the former colonies of Germany.’ Unfortunately, this was not a bargain in which Hitler was particularly interested.

Vansittart had also been responsible for the policies for which Sir Samuel Hoare was forced to resign as Foreign Secretary. It was Vansittart who had written a large part of Hoare’s famous speech to the League of Nations in September 1935, in which the British Foreign Secretary appeared to express unequivocal support for collective security and a common front against Italian aggression in Ethiopia: but it was also Vansittart who was responsible for the ‘Hoare-Laval’ plan for ending the Ethiopian war by means of extensive concessions to Italy. As Professor Medlicott puts it, ‘in the process of inquiry the lines of distinction between the popular stereotypes, appeasers (or peace-makers) and warmongers (or resisters), between the doves and the hawks of the 1930s, tend to disappear.’ Whether or not history itself moves according to a dialectical pattern, historiography certainly does; and out of the extreme positions adopted by historians on the question of appeasement (in, for example, the debate which followed the publication of A.J.P. Taylor’s The Origins of the Second World War in 1961) a new synthesis has emerged to become the orthodoxy of the 1980s.

The legacy of Empire was a fundamental cause of Britain’s dilemma; and it is worth noting too, as David Dilks reminds us, that even after the Second World War, when the Labour Government came to power, the general belief in the Colonial Office was that most of the Empire still had nearly half a century to go before it would be ready for independence. Two considerations dominated: India, and the security of the British and Australian position in the Pacific. The safeguarding of the British links with India had become so axiomatic that it remained an unquestioned aim of British foreign policy and strategy. The First World War had indeed demonstrated that India provided a reserve of manpower which the British needed; and the war had also shown how strong the ties of sentiment binding the Empire together still were, and how important the practical contribution from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa had been to the British war effort. But it also increased the problems of coordinating foreign policy within the Commonwealth (as is shown by the essay by Dr Norman Hillmer, ‘The Foreign Office, the Dominions and the Diplomatic Unity of the Empire 1925-29’), and the responsibility which lay with the British Navy for the guaranteeing of the security of the Dominions. When, by the early 1930s, the Australians were becoming anxious about Japanese expansionism, the British Chiefs of Staff were able to reassure them: ‘Provided that the British fleet arrives in time and finds a properly equipped base at Singapore, Australia has nothing to fear beyond a sporadic attack.’ The commitment to the Singapore base – that most ill-fated of imperial projects – was bound to compete with a commitment to Europe: and the logical consequence was that either Japan or Germany or Italy would have to be ‘appeased’ if Britain was not to face a conflict she was in no position to sustain.

By the end of the Second World War the limitations on British foreign policy had become clearer than ever, though at a moment when national pride in Britain’s victory tended to obscure her weakness. ‘I’m not going to have Britain barged about,’ Ernest Bevin is said to have exclaimed during the Potsdam Conference: but on another occasion he recognised just why there was a danger that Britain would be barged about:-‘If I could export so many million tons of coal a year, I could put our economy right and have an independent foreign policy.’ Moreover, as Britain’s freedom of manoeuvre in foreign policy becomes ever more restricted, so the execution of that policy becomes more and more complex. If the tangible factors of economic strength and military and naval power dwindle, what is the role of cultural and educational factors in the maintenance of British influence abroad? This is an aspect to which the present government appears to be oblivious. In a valuable essay on ‘Publicity and Diplomacy’, Dr Philip Taylor shows how much resistance there was during the First World War and the peace conference of 1919 to the idea of providing the foreign press with adequate information about British policy. Today there is a similar blindness to the non-quantifiable effects of presenting Britain abroad through such bodies as the British Council and the BBC Overseas Service, and to the results of encouraging foreign students to come to this country. The 14 essays which David Dilks has collected show the continuity of many underlying attitudes, as well as the stages in Britain’s retreat from power, and they demonstrate the extent to which foreign policy has ceased to be an autonomous activity carried on by professional diplomats. They also leave us with many questions and misgivings about the future.

By now, the conduct of foreign policy is subordinated to economic necessities, and the cost of strategic independence has become impossibly high. In one of the most significant contributions to these volumes, Professor Margaret Gowing summarises some of the conclusions which can be drawn from her three brilliant volumes on the history of Britain and atomic energy. She shows how Britain’s original scientific lead was obliterated by the size and richness of America’s technological resources, and how Britain lost her status as an equal partner in a joint enterprise. Thus, by the 1950s, Britain found herself committed to the construction and maintenance of an independent deterrent, and, although a measure of Anglo-American co-operation was later restored, Britain continued to be outstripped as the Americans and Russians developed thermonuclear weapons with which Britain lacked the technological and financial resources to compete. The question of the continuance and nature of the independent British deterrent remains fundamental for British foreign policy in the 1980s. In the last essay in this collection, Edward Spiers discusses some of the technical problems and possibilities for Britain, but the two most profound comments are to be found in Margaret Gowing’s article. One is a quotation from Sir Henry Tizard in 1949: ‘We persist in regarding ourselves as a Great Power, capable of everything and only temporarily handicapped by economic difficulties. We are not a Great Power and never will be again. We are a great nation but if we continue to behave like a Great Power we shall soon cease to be a great nation.’ The other is the question with which Professor Gowing herself ends: ‘Was Britain to join in this race in which there could be no winners, no prizes and no end save an improbable millennium on earth or a holocaust? Could Britain afford to join the race? Dare she opt out of it?’ These are decisions as momentous as any that have confronted the makers of British foreign policy in the course of this century.