Between Empire and Continent. British Foreign Policy before the First World War
By Andreas Rose
The origins of the First World War in general and Britain’s foreign policy in the decades prior to 1914 in particular belong to the most researched topics in modern history. The well-trodden paradigm of the “rise of Anglo-German antagonism”, Germany as the disruptive element in the pre-war European system of states and Britain merely balancing German challenges, still reflects the general consensus about pre-1914 international relations.
The established pattern of interpretation reads as follows: By the end of the 1890s, Germany embarked on an ever growing aggressive foreign policy and pushed the construction of a battle fleet. In consequence, Great Britain had no choice but to react by regrouping the Fleets of the Royal Navy and starting a hitherto unprecedented ship-building programme. Furthermore, the supposed German peril at sea is said to have conveyed the need to abandon the policy of splendid isolation altogether to London’s political and diplomatic elites. The resulting picture has long been strikingly unipolar: prior to 1914, Germany was the sun of the European solar system, in whose gravitational field the other imperial great powers were trapped like helpless planets.
In recent years, however, naval historians as well as historians with an imperial and global perspective have challenged this commonly held notion of German action and an inevitable British response. Instead of focusing mainly on Germany and merely extrapolating Great Britain’s policy from German aims, they have given prominence to the complex background of the British Empire. This concerns financial pressures after the South African War, security interests on the north-western frontier, naval thought, technological innovations and grand strategy. Thus, their results have proved in more than one way Paul W. Schroeder’s argument right, that it is still “one thing to show that Germany blundered and had dangerous aims; quite another to prove that these really caused the outcome, or that, had Germany not made them, the overall outcome would have been drastically changed”.
Building on works by Nicolas Lambert, Jon Sumida, Keith Wilson or Keith Neilson, Between Empire and Continent provides a different view. In this publication, Britain emerges not as the peacekeeper and referee reacting to German initiatives, but as a shrewd and powerful player in its own right. Britain’s naval policy was not a panicked reaction to the noxious designs of Admiral Tirpitz, but a complex and self-assured programme. It was drawn up by strategists confident of their own superiority and determined to defend Britain’s command of the sea against a plurality of potential threats, and was a result of a complex policy process within a highly modern governmental and parliamentary system. The British decision to seek closer relations with Russia and France was not driven by the fear of Germany, but by the conviction that Germany was even too weak to offer meaningful help against the global heft of the Franco-Russian alliance. The German war-scares that periodically crackled across the British press had less to do with objective dangers than with the agendas of a certain group of periodicals, with inter-party rivalries between radicals and liberal imperialists as well as with inter-service rivalries and the battle for resources between the Army and the Navy. Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey was not the neutral observer of European affairs depicted in many accounts, but a partisan participant in continental geopolitics who, having decided early on to throw in his lot with Paris and St Petersburg, soon lost control of these unpredictable partners. Far from keeping the peace and in marked contrast to his predecessors Arthur Balfour and Lord Lansdowne, Grey’s increasingly pro-Russian and anti-Austrian management of the pre-war Balkan crises amplified existing risks.
The Anglo-Russian rapprochement of 1907 contributed significantly to the revolution of the state system before 1914. Most historians still interpret the Anglo-Russian convention as a mere imperial alignment on the states system’s periphery: a transregional account. Looking for interrelations between domestic, continental and imperial debates between London and Calcutta shows how British interests and defensive perceptions on the Continent, the Near East and Central Asia were “two halves of the same problem”. Germany and Russia, therefore, were seen by many Edwardians as “two seeming bits of threats wholly disconnected in appearance but one and the same threat, not cut at all”.
Balfour and Lansdowne – backed by viceroy George Curzon – kept continental and imperial diplomacy separated and continued to pursue Salisbury’s concept of buffer areas in Central Asia. At the same time, the liberal government – partly influenced by Calcutta’s and Simla’s exaggerated perceptions of an imminent Russian danger to India – sought for a settlement that would include the Near East and even used the Straits as bait. In order to divert imperial tensions back from the periphery into the continent, Whitehall thus allowed the most sensitive area of Europe to become once more the neuralgic point of Great Power relations. The Persian Convention put the south-eastern European periphery, a safety valve for pan-Slav expansionism where Russia and Austria-Hungary gambled for the highest stakes, back on the agenda, as from 1907 onwards it replaced Persia and became the only focus of Russian expansionism. Only one year later, Russian diplomacy tested the new Anglo-Russian friendship during the Bosnian Annexation Crisis. Although Edward Grey was willing to act “more Russian, than the Russians” during the Balkan crisis, he was finally called off by his radical colleagues within the government. Nevertheless, the Annexation Crisis therefore can be seen as the start of what Christopher Clark famously called the ‘Balkan inception scenario’ and which ultimately led to the July crisis in 1914.
In light of the politicised climate of the 1914 debate, a point worth emphasising is that Between Empire and Continent is not meant to be a crude work of revisionism. It investigates international failures that were instrumental for the ‘great seminal catastrophe’. But it does not examine the July Crisis itself. It is founded upon the awareness that while the outbreak of war in 1914 was neither irresistible nor improbable, many contemporaries always reckoned it possible. The war’s principal characters are gamblers rather than ‘sleepwalkers’. The book therefore investigates the return of imperial tensions and explores the growing fragility of the international state system. Great Britain, traditionally deemed a ‘spectator of events’, takes up its rightful place centre stage in its story. However, the book’s aim is not to rehabilitate German policy before 1914. It does not attempt to shift culpability for the outbreak of war from Berlin to London. Even so, it does break with what Samuel Williamson has called the ‘German paradigm’. It places the question of culpability to the side in order to examine the actions and processes that generated risk within the system. It insists on the proactive agency of all state actors and the complexity of the threats perceived by all decision-makers. The Britain depicted in this book is not the lonely voice for peace depicted in many older accounts, but a great power among great powers. British policy-makers were focused, as they had to be, on strategic and tactical advantage, and in pursuing what they took to be Britain’s best interests, they fuelled the volatility of the international system in the last pre-war years, just as their continental partners and opponents did.
Andreas Rose: Between Empire and Continent. British Foreign Policy before the First World War, with a Foreword by Sir Christopher Clark, Berghahn, London/New York 2017.
 Among others: Nicolas Lambert, Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution, Columbia, SC 1999; Keith Wilson, Keith Neilson
 P. W. Schroeder, International Politics, Peace, and War, 1815–1914, in: T.C.W. Blanning (ed.), The Short Oxford History of Europe: The Nineteenth Century, Oxford 2000, 158–209, 196.
Andreas Rose is currently the Konrad Adenauer Research Scholar at the London School of Economics. From 2010 to 2016, he was an Assistant Professor for Modern History at Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn. His publication “Between Empire and Continent” won much critical acclaim and was awarded the Mitek Pemper Prize for outstanding research on the catastrophes of the 20th century and the distinguished translation Award, Geisteswissenschaften International, by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation, the German federal Foreign Office and the German Publishers & and Booksellers Association.
Citation: Andreas Rose, Between Empire and Continent. British Foreign Policy before the First World War, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 19.07.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/10669.