Just a few years into the life of the new century, the world’s greatest superpower was showing signs of strain and a loss of the self-confidence that had characterized its rise to power during the preceding century. Having been at the forefront of scientific, technological, and industrial development, it watched nervously as other nations narrowed the gap. Having boasted of the advancement of its civilization and the durability of its political institutions, it was presented with the uncomfortable reality that others had taken alternative paths to modernity and did not necessarily share the same values.
Although it was blessed with great geopolitical advantages—surrounded by seas that insulated it from its major rivals and potential enemies—the nation sensed a growing vulnerability. It feared being overtaken by those who had grumbled under its hegemony and whose collective hostility was but thinly veiled. Its novelists depicted dystopian scenes of foreign invasion, or of a world dominated by people of a different nationality, race, or religion. The nation’s leaders were divided on how to respond, but they agreed that the methods that had led to preeminence might not be fit for the increasingly hostile international environment in which they now found themselves. A self-confident belief that they were on the right side of history had given way to a growing anxiety about the gauzy future opening up before them.
The nation in question had sprawling global interests that far outstripped anything seen in the great empires of antiquity. There had never been a master plan to rule other parts of the world, to garrison troops in foreign lands, or subjugate other peoples through force. After all, the people of the nation believed that they were more advanced than nearly every other in their advocacy of liberty, rule of law, and self-government. When it came to foreign policy, this powerful country had made sacrifices for the general good of mankind and saw itself as a vanguard of humanity and civilization. While it was an unapologetic champion of free trade, it believed and asserted sincerely that everyone could and ultimately would reap its benefits. Other nations often did not see it this way. They bristled at the delusional self-image of benign hegemony, pointing to instances of perfidy and self-aggrandizement at almost every turn.
There came a time when the allegations of hypocrisy and double-standards from others began to seep inside the consciousness of the nation, and to infect its body politic with doubt and guilt. This ambient discomfort was exacerbated by several embarrassing defeats on the battlefield at the hands of smaller, irregular forces that should have been easily swept aside. Paying for the upkeep of an empire was a thankless task made more problematic when large portions of the population began to question the foundations of the political system at home.
Just as the nation was reconsidering its global commitments, its rivals began to do deeply unsettling things. First, they ganged up in various ways, apparently willing to set aside their own differences for a larger prize. Second, they began to flout the rules of the global order, demonstrating that those rules were neither timeless nor sacrosanct but merely a reflection of power. Third, they acquired imperial ambitions of their own or redoubled existing ones. And fourth, they began to prepare for war. Pseudo-scientific slogans such as “national efficiency” and “survival of the fittest” set the backdrop for a new era of international competition. A crossroads approached: Should the nation concentrate on fixing itself in order to confront its enemies from a position of greater strength, or should it seek to do business in a different way, rebalancing its global posture to prevent it from being isolated or ambushed?
The debate about how to approach this changing world cut across familiar divisions between Left and Right. Liberals were divided: Some demanded a radical new departure and argued that it was time to give up on high military spending and imperial pretensions; others remained attached to a more traditional approach, convinced that the nation remained indispensable as a benign hegemon in international affairs. Conservatives were also torn: Most preferred a policy of “splendid isolation” that forswore the costly habit of meddling in the internal affairs of other states, but many thought that the nation needed new friends and allies, and so should adopt a more business-like approach in its foreign policy.
Such was Britain as the curtain rose on the 20th century, and arguably such is America today near the start of the 21st. One should resist the temptation to force such analogies, of course. Nonetheless, many affirm the shared strategic culture that has framed the Anglo-American approach to the world, and the interchange of historical experience during the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. The worldviews of Alfred Thayer Mahan, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson were all shaped by close dialogue with their British counterparts of the time.
America’s appetite for the tale of Britain’s rise and fall has remained undiminished. The story of British foreign policy in the era before the World War has been told with skill by diplomatic historians like Paul Kennedy, Niall Ferguson, Margaret MacMillan, Thomas Otte, Andrew Roberts, and Zara Steiner. But it has been further imprinted onto the American strategic mind by writers from Hans Morgenthau through to Henry Kissinger, whose familiarity with the cast of characters from the Marquess of Salisbury to Eyre Crowe to Sir Edward Grey underscores the deep interest in these British precedents.
Attentive Americans know the story of Britain’s rise and fall well, and yet there remain gaps in the popular version. One of the less well-known and more ill-judged figures of this era is the Fifth Marquess of Lansdowne, who served as British Foreign Secretary from 1900 to 1905. Sandwiched between the heftier characters who preceded and followed him—Salisbury (who served four times as Foreign Secretary from 1878 to 1900) and Grey (1905-1916)— it is easy to see why he has been given short thrift. He had neither the force of personality nor the profundity of thought to leave the same very large legacy.
More than that, Lansdowne later fatally blotted his reputation in the eyes of many his countrymen. The source of infamy was the notorious “Lansdowne letter” of November 1917, published in the midst of the war, in which he called on the British government to seek peace with Germany rather than pursue military victory to the bitter end. At a distance, the sentiments he expressed do not look ignoble. “We are not going to lose this war, but its prolongation will spell ruin for the civilized world, and an infinite addition to the load of human suffering which already weighs upon it. . . . We do not desire the annihilation of Germany as a great power,” wrote Lansdowne. But his timing stank. Lansdowne was ostracized for what many of his peers regarded as a foolhardy and unpatriotic act, and his career as a frontline politician came to an abrupt end.
Writing in 1946, however, Aldous Huxley opened a new edition of Brave New World with an introduction that suggested that Lansdowne had been unfairly vilified. In Huxley’s eyes, Lansdowne’s act was that of the “last conservative statesman” in a world that had been almost destroyed by chauvinistic nationalism, militarism, and radical ideologies. War itself was nothing new, but before the 20th century statesman “had consciously resisted the temptation to use their military resources to the limits of destructiveness or (in the majority of conflicts) to go on fighting until the enemy was totally annihilated.” That was not to say there had not been aggressors in previous eras, of course, “greedy for profit and glory.” But in Huxley’s view, they were different than the “nationalistic radicals of the right and nationalistic radicals of the left” who had cursed the world in recent times. Men like Lansdowne were “conservatives, determined at all costs to keep their world intact.” Huxley’s message was clear: In the affairs of states, genuine conservatives put order and civilization above martial glory or the search for vengeance and emphatic victory.
Huxley wrote these words almost two decades after Lansdowne’s death in 1927, but the “last conservative statesman” is a moniker he would no doubt have been happy to embrace. Born in London in 1845, Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice was from one of the wealthiest landowning families in Ireland, who had traditionally leaned toward the Whig side in politics. The Lansdowne blood was also infused with a sprinkling from the Continent’s aristocratic diplomatic and military elites. Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice maternal grandfather was General Count de Flahault, formerly aide-de-camp of Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1868, Emperor Napoleon III invited the Fifth Marquess, as he had just become at age 23, to visit him at Compiegne, from where the young Lansdowne wrote to his mother enthusiastically that the Emperor “was very good natured when I was presented before dinner and asked kindly after grandpapa.”
After entering the House of Lords that year, young Petty-Fitzmaurice served out his mid-twenties in William Gladstone’s cabinet as Lord of the Treasury from 1869 to 1872, and then Under-Secretary of State for War from 1872 to 1874. It was the prelude to assuming two of the biggest jobs in th British Empire. In 1882, he was appointed Governor General of Canada, and then Viceroy of India from 1888 to 1894. After breaking with the Liberals over their Irish policy, he served as Secretary of State for War under the Conservative government of Lord Salisbury, from 1895-1900, before the so-called “khaki election” of October 1900, which occurred against the backdrop of a series of victories in the Second Boer War.
At the time, it was widely believed that Britain was close to victory. The Conservatives benefitted from a surge in patriotic sentiment and won the election comfortably, only for it to emerge within weeks that the British were faring worse than had been understood. The war dragged on for another two years with a flurry stories of retreats and humbling reverses on the battlefield. It was a source of deep embarrassment that the full might of British Empire could not triumph against the hastily convened irregulars of the South African Republic and the Orange Free State. Worse still were the actions taken by the British forces—from scorched-earth tactics to concentration camps—which saw support for the war drain dramatically.
In an era when the notion of “survival of the fittest” had begun to seep into international affairs, the very health of the British Empire was questioned as never before. As many as 40 percent of recruits from British working-class areas were deemed unfit for military service because of the impact of widespread poverty, malnutrition, and terrible sanitation across much of the country. The effects of the war were corrosive to Britain’s confident self-image. Across Europe and in the United States, moreover, there was widespread delight that the British had not only been humiliated, but had lost the moral high ground they had so often lorded over others.
The crisis caused by the Boer War was exacerbated by a number of other international problems coalescing at the same time: The Boxer Rebellion was gaining momentum in China, threatening the Open Door policy, which had provided the British, among others, the great benefit of access to Chinese waterways; Russia was seeking to expand its influence in Afghanistan and therefore provoking a neuralgic response about the security of India (always “the jewel in the Crown”); Spain was threatening Gibraltar (the gateway to the Mediterranean) as a result of British neutrality during the Spanish-American War; the United States, fresh from its overwhelming victory against the Spanish, was now more bullish in challenging British interests in the northern Caribbean basin; and French forces were deployed in parts of modern-day Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, raising the prospect of a challenge to British predominance in Egypt, where the Suez canal remained the ultimate goal. To protect the canal, British diplomats of the day agreed that the country needed German support for Britain’s role in Egypt against French pretensions, which had manifested in a nasty set-to at Fashoda just a few years before.
Supremacy had bred aloofness. The idealized version of British grand strategy had involved cultivating an image of a disinterested broker in international affairs (provided Britain’s own interests were not directly under threat). As several challenges began to coalesce at once, at various pressure points around the globe, those tasked with the preservation of the Empire began to grow more conscious of the fact that they were short of useful associates. Feeling the pressure, the British sought to plug some of the gaps with double-dealing: In 1899 it made a secret arrangement with Germany to carve up Portugal’s African colonies between them in the event of war, and in 1900 another secret arrangement with Portugal to do the same with German colonies.
Traditionally, however, suspicions normally fell first upon France, with rumors that the old enemy was seeking to build a new European alliance against the British. In effect, and partly by their own design, the British were already locked out. European geopolitics pivoted around two alliance systems—the Triple Alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy; and the Dual Alliance between Russia and France—from which the United Kingdom was excluded.
Being starved of friends on the Continent had not seemed so important when Britain had been untouchable on the high seas for so long. The “two-power standard”—established by an 1889 Act of Parliament that had declared that the Royal Navy must have a naval size equal to the next two powers combined—was an attempt to maintain that preeminence. By combining their forces, however, Britain’s rivals had found ways to circumvent British naval dominance. A watershed moment had come with the Triple Intervention of 1895, in which Russia, Germany, and France jointly intervened and set the terms for arbitration at the end of the first Sino-Japanese War, thereby signaling their ability to challenge British influence in Asia.
The “two-power standard” was unsustainable given the pace of the naval armament campaigns in Germany and the United States. Of these, Germany provided the most obvious threat. A process of recalibration began. The Admiralty withdrew warships from the Far East and Western Hemisphere in order to defend European waterways, but pressures were felt elsewhere, too. In July 1899, the Director of Naval Intelligence, Reginald Custance, warned that “the superiority which the British squadrons formerly enjoyed on the North American, West Indies and the Pacific stations has passed away.” Costs were also increasingly prohibitive. Lord Selborne, the head of the Admiralty in 1900, was sobered by the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s message that the department would be forced to “cut its coat according to its cloth.”1
With the recognition that naval supremacy could not be sustained indefinitely came the need for a fundamental rethinking of British foreign policy. To say that Britain had always preferred to focus on its “blue water” empire, rather than seeking allies on the European Continent, is to risk reducing a long and complex history to a slogan. Nonetheless, some version of “splendid isolation”—based on maintaining the Empire, avoiding continental entanglements, and acting, periodically, as the arbitrating weight in the European balance of power—had been at the heart of British grand strategy for the last quarter of the 19th century.
The most prominent champion of this policy was the Third Marquess of Salisbury, who had steered British foreign policy for over a decade, serving three terms in his dual role of Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary. In 1902, he justified his rationale:
Except during [Napoleon’s] reign we have never even been in danger; and, therefore, it is impossible for us to judge whether the isolation under which we are supposed to suffer, does or does not contain in it any elements of peril. It would hardly be wise to incur novel and most onerous obligations, in order to guard against a danger in whose existence we have no historical reason for believing.2
By this time, however, even Salisbury was willing to consider that a purist version of “splendid isolation” might have its limitations.
Despite his overwhelming victory in the “khaki” election, Salisbury’s health no longer allowed him to maintain a hold on the two most important offices of state at once. Initially, his decision to appoint Lansdowne, his protégé, as his Foreign Secretary did not inspire confidence. Having served as War Secretary for the previous five years, Lansdowne was becoming the target of criticism as the news from the Boer conflict began to sour. The Standard wasted no time taking aim: “The appointment of the Marquis of Lansdowne is an almost inconceivable blunder. He has neither the character, qualifications, nor experience for such a position.”3
It was to Lansdowne’s advantage that he had already served in some of the highest offices in the British Empire. Disputes over access to fishing territories and the Alaskan boundary issue had been two points of controversy he had dealt with during his time as Governor-General of Canada. The threat of a Russian advance into Central Asia and then India had occupied his contingency planning as Viceroy of India. Most importantly, as Secretary of State for War, Lansdowne had a clearer insight than most about just how stretched the imperial defenses really were.
Thus Lansdowne came to the conclusion that Britain needed friends. In response to Salisbury’s defense of the old policy in 1901, he reasoned,
I fully admit the force of the Prime Minister’s observation, that this country has until now fared well in spite of its international isolation. I think, however, that we may push too far the argument that, because we have in the past survived in spite of our isolation, we need have no misgivings as to the effect of that isolation in the future.4
Shut out of Europe, Lansdowne began his effort to rebalance British power with a move on the chessboard that was at once bold, imaginative, and unexpected. In an effort to preserve Britain’s privileged access to Asian markets, his first priority was to blunt Russia’s influence in the region, which he did by crafting an unlikely alliance with Japan in 1902. As Henry Kissinger later remarked, this was “the first time since Richelieu’s dealings with the Ottoman Turks that any European country had gone for help outside the Concert of Europe.”5
The terms of the deal were even more important. Under the Anglo-Japanese Treaty, both nations promised neutrality if either power was involved in a war over China or Korea with one adversary. Should either power find themselves in a war with two states, one alliance partner was required to offer military assistance to the other. This deftly inserted caveat kept Britain out of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904. What is more, Japan’s emphatic besting of the Russian fleet at Tsushima represented a further vindication of Lansdowne’s strategy. Japanese victory ensured that Britain had a powerful ally in the Far East, a point reinforced by the renewal of the alliance in 1905. As a result, as Paul Kennedy has written, “Britain’s maritime position by the second half of 1905 was more favorable than it had been for the previous two decades.”6
While the Anglo-Japanese alliance was the first pillar of Lansdowne’s new approach, the question of Britain’s European isolation remained unanswered. So it was through the Entente Cordiale of 1904, between Britain and France, that Lansdowne delivered what was, in effect, a “diplomatic revolution” in British foreign policy.
As early as 1902, Lansdowne believed the “wind of public opinion was blowing” in the direction of improved relations with France. Still, lingering suspicions remained, namely those over French colonial intentions in Africa and Southeast Asia. By 1904, moreover, many feared that rising tensions in the Far East would spiral into a war in which both Britain and France were tied to their respective allies, Japan and Russia. It was against this backdrop that Lansdowne saw the importance of seeking a rapprochement with France. What is more, writing in September 1903, he also entertained a longer-term hope: that an accord with France “would not improbably be the precursor of a better understanding with Russia.”7
Growing French fears about German intentions enabled the two sides to unite. Lansdowne found a receptive audience in his French counterpart, Théophile Delcassé, and the Anglo-French Entente was signed on April 8, 1904. The most important provisions included an attempt to soothe previous tensions over competing claims in the Middle East and North Africa. Britain gained uncontested control over Egypt while French preeminence was respected in Morocco—both sides of the arrangement leaving the Germans out in the cold and thus germinating the Moroccan crisis of the next year. In addition, the French renounced claims to fisheries in Newfoundland and boundary disputes in Nigeria and Gambia were settled in France’s favor, while both powers settled longstanding disputes over Siam in Southeast Asia that essentially protected its sovereignty by default.
With two carefully and patiently crafted diplomatic successes in the bag, Lansdowne turned to Anglo-American relations. By 1885, the United States had surpassed the British Empire in manufacturing output and was steadily increasing its navy with an eye toward consolidating power over the waters of the Western Hemisphere. While the Spanish-American War marked the arrival of the United States as a great power, the Venezuela crisis and Alaskan boundary dispute had presented new sources of contention in Anglo-American relations. Many Americans supported the Boer Republics against the British from 1899 onwards, and the Administration of Theodore Roosevelt arrived in office in September 1901—a year after Salisbury’s government—determined to flex its growing geopolitical muscle.
Much attention focused on the construction of the Isthmian Canal, planning for which began in 1899, which would ensure that American commercial and military vessels on the West Coast could reach the Caribbean without having to sail around Cape Horn (an issue that had dogged military strategists during the war against the Spanish). For the United States to have access to this region, however, would require the nullification of the Clayton–Bulwer Treaty, signed with Britain in 1850, which prevented either power from occupying land or constructing a canal in Central America. Lansdowne and his American counterpart Secretary of State John Hay worked to revise the terms. On November 18, 1901, a new treaty was signed that gave America the access it desired, and was quickly ratified by the U.S. Senate. In a speech later that month, a relieved Lansdowne, adamant about the necessity of friendly relations with the United States, celebrated the treaty between Britain and “our brothers across the ocean.”
Lansdowne championed the agreement knowing fully that it would be viewed as an unequal concession on the part of the British. But he took the longer view of the investment he had made. Recognizing the growth of American power, and understanding that British priorities lay elsewhere, he sought a foundational agreement that might set a precedent for the resolution of other outstanding disputes, most notably over the Alaskan territory boundaries. The diplomatic agreement, in turn, avoided a confrontation between the two powers while effectively handing control of the Western Hemisphere to the United States. What he sought to achieve in Anglo-American relations, as he later explained, was “that clean slate which we all so much desire.”8 It was a “reset,” to use contemporary terminology, of lasting historical significance. For a lesser-known Foreign Minister sandwiched between Salisbury and Gray, it was not too shabby a track record. In a history of the “art of the diplomatic deal,” Lansdowne would deserve a chapter at least.
Other aspects of the Lansdowne story have eerie echoes today. The most striking was the willingness of the government of which he was part to deviate from almost seventy years of free-trade orthodoxy. In the face of deepening international competition, Lansdowne lent his support to protectionist tariffs on goods imported into Britain from outside the Empire.
On June 15, 1903, he made a famous speech in defense of retaliatory tariffs against those countries choosing to impose high import taxes on British goods, or those who subsidized goods that were produced for sale in Britain:
To me we seem to be in the position of a man who in some lawless country enters unarmed a room in which every one else carries a revolver in his pocket; the man without a revolver is not likely to be very considerately treated. If we take the opportunity of supplying ourselves with a revolver, and let it be seen by everybody that we have got one, and that it is a rather larger revolver than everybody else’s, my own impression is that we shall find ourselves carefully let alone.9
In 2017, there are some who might view this as a message ahead of its time. It is worth noting, however, that no issue did more to divide the government of which Lansdowne was part. In 1906, the protectionist campaign backfired, handing one of the greatest-ever landslide elections in British politics to the Liberal Party, which campaigned vigorously as champions of free trade. Cheap goods and commodities were not things that the British people were willing to give up even as the nation’s manufacturing strength dwindled.
So where does any of this leave us today? On the one hand, Lansdowne believed his true achievement was the interrogation of the instinctive isolationism on which his nation’s foreign policy had long been predicated. As he explained toward the end of his tenure as Foreign Secretary,
I think most of us in this country have been brought up to the idea that upon the whole it was better for us to avoid any alliances of whatever kind. There has been a prejudice against alliances. They have been spoken of as ‘entangling alliances,’ and our people are supposed not to like such entanglements. But I own that in my humble opinion the time for holding these opinions seems to me to have passed by.10
On the other hand, for Lansdowne, this was not heresy for heresy’s sake, or a repudiation of all that had gone before under his mentor, Salisbury. Instead, the approach he adopted was based on a calibrated assessment of a changing international environment:
We have only to look at what is passing in other parts of the world. Other nations are grouping themselves together. Other nations are also arming themselves to the teeth, and in these days the shock of war comes with much greater suddenness and rapidity than it came in the days of our forefathers. I venture to say to you that in these times no nation which intends to take its part in the affairs of the civilized world can venture to stand entirely alone.11
It seems that a transactional and “business-like” approach to foreign policy is experiencing a return to fashion. To “wipe the slate clean”—as Lansdowne did with France, Japan, and the United States—was the premise of the new approach. Yet the Lansdowne story also underlines the fact that “resets” are painstakingly constructed rather than whimsically decreed. The dangers of hyperactive “deal-making”—and the potential for unintended consequences—are also laid bare by the story of Europe’s descent into war in 1914. There are times when the assumptions of a nation’s foreign policy go stale. But the opportunity for a “diplomatic revolution” only comes about once in a lifetime, and the act of dismantling the old system should only be undertaken with a clear strategy for what might be built in its place.
1Quoted in Aaron Friedberg, The Weary Titan (Princeton University Press, 1988), pp. 161, 167.
2Memorandum by the Marquess of Salisbury, May 29, 1901, in G.P. Gooch & Harold Temperley, British Documents on the Origins of the War, 1898-1914, Vol. II (H.M. Stationery Office, 1927), pp. 68–9.
3Quoted in “Lansdowne Not Liked,” Chicago Tribune, November 1, 1900.
4Memorandum by the Marquess of Lansdowne, November 11, 1901, in Gooch & Temperley, British Documents on the Origins of the War, 1898-1914, pp. 76–9.
5Kissinger, Diplomacy (Simon and Schuster, 1994), p. 187.
6Kennedy, The Realities Behind Diplomacy (Fontana Paperbacks, 1981), p. 123.
7Quoted in Avner Cohen, “Joseph Chamberlain, Lord Lansdowne and British Foreign Policy, 1901-1903,” Australian Journal of Politics and History (April 1997), p. 128.
8Quoted in Iestyn Adams, Brothers Across the Ocean: British Foreign Policy and the Origins of Anglo-American ‘Special Relationship’ 1900-1905 (Tauris Academic Studies, 2005), p. 224.
9Lord Lansdowne, House of Lords Debate, June 15, 1903, Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, Volume 123, cc837–921.
10Lord Lansdowne, “Lord Lansdowne on Foreign Affairs,” The Times, November 7, 1905.
11“Lord Lansdowne on Foreign Affairs.”