British Foreign Policy Before World War One Essay

British Foreign Policy pre WW1 • At turn century Britain’s predominant position in the world was being challenged by: a. German, Japanese & American industrial & commercial competition threatening Imperial trade. b. French & Russian Imperial threats (with Japan growing) to territory eg Egypt, S. Africa, Persia, Far East & India. c. Nationalist ‘stirrings’ in Ireland, S. Africa, India d. The Boer War of 1890’s had shaken the Br belief that they held power over the world. The alliance between Russia & France in 1894 could be interpreted as a threat. The Empire had been run ‘cheaply’ & using naval supremacy. ‘We are attempting to maintain the largest Empire the world has ever seen with armaments and reserves that would be insufficient for a 3rd class power. ’ Britain needed allies and feared an alliance between Germany, France & Russia (however unlikely) because it would isolate Br in Europe. Britain’s principal enemy had been Russia (Crimea War), who threatened Empire directly in Asia, Middle East & India. In 1893 the British fleet concluded that they could no longer compete against the Russian in the Black Sea.

An alliance was now essential. From 1904, Br realized that the price of Fr & Russian support was diplomatic & moral support for them in their disputes with Germany & Austria. Br was therefore hoping to preserve the European ‘balance of power’ to protect her Imperial concerns. Britain’s mistake (& others) was to believe that this meant curbing the expansionist German Weltpolitik. In fact, it was the crumbling Austrian Empire in the Balkans that was to upset the ‘balance’ & cause WW1.

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Russia was funding the Balkan League to overthrow the Hansburgs; Turkey was leaning towards Russia & the ‘nationalist’ movement was strong in Serbia & Bulgaria. Br had no plans to preserve Austrian independence because no Br interests were directly threatened, except now the need to gain Russian support. • Key elements of British foreign policy: a. Defend India (huge commercial & psychological importance to Br), principally against threat from Russia. But, how? There was no way for Br to defend India alone; therefore the need to conciliate Russia.

Therefore, Br policy was to change direction & seek an understanding with Fr & Russia after 1900. Lord Curzon in 1900: “As long as we rule India, we are the greatest power in the world. If we lose it, we shall drop straight away to a 3rd rate power. ” b. Avoid alliances that would commit Br in Europe. The 1904 Entente Cordiale included expectation that Fr would facilitate an Anglo-Russian agreement. • Therefore, when war broke out in 1914, Britain had no choice but to intervene, to support Russia and preserve the British Empire. Crowe in 1914 “Should the war come and Br stand aside, what might happen? a) Either Germany & Austria win, crush France & humiliate Russia… What then the position of a friendless Br? Or (b) France & Russia win. What would then be their attitude towards Br? What about India & the Mediterranean? We must go to war or be isolated, discredited & hated. ” If Br had failed to act, they would be abdicating their position as a world power, its Empire would be under threat & if Germany won the war, then its security would be jeopardized. Br had to declare war on Germany as they genuinely feared their expansionist aims.


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