Tuesday, December 13, 2011

200 years of foreign policy?

One of the common responses (and not just of the Euro-philes) to the Brussels non-Treaty has been that Cameron has just broken with 200 years of British foreign policy. Jonathan Powell, not a man crippled with self-doubt, put it this way in the FT:

For 200 years since the battle of Waterloo we have expended enormous efforts to maintain a leadership role in Europe. It is a betrayal of that history to turn our backs on the continent.

While the Dude is rather more direct:

British foreign policy has been remarkably consistent towards Europe for the last 500 years, since the English monarchy abandoned its rightful claim to the French crown. It can be summed up by the simple observation that, seeing as the Hegemonic power of Europe cannot be England, no other hegemonic power should rise to dominate Europe.

Well, up to a point and all that. Powell may view the course of British history from 1815 to 1914 as one of British leadership in Europe - I have to say that history does not particularly support him in that. Throughout the Pax Britannica in fact, Britain made only three really substantial interventions in post-Napoleonic continental European politics - the Crimean War and the two Berlin Conferences of 1878 and 1884. And it's these exceptions that really prove the rule, because the driving force behind each of them for Britain lay outside Europe.

The Crimean War was fought to prevent Russia from carving up the Ottoman Empire. Britain's area of concern, however, was Central Asia - Persia and the 'Stans - because of the perceived threat of a Tsarist army poised to invade British India. The 1878 Berlin Congress was part of the fallout of the Crimean War, and Britain's involvement was principally to protect its interests in the Mediterranean from Russian encroachment. Why? Suez and the route to India.

The Berlin Conference in 1884 was supposed to prevent colonial expansion in Africa from triggering a Great Power war. Bismarck famously said at this conference that "here is Russia, here is France and we're in the middle - that's my map of Africa" - for Britain, the situation was the reverse - it's strategic concerns were East of Suez, and it's equivalent "map of Europe" would have been Suez and the Cape.

Historically, Britain has seen its role as a global power, and neglected continental politics for as long as it could get away with it. Far from being a confirmation of a long-standing policy, the Entente Cordiale was a dramatic change of direction. And why was it seen as necessary? The rise of Germany as a naval power to challenge the Royal Navy. And why was that such a threat? Because Britain's role as a global power depended more or less entirely on the Royal Navy. Even in World War Two, look at where Britain did most of her fighting - Egypt and Burma. Spot the connection?

The real dislocation in historic British foreign policy was the decision taken to try and become a European power (now rather an anachronistic term) at the expense of Britan's global role. At the time the decision was taken, this looked like a pretty safe bet - the coming economic powerhouses were West Germany, France and Italy, while Britain was mired with slow productivity growth, disastrous labour relations and a civil war in Northern Ireland that looked like the ongoing death throes of Empire. Now? Well, continental Europe doesn't look like such a good bet, and the exciting area of growth is East of Suez again (and in another old British stomping ground, South America).

In this context, moving to decouple ourselves from the continental European economy, and looking to new markets in China, India, Brazil and elsewhere, as well as consolidating our markets in the US doesn't look like a bad idea. It certainly doesn't look like a betrayal of half a millenium's foreign policy - it looks like a return to it.


Anonymous K. R. Lohse said...

tim J, you've ruined everything. Why are you posting nearly-forgotten facts which will cause a dichotomy with the prejudices of so many europhiles?
good post.

9:23 pm  

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