To what extent was Britain’s foreign policy by fear of attacks on the Empire 1878-1914

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The underlying motive was always fear of attacks on the empire and the loss of wealth and status that would inevitably follow. Though in the short term it seemed to be concerns over the rise of Germany that determined the actions of Salisbury and especially Grey even here it was the need to ensure that Germany never enjoyed the European domination which could lead her to challenge Britain’s domination of World trade that was significant.

There was never a threat of direct attack on Britain’s empire, but there was the fear that the expansion of France, Russia and then Germany would bring them too close. Britain’s dominant position was established at the Congress of Berlin. The reason why Britain stepped in to demand reform of the Treaty of San Stefano was to break the hold Russia appeared to be establishing over the Balkans, which would enable her to challenge Britain’s empire in India and in Egypt, very close to the Dardanelle Straits which the Russians were clearly trying to gain control of.

When this led to a rift between Russia and France on the one hand and Germany and Austria on the other and the subsequent formation of the Entente and the Alliance, Salisbury realised that his priority had to be the prevention of a war between these two, since all of these countries wanted to break into Britain’s economic domination of either Africa or the Middle and Far East. Salisbury knew that whoever won the contest would dominate Europe and be in a position to challenge Britain as the dominant World power.

Salisbury and Grey both knew that should France win she would challenge British domination in Africa; should Russia win she would challenge British domination in the Middle and Far East; Germany after 1900, with the Berlin-Baghdad railway and territory in Africa, was a threat in both areas. It was the desire to protect the delicate balance of power between these two alliances that kept Salisbury out of either of these alliances though at this stage in the 1880s both sides wanted Britain to join them since this might give them the advantage which could lead to victory in the clash which was becoming increasingly inevitable.

It was this which led Salisbury to realise that Britain could no longer follow a policy of imperial expansion. Though some in his Conservative Party wanted to see Britain continue to expand, especially after the betrayal of France to gain Egypt in 1882 and then the Sudan, Salisbury began to adopt Gladstone’s approach, attempting to create a concert of all the European powers so that trade could be shared out with Britain retaining her dominant position.

When this was foiled by the Russians in 1886, Salisbury began to support the country which was also trying to contain Russia in the Balkans – Austria – hence the Mediterranean Agreement of 1886 and subsequent agreements with both the Germans and the French as well as the Italians and Portuguese in Africa. However, from the 1890s Salisbury increasingly came to see Germany as the main threat to European stability in the short term and thus in the long term to Britain’s empire and World status.

With hatred of the British on the part of the Germans, French and Russians becoming apparent during the Boer War, Salisbury’s fears that Britain was becoming irrelevant to the European alliances led him to make more binding trading agreements, firstly with the Japanese, then with the French. Grey too was concerned to maintain a balance between the two alliances to prevent the European was which could undermine Britain’s imperial domination.

Whilst publicly professing a position of ‘Splendid Isolation’ he followed a secret policy of support for any country opposed to whichever country was threatening Britain’s imperial interests at any time. Hence alliance with Russia in 1907 when the Germans were acting aggressively against the French over Morocco in 1905 and support for the Austrians in the Balkans in 1908, 1912 and 1913, when Russia seemed to be once again threatening the independence of the small, weak countries which lay along Britain’s routes to the Middle and Far East.

Thus though there was never a direct threat of attack on Britain’s empire, throughout the period it was the growing fears that Britain would find it difficult to protect her imperial trade with the wealth and status associated with it that determined Britain’ policies and led to a number of apparent inconsistencies and changes.

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