Christopher Baxter, Michael L. Dockrill, Keith Hamilton, eds. Britain in Global Politics Volume I: From Gladstone to Churchill. Security, Conflict, and Cooperation in the Contemporary World Series. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 312 pp. $100.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-230-36044-0.
Reviewed by Michael J. Turner (Appalachian State University)
Published on H-Diplo (August, 2014)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
This fine collection of essays was put together by the colleagues, pupils, and friends of Saki Dockrill, whose premature death in 2009 robbed the fields of international relations, Cold War history, and conflict and security studies of a notably gifted scholar. Most of the essays deal directly with some of the issues that Dockrill addressed in her own work. So many contributions were offered, in fact, that it was decided to publish two volumes, an eloquent testament to her as a person and an academic.
This first volume opens with an introduction by Brian Holden Reid, who was for a time head of the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London, where Dockrill was a student and later a professor. Sympathetic and touching, with a fair-minded assessment of her publications, the introduction makes it clear that she was at the height of her intellectual powers when she died, making her loss all the more poignant. She contributed so much, not only with books and essays but also as editor of book series, opening the way for other scholars to publish their research. Even those who did not know her personally (this reviewer included) would agree that her work—and especially her ideas about West German rearmament in the early 1950s, the national security policy of the U.S. government in the Dwight Eisenhower years, and British withdrawal from East of Suez—will stand the test of time.
The first of the essays in this collection, by T. G. Otte, focuses on Anglo-Russian relations. Otte contends that the phrase “Cold War” can reasonably be used about periods before (as well as after) the Second World War, if taken to mean a sustained enmity that falls short of armed conflict, as with British efforts to contain Russian expansionism. “Concerns about Russia,” Otte writes, “ran like a golden thread through the texture of British policy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” (p. 19). The British tried to exploit Russia’s problems (especially financial), encouraged proxies to assist in deterring Russia, and made alliances. Policy was “underpinned by occasional flashes of belligerence” (p. 40). It is useful to think of “Cold War” in this way, and to take the longer view of conflict and competition. But does this apply only to bilateral relations? In light of Otte’s remarks we might revise our perspectives on other historical “Cold Wars,” and at least try to determine the extent to which his approach helps us to understand multilateral relations.
John Fisher’s essay concerns Curzon’s tenure as Britain’s foreign secretary, 1919-24, and his goal of boosting the security of the empire (unsurprising for a former viceroy of India). Curzon believed assertion, preemption, and expansion to be appropriate if they served this end. He was suspicious of Wilsonian peacemaking, though used Woodrow Wilson’s rhetoric when it suited British interests; and he was dubious about the strength and reliability of France. Although he was not without talent and vision, Curzon proved to be a failure. He could not find a way to cooperate effectively with Britain’s allies, and he offended colleagues in the government with his egomania and volatility. He did not adapt quickly enough to changing international circumstances and was also undone by shifts in government thinking, particularly when “retrenchment” trumped “security” (p. 62). Fisher provides telling insights into the choices and complications facing British leaders after the First World War, and fills out our picture of one of the key figures of the time. His opinion of Curzon accords in some respects with that of David Gilmour, who has offered a generally positive view of Curzon’s performance as foreign secretary in Curzon: Imperial Statesman, 1859-1925 (2003). Curzon understood the geopolitical ramifications of the First World War and knew that it was in large part a clash of empires. After the war—no less than before it—Britain had to operate a global system and deal with interconnected problems in a global context, and perhaps other historians (notably G. H. Bennett in British Foreign Policy during the Curzon Period, 1919-1924 ) have underestimated Curzon’s role.
Martin Thomas, examining British colonial governance after the First World War, points to the belief that control could be enhanced through new technology. Aircraft were to provide intelligence and assist with policing. Judging by events in Mesopotamia, however, these expectations were not fulfilled. Subjects did not respond as their colonial rulers desired; British air power was used to inflict wanton death and destruction; and there were huge difficulties beyond the practical need to keep order and promote obedience—not least because of the raising of moral and legal questions about air attacks. Of course, the propriety of certain weapons and tactics is an issue with which the international community is still grappling. This essay offers a valuable historical perspective. It is an interesting study of some problems Britain had to cope with in maintaining prestige and power after the First World War. Many of the colonies were restive in these years, and there were grave concerns about the Middle East in particular, a British sphere of influence that loomed large in wartime and postwar strategy. This was not simply because of the route to India. As Elizabeth Monroe (Britain’s Moment in the Middle East, 1914-1971 ), among others, suggested some years ago, the idea was to benefit and serve selected regional peoples while also protecting British interests. Thomas reminds us of how badly this was carried out, whatever the intentions of imperial decision makers in London and the Middle East.
Keith Hamilton’s essay on the vetting of diplomatic and ministerial memoirs in the interwar period highlights the Foreign Office position that it would be dangerous to permit discordant versions of history to be disseminated, especially if they undermined the post-1918 peace settlement. Ways were found to threaten and penalize the writers, citing the national interest, which dictated that Britain’s relations with foreign powers ought not to be complicated by troublesome scribblers. But there was no consistency. No clear rules were observed; much depended on the rank and influence of the writer; and defending or sustaining reputations counted for more than serving the national interest. Hamilton offers a fascinating and informative contribution to a somewhat understudied topic.
Christopher Baxter discusses the case of Hilaire Noulens, a Soviet agent arrested in China in 1931. Revelations resulted about Soviet espionage and Baxter relates these to a wider theme—paranoia—with British intelligence chiefs making anxious assumptions about Soviet strength and intentions. The Noulens affair heightened British fears about the Soviet Union but also made communist conspiracy in China seem more of a threat than Japan’s capacity for military aggression. Success against the Comintern became “a double-edged sword” (p. 147). Baxter’s account will prompt further thinking about intelligence gathering and evaluation, the management of perceptions, and in particular the durability —or vulnerability—of Britain’s position in the Far East between the wars.
Whatever such concepts as “balance of power” and “appeasement” might have meant later, B. J. C. McKercher’s essay demonstrates that British leaders in the interwar years understood them to be robust, sensible, and realistic. During the 1920s there was a toughness and resilience to British policy. Strategic compromises were avoided and force was used when necessary to maintain a balance of power, and this lasted into the 1930s. Appeasement was well established: “just one of a number of tactical alternatives in the planning and execution of British foreign policy” (p. 153). Neville Chamberlain took control in 1937 and there was a change of emphasis because the fixation with balance of power brought too many risks. The new plan was neither weak nor confused. More risk averse, and not inflexible, it probably brought a clarity that the usual opportunistic, wait-and-see approach could not deliver. McKercher’s essay is another convincing addition to appeasement scholarship. Activity that was long regarded as foolish and irrational has for many years been seen as anything but; and one might profitably supplement McKercher’s analysis with others—the study of Chamberlain as a tragic victim of bad luck as well as his own poor judgment, for instance, or the appreciation of domestic and international constraints on the deterrence as well as the concession side of British diplomacy.
Philip Bell’s essay focuses on Winston Churchill’s belief that Britain could work wholeheartedly with France to contain Germany. To Churchill, the French army in the 1930s was strong enough to deter. As Bell shows, however, there were large flies in this ointment: lack of respect and affection for France, the growing sense that Germany had a strong case against the Treaty of Versailles, and Churchill’s own inconsistencies. Churchill’s policy was less a viable alternative to appeasement than a basis for post-appeasement decision making. This essay offers further information about the options available (or thought to be available) in the 1930s, and makes plain the shortcomings as well as strong points in Churchill’s assessment of the international situation.
Britain’s dealings with Spain during the 1930s and 1940s provide the subject of Glyn Stone’s essay. During the Spanish civil war the British adhered to nonintervention, hoping to prevent escalation and reluctant to recognize the legitimacy of either side (essentially, the war was taken as a struggle between two forms of totalitarianism). After the establishment of the oppressive Franco regime, British leaders veered between efforts to restore democracy and a willingness to let matters lie, which is what the United States preferred to do in the aftermath of the Second World War. Following the enunciation of the Truman Doctrine in 1947, and in view of the need to put together an anti-communist front in Europe, the British were content to abide by the policy of noninterference in Spain’s domestic affairs. Stone’s essay demonstrates once again how shifting priorities and conditions can work against or allow statesmen to pursue a line that seems to be indicated by consistency and principle.
Joe Maiolo’s essay concerns Chamberlain’s policy in the Phoney War. Chamberlain wanted to try nonmilitary means to remove Adolf Hitler from power, and decided that economic pressure might lead to the fall of the Nazi government or push Hitler into a drastic maneuver that would fail and prompt regime change. This was an attractive prospect for Chamberlain: he was determined to minimize casualties, limit the financial cost of the war, and end the war as soon as possible. It all came to nothing. Chamberlain was mistaken, force was necessary, the war went on. Again, though, a verdict that cites bad luck rather than weakness or self-delusion might be in order, for it was not inevitable that Germany would get through the Phoney War. Maiolo cites Carl von Clausewitz’s emphasis on chance: “That Hitler’s gamble against the odds in the Battle for France paid off in the short run is evidence that Clausewitz was correct about the ungovernable role played by chance in war and not that Chamberlain’s Phoney War strategy was wrong” (p. 221). Opinions might differ about this, but there is more to Maiolo’s contribution than speculation about the role of chance in history. This essay adds greatly to our understanding of the course of the Second World War and raises questions about the likelihood of regime change in Germany (might the military chiefs have ditched Hitler?) and of course about Chamberlain’s judgment.
American opinion about the British Empire during the Second World War is Andrew Stewart’s topic. Stewart investigates the work of a committee, set up late in 1942, that was designed to assist in mitigating American hostility toward the empire and convincing the U.S. government that it would need the help of Britain and its empire in the creation and running of an amenable postwar world order. Fear had grown after the fall of Singapore, lest that disaster be taken as sign that the British Empire was heading for collapse, not recovery, and could not be the asset it might once have been. Stewart highlights the Canadian input, especially through a journalist, Graham Spry, and the inconveniences arising from American ambivalence toward Britain and lack of knowledge of Britain and its empire. The British sought to guide U.S. policy and “play Greece to their Rome,” but the likelihood of this seemed small as the war came to an end (p. 257). One point of tension between British and American leaders is explored in the essay by Saul Kelly, which deals with disagreement about the fate of Italy’s colonies. The British favored wide consultation involving all interested parties, to be followed by partition of territories and the drawing of new frontiers. The Americans pushed instead for international trusteeships, to lead to the creation of independent states that would enter into economic and security relationships with the United States. The British were alarmed because the Americans seemed unconcerned about Britain’s own security interests and were even willing to offer a role in the trusteeships to the Soviet Union (as a lever to obtain Soviet agreement on other issues). Stewart and Kelly demonstrate yet again that the “special relationship” was really a friendship full of reserves, in line with the skeptical strand in the relevant historiography. The British had to figure out just how trustworthy, reliable, and collaborative the Americans were prepared to be. No clear pattern would emerge, since conduct on both sides depended on time, issue, and circumstance. Debate about the “special relationship” will go on—as with the interesting but problematic thesis recently advanced by Simon Tate in A Special Relationship? British Foreign Policy in the Era of American Hegemony (2012), that the “special relationship” consisted of a division of labor between two partners (unequal, but still partners in a hegemonic framework). The findings of Stewart and Kelly encourage another look at familiar themes in this debate, not least Britain’s awareness of its limited reach and relative weakness, the lack of options other than reliance on America, and the tendency of British governments to exaggerate the success of their efforts to shape U.S. policy.
Essay collections are often patchy in quality and usefulness, but not this one. All the contributions are strong. They represent well-written, detailed, intelligent, and expertly researched contributions to the topic areas they cover. The essays are not subdivided into thematic categories but arranged in roughly chronological order; and though they do touch on interests shared with Saki Dockrill, mostly they reflect the current scholarly concentrations of the individual authors. The essays are pitched at a high level and do not confine themselves to familiar milestones and problems or the conventional markers and discussion points in Britain’s changing international status and influence in the era of the two world wars—meaning that students will probably benefit less from this collection than specialists, unless they have done plenty of supplemental reading. There is no volume bibliography, but each chapter has endnotes. The book includes an adequate if brief index.
. I for one am indebted to Saki Dockrill for sections of my British Power and International Relations during the 1950s: A Tenable Position? (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2009) and An International History of British Power, 1957-1970 (Youngstown: Teneo Press, 2010).
. John Charmley, Chamberlain and the Lost Peace (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1989); and James P. Levy, Appeasement and Rearmament: Britain, 1936-1939 (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006).
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Michael J. Turner. Review of Baxter, Christopher; Dockrill, Michael L.; Hamilton, Keith, eds., Britain in Global Politics Volume I: From Gladstone to Churchill.
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