Sea Power, Alliances, and Diplomacy: British Naval Supremacy in the Great War Era


Louis is a current DPhil student at the University of Oxford. He holds an MA in History from the University of Calgary. Louis is co-organiser of the upcoming ‘Economic Warfare and the Sea’ Conference, to be held at All SoulS College in July 2017.

A recording of the talk this post is drawn from is available here.

President Donald Trump’s statements over the continued viability of NATO has raised questions about the relevance and utility of alliances in 21st century international politics. Who gains most from alliance structures and collective security? What are the benefits for a global power in leading alliances? These questions appear particularly pertinent with the end of the ‘American moment’ and the return to a degree of multipolarity in world affairs, where the rise of China and its aspirations of a blue water navy and an emboldened Russia are challenging the status quo with increasing regularity.

Fresh as they may appear, many of these issues have a long historical antecedence. At the start of the 20th century the British Empire faced a changing global environment – with rising powers on the Continent, in the Americas and in Asia – which forced statesmen to confront the dilemma of how to guarantee the security of Britain’s maritime empire without overstraining public finances on defence expenditure. The supremacy of the Royal Navy had ensured the safety of Britain’s dominions and colonies both through its physical might and as a symbol of prestige throughout the 19th century. However, with the rise of new naval powers, chiefly Imperial Germany across the North Sea, seeking local dominance in all theatres simultaneously would be needlessly expensive. Maintaining a policy of ‘splendid isolation’ might leave Britain vulnerable in secondary theatres as it was forced to out-build the German navy so to command home waters. Consequently, British statesmen turned to diplomacy to underwrite maritime security elsewhere, developing alliances and strategic alignment to tilt local balances in Britain’s favour, neutralising potential threats in the process.

The first move towards this was the alliance with Japan, first struck in 1902, and renewed in 1905 and 1911. This settled concerns in Whitehall over the threat to British possessions in the Far East, with Japan turning from potential danger to guardian of these interests. This was an important embarkation point as British statesmen began to explore the opportunities that such agreements presented.

Pressure to find a similar solution in European waters began to mount as the costs of winning the Anglo-German naval race soared. Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty from 1911, argued that Britain must prioritise a ratio of 60% superiority over the German High Seas Fleet, leaving little in the naval estimates for a Mediterranean fleet to protect this key imperial artery. The solution advanced was an accord with France (with whom ties had strengthened following the Anglo-French Entente, signed in 1904). The French navy could, with the support of a diminished British force, control the Mediterranean against a combination of Austria-Hungary and Italy, while the bulk of the Royal Navy took on the German navy in the North Sea.

Churchill’s predecessor at the Admiralty, Reginald McKenna had argued that Britain must spend whatever was necessary to give it domination in both seas without having to rely on France. However, this would require cuts to social programmes at home, which a Liberal government committed to welfare reform could not countenance. The Anglo-French naval agreement, signed in 1913, was therefore a means for securing British interests in the Mediterranean at minimal cost. It was not a sign of weakness: Britain was the senior partner in the agreement, giving little in return for the security of the Mediterranean (not least because it was not bound to supporting France in the event of war with Germany). Paris raised concerns over this imbalance, but made little headway.

When war broke out in the summer of 1914, these arrangements came into play, and proved largely effective at safeguarding British maritime interests in the Far East and Mediterranean. The July Crisis demonstrated the limits of what British diplomacy and sea power could achieve: it was not able to prevent war from breaking out. Nevertheless, they did put Britain in a commanding position to wage war at sea: containing the battle fleets of the Central Powers, protecting British shipping, and enabling blockade to begin.

From 1914, Britain used its status as the world’s leading naval power to dominate the naval coalition, directing the maritime elements of the Entente’s strategy. It left the smaller issue of the Austro-Hungarian navy to France (joined by Italy in the Adriatic from spring 1915), while focusing on the more potent German threats in the North Sea and Atlantic. However, when Germany carried its underwater guerre de course into the Mediterranean as 1915 progressed, the Admiralty sought to develop an operational leadership role in this theatre too; partly for reasons of prestige, primarily to address the exigencies of war. Yet the Mediterranean was important to Paris and Rome for reasons of prestige as well – the source of many Franco-Italian disagreements – and their naval establishments prevented the Royal Navy from taking the reins entirely.

The United States Navy, on the other hand, was more content to act as an auxiliary in European waters once the U-boats had forced American entry into the war in 1917. While the White House was keen to work closely with the Admiralty at the operational level, however, there were problems when it came to long-term grand strategy. President Woodrow Wilson had wanted to avoid becoming embroiled in the conflict; now that this was unavoidable he sought to maintain independence from London and Paris by becoming an associated, rather than allied, power. Moreover, the United States was engaged in a large programme of naval construction, which would produce a powerful battle fleet that might rival the Royal Navy. David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, wanted this suspended so that American shipyards could be directed to the construction of smaller craft suitable for anti-submarine warfare. Yet American leaders feared this would leave them vulnerable in the post-war world, so refused. Arthur Balfour, the Foreign Secretary, came up with a solution: a general naval alliance in which Britain would guarantee American security at sea while capital ship construction caught up. Moreover, Balfour worked on plans which would bring together the Allied navies (including France, Italy, Russia, and Japan) with the US under an umbrella agreement of mutual assistance against maritime attack lasting for four years after the conclusion of the war.

This was anathema to the White House, with Wilson unwilling to bind his hands. Nevertheless, this episode demonstrates the evolution of British strategic thinking on alliances and their utility. With Britain at the centre of a web of mutually supporting navies, of which the Royal Navy would be the greatest, its partners could help to extend the security of the empire, affording London potential auxiliaries in war and neutralising possible rivals. Of such future challengers, the United States – poised to assume second place in the naval rankings if Germany was defeated and disarmed – was the greatest. The prospect of an Anglo-American rivalry gathered pace as the U-boat threat receded and the Americans increased the pace of capital ship construction. Yet neither side wanted a costly naval arms race, and following victory in 1918 they soon found renewed common cause in the League of Nations project. The prospect of a post-war strategic alignment (if not a formal alliance) was on the table at Versailles in 1919. British and American diplomats managed to suppress the nascent competition between their sailors, with Robert Cecil of the Foreign Office and Colonel Edward M. House, Wilson’s chief lieutenant, reaching a compromise through which Britain could carefully manage the US’ rise as a naval power via bilateral talks. Meanwhile, Wilson was prepared to make a guarantee of French security with the British. A new world order was set to emerge, with an Anglo-American alignment at its centre (a dream which seemingly still resonates in Whitehall a century later).

Yet the gentleman’s agreement struck in Paris collapsed in Washington later that year. The result was that in 1921 the Lloyd George government had to negotiate in a multilateral environment at the Washington Naval Conference. While the decisions reached there allowed an Anglo-American agreement on the naval balance of power to be reached, the proposed strategic alignment could not be covered, and it was at a higher price than the one to be paid if the Cecil-House understanding had been implemented. One such cost was the end of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. The potential benefits of that agreement was driven home two decades later when the Japanese ran riot across British possessions in the Fat East, dealing an irreversible blow to the integrity of the British Empire. Coming after two years of war against Nazi Germany, this defeat left Britain beleaguered and appeared to leave India open to the Japanese. Yet for the period 1939-41, the US had refrained from active military support for Britain. Alliances and strategic alignments, then, can offer significant benefits to global powers. To reject or lose them can have repercussions. Certainly, isolation rarely is a better alternative – a point worth remembering in the 21st century.

Featured image: A Middleweight bout at the Grand Fleet Boxing Tournament in 1918 between Chief Carpenter’s Mate Gartner (US Navy) and Leading Stoker Roberts (Royal Navy), via the Imperial War Museum

Do we need international history?

Defence-in-Depth is pleased to welcome Prof Joe Maiolo – Director of the Sir Michael Howard Centre for the History of War, and Professor of International History – to the blog. If you would be interested to contribute a guest post please contact the editors: Dr Amir Kamel and Dr David Morgan-Owen


International history is not in vogue. Ambitious doctoral students gravitate to international relations theory, or, to one of the more fashionable historical research themes such as transnational or global history. While the study of how transnational processes such as migration, the diffusion of ideas or trade shaped contemporary life is important, the neglect of international history is certainly regrettable and perhaps even dangerous.

It is worth reflecting on when and why the field took shape to appreciate its values and purpose. The study of diplomacy dated back to the renaissance and nineteenth century historians such as Leopold von Ranke brought rigor to the study of foreign policy making. But the study of international politics as a whole, or more precisely the inner workings of the system of states, only began with the outbreak of the First World War.

In Britain, a group of liberal intellectuals met regularly to discuss how future great wars could be prevented by establishing a new global order. At a time when the popular press and propaganda blamed Germany and its allies for the war, these progressive thinkers, many of whom became leading lights in the League of Nations movement, took a different tack. They saw the origins of the great war not in the policies or actions of any one state, but in what the philosopher Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson described in the title of his 1917 book as The European Anarchy. For Dickinson and others of his intellectual circle, the unbridled pursuit by the great powers of their selfish policies generated the forces of nationalism, imperialism, and militarism, which conspired in the summer of 1914 to cause a great war.

After the war, liberal internationalist benefactors such as the Welsh industrialist David Davies and the Scottish philanthropists Daniel Stevenson invested in the ‘scientific’ study of international relations to combat the chauvinistic nationalism prevalent in public debates about international affairs, which included professorships in international history. As Stevenson put it, the kind of jingoistic national history that had been typically taught across Europe before the war had created ‘among the peoples from childhood onwards a spirit of antipathy, ill-will and even hatred of other peoples … [he was] convinced that the teaching of history internationally and as far as practicable without bias would tend to substitute for this spirit a spirit of international co-operation, peace and good will …’.

While Stevenson overestimated the capacity of a cosmopolitan education to promote international cooperation, the idea that a dispassionate and systematic analysis of international events from multiple national archives and perspectives could offer fresh insight was vindicated in the debate about German ‘war guilt’.

To counter the claim that Berlin had deliberately launched the war in the summer of 1914, the German foreign ministry began to publish its pre-war diplomatic documents. Other countries followed the German example to absolve themselves from responsibility and to blame on others for the war. For the burgeoning field of international history, this ‘battle of books’ of the 1920s was a tremendous boost. Suddenly historians had access to the secret diplomatic papers of most of the major powers and with them they could piece together how national foreign policies and actions interacted with each other, and appreciate the way in which misperception and miscalculations engendered mutual mistrust and fear in the decade before 1914. The upshot was that revisionist historians in the 1930s concluded that war had come not as the result of a premeditated plan hatched in Berlin, but inadvertently in the midst of a great power crisis that had spun out of control.

The debate about 1914 continues to this day, but the quality of that debate and our understanding of the causes of the other big wars that have blighted Europe and the world since the fifteenth century increased markedly with the multi-archival methods and systemic approach of international history. The field moved from the narrow assigning of blame to answering profound questions about causation and the nature of world politics.

The premise of international history is that states are not autonomous units, but are parts of an interconnected states system. The structure of system shapes state behaviour and the interaction of states can produce forces and outcomes that are beyond anyone’s control or intent. Understanding why the nineteenth century and Cold War were, for example, periods of relative long peace and stability, and why the eighteenth century and first half of the twentieth century were war prone, demands that historians grasp the structure, the sources of power and ideas that prevail in international politics. The documents from multiple national archives about foreign policy making only make sense in that systemic context. This is the approach of the best works in the field, most notably Paul W. Schroeder’s masterpiece The Transformation of European Politics 1763-1848 (Oxford, 1994).

With the end of the Cold War, however, the study of international history fell into decline, and was widely regarded by the profession as a relic of a state-centric historiography that could be safely neglected. The threat great wars appeared to recede as the forces of globalisation fashioned a new borderless world. Historians thus turned their attention to transnational phenomena such as migration, political activism, social and cultural movements, the creation of intellectual networks, cultural clashes and the expansion of world trade and finance, and the proliferation of non-governmental organisations and the development of human rights norms and practices. All of this work is important. In the last two decades we have learned a lot about how non-state interactions and exchanges have shaped the modern world, more so than any analysis of state-to-state relations would have revealed. In fact the founders of international history would have welcomed this effort to transcend the narrow national/state perspective in historical research.

However, the elaboration of transnational and global history did not mean that the states system and the horrific violence that it could produce was in any way less important than we had previously thought. Indeed, the dark side of globalisation – one that global and transnational historians neglect – has been the escalating lethality, speed, and global reach of the nation-state’s means of destruction, a development that has not ceased since the explosion of the first atomic bombs over Japan in 1945. Since the 1990s some historians appear to have forgotten that the great expansion of the transnational sphere from the 1970s onwards occurred in the shadow of a strategic nuclear deadlock between the superpowers.

New areas of research and developing fresh approaches is the lifeblood of academic disciplines, but scholars have an unfortunate tendency to foreclose on the insights, goals and values of previous generations in their rush to stake out claims to originality and importance. International history began a century ago in an effort to understand the cause of war and the conditions of peace. Conflict in the Ukraine, endemic war in the Middle East, maritime disputes in Southeast Asia, the rise of nationalist-authoritarian politics all over the world and global arms rivalry are all ominous reminders that the imperatives and ideals that inspired the foundation of international history a century ago are as pertinent today as they were then.

For a fuller treatment of these issues, see my essay ‘Systems and Boundaries in International History’, The International History Review (2016).

Image: A Kuwaiti oil field set afire by retreating Iraqi troops burns in the distance beyond an abandoned Iraqi T-55A tank following Operation Desert Storm, via wikimedia commons.

1940-1942: THE FULCRUM OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY? Missing in History: Britain’s offer of Irish unity in 1940

This is the fourth in a series of posts connected to the King’s College Second World War Research Group’s ‘1940-1942: Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century Conference’, held at the JSCSC on June 1st. 


Sifting through the voluminous histories of Britain’s 1940 stand against Nazi Germany, it is remarkable that, with a few notable exceptions, one story often is left untold: the secret Anglo-Irish negotiations to reunify Ireland and bring the south, or Éire as it was then known, into the war. This oversight may be explained in part by the fact that few of the main actors come out of this episode looking very good. Their biographers have tended to downplay or to ignore the negotiations; in one official biography, a wholly inaccurate, not to say misleading summary dismisses this story in less than a page.

Unlike all of the other self-governing Dominions, Éire refused to join Britain when the latter declared on Germany in 1939. Southern Ireland’s neutrality had been made possible by a decision taken less than a year earlier. In an attempt to smooth relations between London and Dublin, Neville Chamberlain returned three military installations that had been retained by the British in the Treaty granting Ireland’s independence in 1921. Chamberlain believed he had an assurance from his counterpart, Eamon de Valera, that the Irish would allow British forces access to these ‘Treaty ports’ during any future conflict. According to Robert Fisk’s In Time of War, use of the bases could have extended the protective cover to Allied convoys across 500 miles of the Atlantic Ocean. But, crucially, the assurance Chamberlain relied on was never put in writing. When war came, de Valera, by denying the British access to the bases, was able to maneuver his country away from taking part in the conflict.

Crucial as the Treaty ports were, they were only one of several reasons for believing that Ireland would be targeted by Adolf Hitler after the fall of France. Even before then, Fisk claims that from May 1940 ‘the security of Ireland . . . began to dominate proceedings at Downing Street’. Yet, these discussions are wholly missing from accounts such as Five Days in London: May 1940, by John Lukacs. Archival documents in London, Dublin, and Belfast tell a different story. All three governments were convinced the Nazis had a network of spies throughout Ireland which was working closely with the outlawed Irish Republican Army. Other reports indicated that German U-boats were being supplied by villagers on Ireland’s west coast. Most worrying was the prospect that the Germans might stage a landing in southern Ireland to mount a backdoor invasion of mainland Britain. Taken together, these concerns prompted the British government, now led by Winston Churchill, to broach the idea of creating a framework for Irish unity in return for an Irish declaration of war. What is perhaps most surprising is that the driving force behind this proposal was not the new prime minister, but his predecessor – Chamberlain.

Chamberlain’s willingness to guarantee Irish unity in return for an Irish alliance is evident in the letters he wrote to his two sisters, Hilda and Ida, during the remaining months of his life. So, too, is his frustration with de Valera. Despite repeated warnings that having British forces in Ireland was necessary to ward off the expected German invasion, the Irish prime minister refused even to consider the idea. ‘I am still at him’, Chamberlain confided in one letter, ‘but fear he wont [sic] be moved till the Germans are in Dublin’. Robert Self, the editor of Chamberlain’s four-volume Diary Letters, followed up this massive work with a biography of the controversial British leader. Unfortunately, he deals with what might be called Chamberlain’s last major foreign policy battle in an epilogue, and then only briefly. It is also is wholly absent from Graham Stewart’s account of the Churchill-Chamberlain rivalry, Burying Caesar.

One of Chamberlain’s unlikely allies in this cause was Labour’s Ernest Bevin, another member of Churchill’s War Cabinet. According to Paul Canning’s comprehensive British Policy Towards Ireland, Bevin’s ‘first-hand knowledge of Ireland exceeded that of any other man in the Government’. The problem that neither Bevin, Chamberlain, nor any of their colleagues could ignore was that de Valera’s stance on neutrality was not the main hurdle blocking an Anglo-Irish front against the Nazis. As Chamberlain plainly stated at one War Cabinet meeting, ‘the main, and perhaps the sole, obstacle to such collaboration was the partition question’.

While the Ulster dimension of this story is ably told by both Canning and Fisk, it is given surprisingly short shrift elsewhere. There are tantalizing hints that at least two leading members of Northern Ireland’s Cabinet were prepared to accept an accommodation with the southern Irish if the latter were willing to join the Allied cause. ‘[L]oyalty to King and empire and the defeat of the Axis powers’, the historian Brian Barton has written, ‘transcended their commitment to the maintenance of the Union’. But in his chapter for The Northern Ireland Question in British Politics, edited by Peter Catterall and Sean McDougall, Barton did not pursue this angle. In any case, when it came to setting policy in Northern Ireland, only one man’s opinion really counted: its prime minister, James Craig.

Even with the course of the war hanging in the balance, Craig was as stubborn in his dealings with the British as was de Valera. By ruling out tripartite talks between the London, Dublin, and Belfast governments unless the southern Irish, first, joined the Allied cause and, second, dropped their goal of reunification, he foreclosed any chance of wartime cooperation. After the war, his official biographer, St John Ervine wrote that ‘Ulster was the bribe’ used in the attempt to win over de Valera and that responsibility for this treachery rested on one man’s shoulders: Chamberlain, who by then conveniently was dead. It is true that Chamberlain was prepared to force the Ulster Unionists to make concessions, while Churchill drew the line at persuasion.

Thanks to his own memoir of the war, Churchill’s part in this story largely has been obscured. According to David Reynolds, when Churchill wrote his multi-volume Second World War the Foreign Office advised that some wartime diplomatic issues ‘were still sensitive’; Ireland was one of them. This explains why Churchill did not even mention the Cabinet’s discussions about partition in his drafts of Their Finest Hour although, Reynolds points out, a reference to the issue is buried deep in a letter to Franklin Roosevelt quoted in the volume. Harder to explain is Martin Gilbert’s treatment of this story in Churchill’s official biography. Inexplicably, Gilbert suggests that Bevin alone was responsible for suggesting that partition be abandoned in exchange for the south’s declaration of war on Germany.

De Valera’s refusal to consider the British offer to end partition has been the subject of intense debate among historians. Characteristically, his authorized biographers are sympathetic to de Valera’s claim that abandoning neutrality would have sparked a second Irish civil war in the south. Others, notably John Bowman, Tim Pat Coogan, and T. Ryle Dwyer, are harsher when assessing de Valera’s motives. ‘Staying out of the war’, Dwyer writes, was ‘more important to de Valera than ending partition’. All three agree that in the summer of 1940, the Irish prime minister was sure that Britain was defeated. If that were so, why not wait to make terms with the winner in Berlin?

On the night of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Churchill was in touch with the leaders of only two other governments. The first, unsurprisingly, was Franklin Roosevelt. The other was de Valera. ‘Now is your chance’, his telegram to the Irish prime minister began. ‘Now or never. A Nation once again.’ Yet even America’s imminent entry into the war was not enough to entice de Valera to join the Allies. Earlier that same year, Churchill predicted that if de Valera persisted with neutrality to the end of the war ‘a gulf will have opened between Northern and Southern Ireland, which it will be impossible to bridge in this generation’. Churchill, not for the last time, was better at predicting the future than de Valera.

Image: Vickers machine-gun team of 2/8th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, man their weapon on a clifftop in Northern Ireland, 15 July 1941, via the Imperial War Museum.



UK in the Gulf: to Engage or not to engage?


On 1 November 2015, the UK Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond inaugurated the beginning of works constructing the UK’s first permanent military base in Bahrain in the Persian Gulf since 1971 when the UK withdrew from the region. Using language that almost seemed to deliberately hark back to Britain’s colonial days in the Persian Gulf, Hammond announced that “The presence of the Royal Navy in Bahrain is guaranteed into the future, ensuring Britain’s sustained presence east of Suez.”

In reality, the Royal Navy has scarcely left the Persian Gulf region in the last century, and this ‘new’ base is better seen as the renovation and expansion of existing structures. Nevertheless, the fanfare surrounding the announcement of the new permanence of the UK presence is interesting and indicative of the current UK Government’s perspective. Indeed, the timing of the turning of the soil on this ‘new’ base comes between the hosting of the Chinese President for a lavish, extended state visit in October and the hosting in early November of Egyptian President Sisi. David Cameron’s government plainly believes in the importance of international engagement with states that many accuse of a range of human rights abuses.

The government marshals a variety of arguments to defend its engagement with such states, many of which have roots in the UK’s National Security Strategy (NSS), the key document that seeks to outline the UK’s national interest and how it can be defended.

The government argues that the UK’s security is protected by maintaining and developing these kinds of links. In terms of the military, the UK provides a range of key training roles for counterparts in the Gulf region, while regional bases provide an important change of arena for UK troops. Moreover, given the salience of the region to the wider world economy and the number of conflicts that have plagued the region in recent decades, developing military to-military links in the Gulf area are deemed to be important. As the former Chief of the UK Defence Staff put it, ‘if we are to influence, we must know what drives our friends and how to motivate. This is not something that can be done on the eve of an operation.’ There are also direct intelligence links with, for example, Saudi Arabia that have proved to be crucial in thwarting at least one serious terrorist attack on UK soil.

The UK is highly dependent upon the Persian Gulf region for trade. Bilateral trade with the region is increasing quickly to around £30bn per annum, which is more than to India, Russia, and Mexico combined. Most governments would likely deem it inadvisable to shun such countries where trade is so important.

Some charge that there is a flat contradiction between the UK’s desire to trade with these states and other important goals of the state’s NSS, namely the promotion of British values and influence. It is not difficult to imagine ministers avoiding criticising murkier issues related to human rights in the wider effort to win a particular contract.

Similarly, the UK government is open to the charge that however many links are established between governments or in industry, and no matter the theoretical opportunities created to allow the promotion of British values and culture, the reality remains that little seems to ultimately change.

Both charges are difficult to answer. Individual examples of international pressure forcing, for example, Saudi Arabia to reverse a particularly egregious travesty of justice can be found, but the system remains the same. Which makes it all the more puzzling as to why the British government eventually chose to make a stand with Saudi Arabia over a contract to consult on Saudi Arabia’s prison system. This £5.9m contract was cancelled in mid-October because of wider human rights concerns. Principled though this may be, it would seem to be logical that anyone in the UK government or otherwise interested in spreading British values would seek to exert influence in Saudi Arabia’s prison system as a matter of priority. The narrative of building contacts and influence is effectively aimed at opening the door for just such opportunities to share expertise and best practice. This confusion is an inevitable by-product of the nature of modern British politics and the subjective, inconclusive arguments put forth by those supporting and opposing engagement.

The argument is inevitably more difficult for those against engagement. For they must move beyond rowdy, faux-principled rejectionism and actually make a case for how, for example, the Saudi prison system will reform better now that the UK role therein is finished. Perhaps another western liberal democracy will take up the contact, perhaps not. And those seeking greater engagement need to move beyond platitudes and seek concrete, direct, and ideally verifiable examples of UK influence leading to a change in policy.


For more on the evolving role of the UK in the Persian Gulf region and how this chimes with understandings of British national interest, see David Roberts ‘British national interest in the Gulf: rediscovering a role?International Affairs (v.90, i3, May 2014).


Image: Persian Gulf (Dec. 10, 2005) – HMS Montrose comes along side the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, 2011, via wikimedia commons.

US Primacy in World Politics and the Strategic ‘Pivot’ to Asia

This is the second in a series of posts from a recent research symposium organised by Dr Ellen Hallams on ‘The Reconfiguration of American Primacy in World Politics: Domestic and International Challenges.’ In this piece, Dr Hugo Meijer explores the US ‘pivot’ to Asia.


The Obama administration has launched a series of diplomatic, military, and economic initiatives as well as issued a number of public pronouncements that over time have come to shape and define the so-called US “pivot” (or “rebalance”) toward the Asia Pacific. After a decade of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, this policy shift signaled a new direction for US foreign policy in the twenty-first century. Nonetheless, existing public debates and analyses have so far tended to oversimplify key aspects of the policy. First, they have focused almost exclusively on the military dimension of the rebalance. Second, the US rebalance toward Asia has often been depicted, in a rather reductive manner, as a US “grand strategy” of military containment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Washington, it is argued, is tightening its alliances and enhancing its military capabilities across the Asia Pacific in order to contain the rise of China, its most likely future military near peer competitor. This post, based upon the research for a collection I recently edited on the topic, aims to counter these misconceptions by bringing to light the breadth and complexity of what is a diplomatic, military, and economic repositioning of the United States toward (and within) the Asia Pacific.

At the diplomatic level, the region has received a remarkably high level of attention with a host of presidential and cabinet-level visits. During the first term of the Obama administration, for instance, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made far more visits to East Asian countries than each of her three predecessors did. The administration complemented these bilateral visits with a renewed emphasis on American multilateral engagement in the region, especially with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the East Asia Summit (EAS).

In the military realm, the Department of Defense released, in January 2012, its new Defense Strategic Guidance (DSG) Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, intended to reshape the Pentagon’s priorities and capabilities in an era of budgetary constraints and after a decade of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It unambiguously stated that “while the US military will continue to contribute to security globally, we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia Pacific region” (emphasis in the original). That same month, the Pentagon also released the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) that establishes the guiding precepts and capabilities necessary to overcome anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) threats. The administration has also sought to strengthen and update existing formal military alliances with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand, while diversifying and deepening its diplomatic and security cooperation with partners such as Indonesia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Vietnam. Washington announced, among other initiatives, the reposturing of the US Navy from the existing 50/50 percent split between the Pacific and the Atlantic to a 60/40 split between those two oceans by 2020, the transfer of several elements of US forces based in Okinawa to Guam, the upgrading of its missile defense posture, the deployment of marines to Darwin in Australia (as part of what is meant to become a 2,500-strong rotational force), the deployment of littoral combat ships to Singapore, and signed an enhanced defense cooperation agreement with the Philippines. These steps aim to redistribute and disperse American forces across the Asia Pacific, making US defense posture in the region more agile, flexible, and financially sustainable.

On the economic front of the rebalance, the Obama administration has taken a variety of steps aimed at tapping into the economic dynamism of the East Asia Pacific, which Washington considers as vitally important for US interests. The national, bilateral, and multilateral economic initiatives taken by the US government include the expansion of American exports to the region under the National Export Strategy; launching a process by which US foreign aid to East Asian countries would be increased by 7 percent; the conclusion of the second largest existing US free trade agreement—after the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)—with the Republic of Korea, the seventh-largest US trading partner; and the continued negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement. The TPP includes the United States, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam (but not China) and could potentially lead to a regional free trade area across the Asia Pacific. It seeks to create a comprehensive and high standards free trade agreement that would liberalize international trade across the Pacific. In particular, Washington’s major economic interests in the TPP—which might become the largest US free trade agreement to date—stem from the fact that the region hosts 40 percent of the world’s population, produces close to 60 percent of global GDP, includes many of the world’s fastest growing economies, and has become a critical part of global supply chains.

Finally, the linkages between this deeper US economic engagement in the Asia Pacific and its security implications should be emphasized. First, growing trade flows pass through potential flashpoints such as the Strait of Malacca and territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Second, besides unresolved territorial disputes, multiple security challenges continue to be potential sources of instability in the Asia Pacific, such as interstate military competition, growing rivalry over energy and natural resources, nuclear proliferation and piracy—among others. From Washington’s standpoint, these concerns require the maintenance of American military preeminence in order to guarantee regional stability and sustained, open access to Asia’s sea-lanes of communications and to the global commons. As the Pentagon’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) puts it, “Our economic strength is closely tied to a stable international order, underwritten by the US military’s role and that of our allies and partners in ensuring freedom of access and the free flow of commerce globally.”

As previously mentioned, most of the public debates on the rebalance have overemphasized, when not focused exclusively on, its military component and have tended to describe it as an American grand strategy of military containment of the People’s Republic of China. This short paper stresses the twofold fallacy of these analyses. First, although the military dimension of the pivot is undoubtedly important, it is but one facet—and not necessarily the most innovative—of the US rebalance, together with its diplomatic and economic components. Second, the American pivot to Asia is not an attempt by the United States to militarily contain the People’s Republic of China in the same way it did with the USSR during the Cold War. In a globalized economy where potential rivals are also economically interdependent and in which political ideologies do not crystallize into competing blocs, even if Washington wanted to contain China it would not be able to do so. As Jeffrey Bader, former senior director for Asia at the National Security Council, succinctly puts it:

Washington [does] not seek the containment of China, as was the case with the Soviet Union [. . .] because of the hopelessness of pursuing such a policy toward a country that [is] much more profoundly integrated into the global system. [. . .] Containment in the style of US policy toward the Soviet Union after World War II [is] not a plausible option.

Instead, the United States is redirecting its foreign policy attention, priorities, and resources—in the post–Iraq/Afghanistan wars period—toward the world’s most strategically sensitive and economically dynamic region. In the words of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, “The future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action.” China’s strategic and economic clout certainly is a central concern for US policymakers, the American pivot to the Asia Pacific is driven by a much broader and complex set of political, strategic, and economic objectives.

The overarching ambition of the US rebalance is to preserve American primacy in world politics while avoiding a major power war with the PRC. In order to do so, Washington does not seek to contain China – as this strategy is deemed to be hopeless and ineffective. The rebalance seeks to sustain US pre-eminence by re-adjustment in the complex “web of linkages” between the diplomatic, military and economic components of American presence in the Asia Pacific since the end of WWII.

Image: American President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao participate in an official arrival ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Nov. 17, 2009, courtesy of wikimedia commons.

The Worrying Talk About ‘Soft Power’

President Obama Holds a News Conference at Conclusion of U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit


One of the most troubling concepts to appear on the scene in recent years is Joseph Nye’s much-popularized notion of ‘soft power’. Without a doubt, there is something rather vague that one can conveniently label soft power, defined as ‘the power to attract’. All nations have an appeal to someone, and the stock of this appeal is supposedly of some use to somebody in international relations. It would be wonderful if we could get states to do what we want because they already want to do it, although this is usually either the case or it is not; it is hard to create soft power out of whole cloth, so we are generally stuck with the hand we have been dealt.

This kind of power – if indeed, we can truly call it that – is often based on foundational myths. An example is the ‘soft power’ (henceforth used without the scare quotes) that the United States exerts over Britain. We tend to be impressed by all things American – Hollywood movies, McDonalds, Levis, Pizza Hut, Coca-Cola. Indeed, even many Iranians find the American way of life appealing, and on the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the Iran hostage crisis in 2009, young Iranians apparently chanted ‘Death to America!’ in a half-hearted way while openly expressing the desire to study and live there. In a political sense, we admire America’s historical support for human rights and the way in which it stands as a ‘beacon of freedom’ in the world. The real United States, of course, faces struggles over very basic civil rights at home to this day. British soft power too rests on a fair dose of mythology, since the brutality of Empire is usually all-but-forgotten. But collective psychology and the appearance of things is what matters in international politics.

So far, so good. But there are problems when one attempts to take the idea further. Indeed, there are at least three major difficulties with soft power as a concept or a policy device: it sows endless confusion among students and general commentators alike, it provides a handy excuse for swingeing governmental cuts in both Whitehall and Washington DC, and (most of all) it is actually very unclear how it is actually supposed to be used as a lever of foreign and defence policy.

First of all, it sows vast confusion among students and general observers, and this is entirely to be expected given the fuzziness of the idea. Students frequently equate soft power with diplomacy or (even worse) with economic sanctions, neither of which is at all what is intended by the term. Soft power is something far more intangible than diplomacy but it continually gives rise to vague and uninformed discussions, especially now that it has made its way to the chat shows. A good example could be found on the BBC programme Sunday Morning Live on June 28th 2015. The presenter, Sian Williams, clearly equated soft power with diplomacy, and had to be subtly corrected by a representative of the UK-based Soft Power Network (apparently there is such a thing now).

If the use of ‘kinetic’ force represents hard power, anything non-kinetic must be soft power, right? Wrong. The opposite of soft power is coercion, in its various forms (both the carrot and the stick). Diplomacy is most often used as a form of this – we hope to convince the other side to do what we want by talking to them, often adding inducements here and there – and economic sanctions are certainly an attempt to coerce. What is left when we take coercion away, on the other hand? In a word, consent. We go along with something because we believe in it, not because we are forced to. Soft power has something to do with this, with doing something not because you are compelled to do so, but because you believe in it. Why do we (usually) do what America ‘tells’ us, for instance? When we did not do this during the Suez crisis in 1956, the United States used hard power against us – it coerced Britain into backing down by refusing to prop up the pound internationally. But the United States does not usually need to do this, because in Britain we tend to share American values and ideals. On the other hand, don’t we share many of America’s interests as well? Ideas and interests are surely important, not just the one or the other. Realists are surely wrong to rip up the idea altogether, but liberals equally underemphasize the importance of national interests.

Secondly, Nye’s somewhat overrated idea has been seized on by the Cameron government (and by various UK parliamentary committees) as a cheap way to exert influence and as an excuse to cut the defence budget. One can claim to be asserting our influence even though one is not spending money. Whoopee, soft power is free! This is primarily why the 2010 NSS seized upon the idea, since our undoubted appeal as a country could always be used to top up the lack of real capabilities (for this reason, it will probably be in the 2015 version as well). Of course, defence diplomacy or engagement is not entirely free, since it costs money to educate and train overseas soldiers here at the UK Defence Academy (for instance). But if Kate Middleton’s latest baby, Downton Abbey and Typhoo tea can get us what we want, so much the better. Let someone else pay for Britain’s defence.

Most importantly, though, what can soft power actually do as an instrument of policy? When it really comes down to it, it’s unclear how it is supposed to be used. Nye himself has always been vague and slippery when asked this question, often resorting to the fall back position that hard power is still useful. Indeed, the notion of ‘smart power’ – a combination of hard and soft -represented a backtracking, a recognition that good old-fashioned hard power was still more useful than admitted. Arguably, the soft power notion does little harm if it is equated to the battle for hearts and minds or the war of ideas, although these terms are arguably far better since they do not sow confusion in the same way. When we look at it realistically, though, our stock of what Nye calls soft power is something that we are either blessed or stuck with. We can expand it a bit (as when Barack Obama was elected in 2008) or we can more readily deplete it (look at much of US foreign policy since then, with the continued existence of Guantanamo Bay, increased use of drones and Edward Snowden’s revelations about spying on one another). But it is not generally amenable to the manipulation of elected officials, and nor is it much useable as a lever of policymaking.

Image: U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on August 6, 2014. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

From the Archives: Versions of History in Two Collections: Assessing the Purpose and Conclusions of Compilers


There are few moments more satisfying, or tantalizing, for an historian than looking through the catalogue of an archive and discovering that it holds vast repositories of material relevant to one’s research. . Though catalogues give an idea of the material contained in a collection, with varying degrees of accuracy, it is always a toss up as to whether the documents will be of use, or simply another collection crossed off a list with the annotation ‘nothing of use’. In either case, often the most important questions that arise from working with a collection are concerned with its creation. Who compiled it and when? Why did they choose to include or exclude certain material? What was it’s original purpose?

Any given collection presents an edited version of historical events and, more importantly, tends to reflect a set of determining factors as to why events transpired as they did. If the material in a collection is to be used in new research, these questions must be asked in order to separate the collected documents from the meaning and purpose ascribed to them by the compiler.

I was recently fortunate enough to spend three weeks as a Price Fellow at the Clements Library, University of Michigan, and made a small side trip to the archives of the New York Public Library. Two collections yielded large amounts of useful material, the Hardwicke papers at the NYPL, and the Shelburne collection at the Clements. Both collections cover the events which led to the breakout of war between Spain and Britain in 1762 but the material they contained, and therefore what they can tell us about the factors which led to the outbreak of the war, were vastly different.

Phillip Yorke, the 1st Earl of Hardwicke (1690-1764), was instrumental to the formation of foreign policy during the Seven Years War. Having served as solicitor general, attorney general, lord chief justice, and lord chancellor, he was a trusted advisor and friend of several member of the Cabinet. Hardwicke’s interest and dedication to Anglo-Spanish affairs has left behind an extant wealth of material on British wartime foreign policy in the eighteenth century.

Most of Hardwicke’s papers and correspondence are found at the British Library and, to a lesser extent, at various other archives in Britain. However, one collection, consisting of 140 volumes, resides at the New York Public Library. Two volumes, 129 and 126, contain the documents relating to Anglo-Spanish relations during the Seven Years War. The collection was originally put together by Hardwicke, his first son Viscount Royston, and his second son Charles Yorke. Each volume focuses broadly on diplomacy and foreign policy. It is impossible to distinguish which of the brothers organized the collection in its final form or how much of the material was originally chosen by Hardiwcke. However, it is probable that the collection was put together as a historical sample of British foreign policy and that the selection of documents is representative of what Hardwicke, and his sons, believed were important factors in how policy was conducted.

What is striking about the Hardwicke collection, and volumes 129 and 126 specifically, is the focus on personality as the driving force of policy. There is an undated note in Hardwicke’s handwriting at the beginning of Volume 129:

Characters of the courts where foreign Ministers reside are usually the most interesting parts of their correspondence; It is a pity we have not more of them; …These characters drawn by the Earl of Bristol are not bad portraits, but they have not the sagacious and masterly strokes which distinguish the historick pen of Sr. Ben. Keene.

The Earl of Bristol and Sir Benjamin Keene were both ambassadors to the Court of Spain during the Seven Years War. Keene died at his post in 1757 and was replaced by Bristol, a man of lesser talents and lesser understanding of Anglo-Spanish affairs.

Hardwicke was clearly interested in the personalities of men in government, and it is possible that he collected the documents in these volumes as a historic record of the ‘characters’ responsible for implementing Britain’s wartime foreign policy. From the point of view of an historian using the collection as a source on the rupture between Britain and Spain, the selected correspondence of both ambassadors presents a unique version of events.

Almost every letter in the two volumes describes the unfolding Anglo-Spanish crisis in terms of the personal relations and merits of the ministers at Madrid and their counterparts in London. In a letter from Bristol in 1761, he describes a conversation he had with the exhausted and overworked Spanish Secretary of State, Don Ricardo Wall:

…he had been using his utmost endeavours for six years in England, and seven more in Spain to prevent a rupture between our courts…He told me, I was not ignorant how strong the French party was at this time and I must know how many of his private acquaintance were incessantly pleading him the absolute necessity of the declaring against the English at this juncture.

There is no discussion of the actual issues which plagued Anglo-Spanish affairs such as logwood cutting in Honduras, access to the Newfoundland fisheries, and the rights of neutral shipping, only the persistence of a worn out minister and the pressures exerted on him by French and Spanish factions. The Hardwicke collection leads a reader to conclude that the determining factors that led to war between Britain and France in 1762 were the personalities and the character failings of the ministers.

Unlike Hardwicke, William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne (1737-1805), was not personally involved in foreign policy during the war. He became Secretary of State for the Southern Department in 1766 under William Pitt and remained in the post until 1768. It is likely during this period when he became particularly interested in Anglo-Spanish relations as his position oversaw affairs with America and Spain. With the possibility of free trade opening up in some British American colonies, a command of the conflict history between Britain and Spain would have been a useful to the new Secretary of State.

The Shelburne collection at the Celments Library is vast. It contains 173 volumes and 12 boxes covering governmental, foreign, and personal affairs. Volume 22 covers Anglo-Spanish relations during the Seven Years and is labelled simply ‘Spanish Correspondence 1756-1757 and 1760-1765’. There is no helpful note left behind by Shelburne as to why he compiled the letters in this volume but it is possible that they meant to serve as a guide to the recent history of Anglo-Spanish disputes.

Where the Hardwicke collection focuses on ‘character’, the Shelburne collection focuses on facts and the substance of negotiations between the two countries. The majority of the letters in volume 22 concern the Anglo-Spanish treaty of 1667, logwood cutting in Honduras, and privateering. In the event that Britain entered a war and Spain declared neutrality, the conduct of both neutral and belligerent shipping was to be governed by the treaty of 1667. From the start of the Seven Years War, the interpretation of this treaty, and the rights of neutral Spanish shipping, became a major sticking point for Britain and Spain.

The letters which Shelburne included on the treaty of 1667 are full of legal minutiae and the varying interpretations by ministers of both Courts. Wording was dissected and the Grotian concept of ‘free ships, free goods’ emerged as an issue upon which the two countries could not agree. In a letter to Keene from 1756, the British Secretary of State wrote:

The Marine Treaty between Spain and the States General of 1650 and their treaty with France stiled the Pyrenean Treaty of 1659 do certainly contain, with regard to the Spaniards, the stipulation, that free ships make the whole cargo free…but the treaty of 1667, the present object of our consideration, made subsequent to those above mentioned, being expressed in very different terms, as by the said treaty Spain is thereby not entitled to the like liberty, with regard to the effects of French subjects.

There is no reference in the letters to the character of the ministers negotiating nor any mention of the internal fracturing of the Spanish and British Courts. The letters included in the Shelburne collection leave a reader with a version of events that revolves around the interpretation and analysis of legal documents. The determining factors which shattered Spanish neutrality in the Seven Years War were not the personalities and foibles of men like Ricardo Wall and Benjamin Keene, but rather the inability of two rational Courts to agree on the same legal definition of neutrality.

Both the Hardwicke and the Shelburne collections are invaluable resources for any historian of wartime foreign policy in the eighteenth century but, as with any collection, the historian is at the mercy of the compiler. Understanding why a collection was compiled, and for what purpose, can help isolate the conclusions of the compiler and ensure that they do not necessarily become those of the researcher.

Image: The Captured Spanish Fleet at Havana, August-September 1762, courtesy of wikimedia commons.

Is There a Place for the EU in International Security?


It’s a crowded field out there. During the last few decades, international institutions dealing with security and defence in one way or another have mushroomed all over the world. This ranges from highly technical associations of states known only to a small group of experts such as the Australia Group to very prominent institutions such as the UN Security Council. One of the newcomers in more recent times is the European Union, which has tried to build up its credentials in international security by implementing what it calls the Common Foreign and Security Policy. This is quite a remarkable development for two reasons: First, the EU wasn’t designed to be a security actor in the first place. Although its purpose has always been to cement peace in Europe after the devastating Second World War, it has been – and is still today – an organization based to a large degree on trade and other economic issues. Second, it could be argued that there’s no real need for an additional international security organization at the regional level. With the UN, NATO or the OSCE – just to name a few prominent examples – European states already have more than enough institutions at their disposal to address with their partner countries whatever security problem they face. On top of that, EU security and defence policies have often been criticised for their persistent lack of impact. So, do we really need the EU in international security?

Contrary to the ever popular EU-bashing, I actually argue in an article on the tenth anniversary of the EU’s Strategy against the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction that there is a place for the EU in international security. To begin with, it’s necessary to get rid of some common misperceptions that distort our view of the EU. First, the EU is not a state. Although it has state-like (i.e. ‘supranational’) competencies in the economic realm, in defence and security it remains largely an intergovernmental organization guided by the principle of consensus among member states. That is, EU policies are only as good as EU member state cooperation. Consequently, its performance should not be judged by the standards of a state or even a major power. Second, the EU has only few independent power resources. It does have large and relevant institutional structures with their own budget, in particular the European External Action Service, but many key features of a fully-fledged security actor remain with member states, including the ability to implement economic sanctions in practice or the use of armed forces. In other words, EU resources and capabilities are only as good as the resources and capabilities that member states provide. Taking these caveats into consideration, the performance of EU security and defence policies may appear in a better light than the failure to meet unrealistic expectations suggests. In the field of non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction the performance has been certainly better than what most experts believed when the policy was kick-started with the EU Non-Proliferation Strategy in 2003.

The most illustrative example in this regard is the case of Iran. In the aftermath of the deep divisions over the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the British, French and German foreign ministers (the ‘E3’) decided to address a high-profile proliferation concern next door and travelled to Tehran in late 2003. This was the starting point for an over ten year long negotiation marathon between Iran and what came to be known as the EU/E3 and a couple of years later the EU/E3+3 (also known as the P5+1). Although the process has had its ups and downs and has been far from smooth, the Europeans have been the lead negotiators in one of the most prominent security issues of the past decade and have been able to maintain both intra-European and international unity. Interestingly, they have been able to find an innovative institutional arrangement within the EU that installed the EU’s foreign policy chief, first Javier Solana and then Lady Ashton, as the lead negotiator and allowed the E3 to play key roles without ignoring the other member states. Moreover, the EU has been able to take unprecedented measures in the field of security, most notably an oil embargo in 2012. Has all this led to a successful conclusion of the negotiations? Obviously, not yet. But at the same time, it would be foolish to attribute this lack of progress to the EU’s weakness. After all, the Americans and Chinese haven’t solved the North Korea nuclear problem either! And they are arguably more powerful actors than the EU.

Iran and the broader field of non-proliferation are rather good indicators of when the EU is – and should be! – a leading security organization. First, the EU is a useful – and well established – framework to bring to bear the combined power of European states on the international stage, in particular if the United States refuses to get involved, as initially in the case of Iran, or if it deals with big powers such as China or Brazil, where individual member states’ clout is not sufficient. Second, flexible institutional arrangements for specific cases (read: EU/E3) and political pragmatism focused on problem-solving can be more helpful than formal institutions and rigid policy approaches. Third, the EU’s strength lies in non-military security fields, where the EU’s undeniable weakness in military terms can be easily compensated with its enormous combined economic and soft power capabilities. In fact, many of today’s security problems, from Ebola to global warming, are not classical military problems. For those, we’ll always have NATO! Ultimately, the key question is if an international organization can make a difference in security terms for its member states and their people. And within limits, the EU can certainly make such a contribution in a way other organizations can’t.

Image: Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the EC with Javad Zarif, Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran at the round of the E3/EU+3 nuclear talks in Vienna in July 2014



Using economic sanctions to curb state behaviour is something which has conventionally been considered as an apt supporter or supported government tool alongside military and political levers of power. Indeed, whilst it is increasingly important to combine economic, military, and political methods to achieve influence, it is nevertheless important to understand the context and environment in which these efforts are exercised. In a recent conference paper, I analysed this issue in the context of the United States policy of using sanctions to influence Iranian behaviour (specifically with respect to its nuclear programme).

The paper, at the Seventh Annual Association for the Study of the Middle East and Afric (ASMEA) Conference: Searching for Balance in the Middle East and Africa, titled ‘The Political Economy of US-Iranian Relations (2005-2014)’, identified the fact that the nature of the international political system is such that any form of sanctions are necessarily more effective on a multilateral as opposed to a bilateral level. This can be explained through an understanding of the context in which the sanctions were implemented.

When the initial sanctions were put in place against the revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) regime in 1979, the Middle Eastern state was much less dependent on foreign states. Or more importantly, Iran was more dependent on the US prior to the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Then in the mid-1990s, the US upped the pressure on the international community (through the United Nations and unilaterally) to align against the IRI. At this point, notably the European Union (EU) refuted this US pressure to punish Iran, and even threatened to take the US imposed 1996 Iran and Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), citing its extraterritorial nature (and negative impact on European interests). This initial sabre rattling ultimately led to a US-EU agreement the following year foregoing the ILSA targeting European companies and interests in Iran (and Libya). This not only demonstrated the resistance to US pressure to sanction the IRI, but also the relatively positive light in which EU-Iranian ties were viewed from Brussels.

Then in the early 2000s, Iran was revealed to have more advanced nuclear capabilities than initially thought, with respect to the purpose and development of its Natanz and Arak facilities. Cue new bouts of US bilateral sanctions on Iran and pressure for multilateral action against the perceived threat of the IRI. At that point, the EU still resisted punishing Iran through sanctions and pursued a diplomatic approach to the problem under the guise of the EU3 (namely; the UK, France and Germany) from 2002 to 2006. During these four years, the EU continued to use this soft approach (with an ebb and flow of US support). However, the EU3 goal of ensuring IRI transparency and coordination through the UN nuclear watchdog, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was left unachieved. As a result, the EU began to increase and implemented sanctions on Iran between 2007 and 2012, thereby aligning itself with the US intent on curbing the IRI’s behaviour.

Then in 2013, the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) was agreed upon between Iran and the P5+1 (or the EU3+3 – the EU3 successor), that is the 5 members of the UNSC plus Germany, made possible via the mediation efforts of the EU’s Foreign Policy Chief, Lady Catherine Ashton. This new hope for a comprehensive solution to the problem once again demonstrated the interdependent nature of the international system, in the sense that the agreement required the presence and assent from the 5 (6 including the EU) actors represented. Therefore, in order for the US policy of using sanctions to curb Iranian behaviour in this context, it would need the support from the fellow P5+1 members in order for it to be effective.

As a result, increased sanctions past the 24 November 2014 deadline set for an agreement over the JPA (which has already been extended once), are unlikely to succeed given the varying interests of the actors involved (P5+1). What this tells us is that the more interconnected the international system becomes, a single state’s actions become diluted and less effective. Even in the case of the US.

Image: Secretary Kerry Poses With Iranian, E.U., and Oman Ministers Before Trilateral Negotiations in Muscat About Future of Iran’s Nuclear ProgramU.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stands with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif of Iran, Baroness Catherine Ashton of the European Union, and Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawai of Oman before the U.S., Iran, and the E.U. began three-way negotiations about the future of Iran’s nuclear program in Muscat, Oman, on November 9, 2014. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

The Concert of Europe: The Rise and Fall of the First United Nations


Two hundred years ago, diplomats from the Great Powers of Europe were redrawing the map of Europe. In April, Napoleon Bonaparte had abdicated, the French Empire defeated. Now it remained for Great Britain, Royalist France, Austria, Prussia and Russia to determine the fate of Europe. Napoleon’s escape from his exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba, and the commencement of the Hundred Days Campaign ended the negotiations, as hostilities were renewed, and the old alliance that had defeated Napoleon in 1813-14 was reborn.

This new war culminated in Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo on 18 June 1815, and new negotiations commenced in Paris. For the British, the balance of power in Europe was paramount. The British Foreign Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh, and the Commander-in-Chief of British forces, the Duke of Wellington, worked hard to ensure that the Great Powers of Europe were evenly matched so as to prevent a new war breaking out on the continent.

Altruistic as this agenda might seem, Britain required a balance of power in Europe, so that she could turn her attention to imperial expansion. Every time war broke out in Europe, Britain was inevitably drawn into the conflict, and precious resources and energy was expended fighting, or more likely paying others to fight, to restore the precarious balance.

In 1815, Castlereagh proposed a new and ambitious project, which would see the Great Powers come together to discuss issues that might otherwise spark a regional and eventually a European-wide war. ‘Let the Allies then take this further chance of securing that repose which all the Powers of Europe so much require,’ he wrote in a memorandum at the end of August, by ‘renewing their meetings at fixed periods … for the purpose of consulting upon their common interests, and for the consideration of the measures … considered the most salutary for the repose and prosperity of nations and for the maintenance of the peace of Europe’.

This became known as the Concert of Europe, and I discuss its foundation, effectiveness and decline in an essay entitled ‘The Legacy of Waterloo: War and Politics in Europe in the Nineteenth Century’, published this week. Castlereagh envisaged regular meetings of Europe’s leaders, to forestall looming crises and prevent future wars. All of this was guaranteed by a perpetual alliance of the Four Powers. Although the formal congress system broke down in 1822, the Great Powers continued to reconvene on an ad-hoc basis when new crises emerged.

In total, 26 meetings occurred between the first Congress at Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818 and the final meeting in London in 1913. In that period, the Ottoman Empire was admitted in 1856, newly united Italy joined in 1867, and the German Reich replaced Prussia in 1871. The United States and Japan also began to participate towards the end of the century.

To suggest that the Concert of Europe was an unmitigated success would, of course, be misleading. No continent-wide conflict engulfed Europe between 1815 and 1914, but numerous wars between European states occurred, not least of which were the Italian Risorgimento (three wars of independence between 1849 and 1866), the Crimean War (1854-56), the Austro-Prussian War (1866), and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). The Concert framed these wars, and fed the development of European political ideas during the nineteenth century.

The system worked on moral rather than legal grounds, and any such system needed to demonstrate flexibility. The Concert proved inadequate at dealing with crises within (as opposed to between) Great Powers’ sphere of interests. Thus, Great Britain acted with impunity in South Asia; Russia did so in Central Asia and the Far East; and latterly France and Britain did so in Africa. But in Europe, crises that in the eighteenth century might have produced regional conflicts that spiralled into general European war, were resolved within the framework of the Concert.

Thus, the Greek Revolution between 1821 and 1832; the Belgian Revolution that began in 1830; and the Italian Revolution of 1848, were all settled without Great Power conflicts. This is not to say that blood was not shed, or that violence was ended as a result of Great Power intervention. The Great Powers acted so as to contain the violence and prevent the eruption of a general conflict. This was a step-change in European affairs, which, in the eighteenth century had seen conflicts breakout over similar regional challenges to prevailing authority.

Nevertheless, in 1854, a war between the Great Powers threatened the stability of Europe. Although the Crimean War did not erupt into a general conflict, it served critically to undermine the Concert of Europe. Why, then, in circumstances where the Great Powers had sought to avoid conflict at all costs, did the Crimean War break out? The answer is quite simple: the extra-European spheres of interest of two of the Great Powers began to collide, and no diplomatic mechanism within the Concert offered a solution to a problem born entirely outside the boundaries of Europe.

Ostensibly, the Crimean War erupted between Russia on one hand, and Austria, France, the Ottoman Empire and Great Britain, on the other, because of Russian aggression against the slowly declining Ottoman Empire. The prospect of Russian control of Constantinople was too great a strategic threat to Austria, France and Great Britain. Yet, if this was the sole cause, a diplomatic solution would have been found through the mechanism of the Concert. The problem was that Russian encroachment into the Caucasus and Central Asia began directly to threaten British extra-European interests, namely those in South Asia.

A diplomatic solution proved impossible in 1853-4, because Britain did not want a diplomatic solution: Britain wanted to threaten, undermine and humiliate Russia. By the early 1850s, Russia had emerged as a new France, a power that sought hegemonic power. The key difference was that Russia did not seek (at least for the time being) hegemonic power in Europe, but in Asia, and this directly threatened Britain’s own imperial ambitions. Britain had already fought a costly war in Afghanistan between 1839 and 1842 over the perceived threat of Russian expansionism in Central Asia. Although an operational disaster, the war had nevertheless achieved its strategic objectives: a buffer zone to the north-west of British India that would, for the time being at least, prevent any Russian encroachment into Britain’s sphere of interest.

In the Crimea, however, Britain perceived a different but related threat from Russia. The growth of Russian naval power in the Black Sea represented a clear threat to British grand strategy. The prospect that Russia might gain control of Constantinople, and therefore the eastern Mediterranean, and be within striking distance of Egypt, the Red Sea, and therefore India by a different route, was too much for Britain to stomach.

True, Russian naval power was nowhere near so strong as to pose such a threat, but it would be easier to squash Russian naval plans when they were still embryonic. Britain did not want a diplomatic solution to the crisis in 1853-4, because a diplomatic solution would not see the neutralisation of Russian sea power. The war in the Crimea was designed to destroy Russian sea power.

At that point, the Concert of Europe ceased to perform its central function, although it continued to exist until the outbreak of the First World War. Arguably, the transformation of European politics commenced in the 1840s, and culminating in the unification of Germany in the 1870s, had already undermined the Concert. Critically, though, and one potential lesson, is that the Concert ceased to be effective when two of the Great Powers believed that they could no longer utilise its mechanisms to resolve their differences. So long as the present incarnation of the Concert of Europe, the United Nations, can offer the nations of the world the opportunity to resolve their differences, then it is at least achieving part of what Castlereagh set out to create.

Image: Congress of Vienna CC BY-SA 3.0