"Splendid isolation" is a diplomatic policy of avoiding alliances and entanglements. Some historians argue it was the foreign policy pursued by Great Britain during the late 19th century under the Conservative Party premierships of Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Salisbury. Lord Derby enunciated the policy in 1866 when he was foreign minister:
It is the duty of the Government of this country, placed as it is with regard to geographical position, to keep itself upon terms of goodwill with all surrounding nations, but not to entangle itself with any single or monopolising alliance with any one of them; above all to endeavour not to interfere needlessly and vexatiously with the internal affairs of any foreign country.
The term was coined in January 1896 by a Canadian politician, George Eulas Foster, to indicate his approval for Britain's minimal involvement in European affairs, "In these somewhat troublesome days when the great Mother Empire stands splendidly isolated in Europe."
Diplomatic historian Margaret McMillan argues that in 1897 Britain was indeed isolated, but it was not at all "splendid". Rather it was a bad thing for Britain had no real friends and was engaged in disputes with the United States, France, Germany, and Russia. Historians have debated whether this policy was intentional or forced upon Britain by contemporary events. John Charmley has argued that splendid isolation was a fiction for the period prior to the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894, and that the policy was reluctantly pursued thereafter. E. David Steele asserts that when Salisbury once referred to 'splendid isolation' he "was being ironical at the expense of those who believed in the possibility." A.J.P. Taylor claimed that the policy existed only in a limited sense: "The British certainly ceased to concern themselves with the Balance of Power in Europe; they supposed that it was self-adjusting. But they maintained close connection with the continental Powers for the sake of affairs outside of Europe, particularly in the Near East."
During the late 19th century, Britain's primary goal in foreign policy was to maintain the balance of power in Europe and to intervene if that balance was upset. Its secondary goal was to protect its overseas interest in the colonies and dominions, as free trade was what kept the Empire alive. The sea routes to the colonies, especially those linking Britain to India (via the Suez Canal), were vital.
The policy of 'splendid isolation' was characterised by a reluctance to enter into permanent European alliances or commitments with the other great powers.
Bismarck and Salisbury
After the unification of the German Empire in 1871, Bismarck sought alliances with other European powers to prevent France's revenge. Successful alliances began with the Dreikaiserbund and Dual Alliance, 1879. The Triple Alliance was formed in 1882 with Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy.
The rise of Germany in both industrial and military terms alarmed Britain, but there was an appreciation by British policy makers that under Bismarck the country was largely a status quo power. It was not until Germany's naval aspirations developed under Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz in the years following Bismarck's fall that Whitehall became especially alarmed. After the Triple Intervention in China, leading politicians, such as Joseph Chamberlain, questioned the policy of remaining free of formal alliances.
At the core of Salisbury's policy was a desire to avoid war with another great power or combination of powers and thus ensure that Britain's lines of communications with its empire remained secure. The main threat of war came from Russia, and there was concern that it would seize Constantinople and the Straits (the Dardanelles) between the Turkish Peninsula and Europe, and threaten Britain's communication to India, something which Britain had almost gone to war with Russia to prevent during the Great Eastern Crisis from 1875 to 1878.
Still, the British seizure of Egypt in The Anglo-Egyptian War 1882 changed the situation. The maintenance of the status quo in the Mediterranean was hugely desirable for Britain and the result was the First Mediterranean Agreement with Italy and Austria-Hungary, by which they pledged to act in concert with each other in times of crisis. The Second Mediterranean Agreement, concluded on 12 December 1887, was even more specific in its aims, though it still had no binding agreements, which meant that it did not need to be laid before Parliament.
The importance of these agreements was that Salisbury was able to align British policy with that of Germany without having to enter a formal alliance. Through them, he was able to maintain an understanding with the German Chancellor, Bismarck, to solve mutual problems, with Bismarck being a useful counterweight to French meddling in Egypt, and Britain being a useful ally of Austria-Hungary. Thus, Bismarck did not have to choose between his two allies, Russia and Austria-Hungary, when they were at odds in the Balkans. The policy broke down with the fall of Bismarck and the increasing alarm at the unstable behaviour of the new German Kaiser, Wilhelm II. With rising German hostility and naval expansion and the Dual Alliance between France and Russia, the result was that Britain's politicians became increasingly concerned with the international situation.
With Wilhelm intent on ending 'Britain's free ride on the coat-tails of the Triple Alliance' and the coalescence of Europe into two power blocs, Britain faced the stark choice of joining one of the alliances or remaining without an ally. Britain's small army meant that it would have had to rely on its navy. There was also always the fear of war with Russia over Russian expansionism in Central Asia during The Great Game and also a lesser fear of war with the United States, which launched a quarrel with Britain regarding Venezuela's border with British Guiana.
At the turn of the century, British isolation was ending as it started to build a "Special Relationship" with the United States and signed the 1902 military alliance with Japan. The view that Britain's isolation was formally ended by this agreement with Japan is disputed by T.G. Otte, who observes that the Anglo-Japanese Alliance reinforced Britain's aloofness from the Continent and the European alliance systems.
By 1900, both Joseph Chamberlain and Lord Lansdowne sought to negate support for splendid isolation by involving the country more deeply in European affairs. Britain began to normalise its relations with European countries by resolving outstanding disputes; the Entente Cordiale and the Anglo-Russian Entente were signed in 1904 and 1907 respectively. The European alliance system, begun in 1882 with the Triple Alliance and completed 25 years later with the Triple Entente, was an important factor in the outbreak of World War I.
Salisbury had never used the term 'splendid isolation' to describe his approach to foreign policy; he explicitly argued against its use. He considered it dangerous to be completely uninvolved with European affairs. One of his biographers has argued that the term "has unfairly affixed itself to Salisbury's foreign policy." Britain was not isolated during this period, given its informal alignments arising from the two Mediterranean Agreements and the fact that it still traded with other European powers and remained heavily connected with the British Empire.
Return of the phrase in the 21st century
The phrase made a comeback in the British media in 2011, when Prime Minister David Cameron vetoed a deal aimed at rescuing the eurozone and resolving the European debt crisis. The European Fiscal Compact conferred rights upon EU institutions to enforce budgetary policy in countries contravening debt and deficit rules, as well as quasi-automatic penalties for delinquents. The UK could have chosen to opt out, instead of vetoing the plan for others. The veto was welcomed by Eurosceptic Conservative MPs who supported the party's traditional stance of 'splendid isolation' in Europe.
The phrase was also used in the lead up to, and following, the United Kingdom's Brexit vote to leave the European Union on June 23, 2016. Prior to the vote, the term was used ironically and critically by those wishing to stay in the Union. For example, former Conservative Prime Minister John Major used the phrase dismissively over several months while campaigning for the 'remain' option.
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- Historiography of the British Empire
- International relations of the Great Powers (1814–1919)
- Timeline of British diplomatic history
- United Kingdom European Union membership referendum, 2016
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