Splendid isolation is the term used at the time for the 19th-century British diplomatic practice of avoiding permanent alliances, particularly under the governments of Lord Salisbury between 1885 and 1902. The practice emerged as early as 1822 with Britain's exit from the post-1815 Concert of Europe and continued until the 1904 Entente Cordiale with France, when the division of Europe into two power blocs and Britain's isolation during the 1899–1902 Second Boer War led to a reversal of the policy.
The term was coined in January 1896 by a Canadian politician, George Eulas Foster, indicating his approval for Britain's minimal involvement in European affairs by saying, "In these somewhat troublesome days when the great Mother Empire stands splendidly isolated in Europe."
The policy was characterised by a reluctance to enter into permanent alliances or commitments with other Great Powers. Often assumed to apply to the latter part of the 19th century, some historians argue it originated when Britain withdrew from the post-1815 Concert of Europe after the 1822 Congress of Verona. This decision was made by George Canning, whose principles dominated British foreign policy for decades and were summarised by historian Harold Temperley as follows:
Non-intervention; no European police system; every nation for itself, and God for us all; balance of power; respect for facts, not for abstract theories; respect for treaty rights, but caution in extending them ... England not Europe... Europe's domain extends to the shores of the Atlantic, England's begins there.
For much of the nineteenth century, Britain sought to maintain the existing balance of power in Europe, while protecting trade routes to its colonies and dominions, especially those connecting to British India through the Suez Canal. In 1866, the Foreign Secretary Lord Derby explained this policy as follows:
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.
An exception was the 1839 Treaty of London, recognising the independent state of Belgium; the strategic importance of the Belgian ports of Ostend, Antwerp and Zeebrugge was such that Britain guaranteed Belgian independence, by military means if required.
Bismarck and Salisbury
After the creation of the German Reich in 1871, German Chancellor Bismarck sought to isolate France with the 1873 League of the Three Emperors or Dreikaiserbund between Austria-Hungary, Russia and Germany. Austria left the League in 1878 due to conflicts with Russia in the Balkans; Bismarck replaced it with the 1879 Dual Alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary, which became the Triple Alliance when Italy joined in 1882.
However, his primary foreign policy aim was keeping Russia and Germany aligned, and he persuaded Austria to join a reconstituted Dreikaiserbund in 1881 in response to attempts by France to engage with Russia diplomatically. When the League was finally abandoned in 1887, Bismarck replaced it with the Reinsurance Treaty, a secret agreement between Germany and Russia to remain neutral if either were attacked by France or Austria-Hungary.
British policy-makers were concerned at the post-1871 increase in German industrial and military strength, but were reassured by Bismarck's evident intention to maintain the status quo. This changed after his dismissal in 1890 by Wilhelm II, who subsequently initiated the Anglo-German naval race supported by Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz.
Salisbury once defined his foreign policy as "to float lazily downstream, putting out the occasional diplomatic boathook." He viewed this as avoiding war with another Great Power or combination of Powers and securing communications with the Empire. A recurring concern for Britain throughout the 19th century was the impact of Russian access to the Mediterranean through Constantinople and the Dardanelles. This was a factor in the 1853–1856 Crimean War; it resurfaced during the 1875–1878 Great Eastern Crisis, when Jingoism demonstrated a growing sense of insecurity among British media and politicians.
After Britain seized Egypt in the 1882 Anglo-Egyptian War, Mediterranean policy focused on ensuring stability, resulting in the 1887 Mediterranean Agreements with Italy and Austria-Hungary. The three countries agreed to work together in times of crisis, but as these were not binding agreements, neither had to be approved by Parliament.
This allowed Salisbury to align British and German policy without a formal alliance, while providing a counterweight to French interference in Egypt. Since Britain shared Austrian concern at Russian expansion in South-East Europe, Bismarck did not have to choose between his two allies when they were at odds in the Balkans. This mutually beneficial policy ended in 1890 when Bismarck was dismissed by Wilhelm.
In the 1890s, Britain was challenged on a number of fronts: in Europe, by a combination of Wilhelm's erratic foreign policy, German naval expansion and the instability caused by the decline of the Ottoman Empire; in the Americas, where for domestic political reasons, U.S. President Cleveland manufactured a quarrel over Venezuela's border with British Guiana; and in Central Asia, where the 3,000 kilometres that separated Russia and British India in 1800 was down to 30 kilometres in some areas.
By the end of the century, Europe was split into two power blocs, and Wilhelm's stated policy was to end "Britain's free ride on the coat-tails of the Triple Alliance."
In 1898, then Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain made two attempts to negotiate an alliance with Germany and spoke publicly of Britain's diplomatic predicament, saying, "We have had no allies. I am afraid we have had no friends ... We stand alone." He was unsuccessful, but these efforts reflected a growing realisation that Britain's diplomatic isolation during the 1899–1902 Second Boer War left it dangerously exposed.
Chamberlain was an Imperialist, who split the Liberal Party in 1886 over Irish Home Rule, because he viewed it as weakening the British Empire. For Chamberlain, alliances with other Powers were a way of strengthening an independent Empire; they focused on colonial disputes in the Far East and Africa and were counterbalanced by the creation of Imperial Dominions, such as Canada and Australia.
In 1902, Britain and Japan signed the Anglo-Japanese Alliance; if either were attacked by a third party, the other would remain neutral and if attacked by two or more opponents, the other would come to its aid. This meant Japan could rely on British support in a war with Russia, if either France or Germany, which also had interests in China, decided to join them. With Britain still engaged in the Boer War, this was arguably a defensive move rather than an end to isolation, a view supported by T. G. Otte, who sees it as reinforcing Britain's aloofness from the Continent and the European alliance systems. Britain also started to build a "Special Relationship" with the United States.
Primarily for domestic British consumption, the 1904 Entente Cordiale with France and the 1907 Anglo-Russian Convention were not formal alliances and both focused on colonial boundaries in Asia and Africa. However, they cleared the way for co-operation in other areas, making British entry into any future conflict involving France or Russia a possibility; these interlocking bilateral agreements became known as the Triple Entente. Britain supported France against Germany in the 1911 Agadir Crisis, with the two countries informally agreeing to cooperate in other areas. By 1914, both the Army and Royal Navy were committed to support France in the event of war with Germany but few even in the government were aware of the extent of these commitments.
Appraisal by historians
Diplomatic historian Margaret MacMillan argues that in 1897 Britain was indeed isolated, but far from being "splendid" this 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 British isolation was intentional or dictated by contemporary events. 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." 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."
Salisbury 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.
"Splendid Isolation" was ultimately a rhetorical exaggeration of the very pragmatically driven and successful British policy of avoiding entanglements in endless and unproductive European conflicts. Whatever strategic risks might have been perceived as inherent in Britain avoiding European entanglements, these fears were trivial in light of the very real outcome of the supposed remedy to the nebulous 'problem' of a theoretical 'isolation'. Creeping entanglement with French interests, led directly, and unnecessarily, to Britain being deeply and fundamentally damaged in two murderous world wars, ultimately destroying the pre-eminence of Britain and its globally engaged networks.
- Causes of World War I
- Historiography of the British Empire
- International relations of the Great Powers (1814–1919)
- Pax Britannica
- Timeline of British diplomatic history
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