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Classics Review: Imperial Diplomacy

By: Patrick J. Garrity
May 28, 2013

During his tenure at Harvard University, Professor William L. Langer published a number of highly influential studies of diplomatic history and U.S. foreign policy, including an examination (with S. Everett Gleason) of U.S. isolationism and the domestic run-up to World War II. Langer also served as the chief of the Research and Analysis Branch, Office of Strategic Services (1942-1945); special assistant for intelligence to Secretary of State James F. Byrnes; assistant director of the CIA (1950-1952), where he helped organize the Office of National Estimates; and as a member of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (1961-1977).

Langer first made his name in academia with the publication of two major studies of 19th-century European diplomacy—European Alliances and Alignments, 1871-1890, published in 1931, and its follow-on, The Diplomacy of Imperialism, 1890-1902, originally published in 1935. Langer relied extensively on archival material that had not been available or had not been utilized by other scholars, including the diaries of the Russian foreign minister Count Vladimir Lamsdorff.

The Diplomacy of Imperialism is not an easy read, nor does it contain a simple take-home message, although Langer believes that the basic outlines of the imperial struggle can be discerned. The volume is full of detail and events, individuals and agreements (or disagreements), which would have been familiar to an educated audience in the 1930s, but which are less so today. The contemporary reader will be struck with the complexity and fluidity of the diplomatic combinations and the shifting aims of the great powers—what Langer refers to as the "interpenetration" of alliances. By Langer's account, there is no straight line between the imperial rivalries of the 1890s and early 1900s and the alignments that led to World War I. Langer's study is at the level of European Cabinet diplomacy, with relatively little attention to the particulars of those peoples coming under the sway of the European empires. (He does provide an extended, and controversial, treatment of the Armenian separatist movement, but this more in the context of a European, rather than an imperial, crisis.) But the great and would-be great empires are not billiard balls—emperors and their ministers are at odds about the proper strategic course, and often divided even in their own minds. Cabinets are influenced by public opinion and by the popular Zeitgeist. Governments rise and fall. Policies zigzag and wobble. You need a scorecard to tell the players and their position on the field. Imperial diplomacy is a very messy business.

Langer considers in detail particular conflicts and crises, including the Armenian question, South Africa and the Boer War, the great power conflict over Chinese sovereignty, and the competition over the Nile River valley. For our purposes it is worthwhile to touch on some of the overarching points of his narrative:

During the previous period of European history (1871-1890), which might be entitled the Bismarckian System or the Hegemony of Germany, European relations were predominantly continental in character. But with Otto von Bismarck's fall all that changed. William II's refusal to renew the Reinsurance Treaty—Bismarck's agreement of neutrality with Russia—knocked the underpinning from the European alliance structure. Russia regained an unlooked for—and largely unwanted—liberty of action, paving the way to the (reluctant) commencement of the Franco-Russian alliance, that odd ideological coupling of an unstable republican regime and an absolutist government whose principal ministers followed sharply divergent policy impulses. This new configuration of alliances marked, in 1894, a new era in European diplomacy, "with the ascendency of Germany broken by the new Franco-Russian combination, replaced by something closer to a balance of power on the Continent." But neither France nor Russia desired a confrontation with Germany. The Franco-Russian alliance, if anything, was directed against England.


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With the two groups of powers evenly matched, the old European issues were reduced to a deadlock. For ten years, European interstate relations were in a state of flux. The old connections began to dissolve and on all sides there was an uncertain groping towards a new stability. There was no directness of policy and singleness of purpose, a condition which challenges the diplomatic historian to unravel the strands of an almost chaotic situation. There was an "interpenetration" of alliances, so that (in the words of an Italian historian) "allies acted as though they were adversaries, while members of opposing diplomatic systems acted as though they were more [like] friends."

To complicate matters further, the growing economic pressure and the increasing competition for markets among the great powers stimulated and facilitated imperialistic overseas expansion (with the associated outburst of "navalism.") The interests and energies of the great powers brought with them into the colonies their traditional European rivalries, but the constraints of their new circumstances often forced them to modify their time-honored policies.

"Had the focal points of international relations continued to be the Continent, England might well have acted as the fulcrum of the balance between the two rival combinations. As it was, she tended to become the object of attack for both groupings." England, the power that stood in the way of every nation that dreamed of expansion overseas, became an object of universal suspicion and distrust. The Franco-German opposition to the Anglo-Congolese Treaty of 1894, for example, showed that England was isolated and that the two great groups of continental powers, unwilling to drift into conflict with each other, might very well cooperate against the one great power which stood aloof from both groups. "[M]uch of the globe was an English preserve and the British were not backward in advancing their claims to such regions" as remained unclaimed by the colonial powers.

As business men the English would undoubtedly have preferred to continue as before, with the whole world as a market and with no very serious competitor. But now, with the setting aside of large parts of the unclaimed world as French and German colonies, there was an obvious danger that the British markets would be steadily restricted. Hence the emergence and sudden flowering of the movement for expansion [among key segments of the British elite].

 

The dynamic of expansion took over when Britain made certain critical decisions about the extent of their Empire and its lines of communication. Once the decision was made to stay in Egypt, for example, then the Nile had to be protected from encroachment by other imperial powers (particularly the French).


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The English also felt they had to take control of vast swaths of territory to prevent the capture of potential markets by their exclusive rivals. Economic control increasingly appeared to require overt political control. This policy direction was reinforced by a sense of mission and the general atmosphere of conflict nurtured by the current ideas of evolution, as well as by the sense that Germany and Britain were natural racial rivals. But at the same time, Britain's far-flung possessions exposed her particularly to attack. "As Africa and Asia came to play an ever-greater role in international relations, it was inevitable that England's position should become ever more precarious," writes Langer. In sum, to understand European international relations in the 1890s requires an understanding of both the assault of Russia and France upon the colonial possessions and territorial claims of Britain in Asia and Africa, and the great economic sparring between England and her rather efficient German rival.

Langer focuses particularly on the estrangement of England and Germany caused by their imperial rivalry. He concludes that

[i]n France and Russia the movement for expansion was essentially an artificial one, resting upon considerations of national prestige, drawing its support from a group of statesmen who looked to the future, from a relatively small number of explorers and colonial enthusiasts, and from a syndicate of bankers and speculators.

 

(Langer here tends to gloss over the traditional British-Russian rivalry in Asia, which he regards as something quite different from the newly-developed imperial conflicts in the latter decade of the 19th century.) With Britain and Germany the situation was quite different. England by the 1890s was the model industrial and trading national, depending for her food supply upon imports and literally living upon foreign trade. The economic rise of Germany, an "industrial top heavy" nation in need of new markets, thus presented a grave threat to the continued success of the British Empire.


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Langer faults the policy of both nations for the peculiar difficulties in which they would eventually find themselves. The British strongly opposed concessions to the Germans, while the Germans believed that the penurious British, possessors of an Empire on which the sun never set, begrudged their late blooming cousins even the most trivial of acquisitions. The famous anti-British Kruger telegram sent by Kaiser Wilhelm II—one of the greatest blunders of modern diplomacy—brought to the surface all the jealousy, distrust, and ill feeling that had gradually accumulated between the two nations. It reflected in part the perverseness of various strains of German policy, which, on the one hand, sought to frighten the English into closer relations with the Triple Alliance, and on the other, to create a political-economic combination of continental powers to combat the growing British friendship with the United States. Such a continental coalition against England would create a naval combination that the Royal Navy could not hope to combat on equal terms. Short of that, there was Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz's idea that Germany might itself build enough ships to tip the naval balance against Britain, thereby forcing London to become more accommodating. In this climate, the teachings of the American naval writer Alfred Thayer Mahan found willing audiences, as Langer amply documents.

Of course there was more than a little hysteria in this rampant imperialism and much sleep was lost over territories of no importance. But these psychological elements [especially acute in the growing Anglo-German rivalry] must be considered. People simply became panicky as they saw the world shrinking. Nothing seemed quite so important as to get everything possible before it was too late, and to allow as little as possible to pass into the hands of competitors.... [T]he Germans made something of a nuisance of themselves by interjecting themselves into every problem and by demanding compensation everywhere and at all times. But it is equally true that the Britain took a negative stand to begin with and showed an extraordinary tendency to look with greater equanimity upon the voracious appetite of Russia and France than upon the relatively unimpressive nibblings of the Germans.

 

But neither the Russians nor French were considered serious commercial rivals of the British; they were not getting the better of the British even in the markets of the empire, as were the Germans. It was that which most rankled the British, sowing suspicion and jealousy. This part of the Anglo-German antagonism did decline over time—but by the time European politics came to the fore the barriers to a comprehensive understanding had already been raised.


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The shifting European alignments, and particularly the growing Anglo-German tensions and efforts to resolve that relationship, became entangled with the Far Eastern problem (as it was then described). According to Langer, when the two aspects are put together, it will appear unmistakably that the real object of English policy throughout these years—chiefly because of critical developments in the Far East—was to reach an agreement with Russia. Japanese statesmen, in turn, also wanted an agreement with Russia, and it was the failure of both England and Japan to reach such an agreement that brought them reluctantly together. (The Anglo-Russian rapprochement would have to wait, until the latter's defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 forced the government in St. Petersburg to undertake a fundamental rethinking of security policy).

Construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway was "regarded throughout the world as a portentous departure from Russian policy; as an event bound to transform the whole of the Far Eastern [and imperial] question and at the same time to modify the whole framework of international relations." Japan as well as China looked on with great trepidation. The Japanese feared that completion of the Russian system of communications would make further resistance to Russian advances nearly impossible. Yet an independent Korea—or its control by Japan—was looked upon as indispensible to the security of the Japanese. This judgment led to Japan's war with China. When the Chinese were routed (though the Japanese were frustrated in the subsequent diplomatic settlement), the appearance of this new great power led to an inevitable reordering not only of the Far East, but of European security, as well.