History of the foreign relations of the United Kingdom

The history of the foreign relations of the United Kingdom covers British foreign policy from about 1600 to 2000. For the current situation since 2000 see Foreign relations of the United Kingdom.

Britain from 1750 to the 1910s took pride in an unmatched economic base comprising industry, finance, shipping and trade that largely dominated the globe. Foreign policy based on free trade (after 1840) kept the economy flourishing. The overseas Empire recovered after the loss of America in 1776 and reached its zenith about 1920, and foreign policy made sure it was never seriously threatened.

After expending enormous energy on the defeat of France and Napoleon (1793-1915), British policy focused on achieving a conservative balance of power within Europe, with no one country achieving dominance over the affairs of the continent. This had been the basic reason behind the British wars against Napoleon, and the British commitment in the First and Second World Wars. The chief enemy down to 1815 was France, with its much larger population base and its powerful army. The British were generally successful in their many wars, with the notable exception of the American War of Independence (1775–1783). In that war Britain, without any major allies, was defeated by the colonials who had the support of France and the Netherlands, and France had support from Spain.[1]

A favoured diplomatic strategy was subsidising the armies of continental allies, such as Prussia, thereby turning London's enormous financial power to military advantage. Britain relied heavily on its Royal Navy for security, seeking to keep it the most powerful fleet afloat with a full complement of bases across the globe. British dominance of the seas was vital to the formation of the British Empire, which was achieved through the maintenance of a Navy larger than the next two largest Navies combined for the majority of the 19th and early 20th centuries, prior to the entry of the United States into the Second World War. The British controlled the oceans. So powerful was the Royal Navy, it needed to do little actual fighting from 1812 to 1914. Although all of the other major Powers fought with their neighbors, the British army had only one relatively limited war (the Crimean war against Russia in 1854-56). The Army mostly handled garrison duty, and did have to deal with localized insurrections and colonial conflicts in Asia and Africa.

English foreign policy before 1700

The limited budget, limited ambitions on the continent, avoidance of alliances, and the protection afforded by the English Channel from foreign invasion combined to make foreign affairs less pressing for the British government before 1688. Elite elements paid little attention to Continental affairs before the 1660s, and there was little clamour to enter the Thirty Years War of 1618-48. Historian Lawrence Stone says England "was no more than a marginal player in the European power game." The increasingly powerful Royal Navy attracted admiration, but London used it to support its growing overseas empire.[2]

Conflict with Spain, 1585-1604

Late in her reign Queen Elizabeth was in intermittent conflict with Spain (1585–1604). War was never formally declared. Spain was militarily and financially much more powerful, and promoted a Catholic interest in opposition to England's Protestantism. The conflict saw widely separated battles, and began with England's military expedition in 1585 to the Spanish Netherlands (modern-day Belgium) in support of the resistance of the States General to Spanish Habsburg rule.[3]

The English enjoyed some victories at Cádiz in 1587. Its great triumph was the decisive defeat of the Spanish invasion attempt by the ill-fated Spanish Armada in 1588.[4] England suffered smaller defeats of the English Armada in 1589 and the Drake–Hawkins and Essex–Raleigh expeditions in 1595 and 1597 respectively. Two further Spanish armadas were sent in 1596 and 1597 but were frustrated in their objectives mainly because of adverse weather and poor planning.

By 1600 the conflict became deadlocked during campaigns in Brittany and Ireland. It ended with the Treaty of London, between the new King of Spain, Philip III, and the new King of England, James I. They agreed to cease their military interventions in the Spanish Netherlands and Ireland, respectively, and the English ended high seas privateering against Spanish merchant ships.[5]

Stuart foreign policy

Stuart England was consumed with internal affairs. During 1600-1650 the king made repeated efforts to colonize Guiana in South America. They all failed and the lands (Surinam) were ceded to the Dutch in 1667. James I's foreign policy placed much higher priority on European affairs.[6][7]

Anglo Dutch Wars

The Anglo-Dutch Wars were a series of three wars which took place between the English and the Dutch from 1652 to 1674. The causes included political disputes and increasing competition from merchant shipping. Religion was not a factor, since both sides were Protestant.[8] The British in the first war (1652–54) had the naval advantage with larger numbers of more powerful "ships of the line" which were well suited to the naval tactics of the era.. The British also captured numerous Dutch merchant ships. In the second war (1665–67) Dutch naval victories followed. This second war cost London ten times more than it had planned on, and the king sued for peace in 1667 with the Treaty of Breda. It ended the fights over "mercantilism" (that is, the use of force to protect and expand national trade, industry, and shipping.) Meanwhile, the French were building up fleets that threatened both the Netherlands and Great Britain. In third war (1672–74), The British counted on a new alliance with France but the outnumbered Dutch outsailed both of them, and King Charles II ran short of money and political support. The Dutch gained domination of sea trading routes until 1713. The British gained the thriving colony of New Netherland, and renamed it New York.[9][10]

The long 18th century: wars with France, 1702-1815

Diplomatic service

Unlike such major rivals as France, the Netherlands, Sweden or Austria, British control over their own diplomacy was erratic. Diplomats were poorly selected, poorly funded, and non-professional. The main posts were Paris and The Hague, but the diplomats sent there were more clever in dealing with London politics than they were with diplomatic affairs. King William III handle foreign policy himself, using Dutch diplomats whenever possible. After 1700, Britain, build up the quantity of its diplomatic service in the major capitals, without much attention to quality. Vienna and Berlin were upgraded, but even they were ignored for years at a time. By the 1790s, British diplomats had learned a great deal by closely watching their French rivals; aristocratic exiles from Paris began helping out as well. For the first time in the French wars, Britain set up an underground intelligence service that was in contact with local dissidents, and helped shape their protests.[11] Pitt Was saddled with the largely incompetent foreign secretary marquess of Carmarthen from 1783 to 1791. However Pitt managed to bring in in numerous strong diplomats, such as James Harris at The Hague, where he forged an alliance that with the addition of Prussia became a triple alliance in 1788. Pitt often used him as a troubleshooter in complex negotiations.[12] Pitt brought in William Eden (1744-1814), who negotiated a difficult commercial treaty with France in 1786.[13]

Pitt brought on board three foreign ministers with strong reputations. William Grenville (1791-1801) saw France as a profound threat to every nation in Europe, and he focused his attention on its defeat, working closely with his cousin prime minister Pitt. George Canning (1807-9), and Viscount Casterleagh (1812-15) were highly successful in organizing complex coalitions that in the end defeated Napoleon.[14] Castlereagh to Canning displayed imagination and energy, although their personalities clashed to the point of fighting a duel.[15]

Britain as a naval and maritime power

Britain's leaders realized the value of the increasingly powerful Royal Navy, and made sure that in various treaties it added naval bases and obtained access to key ports.[16] In the Mediterranean region, it controlled Gibraltar and Minorca, and had advantageous positions in Naples and Palermo. The alliance with Portugal concluded in 1703 protected its approaches to the Mediterranean. In the North, Hanover played a role (it was ruled by the English king), while the alliance with Denmark provided naval access to the North Sea and the Baltic. Meanwhile, French maritime power was weakened by the Treaty of Utrecht which forced it to destroy its naval base in Dunkirk. English maritime power was boosted by a series of commercial treaties, including those of 1703 with Portugal, with the Netherlands, Savoy, Spain and France in 1713. Although the merchants of London had little direct say at the royal court, the king appreciated their contribution to the wealth of his kingdom, and to his tax base.[17][18][19]

1702-1712 – War of the Spanish Succession

Britain was a player in the first world war of modern times with theatres of fighting in Spain, Italy, Germany, Holland, and at sea. At issue was the threat of France taking control of Spain and its American colonies. The Royal Navy with an assist from the Dutch in 1704-5 captured Gibralter, which for the next three centuries became the key to British power in the Mediterranean.[20]

1742-48, – War of the Austrian Succession

George II leading his troops at Dettingen

Britain played a small role in the inconclusive but hard fought war that convulsed central Europe, while funding its ally Austria.[21] The goal, as defined by foreign minister John Carteret was to limit the growth of French power, and protect Hanover, which was also ruled by King George II.[22] In 1743 King George II led a 40,000-man British=-Dutch-German army into the Rhine Valley. He was outmaneuvred by the French but he scored a narrow victory at the Battle of Dettingen. In the winter of 1743-44 the French planned to invade Britain in alliance with the Stuart pretender to George's throne; they were foiled by the Royal Navy. King George gave command to his son the Duke of Cumberland. He fared poorly and Britain pulled out of the war to deal with rebellion at home, where Cumberland gained fame by decisively suppressing the Jacobite Rising at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.[23] Meanwhile, Britain did much better in North America, capturing the powerful Fortress of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia. The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748) favoured France, which won the most victories. Britain returned the Fortress of Louisbourg to France and the French left Belgium. Prussia and Savoy werre the main winners, and Britain's ally Austria was a loser. The treaty left the main issues of control over territories in America and India unresolved, and was little more than an armed truce, and a prelude to the more important Seven Years' War...[24]

1754-63 – Seven Years' War

The new alliances formed as a result of the Diplomatic Revolution of 1756; Austria switched from a British ally to a French ally; Prussia became a British ally.[25]

The Seven Years' War (1756-63 in Europe, 1754-63 in North America) was a major international conflict centered in Europe but reaching across the globe. Great Britain and Prussia were the winners. They fought France, Austria, Spain and Russia—nearly all of the other important powers except the Ottoman Empire). The Royal Navy played a major role, and the army and the Treasury played important roles. The war appeared to be a disaster for Prussia, until its fortunes reversed at the last second. Britain swept up much of the overseas French Empire in North America and India. The financing of war was a critical issue, which Britain handled well, and France handled poorly, leaving itself so deep in debt. That it never fully recovered. William Pitt (1708–78) energized the British leadership, and used effective diplomacy and military strategy to achieve his victory. Britain used the manpower from its American colonies effectively in cooperation with its regulars and its Navy to overwhelm the much less populous French colonial empire in what is now Canada. From a small spark in 1754 in the distant wilderness (near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), the fighting spread to Europe. 1759, was the anise thereof Bayliss, as British and Prussian troops defeated the French army at the Battle of Minden, the British captured Guadeloupe Island and Quebec, smashed the French fleet at Quiberon Bay, and (in January 1760) defeated the French in southern India.[26] Peace terms were hard to reach and the war dragged on until everyone was exhausted. The British national debt soared to £134 million from £72, but London had a financial system capable of handling the burden.[27]

A debate erupted at the peace conference over whether Britain should keep the French colony of "New France" (now Canada) or Guadeloupe, both of which it had seized in the war. France wanted the rich sugar island 'as its world vision turned to maritime and tropical interests. Meanwhile, Britain was moving from commercial and maritime regulation to the assertion of territorial control over its colonies. So Britain kept the vast stretches of uneconomical Canada and France kept the rich little island.[28]

1775-83 - American War of Independence


Britain's diplomacy failed in the war—it had support of only a few small German states that hired out mercenaries. Most of Europe was officially neutral, but the elites and public opinion typically favoured the underdog American Patriots as in Sweden,[29] and Denmark.[30]

The League of Armed Neutrality was an alliance of minor European naval powers between 1780 and 1783 which was intended to protect neutral shipping against the Royal Navy's wartime policy of unlimited search of neutral shipping for French contraband.[31] Empress Catherine II of Russia began the League in 1780. She endorsed the right of neutral countries to trade by sea with nationals of belligerent countries without hindrance, except in weapons and military supplies. The League would not recognize supposed blockades of whole coasts, but only of individual ports, and then only if a British warship was actually present. Denmark and Sweden agreed with Russia and the three countries signed the agreement forming the League. They remained otherwise out of the war, but threatened joint retaliation for every ship of theirs searched by a belligerent. By the end of the war in 1783 Prussia, the Holy Roman Empire, the Netherlands, Portugal, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and the Ottoman Empire had all become members.

The League never fought a battle. Diplomatically, it carried greater weight; France and the United States of America were quick to proclaim their adherence to the new principle of free neutral commerce. Britain—which did not—still had no wish to antagonize Russia, and avoided interfering with the allies' shipping. While both sides of the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War tacitly understood it as an attempt to keep the Netherlands out of the League, Britain did not officially regard the alliance as hostile.[32]

William Pitt the Younger

As Prime Minister (1783-1801, 1804-1806) William Pitt the Younger, despite his youth, reinvigorated the administrative system of Great Britain, modernized its finances, and led the way in breaking out of the diplomatic isolation, it found itself during the American war. Beginning in 1792, he led the British nation in its mortal combat with the French Revolution and Napoleon.

Warfare and finance

From 1700 to 1850, Britain was involved in 137 wars or rebellions. It maintained a relatively large and expensive Royal Navy, along with a small standing army. When the need arose for soldiers it hired mercenaries or financed allies who fielded armies. The rising costs of warfare forced a shift in government financing from the income from royal agricultural estates and special imposts and taxes to reliance on customs and excise taxes and, after 1790, an income tax.[33] Working with bankers in the City, the government raised large loans during wartime and paid them off in peacetime. The rise in taxes amounted to 20% of national income, but the private sector benefited from the increase in economic growth. The demand for war supplies stimulated the industrial sector, particularly naval supplies, munitions and textiles, which gave Britain an advantage in international trade during the postwar years.[34][35] Pitt in the 1780s reformed the fiscal system by raising taxes, monitoring expenses closely, and establishing a sinking fund to pay off the long-term debt, which amounted to ₤243 with annual interest accounting for most of the budget. Meanwhile, banking system used its ownership of the debt to provide capital assets for economic growth.[36] When the wars with France began, Pitt kept the sinking fund in operation and raised taxes, especially on luxury items. Britain was far ahead of France and all other powers in its use of finance to strengthen the economy, the military and foreign policy.[37]

Nootka crisis with Spain, 1789-1795

Main article: Nootka Crisis

The Nootka Crisis was a crisis with Spain starting in 1789 at Nootka Sound, an unsettled area at the time that is now part of British Columbia, Canada.[38] Spain seized small British commercial ships engaged in the fur trade in an area on the Pacific on an area on the Pacific Coast. Spain claimed ownership based on a papal decree of 1493 that Spain said gave it control of the entire Pacific Ocean. Britain rejected the Spanish claims and used its greatly superior naval power to threaten a war and win the dispute.[39] Spain, a rapidly fading military power, was unable to depend upon its longtime ally France, which was torn by internal revolution. The dispute was settled by negotiations in 1792-94, which became friendly when Spain switched sides in 1792 and became an ally of Britain against France. Spain surrendered to Britain many of its trade and territorial claims in the Pacific, ending a two-hundred-year monopoly on Asian-Pacific trade. The outcome was a victory for mercantile interests of Britain[40] and opened the way to British expansion in the Pacific.[41]

Crisis with Russia 1791

Pitt was alarmed at Russian expansion in Crimea in the 1780s at the expense of his Ottoman ally, and tried to get Parliamentary support for reversing it.[42] In peace talks with the Ottomans, Russia refused to return the key Ochakov fortress. Pitt wanted to threaten military retaliation. However Russia's ambassador Semyon Vorontsov swayed Pitt's enemies and launched a successful public opinion campaign. Pitt won the vote so narrowly that he gave up and Vorontsov secured a renewal of the commercial treaty between Britain and Russia.[43][44]

French Revolutionary Wars 1792-1803

No conclusive winner.[45]

War resumed in 1803 after a one-year truce.

The French Revolution, broke out in 1789 and polarized British political opinion, with the dominant conservatives outraged at killing of the king, the expulsion of the nobles, and the Reign of Terror. Britain was at war against France almost continuously from 1793 until the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815. The goal was to stop the spread of revolutionary and democratic ideas, and to prevent France from controlling Western Europe.[46] William Pitt the Younger was the dominant leader until his death in 1806. Pitt's strategy was to mobilize and fund the coalition against France. It seemed too hard to attack France on the continent so Pitt decided to seize France's valuable colonies in the West Indies and India.[47] At home, a minority pro-French element carried little weight with the British government. Conservatives castigated every radical opinion as "Jacobin" (in reference to the leaders of the Terror), warning that radicalism threatened an upheaval of British society.[48]

War between Britain and France, 1803–1814

"Maniac-raving's-or-Little Boney in a strong fit" by James Gillray. His caricatures ridiculing Napoleon greatly annoyed the Frenchman, who wanted them suppressed by the British government.[51]

Britain ended the uneasy truce created by the Treaty of Amiens when it declared war on France in May 1803. The British were increasingly angered by Napoleon's reordering of the international system in Western Europe, especially in Switzerland, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. Kagan argues that Britain was especially alarmed by Napoleon's assertion of control over Switzerland. Britons felt insulted when Napoleon said it deserved no voice in European affairs (even though King George was an elector of the Holy Roman Empire), and ought to restrict the London newspapers that were vilifying him.[52]

Britain had a sense of loss of control, as well as loss of markets, and was worried by Napoleon's possible threat to its overseas colonies. McLynn argues that Britain went to war in 1803 out of a "mixture of economic motives and national neuroses – an irrational anxiety about Napoleon's motives and intentions." McLynn concludes that in the long run it proved to be the right choice for Britain, because in the long run Napoleon's intentions were hostile to the British national interest. Napoleon was not ready for war and so this was the best time for Britain to stop them. Britain seized upon the Malta issue, refusing to follow the terms of the Treaty of Amiens and evacuate the island.[53]

The deeper British grievance was their perception that Napoleon was taking personal control of Europe, making the international system unstable, and forcing Britain to the sidelines.[54][55][56][57]


The main function of the British defense system, especially the Royal Navy, was defense of the overseas British Empire (in addition to defense of the homeland).[64] The army, usually in cooperation with local forces, suppressed internal revolts, losing only the American War of Independence (1775–83).[65] Armitage says it became an element of the British creed that:

Protestantism, oceanic commerce and mastery of the seas provided bastions to protect the freedom of inhabitants of the British Empire. That freedom found its institutional expression in Parliament, the law, property, and rights, all of which were exported throughout the British Atlantic world. Such freedom also allowed the British, uniquely, to combine the classically incompatible ideals of liberty and empire.[66]

Britain, with its global empire, powerful Navy, leading industrial base, and unmatched financial and trade networks, dominated diplomacy in Europe and the world in the largely peaceful century 1814-1914. Four men stand out for their leadership in foreign policy: Lord Palmerston, Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone and Lord Salisbury. Military action was much less important than diplomacy. British military interventions in 1815–50 included opening up markets in Latin America (as in Argentina),[67] opening the China market,[68] responding to humanitarians by sending the Royal Navy to shut down the slave trade,[69] and building a balance of power in Europe, as in Spain and Belgium.[70]



Lord Palmerston, as a Whig and then a Liberal, was the dominant leader in foreign policy for most of the period from 1830 until his death in 1865. As foreign secretary from 1846 to 1851 and subsequently as prime minister, Palmerston sought to maintain the balance of power in Europe, sometimes opposing France and at other times aligning with France to do so.[71][72] Thus he was aligned with France in the Crimean War against Russia, fought and won with the limited goal of protecting the Ottoman Empire. Some of his aggressive actions, now sometimes termed liberal interventionist, were highly controversial at the time, and remain so today. For example, he used military force to achieve his main goal of opening China to trade, although his critics focused on his support for the opium trade.[73] In all his actions Palmerston brought to bear a great deal of patriotic vigour and energy. This made him very popular among the ordinary people of Britain, but his passion, propensity to act through personal animosity, and imperious language made him seem dangerous and destabilising in the eyes of the Queen and his more conservative colleagues in government.[74][75][76] He was an innovative administrator who devised ways to enhance his control of his department and build up his reputation. He controlled all communication within the Foreign Office and to other officials. He leaked secrets to the press, published selected documents, and released letters to give himself more control.[77]


Benjamin Disraeli, the Conservative leader for much of the late 19th century, built up the British Empire and played a major role in European diplomacy. Disraeli's second term (1874-1880) was dominated by the Eastern Question—the slow decay of the Ottoman Empire and the desire of other European powers, such as Russia, to gain at its expense. Disraeli arranged for the British to purchase a major interest in the Suez Canal Company (in Ottoman-controlled Egypt). In 1878, faced with Russian victories against the Ottomans, he worked at the Congress of Berlin to obtain peace in the Balkans at terms favourable to Britain and unfavourable to Russia, its longstanding enemy. This diplomatic victory over Russia established Disraeli as one of Europe's leading statesmen. World events thereafter moved against the Conservatives. Controversial wars in Afghanistan and South Africa undermined Disraeli's public support.[78]


William Ewart Gladstone (Prime Minister 1868-74, 1880–86, 1892–94), the Liberal leader, was much less inclined to imperialism and sought peace as the highest foreign policy goal. However, historians have been sharply critical of Gladstone's foreign-policy during his second ministry. Hayes says it, "provides one of the most intriguing and perplexing tales of mobile and incompetence in foreign affairs, unsurpassed in modern political history until the days of Grey and, later, Neville Chamberlain."[79] Gladstone opposed himself to the "colonial lobby" which pushed the scramble for Africa. His term saw the end of the Second Anglo-Afghan War, First Boer War and the war against the Mahdi in Sudan.

Takeover of Egypt, 1882

The most decisive event emerged from the Anglo-Egyptian War, which resulted in the occupation of Egypt. Historian A.J.P. Taylor says that the British seizure of Egypt, which lasted seven decades,"was a great event; indeed, the only real event in international relations between the Battle of Sedan and the defeat of Russia and the Russo-Japanese war."[80] Taylor emphasizes long-term impact:

The British occupation of Egypt altered the balance of power. It not only gave the British security for their route to India; it made them masters of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East; it made it unnecessary for them to stand in the front line against Russia at the Straits....And thus prepared the way for the Franco-Russian Alliance ten years later.[81]


Historians largely agree that Lord Salisbury as foreign minister (1878–80, 1885–86, 1887–92, and 1895-1900) and prime minister (1886–92, 1895-1902) was a strong and effective leader in foreign affairs. Historians in the late 20th century rejected the older view that Salisbury pursued a policy of 'splendid isolation'.[82][83] He had a superb grasp of the issues, and proved:

a patient, pragmatic practitioner, with a keen understanding of Britain's historic interests....He oversaw the partition of Africa, the emergence of Germany and the United States as imperial powers, and the transfer of British attention from the Dardanelles to Suez without provoking a serious confrontation of the great powers.[84]

Free trade imperialism

The Great London Exhibition of 1851 clearly demonstrated Britain's dominance in engineering and industry; it lasted until the rise of the United States and Germany in the 1890s.[85] Using the imperial tools of free trade and financial investment,[86] it exerted major influence on many countries outside Europe, especially in Latin America and Asia. Thus Britain had both a formal Empire based on British rule and an informal one based on the British pound.[87]

Relations with the United States

Relations with the United States were often strained, and even verged on war when Britain almost supported the Confederacy in the early part of the American Civil War. British leaders were constantly annoyed from the 1840s to the 1860s by what they saw as Washington's pandering to the democratic mob, as in Oregon boundary dispute in 1844-46. However British middle class public opinion sensed a common "Special Relationship" between the two peoples based on language, migration, evangelical Protestantism, liberal traditions, and extensive trade. This constituency rejected war, forcing London to appease the Americans. During the Trent affair of late 1861, London drew the line and Washington retreated.[88]

During the Civil War, Britain supplied warships and blockade runners to the Confederacy, but had a large scale trade with the United States and many British men volunteered to fight for the North. Northern food supplies were much more essential to Britain than Souther cotton.[89] After the war, the US demanded reparations (called the Alabama Claims) for the damages caused by the warships. After arbitration the British paid the U.S. $15.5 million in 1872 and peaceful relations resumed.[90]

Relations with the Ottoman Empire

As the 19th century progressed the Ottoman Empire grew weaker and Britain increasingly became its protector, even fighting the Crimean War in the 1850s to help it out against Russia. Three British leaders played major roles. Lord Palmerston in the 1830-65 era considered the Ottoman Empire an essential component in the balance of power, was the most favourable toward Constantinople. William E. Gladstone in the 1870s sought to build a Concert of Europe that would support the survival of the empire. In the 1880s and 1890s Lord Salisbury contemplated an orderly dismemberment of it, in such a way as to reduce rivalry between the greater powers.[91]

Crimean War 1854-56

Main article: Crimean War

The Crimean War (1854–56) was fought between Russia on the one hand and an alliance of Britain, France, Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire on the other. Russia was defeated But the casualties were very heavy on all sides, and historians look at the entire episode as a series of blunders.[92][93]

Were began with Russian demands to protect Christian sites in the Holy Land. The churches quickly settled that problem, but it escalated out of hand has Russia put continuous pressure on the Ottomans. Diplomatic efforts failed. The Sultan declared war against Russia in October 1851. Following an Ottoman naval disaster in November, Britain and France declared war against Russia. It proved quite difficult to reach Russian territory, and the Royal Maybe could not defeat the Russian defenses in the Baltic. Therefore, most of the war. Most of the battles took place in the Crimean peninsula, which the Allies finally seized. London, shocked to discover that France was secretly negotiating with Russia to form a postwar alliance to dominate Europe, dropped its plans to attack St. Petersburg and instead signed a one-sided armistice with Russia that achieved almost none of its war aims.

Diplomats at the Congress of Paris, 1856, settled the Crimean War; painting by Edouard Louis Dubufe.

The Treaty of Paris signed March 30, 1856, ended the war. Russia gave up a little land and relinquished its claim to a protectorate over the Christians in the Ottoman domains. The Black Sea was demilitarized, and an international commission was set up to guarantee freedom of commerce and navigation on the Danube River. Moldavia and Wallachia remained under nominal Ottoman rule, but would be granted independent constitutions and national assemblies. However, by 1870, the Russians had regained most of their concessions.[94]

The war helped modernize warfare by introducing major new technologies such as railways, the telegraph, and modern nursing methods. In the long run the war marked a turning point in Russian domestic and foreign policy. Russian intellectuals used the defeat to demand fundamental reform of the government and social system. The war weakened both Russia and Austria, so they could no longer promote stability. This opened the way for Napoleon III, Cavour (in Italy) and Otto von Bismarck (in Germany) to launch a series of wars in the 1860s that reshaped Europe.[95]

Of the 91,000 British soldiers and sailors sent to Crimea, 21,000 died, 80 percent of them from disease—caused revulsion against warfare in Britain, a celebration of the heroic common soldier. As demonstrating Christian virtue, and an emphasis on middle-class efficiency, As typified by nurse Florence Nightingale as superior to aristocratic militarism In terms of both morality and efficiency.[96]

Historian R.B. McCallum points out the war was enthusiastically supported by the British populace as it was happening, but the mood changed very dramatically afterwards. Pacifists and critics were unpopular but:

in the end they won. Cobden and Bright were true to their principles of foreign policy, which laid down the absolute minimum of intervention in European affairs and a deep moral reprobation of war....When the first enthusiasm was passed, when the dead were mourned, the sufferings revealed, and the cost counted, when in 1870 Russia was able calmly to secure the revocation of the Treaty, which disarmed her in the Black Sea, the view became general of the war was stupid and unnecessary, and effected nothing....The Crimean war remained as a classic example...of how governments may plunge into war, how strong ambassadors may mislead weak prime ministers, how the public may be worked up into a facile fury, and how the achievements of the war may crumble to nothing. The Bright-Cobden criticism of the war was remembered and to a large extent accepted [especially by the Liberal Party]. Isolation from European entanglements seemed more than ever desirable.[97][98]


After 1900 Britain ended its policy of "splendid isolation" by developing friendly relations with the United States and European allies - most notably France and Russia, in an alliance which fought the First World War. The "Special Relationship" with the U.S. emerged in the late 19th century and was strong in the First World War; it forged more definitely during the 1940s, and has endured to this day - playing a pivotal role in the Cold War and the War on Terror.[99]

First World War

Britain had suffered little devastation during the war and Prime Minister David Lloyd George supported reparations to a lesser extent than the French. Britain began to look on a restored Germany as an important trading partner and worried about the effect of reparations on the British economy.[100][101]

Breakup of Ottoman Empire

The Sykes–Picot Agreement was a secret 1916 agreement between Great Britain and France,[102] deciding how the possessions of the Ottoman Empire would be split up after its defeat. The agreement defined their mutually agreed spheres of influence and control in the Middle East. The agreement allocated to Britain control of areas roughly comprising the coastal strip between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan, Jordan, southern Iraq, and an additional small area that included the ports of Haifa and Acre, to allow access to the Mediterranean.[103] France got control of southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.[103] Russia was to get Istanbul, the Turkish Straits and Armenia.[103] The controlling powers were left free to determine state boundaries within their areas.[103] Further negotiation was expected to determine international administration pending consultations with Russia and other powers, including Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca.[103]

Given Ottoman defeat in 1918 and the subsequent partitioning of the Ottoman Empire, the agreement effectively divided the Ottoman's Arab provinces outside the Arabian peninsula into areas of British and French control and influence.

The British took control of Palestine in 1920 and ruled it as Mandatory Palestine from 1923 until 1948. They also ruled Mandatory Iraq from 1920 until 1932, while the French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon lasted from 1923 to 1946.

Interwar years 1919-39

Further information: Interwar Britain

Britain had suffered little devastation during the war and Prime Minister David Lloyd George supported reparations to a lesser extent than the French did at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Britain reluctantly supported the hard Treaty of Versailles, while the U.S, rejected it. France was the main sponsor in its quest for revenge.[104] Britain began to look on a restored Germany as an important trading partner and worried about the effect of reparations on the British economy.[100][105]

Vivid memories of the horrors and deaths of the World War made Britain and its leaders strongly inclined to pacifism in the interwar era.[106]


Britain was a "troubled giant" that was less of a dominant diplomatic force in the 1920s than before. It often had to give way to the United States, which frequently exercised its financial superiority.[107] The main themes of British foreign policy include a role at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, where Lloyd George worked hard to moderate French demands for revenge.[108] He was partly successful, but Britain soon had to moderate French policy toward Germany, as in the Locarno Treaties.[109][110] Britain was an active member of the new League of Nations, but its list of major achievements was slight.[111][112]

Disarmament was high on the agenda, and Britain played a major role following the United States in the Washington Naval Conference of 1921 in working toward naval disarmament of the major powers. By 1933 disarmament had collapsed and the issue became rearming for a war against Germany.[113]

Britain was much less successful in negotiating with United States regarding the large loans. Britain was obliged to repay. Under Ramsay MacDonald Britain, took the lead in getting France to accept the American solution through the Dawes Plan and the Young Plan, whereby Germany paid its reparations using money borrowed from New York banks.[114][115] The Great Depression starting in 1929 put enormous pressure on the British economy. Britain move toward imperial preference, which meant low tariffs among the Commonwealth of Nations, and higher barriers toward trade with outside countries. The flow of money from New York dried up, and the system of reparations and payment of debt died in 1931.

Britain sought to maintain close relationships with France and the United States; however the U.S. refused to renegotiate its wartime loans. In the 1920s Britain rejected isolationism and sought world peace through naval arms limitation treaties,[116] and peace with Germany through the Locarno treaties of 1925. A main goal was to restore Germany to a peaceful, prosperous state. The Dominions (Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand) achieved virtual independence in foreign policy in 1931, though each depended heavily upon British naval protection. After 1931 trade policy favoured the Commonwealth with tariffs against the U.S. and others.

The success at Locarno in handling the German question impelled Foreign Secretary Austen Chamberlain, working with France and Italy, to find a master solution to the diplomatic problems of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. It proved impossible to overcome mutual antagonisms, because Chamberlain's program was flawed by his misperceptions and fallacious judgments.[117]

Britain thought disarmament was the key to peace. France, with its profound fear of German militarism, strenuously opposed the idea. In the early 1930s, most Britons saw France, not Germany, as the chief threat to peace and harmony in Europe. France did not suffer as severe an economic recession, and was the strongest military power, but still it refused British overtures for disarmament.[118]

Foreign policy in domestic politics

Politically the coalition government of Prime Minister David Lloyd George depended primarily on Conservative Party support. He increasingly antagonized his supporters with foreign policy miscues regarding the Middle East. Lloyd George led a coalition dominated by the more conservative Tory political party even though her belonged to the bitterly divided Liberal Party. The Chanak Crisis of 1922 brought Britain to the brink of war with Turkey, but the Dominions were opposed and the British military was hesitant, so peace was preserved, but Lloyd George lost control of the coalition and never again became Prime Minister.[119]

The Labour Party came to power in 1923 under Ramsay MacDonald, who served as party leader, prime minister and foreign minister.[120] The party had a distinctive and suspicious foreign policy based on pacifism.[121] It held that peace was impossible because of capitalism, secret diplomacy, and the trade in armaments. That is it stressed material factors that ignored the psychological memories of the Great War, and the highly emotional tensions regarding nationalism and the boundaries of the countries. Nevertheless, MacDonald overcame the ideological straight jacket and proved highly successful in managing foreign affairs. In 1929 the Americans gave him a ticker-tape parade in New York City.[122][123]

The Zinoviev letter appeared during the 1924 general election and purported to be a directive from the Communist International in Moscow to the Communist Party of Great Britain. It said the resumption of diplomatic relations (by a Labour government) would hasten the radicalisation of the British working class. It was a forgery but it helped defeat Labour as the Conservatives scored a landslide. .[124] A.J.P. Taylor argues that the most important impact was on the psychology of Labourites, who for years blamed their defeat on foul play, thereby misunderstanding the political forces at work and postponing needed reforms in the Labour Party.[125] MacDonald returned to power in 1929. There was little pacifism left. He strongly supported the League of Nations but he also felt that cohesion within the British Empire and a strong, independent British defense program would be the best policy.[126]


The challenge came from dictators, first Benito Mussolini of Italy from 1923, then from 1933 Adolf Hitler of a much more powerful Nazi Germany. Britain and France led the policy of non-interference in the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). The League of Nations proved disappointing to its supporters; it was unable to resolve any of the threats posed by the dictators. British policy was to "appease" them in the hopes they would be satiated. League-authorized sanctions against Italy for its invasion of Ethiopia had support in Britain but proved a failure and were dropped in 1936.[127]

Germany was the difficult case. By 1930 British leaders and intellectuals largely agreed that all major powers shared the blame for war in 1914, and not Germany alone as the Treaty of Versailles specified. Therefore, they believed the punitive harshness of the Treaty of Versailles was unwarranted, and this view, adopted by politicians and the public, was largely responsible for supporting appeasement policies down to 1938. That is, German rejections of treaty provisions seemed justified.[128]

Coming of Second World War

By late 1938 it was clear that war was looming, and that Germany had the world's most powerful military. The British military leaders warned that Germany would win a war, and Britain needed another year or two to catch up in terms of aviation and air defense. The final act of appeasement came when Britain and France sacrificed Czechoslovakia to Hitler's demands at the Munich Agreement of 1938.[129] Instead of satiation Hitler seized all of Czechoslovakia and menaced Poland.At last in 1939 Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain dropped appeasement and stood firm in promising to defend Poland. Hitler however cut a deal with Joseph Stalin to divide Eastern Europe; when Germany did invade Poland in September 1939, Britain and France declared war; the British Commonwealth followed London's lead.[130]

Second World War

Since 1945

The British built up a very large worldwide British Empire, which peaked in size in 1922, after more than half a century of unchallenged global supremacy. The cumulative costs of fighting two world wars, however, placed a heavy burden upon the UK economy, and after 1945 the British Empire gradually began to disintegrate, with many territories granted independence. By the mid-to-late 1950s, the UK's status as a superpower had been largely diminished by the rise of the United States and the Soviet Union. Many former colonial territories joined the "Commonwealth of Nations," an organisation of fully independent nations now with equal status to the UK.[131] Britain finally turned its attention to the continent, joining the European Union.[132]

After 1945 Britain systematically reduced its overseas commitments. Practically all the colonies became independent. Britain reduced its involvements in the Middle east, with the humiliating Suez Crisis of 1956 marking the end of its status as a superpower. However Britain did forge close military ties with the United States, France, and traditional foes such as Germany, in the NATO military alliance. After years of debate (and rebuffs), Britain joined the Common Market in 1973; it is now the European Union.[133] However it did not merge financially, and kept the pound separate from the Euro, which kept it partly isolated from the EU financial crisis of 2011.[134] After years of debate, Britain voted on 23 June 2016 for "Brexit", to leave the EU.[135][136]

Prime Minister Thatcher, 1979-1990

President Reagan and Thatcher at the White House, 16 November 1988

Thatcher's first foreign policy crisis came with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. She condemned the invasion, said it showed the bankruptcy of a détente policy, and helped convince some British athletes to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics. She gave weak support to US President Jimmy Carter who tried to punish the USSR with economic sanctions. Britain's economic situation was precarious, and most of NATO was reluctant to cut trade ties.[137] It was reported that her government secretly supplied Saddam Hussein with military equipment as early as 1981.[138]

Thatcher became closely aligned with the Cold War policies of United States President Ronald Reagan, based on their shared distrust of Communism. A more serious disagreement came in 1983 when Reagan did not consult with her on the invasion of Grenada.[139] During her first year as Prime Minister she supported NATO's decision to deploy US nuclear cruise and Pershing II missiles in Western Europe and permitted the US to station more than 160 cruise missiles at RAF Greenham Common, starting on 14 November 1983. That decision triggered mass protests by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. She bought the Trident nuclear missile submarine system from the US to replace Polaris, tripling the UK's nuclear forces[140] at an eventual cost of more than £12 billion (at 1996–97 prices).[141] Thatcher's preference for defence ties with the US was demonstrated in the Westland affair of January 1986, when she acted with colleagues to allow the struggling helicopter manufacturer Westland to refuse a takeover offer from the Italian firm Agusta in favour of the management's preferred option, a link with Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation. Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine, who had supported the Agusta deal, resigned in protest.[142]

On 2 April 1982 the ruling military junta in Argentina ordered the invasion of the British-controlled Falkland Islands and South Georgia, triggering the Falklands War.[143] The subsequent crisis was "a defining moment of her [Thatcher's] premiership".[144] At the suggestion of Harold Macmillan and Robert Armstrong,[144] she set up and chaired a small War Cabinet (formally called ODSA, Overseas and Defence committee, South Atlantic) to take charge of the conduct of the war, [145] which by 5–6 April had authorised and dispatched a naval task force to retake the islands.[146] Argentina surrendered on 14 June and the operation was hailed a success, notwithstanding the deaths of 255 British servicemen and 3 Falkland Islanders. Argentinian deaths totalled 649, half of them after the nuclear-powered submarine HMS Conqueror torpedoed and sank the cruiser ARA General Belgrano on 2 May.[147] Thatcher was criticised for the neglect of the Falklands' defence that led to the war, and especially by Tam Dalyell in parliament for the decision to sink the General Belgrano, but overall she was considered a highly capable and committed war leader.[148] The "Falklands factor", an economic recovery beginning early in 1982, and a bitterly divided opposition all contributed to Thatcher's second election victory in 1983.[149]

In September 1982 she visited China to discuss with Deng Xiaoping the sovereignty of Hong Kong after 1997. China was the first communist state Thatcher had visited and she was the first British prime minister to visit China. Throughout their meeting, she sought the PRC's agreement to a continued British presence in the territory. Deng stated that the PRC's sovereignty on Hong Kong was non-negotiable, but he was willing to settle the sovereignty issue with Britain through formal negotiations, and both governments promised to maintain Hong Kong's stability and prosperity.[150] After the two-year negotiations, Thatcher conceded to the PRC government and signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration in Beijing in 1984, agreeing to hand over Hong Kong's sovereignty in 1997.[151]

Although saying that she was in favour of "peaceful negotiations" to end apartheid,[152] Thatcher stood against the sanctions imposed on South Africa by the Commonwealth and the EC.[153] She attempted to preserve trade with South Africa while persuading the government there to abandon apartheid. This included "[c]asting herself as President Botha's candid friend", and inviting him to visit the UK in June 1984, in spite of the "inevitable demonstrations" against his government.[154] Thatcher dismissed the African National Congress (ANC) in October 1987 as "a typical terrorist organisation".[155][156]

Thatcher's antipathy towards European integration became more pronounced during her premiership, particularly after her third election victory in 1987. During a 1988 speech in Bruges she outlined her opposition to proposals from the European Community (EC), forerunner of the European Union, for a federal structure and increased centralisation of decision making.[157] For his part, Enoch Powell commented that Thatcher's "Bruges Speech" marked, in his view, the 'end of the Community'. Thatcher and her party had supported British membership of the EC in the 1975 national referendum,[158] but she believed that the role of the organisation should be limited to ensuring free trade and effective competition, and feared that the EC's approach was at odds with her views on smaller government and deregulation;[159] in 1988, she remarked, "We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level, with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels".[159]

Thatcher was firmly opposed to the UK's membership of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, a precursor to European monetary union, believing that it would constrain the British economy,[160] despite the urging of her Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson and Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe,[161] but she was persuaded by John Major to join in October 1990, at what proved to be too high a rate.[162]

In April 1986, Thatcher permitted US F-111s to use Royal Air Force bases for the bombing of Libya in retaliation for the Libyan attack on Americans in Berlin, citing the right of self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter.[163] Thatcher stated: "The United States has more than 330,000 members of her forces in Europe to defend our liberty. Because they are here, they are subject to terrorist attack. It is inconceivable that they should be refused the right to use American aircraft and American pilots in the inherent right of self-defence, to defend their own people."[164] Polls suggested that fewer than one in three British citizens approved of Thatcher's decision.[165] She was in the US on a state visit when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded neighbouring Kuwait in August 1990.[166] During her talks with President George H. W. Bush, who had succeeded Reagan in 1989, she recommended intervention,[166] and put pressure on Bush to deploy troops in the Middle East to drive the Iraqi Army out of Kuwait.[167] Bush was apprehensive about the plan, prompting Thatcher to remark to him during a telephone conversation that "This was no time to go wobbly!"[168] Thatcher's government provided military forces to the international coalition in the build-up to the Gulf War, but she had resigned by the time hostilities began on 17 January 1991.[169][170]

Thatcher was one of the first Western leaders to respond warmly to reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Following Reagan–Gorbachev summit meetings and reforms enacted by Gorbachev in the USSR, she declared in November 1988 that "We're not in a Cold War now", but rather in a "new relationship much wider than the Cold War ever was".[171] She went on a state visit to the Soviet Union in 1984 and met with Gorbachev and Nikolai Ryzhkov, the Chairman of the Council of Ministers.[172] Thatcher was initially opposed to German reunification, telling Gorbachev that it "would lead to a change to postwar borders, and we cannot allow that because such a development would undermine the stability of the whole international situation and could endanger our security". She expressed concern that a united Germany would align itself more closely with the Soviet Union and move away from NATO.[173]

See also



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