British World Politics and the Projection of Global Power, around 1830-1960
Edited by T. G. Otte
Cambridge University Press, 2019
This collection of twelve essays by eminent international historians from Canada, Great Britain and America focuses on how Great Britain maintained its influence on a global scale during most of the nineteenth and half of the twentieth centuries. It also examines how such global commitments made it difficult to project imperial power. It is dedicated to the memory of Keith Neilson, a historian who devoted much of his career to depicting Anglo-Russian relations during the half century leading up to World War II. He died in 2015, less than a year after retiring from the Royal Military College (RMC) in Canada. Neilson was co-author of numerous other publications Permanent Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, 1854-1956 with his friend Thomas Otte, the editor of this commemorative volume. In 1991, Neilson published an influential article entitled “Greatly Exaggerated: The Myth of Britain’s Decline Before 1914” in the International history reviewwhich was a major inspiration for this collection of essays. That article, along with three other articles by Canadian historians in the 1991 special, challenged the idea that Britain’s international power in the first half of the 20th century should be characterized as an economy-driven “decline”.
These articles did not deny that British power was increasingly being challenged or that there was a relative economic decline compared to other powers, but they argued that economic difficulties could be offset by other elements, including diplomatic skills and alliances, and that Britain would remain the key world power until World War II with the largest navy and empire in the world. One of these authors, John Ferris, appears in this collection, writing about Britain’s War Trade Intelligence Department during World War I, which shows the importance of intelligence gathering and intelligence work in pursuing the blockade of Germany in a way that minimizes the damage attributed to British relations other powers. Otte gives cohesion to the volume by focusing on the continued existence of British world power for more than a century, developing many of the topics covered in the 1991 special, and emphasizing in his introductory essay the importance of embracing the full range of Britons study power in its global environment ”(p.23).
The collection is certainly diverse in many respects, even if the period covered is somewhat narrower than the book title suggests (only one essay has a lot to say about the events after 1941). In terms of geographic spread, it’s really global, although some chapters have a special focus, like that of Hamish Ion, one of Neilson’s colleagues at the RMC, who sees the role of the Japanese treaty port of Yokohama as a hub for British Imperial influence in the late 19th centuryth Century – from then on they were not only a naval base and a trading center, but also “British cultural, social, sporting and industrial ideas were carried over into … Japanese society” (p.68). Or Dominic Lieven’s investigation of “Britain through Russian Eyes” in the early twentieth century – a subject that will certainly have interested Neilson – which focuses on the shift in the views of Russian elites towards Britain’s role in the international system, particularly that Ability to use it as a deterrent to German expansionism. The economy is by no means ignored: aside from the Ferris chapter, there is Kathleen Burk’s study of the economic and financial ties between Britain and South America, which suggests that economic power matters given the formidable networks of British companies and banks on the continent built during the nineteenth century couldn’t help but collapse in the face of burgeoning power of the United States in the 1920s.
The “range of British power” also included less conventional factors, such as the willingness of the population to fight in two major wars, an issue raised by Zara Steiner (another co-author of a book with Neilson and unfortunately no longer with us) has been ). In addition, working with the Dominions is a subject that is covered in two essays. Douglas Delaney, another RMC colleague of Neilson, is concentrating on the imperial general staff in the interwar period, when the military relations “were sometimes badly frayed … but never broke” (p.244). Likewise, Kent Fedorowich writes about the abortive Imperial Conference of 1941, the history of which highlights the decentralized nature of the Commonwealth and the inability of most of its leaders to develop close ties with Winston Churchill (with the exception of Jan Smuts of South Africa). Another important element in the palette, as discussed by Otte himself, was the “nerve center” provided by the Foreign Office, although his knowledge and expertise failed to prevent the growth of competing centers of power in Whitehall, particularly after 1914, with the author’s “decline.” … reflected the decline of Great Britain “(p.110). Closely related to this is Erik Goldstein’s view of British ambassadors in the interwar years, when the professionalism of the diplomatic service was threatened by the tendency to politicize it, not least by including non-career diplomats to fill key positions.
The range of this volume does not end here. It contains essays spanning a broad timeframe, in particular David French’s study of the importance of the term “minimum force required” in counterinsurgency operations in Britain, from the Indian Mutiny to the Aden of the 1960s. He thinks it was an “elastic concept” and a “practical shield” that hid some uncomfortable realities (pp. 64-5). There are more detailed case studies, such as the final piece by G. Bruce Strang on the problems the British faced in trying to enforce sanctions against Japan during its war against China in 1937. It shows that the British were aware of the economic limits of their ability to hold back Tokyo, but tried to protect their position in the Far East by convincing Washington that its interests were threatened there too. While Ferris and Delaney deal with military issues, John Maurer turns attention to the Navy and discusses the German challenge before World War I. Fittingly he repeats Neilson’s argument that “Great Britain in 1914 was not a tired Titan, but an impressive great power that was able to take part in the international rivalries of this troubled age …” (p.173). It is one of the book’s strengths that, despite the variety of geographic spread or thematic content, it is very well related because of this central focus on the global nature of British power. Otte, who already has a lot of experience with edited works, is to be commended for having formed a high-profile team united in a coherent project, while the contributors deserve praise for the primary research that went into these essays, from those some are based on archive research in three different countries. My main problem was that they should have done more to bring into their chapters a discussion of the rich historiography that surrounds the subjects they are exploring, an exercise that would have helped highlight the originality of their own work. However, the overall quality of this volume is superior to many collections of the commemorative type because of the central theme that holds it together and the consistently high quality of the research and ideas contained in each piece. You get a real feeling that Otte and his colleagues wanted to live up to Keith Neilson’s memory to the full and that he would have been pleased with what they achieved.
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