Up until 1900, British Foriegn Policy had been entrenched in the idea of Splendid Isolation, best described as a refusal to enter into any formal treaties or obligations to other countries. The policy of the 1890s is very well portrayed by Lord Salisbury, the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary until 1901, when he described it as

"Lazily floating downsteam, occasionally dropping out a diplomatic boathook to avoid collisions."

However, by 1907, Britain had entered into Ententes with two major European powers and an Alliance with Japan. Did this mark the end of Splendid Isolationism as a outlook in British Foreign Policy, or was it possible to maintain the principle of it and enter into agreements with other powers?

It could be said that there was a revolution in terms of who Britain made agreements with internationally, or in the fact that we made agreements in the first place, but if you look at the reasons behind the signing of these agreements, the terms of these agreements, it is clear that it was not Britain’s intention to split from its former policy of isolation, and these agreements were more of a reaction to German policy and were mainly interested in maintaining their isolated policy, not revolutionising it.

Britain’s main concern in signing agreements with Japan, France and Russia in these years was colonial, and protecting British colonies, not in creating an alliance to challenge the Triple Alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. Britain made it clear when they signed both Ententes that neither was intended as an anti-German move, and the terms of both certainly suggest this.

The Entente Cordiale was signed over colonies and little else, ensuring that Britain would respect France’s right to ‘preserve order’ in Morocco and France would respect Britain’s right to the same in Egypt. Other important terms to Britain of the Entente with France ensured the free passage through Suez and the Straits of Gibraltar, which was important due to the access to India and the Mediterranean they provided. None of these terms suggest anything more than diplomatic support for France or could be construed as anti-German in nature. Britain was staunchly against getting involved in any wars and this was one of the reasons the Entente Cordiale was signed in the first place, so the two nations did not come into conflict over the Russo-Japanese war and to put an end to conflict in Africa, as both countries wanted to prevent events such as the Fashoda incident occurring in Africa again. Britain’s main interests in signing the Entente Cordiale in 1904 was to maintain peace in the Far East and Africa, to secure its colonies in North Africa and the passage to India. If Britain had signed a formal alliance with France or the Entente had terms which challenged a German sphere of influence, it could be said that British Foreign Policy had undergone a revolution in terms of its aims. However, they did not and the Entente was fully in keeping with the former policy of isolationism, even if it was a break in the tradition of making very few agreements.

The same can be said of the British-Russian Entente, which the main aim of was not to unite the two countries against Germany, but to resolve tensions between them over India, with agreements over Tibet, Afghanistan and Persia, the intention of which was to protect India and put an end to the Great Game. In the Entente, Russia virtually ceded all control of these areas to Britain, which signified the strictly territorial nature of this Entente. Again, none of these demonstrated anything new or revolutionary to British Foreign policy and there was still a great deal of mistrust between Russia and Britain, despite this agreement, as demonstrated by Britain’s role in the Bosnian Crisis in 1908. One of the main reasons this was signed was due to the weakness of Russia after its defeat by Japan and the lack of threat it really posed, not the union of two influential, strong European powers against the Triple Alliance. This can only show that there was no change in intention of British foreign policy. Its main concern had been its colonies and it still was. It had not made a formal alliance with a European power and not promised military assistance to any European power and none of its agreements were made with a specific anti-German nature, they were just construed as such by the Germans.

The only formal alliance Britain had was with Japan, in 1902, and even so, when Japan went to war with Russia in 1905, there was no military support to them, as they’d only promised support if two powers were at war with Japan. This demonstrates that Britain’s main concern was the maintainance of peace when it made agreements, even when it did make formal alliances. The alliance with Japan was more to ease the burden on the British Navy, another isolationist in idea policy, because it was strictly based in the British interest and the protection of its colonies and the China Trade and little else.

All these alliances were congruent with previous policy, as like the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty and other agreements in the 1890’s, which were strictly colonial, one off agreements, the Ententes still maintained the principle of isolationism, as they did focus on colonies, namely India in the case of Russia and North Africa in the case of France, with the promise of diplomatic support as an aside to the main aim of the Ententes. They also maintained the principle of keeping peace, even in their military alliance. Britain was very careful in making these agreements not to upset the balance of power in Europe, not wanting to counter the Triple Alliance and make France overconfident of British support and not wanting to support a weak Russia that it didn’t fully trust. Despite the more permanent nature of the Ententes and alliances, Britain still remained separate from the alliance system and kept its distance from the balance of power, wanting to maintain peace in Europe through its isolationism.

In international events, Britain still acted with its isolationist principles in mind, despite these agreements with Japan, France and Russia. The First Moroccan Crisis was a prime example of this. Germany’s fear of encirclement by the new agreement between Britain and France, as well as the Franco-Russian alliance led to their attempt to break up the Entente Cordiale through making a challenge to the agreement over Morocco, which went against the Madrid Treaty of 1880. Britain and France’s refusal to rise to Germany’s blatant anti-Entente move, instead allowing the issue to be resolved in an International Conference merely strengthened the Entente and made Germany seem unnecessarily aggressive in its actions. Britain’s main policy throughout this was to maintain peace in the region, as its main policy had always been based around this and still was, despite their new Entente, with France.

The most major change in British Foreign Policy during these years was at whom it was directed and the way they went about it, not the motives behind it. There had undoubtedly been a significant and very swift shift in who was seen as Britain’s natural allies, as in 1889, the Naval Defence Act specifically targeted France and Russia as its main threats and in only 1898, they were on the verge of war with France over Fashoda, but six years later, Britain was signing the Entente Cordiale with them and coming into conflict more often with Germany, which for a long time had been considered their natural ally, due to the relation between the Kaiser and our Royal family and also the long history of conflict with France. However, by 1907, our position on who we supported and how had changed significantly.

The Boer War could be considered a turning point in this respect, as due to this, the impact of not even having diplomatic support and being totally isolated really hit home in Britain, as well as the Kruger Telegram, which created more Anglo-German tension. This, coupled with the German Naval Bill of 1898, meant Britain began to feel more threatened by Germany than by France, which it had made an agreement with over West Africa (the Watershed Agreement) and was beginning to resolve the colonial difficulties with by this point. The Kaiser’s, at times tactless, comments towards the British also strained relations between the two countries, for example his comments towards the Anglo-Japanese Alliance; “The noodles have finally had a lucid moment,” and whereas Britain was resolving its difficulties with France by the turn of the century, it was still in conflict with Germany over China, until the Yangtze Agreement. All these meant that as conflict was beginning to decline with France and Russia was weakened by the defeat by Japan and 1905 October Revolution, thus making them more viable and open to the Ententes, the threat from Germany was becoming more clear and pronounced, thus leading to the only real revolution in British Foreign Policy, who it was aimed at, not in its actual aims.

The only other change was in the nature of the agreements, in that they were much more permanent and less one-off colonial agreements than previously. However, this more reflected the German demands of Britain, because it insisted on Britain joining the Triple Alliance with them, Austria-Hungary and Italy when Britain wanted to make simple colonial agreements. It was Britain’s determination to remain isolated from the alliance system that led to them seeking agreements with France and Russia, which were, in the main, colonial and in the interest of Britain’s colonies and passages to India.

In conclusion, there was only a diplomatic revolution in the sense of with whom Britain made agreements and because they were more permanent agreements that did guarantee diplomatic support and with Japan, military support if two countries attacked it. However, the main aims of British Foreign Policy had not changed much at all, as they were still motivated in their actions, even if they were different to before, by the desire to prevent peace, protect British colonies and most importantly, not to obligate themselves to any European country formally. There may have been a change in the direction of policy and the means by which it was achieved, but the desired end was still the same as it had been in the 1890s.


Anglo-Japanese Alliance, 1902

Entente Cordiale, 1904, Articles I-VII

Anglo-Russian Entente, 1907, Articles I-IV


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