Isolationism in Vogue
Aidan Lilienfeld | Columbia University & London School of Economics
On February 14, 1902, days after the British foreign secretary and Japanese foreign minister signed the Anglo-Japanese Alliance treaty, Britain’s Earl of Rosebery gave a speech on the controversial union to a crowd in Liverpool:
Yesterday in the House of Lords I was listening to the Secretary of State making with all the sound of triumph and congratulation a recitation and recantation of the once popular doctrine of Splendid Isolation. How much we heard of Splendid Isolation! How many tables were banged about Splendid Isolation! And now we have come to the alliance with Japan.
The Anglo-Japanese Alliance marked a historic moment in his nation’s diplomacy. Britain had been following that “once popular doctrine” of avoidance of foreign entanglements for decades, and it was the alliance with Japan that contemporaries and twenty-first century historians believe brought Britain out of its period of so-called “Splendid Isolation.” With the signing of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance treaty in 1902, Britain hoped to establish a lasting bulwark against their common enemy, Russia. But Rosebery's cynicism on the voguish nature of foreign policy was spot on: the “Splendid Isolation” of the previous decades had been full of rhetorical excess based on subjective beliefs and policy concerns of those who espoused it.
Wilfred Laurier, leader of the Canadian Liberal party in 1896, believed Britain’s isolation came from the Empire’s peerless status. When asked what he thought of Britain’s “isolation” at a debate on February 5, 1896, Laurier responded,
For my part, I think splendid, because this isolation of England comes from her superiority, and her superiority today seems to be manifest. In everything that makes a people great, in colonizing power, in trade and commerce, in all the higher arts of civilization, England not only excels all other nations of the modern world, but all nations in ancient history as well.
Laurier saw Britain as the prime influencing agent of the world; Laurier lauds his Britain for acting. By the late 1890s, the rhetoric of imperialism had reached a fevered pitch amongst white British subjects, and Laurier’s speech can be read as an appeal to the voracious jingoism of the voting populace—Laurier spoke, after all, at a public debate for the prime ministerial election that would be held the following summer. Laurier identified a connection between isolation and power of influence—two concepts that may seem at odds.
At first, it seems nonsensical that a country could be a world power while still upholding an isolationist foreign policy. Was Laurier conceiving of a union of two ideas that were fundamentally impossible? It seems unlikely; many British conservatives would have argued that global power by nature requires a kind of isolation. The confusion, then, lies in the nebulousness of the word isolation. Let us continue to develop a definition as the British would have had it.
Less than a month after Laurier indirectly coined the term “Splendid Isolation,” First Lord of the Admiralty George Joachim Goschen gave a speech on his definition of isolation “to a Conservative crowd.” He began, “There may be the isolation of those [nations] who are weak and who therefore are not courted because they can contribute nothing, and there is, on the other hand, the isolation, of those who do not wish to be entangled in any complications and will hold themselves free in every respect.” Isolation can be divided into two categories; first, what Goschen would call “unintentional,” and secondly, what he would call “intentional.” There is an aspect of pragmatism to these forms of isolation that will be discussed later, but Goschen’s statement on Britain’s isolation, in particular, is strongly ideological. “Our isolation,” he says, “is not an isolation of weakness; it is deliberately chosen, the freedom to act as we choose in any circumstances that arise… [while other powers] barter favour for favour, promise for promise… we have stood alone in that which is called isolation—our splendid isolation, as one of our colonial friends was good enough to call it.” Goschen’s insistence belies his insecurity; he repeats that Britain’s isolation really is intentional and good, he promises. He appears to have been trying to convince his audience that British prestige had not fallen by the wayside. His own image of Britain is clear: towering and ivory. Britain, above all nations, has the privilege of freedom, and this freedom comes entirely from isolation. If Britain were not powerful, it would need the diplomatic and economic support of other nations, thereby breaking both its isolation and its freedom of action. It is Britain’s isolation-cum-freedom that makes the country great, and it is the country’s greatness that allows Britain to isolate itself. This is the same self-fulfilling nationalist cycle that Laurier espoused.
We have now seen the ideological motivations of isolation in Britain. But the Empire, having substantial holdings located on every continent except Antarctica by the 1890s, experienced nearly incomparable pressure on its borders and foreign policy. The British Isles, just a short boat ride away from all of the rapidly industrializing powers of Europe, perceived regular and immense threats to their existence. Yet, Britain relied on its nature as an island nation—and the unmatched superiority of its Royal Navy—for defense. In addition, national leaders approached foreign nations only with great caution, questioning the risk of foreign entanglements.
The “splendidly isolated” British in the 1890s stood atop the veritable peak of their empire. Rosebery, prime minister of Britain from 1892-1895, made this clear in his response to demands that Britain intervene in the Sino-Japanese Treaty of Shimonoseki in April 1895. He argued that the guiding principle of Britain’s refusal to intervene, and Britain’s protection of Shanghai, “is the same: we cannot embroil ourselves in the quarrels of others unless our own interests imperatively demand it. Imperatively, I say, because our commerce is so universal and so penetrating that scarcely any question can arise in any part of the world without involving British interests.” The fundamental problem, according to Rosebery, was not the Empire’s weakness but its greatness. Nothing in the world happened that didn’t involve Britain, Britain was everywhere.
Rosebery continued that the empire’s omnipresence “instead of widening rather circumscribes the field of our action. For did we not strictly limit the principle of intervention we should always be simultaneously engaged in some forty wars.” Rosebery feared the effects of Britain’s presence all over the world—if the Empire did not limit its intervention, it would find itself overwhelmed. Even if Britain could have benefited from intervening in the Treaty of Shimonoseki, the potential resulting diplomatic instability would far outweigh the benefits.
The heart of “Splendid Isolation” lay in Britain’s general refusal to form any military alliances during the late nineteenth century. Lord Salisbury, prime minister from 1886-1892 and again from 1895-1902, greatly feared the permanently binding effects of alliances. After the signing of the Franco-Russian Entente in 1893, the alliance of France with Russia and the pre-existing Triple Alliance between Germany, Austria, and Italy loomed large over British foreign policy. But although Salisbury wanted “a closer relation with Germany,” as he said to statesmen Joseph Chamberlain in 1896, the prime minister always resisted true alliance forming. In 1902, with the signing of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance on the horizon, he would still not relent. The alliance involved a “pledge on our part,” Salisbury said, “to defend Japanese action in Korea and in all China against France and Russia, no matter what the casus belli may be. There is no limit: and no escape. We are pledged to war, though the conduct of our ally may have been followed in spite of our strongest remonstrances, and may be avowedly regarded by us with clear disapprobation.” The alliance was fundamentally a tradeoff of freedom for power, in which Britain would supposedly have no choice but to follow Japan blindly into war. To the extent that one could call Salisbury the “champion” of “Splendid Isolation,” the debate over the benefits of alliance composed the battlefield on which he fought. Not once did Salisbury actively pursue an alliance, in a time when every other great power was scrambling for one. The tradeoff, in his eyes, was far too costly.
Salisbury and his contemporaries did experience enormous pressure to relent and join an alliance. A good deal of this pressure came from other great powers. Otto von Bismarck (d. 1898) spent much of his later years trying to persuade the British to join the Triple Alliance, knowing that doing so would greatly increase Germany’s power over Britain’s fate. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany also wanted Salisbury to join for the same reasons. In a letter to Queen Victoria in 1896, Salisbury even wagered that “the Emperor has really been trying… to frighten England into joining the Triple Alliance.”
But most of the pressure came from inside Britain; not everyone in Salisbury’s cabinet agreed with his diplomacy. Howard shows that “Jingo Joe” Chamberlain, Salisbury’s Colonial Secretary, never shied from expressing his beliefs that Britain’s isolation was destroying the country. Liberal statesman and parliament member Sir William Harcourt, in a parliamentary debate on policy in the East, said “I believe the time for our ‘splendid isolation’ is gone. It was very useful [in the past], but it is not very suitable for the present time, and I believe if the Government of this country would try to make an alliance with Germany that really would make for peace for a very long period... I do not suppose it will be very popular at first, but I believe the enemy we shall have in the future is Russia.” Harcourt was not the only statesman who wanted to increase Britain’s defensibility against Russia—particularly with the Russian threat to India and China, many believed the Romanov empire had to be stopped at all costs. For them, trading a little freedom for security was a steal of a bargain, and Salisbury’s refusal to engage was impetuous and dangerous.
Regardless of ideology, policymakers in Britain weighed the benefits and costs of diplomatic decisions. The British government chose isolation over openness for a variety of reasons; but clearly, the division between engagement and non-engagement was quite complicated. Britain was “isolated,” but not always in obvious ways. The British Empire, at the top of the world hierarchy in military, naval, and technological power, could not seclude itself from the world at large—the rejection of military alliances generated enough controversy by itself. Relatively speaking, that a great power refused alliances was considered quite dangerous not only by the Empire’s peers but by its rivals as well. Britain was aggressively accused of practicing a policy of seclusion that would be fatal, yet its leaders did not relent until forced to do so by election. One must not ask, then, “was Britain isolated?” but rather, “what did it mean for them to be isolated?” Rhetoric, perception, and ideology all play their part in foreign policy.
Charmley, John, Splendid Isolation?: Britain, the Balance of Power and the Origins of the First World War (London: Faber & Faber, 2013).
Howard, Christopher Henry Durham, Splendid Isolation: A Study of Ideas Concerning Britain’s International Position and Foreign Policy During the Later Years of the Third Marquis of Salisbury (New York: Macmillan; St. Martin’s, 1967).
Krein, David F., The Last Palmerston Government: Foreign Policy, Domestic Politics, and the Genesis Of “Splendid Isolation.” (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1978).
Lee, Stephen J., Aspects of British Political History 1815-1914 (London: Routledge, 2013).
Nish, Ian, The Anglo-Japanese Alliance: The Diplomacy of Two Island Empires 1894-1907 (London: Athlone, 1985).
Aidan Lilienfeld currently works as the US Congress reporter at the Washington, DC, office of The Asahi Shimbun. He also studied American and British imperialism in East Asia as an MA/MSc student (’22) at Columbia and the London School of Economics. He wrote his undergraduate thesis on the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902, and in the future, he is interested in studying interwar Pacific maritime diplomacy.