The history of the foreign relations of the United Kingdom covers English, British, and United Kingdom's foreign policy from about 1500 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 (from the 1840 to 1920s) kept the economy flourishing. The overseas First British Empire was devastated by the loss of the thirteen American colonies in a war when Britain had no major allies. The Second British Empire was built fresh in Asia and Africa and reached its zenith in the 1920s. Foreign policy made sure it was never seriously threatened. The Statute of Westminster granted effective independence to the Empire's long self governing Dominions in 1931. Starting with India in 1947, independence movements took off in nearly every colony so that most had achieved independence by the 1960s with only a small handful left by the 1970.

Peace was the usual pattern, but there was at times major conflict, particularly against France from the 1790s to 1815, after which Britain would not fight another war on the European soil until World War I, with victory achieved at enormous cost. After expending enormous energy on the defeat of the First French Empire and Napoleon (1793–1815), 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 in the view of some, Germany in World War I. The chief enemy down to 1815 was France, with its much larger population base and its powerful army. The Royal Navy was a decisive advantage. The British were generally highly successful in their wars, with possibly the only notable exception being the American War of Independence (1775–1784).[1]

A favoured diplomatic strategy was subsidising the armies of continental allies, such as the Kingdom of 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 World War II. 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 great powers fought with their neighbours, the British Army had only one relatively limited war (the Crimean War against the Russian Empire in 1854–56). The Army mostly handled garrison duty, and did have to deal with localized insurrections and colonial conflicts in Asia and Africa.

For a capsule guide to the wars, see list of wars involving the United Kingdom.

English foreign policy before 1700

In 1500 the Kingdom of England had only a modest population (3.8 million) compared to its much larger rivals of France (15 million), Spain (6.5 million), and the Holy Roman Empire (17 million). It was three times larger than its naval rival, the Netherlands, and eight times larger than Scotland.[2] 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.[3]

Tudor foreign policy

King Henry VII (reigned 1485–1509) founded the Tudor dynasty that lasted to 1603, and concentrated on establishing peace in England, especially against the threatened rebellions by the newly defeated House of York. Foreign affairs apart from Scotland were not a high priority. Scotland was an independent country, and peace was agreed to in 1497. Much of his diplomacy involved treaties for marriages with ruling houses in Europe. He married his eldest daughter Margaret Tudor to King James IV of Scotland in 1503. The match did not guarantee peace in the short run but did so in the long run: in 1603 James VI and I, the grandson of the marriage, united the two kingdoms under his rule. Henry tried to marry his daughter Mary to the man who later became Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, but that fell through. Henry VIII finally married her to King Louis XII of France as part of a peace treaty in 1514; Louis died after three months and Henry demanded and got most of her dowry back. The other main diplomatic success of Henry VII was an alliance with Spain, sealed by the marriage in 1501 of his heir Arthur, Prince of Wales, to Catherine of Aragon, Spain's infanta (eldest daughter of the Spanish king). When his Queen died in 1503, Henry VII searched the European marriage market for a diplomatic marriage with a large dowry for himself, but was unable to find a match.[4]

Arthur died in 1502 and the second son married the widow in 1509, just after he became king as Henry VIII,

Henry VIII

Further information: War of the League of Cambrai and Henry VIII

King Henry VIII (reigned 1509–1547) was one of the most flamboyant and famous of all English monarchs. In military terms, he paid special attention to expanding the English Navy, to protect the rapidly expanding merchant fleet. He also commissioned privateers from the merchant fleets to act as auxiliary warships that captured and resold enemy merchant ships. Some of his foreign and religious policy revolved around annulling his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in 1533 despite the opposition of Pope Clement VII—his solution was to remove the Church of England from the pope's authority, thereby launching the English Reformation.[5]

In 1510, France, with a fragile alliance with the Holy Roman Empire in the League of Cambrai, was winning a war against the Republic of Venice. Henry renewed his father's friendship with Louis XII of France, and signed a pact with King Ferdinand of Spain. After Pope Julius II created the anti-French Holy League in October 1511, Henry followed Spain's lead and brought England into the new League. An initial joint Anglo-Spanish attack was planned for the spring to recover Aquitaine for England, the start of making Henry's dreams of ruling France a reality. The attack failed and it strained the Anglo-Spanish alliance. Nevertheless, the French were pushed out of Italy soon after, and the alliance survived, with both parties keen to win further victories over the French.[6]

Henry with Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (right) and Pope Leo X (centre), c. 1520

On 30 June 1513, Henry invaded France, and his troops defeated a French army at the Battle of the Spurs – a relatively minor result, but one which was seized on by the English for propaganda purposes. Soon after, the English took Thérouanne and handed it over to Maximillian; Tournai, a more significant settlement, followed. Henry had led the army personally, complete with large entourage.[7] His absence from the country, however, had prompted James IV of Scotland, to invade England at the behest of Louis. The English army, overseen by Queen Catherine, decisively defeated the Scots at the Battle of Flodden on 9 September 1513, in which James IV and many senior Scottish nobles died.[8]

Charles V ascended the thrones of both Spain and the Holy Roman Empire following the deaths of his grandfathers, Ferdinand in 1516 and Maximilian in 1519. Francis I likewise became king of France upon the death of Louis in 1515, leaving three relatively young rulers and an opportunity for a clean slate. The careful diplomacy of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey had resulted in the Treaty of London in 1518, an early non-aggression pact among the major kingdoms of western Europe.[9] In a significant follow-up, Henry met Francis I on 7 June 1520 at the Field of the Cloth of Gold near Calais for a fortnight of lavish and extremely expensive entertainment. The hope that warfare was past proved futile. Charles brought his Holy Roman Empire into war with France in 1521; Henry offered to mediate, but little was achieved and by the end of the year Henry had aligned England with Charles. He still clung to his previous aim of restoring English lands in France, but also sought to secure an alliance with Burgundy, then part of Charles' realm, and the continued support of Charles. Charles defeated and captured Francis at Pavia and could dictate peace; but he believed he owed Henry nothing. Henry had repeatedly raised taxes to pay for his foreign operations until upscale passive resistance in 1525 forced the ending of the newest tax known as the "Amicable Grant."[10] Lack of money ended Henry's plans for an invasion of France and he took England out of the war with the Treaty of the More on 30 August 1525.[11]

New World

Just five years after Columbus, in 1497 Henry VII commissioned the Italian mariner John Cabot who had settled in England, to explore the New World. Cabot was the first European since the Norsemen to reach parts of what is now Canada, exploring from Newfoundland to as far south as Delaware. He found no gold or spices and the king lost interest. Colonization was not a high priority for the Tudors, who were much more interested in raiding the Spanish treasure ships than in acquiring their own colonies.[12]

Conflict with Spain, 1568–1604

Treasure crisis of 1568

The "Treasure crisis" of 1568 was Queen Elizabeth's seizure of gold from Spanish treasure ships in English ports in November 1568. Chased by privateers in the English channel, five small Spanish ships carrying gold and silver worth 400,000 florins (£85,000) sought shelter in English harbors at Plymouth and Southampton. The English government headed by William Cecil gave permission. The money was bound for the Netherlands as payment for Spanish soldiers who were fighting rebels there. Queen Elizabeth discovered that the gold was not owned by Spain, but was still owned by Italian bankers. She decided to seize it, and treated as a loan from the Italian bankers to England. The bankers agree to her terms, so Elizabeth had the money and she eventually repaid the bankers. Spain reacted furiously, and seized English property in the Netherlands and Spain. England reacted by seizing Spanish ships and properties in England. Spain reacted by imposing an embargo preventing all English imports into the Netherlands. The bitter diplomatic standoff lasted for four years.[13] However neither side wanted war. In 1573, the Convention of Nymegen was a treaty where England promised to end support for raids on Spanish shipping by English privateers such as Francis Drake and John Hawkins. It was finalized in the Convention of Bristol in August, 1574 in which both sides paid for what they had seized. Trade resumed between England and Spain and relations improved.[14]


Main article: Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604)

The Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604) arose largely from religious differences; the execution of Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587 outraged Spain. 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.[15] The English enjoyed a modest victory by "Singeing the King of Spain's Beard" in 1587 at Cádiz, the main port in Spain. The raid led by Francis Drake destroyed numerous merchant ships and captured some treasure. The great English triumph was the decisive defeat of the Spanish invasion attempt by the ill-fated Spanish Armada in 1588.[16] After Elizabeth died in 1603, the new king made peace a high priority and ended the long-simmering conflict in 1604.[17]

Stuart foreign policy

By 1600 the conflict with Spain became deadlocked during campaigns in Brittany and Ireland. James I, the new king of England made peace with the new King of Spain, Philip III with the Treaty of London in 1604. 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. King James I (reigned 1603–25) was sincerely devoted to peace, not just for his three kingdoms, but for Europe as a whole.[18] He disliked Puritans and Jesuits alike, because of their eagerness for warfare. He called himself "Rex Pacificus" ("King of peace.")[19] Europe was deeply polarized, and on the verge of the massive Thirty Years' War (1618–1648), with the smaller established Protestant states facing the aggression of the larger Catholic empires. On assuming the throne, James made peace with Catholic Spain, and made it his policy to marry his son to the Spanish Infanta (princess) in the "Spanish Match". The marriage of James' daughter Princess Elizabeth to Frederick V, Elector Palatine on 14 February 1613 was more than the social event of the era; the couple's union had important political and military implications. Across Europe, the German princes were banding together in the Union of German Protestant Princes, headquartered in Heidelberg, the capital of the Palatine. King James calculated that his daughter's marriage would give him diplomatic leverage among the Protestants. He thus planned to have a foot in both camps and be able to broker peaceful settlements. In his naïveté, he did not realize that both sides were playing him as a tool for their own goal of achieving destroying the other side. Spain's ambassador Count Gondomar knew how to manipulate the king. The Catholics in Spain, as well as the Emperor Ferdinand II, the Vienna-based leader of the Habsburgs and head of the Holy Roman Empire, were both heavily influenced by the Catholic Counter-Reformation. They had the goal of expelling Protestantism from their domains.[20]

Lord Buckingham (1592–1628), who increasingly was the actual ruler of Britain, wanted an alliance with Spain. Buckingham took Charles with him to Spain to woo the Infanta in 1623. However, Spain's terms were that James must drop Britain's anti-Catholic intolerance or no marriage. Buckingham and Charles were humiliated and Buckingham became the leader of the widespread British demand for a war against Spain. Meanwhile, the Protestant princes looked to Britain, since it was the strongest of all the Protestant countries, to give military support for their cause. His son-in-law and daughter became king and queen of Bohemia, which outraged Vienna. The Thirty Years’ War began, as the Habsburg Emperor ousted the new king and queen of Bohemia, and massacred their followers. Catholic Bavaria then invaded the Palatine, and James's son-in-law begged for James's military intervention. James finally realized his policies had backfired and refused these pleas. He successfully kept Britain out of the European-wide war that proved so heavily devastating for three decades. James's backup plan was to marry his son Charles to a French Catholic princess, who would bring a handsome dowry. Parliament and the British people were strongly opposed to any Catholic marriage, were demanding immediate war with Spain, and strongly favored with the Protestant cause in Europe. James had alienated both elite and popular opinion in Britain, and Parliament was cutting back its financing. Historians credit James for pulling back from a major war at the last minute, and keeping Britain in peace.[21][22]

The crisis in Bohemia in 1619, and the conflagration that resulted, marked the beginning of the disastrous Thirty Years' War. King James' determination to avoid involvement in the continental conflict, even during the "war fever" of 1623, appears in retrospect as one of the most significant, and most positive, aspects of his reign.

During 1600–1650 England made repeated efforts to colonize Guiana in South America. They all failed and the lands (Surinam) were ceded to the Dutch Empire in 1667.[23][24]

King Charles I (1600-1649) trusted Lord Buckingham, who made himself rich in the process but proved a failure at foreign and military policy. Charles gave him command of the military expedition against Spain in 1625. It was a total fiasco with many dying from disease and starvation. He led another disastrous military campaign in 1627. Buckingham was hated and the damage to the king's reputation was irreparable. England rejoiced when he was assassinated in 1628 by John Felton.[25]


Further information: Huguenots

As a major Protestant nation, England patronized and help protect Huguenots, starting with Queen Elizabeth in 1562.[26] There was a small naval Anglo-French War (1627–1629), in which England supported the French Huguenots against King Louis XIII of France.[27] London financed the emigration of many to England and its colonies around 1700. Some 40,000-50,000 settled in England, mostly in towns near the sea in the southern districts, with the largest concentration in London where they constituted about 5% of the total population in 1700.[28][29][30] Many others went to the Thirteen Colonies, especially South Carolina.[31][32] The immigrants included many skilled craftsmen and entrepreneurs who facilitated the economic modernization of their new home, in an era when economic innovations were transferred by people rather than through printed works. The British government ignored the complaints made by local craftsmen about the favoritism shown foreigners.[33][34] Many became private tutors, schoolmasters, travelling tutors and owners of riding schools, where they were hired by the upper class.[35] The immigrants assimilated well in terms of using English, joining the Church of England, intermarriage and business success. They founded the silk industry in England.[36][37]

In terms of impact on British foreign policy, a keen new interest in humanitarian intervention, intended to prevent foreign governments from punishing people for their religious beliefs was emerging during the early eighteenth century. In large part this new sensibility was based on the happy experience of protecting Huguenots in France and taking in many refugees who became very good citizens.[38]

Anglo Dutch Wars

Main article: 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.[39] The causes included political disputes and increasing competition from merchant shipping. Religion was not a factor, since both sides were Protestant.[40] 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.[41][42]

Europe in 1700; England and Ireland are in red.

William III: 1689–1702

Further information: Nine Years' War; William III of England; and International relations, 1648–1814

The primary reason the English Parliament called on William to invade England in 1688 was to overthrow King James II, and stop his efforts to reestablish Catholicism and tolerate Puritanism. However the primary reason William accepted the challenge was to gain a powerful ally in his war to contain the threatened expansion of King Louis XIV of France. William's goal was to build coalitions against the powerful French monarchy, protect the autonomy of the Netherlands (where William continued in power) and to keep the Spanish Netherlands (present-date Belgium) out of French hands. The English aristocracy was intensely anti—French, and customarily supported William's broad goals.[43][44] For his entire career in Netherlands and Britain, William was the arch-enemy of Louis XIV. The Catholic King of France, in turn, denounced the Protestant William as a usurper who had illegally taken the throne from the legitimate Catholic King James II, and that he ought to be overthrown.[45] In May 1689, William, now king of England, with the support of Parliament, declared war on France. Historian J.R. Jones states that King William was given:

supreme command within the alliance throughout the Nine Years war. His experience and knowledge of European affairs made him the indispensable director of Allied diplomatic and military strategy, and he derived additional authority from his enhanced status as king of England – even the Emperor Leopold...recognized his leadership. William's English subjects played subordinate or even minor roles in diplomatic and military affairs, having a major share only in the direction of the war at sea. Parliament and the nation had to provide money, men and ships, and William had found it expedient to explain his intentions...but this did not mean that Parliament or even ministers assisted in the formulation of policy.[46]

England and France were at war almost continuously until 1713, with a short interlude 1697–1701 made possible by the Treaty of Ryswick.[47] The combined English and Dutch fleets could overpower France in a far-flung naval war, but France still had superiority on land. William wanted to neutralize that advantage by allying with Leopold I, the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor (1658–1705), who was based in Vienna. Leopold, however, Was tied down in war with the Ottoman Empire on his eastern frontiers; William worked to achieve a negotiated settlement between the Ottomans and the Empire. William displayed in imaginative Europe-wide strategy, but Louis always managed to come up with a counter play.[48]

William was usually supported by the English leadership, which saw France as its greatest enemy. But eventually the expenses, and war weariness, caused second thoughts. At first, Parliament voted him the funds for his expensive wars, and for his subsidies to smaller allies. Private investors created the Bank of England in 1694; it provided a sound system that made financing wars much easier by encouraging bankers to loan money.[49][50]

In the long-running Nine Years' War (1688–97) his main strategy was to form a military alliance of England, the Netherlands, the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, and some smaller states, to attack France at sea, and from land in different directions, while defending the Netherlands. Louis XIV tried to undermine this strategy by refusing to recognize William as king of England, and by giving diplomatic, military and financial support to a series of pretenders to the English throne, all based in France. William focused most of his attention on foreign policy and foreign wars, spending a great deal of time in the Netherlands (where he continued to hold the dominant political office). His closest foreign-policy advisers were Dutch, most notably William Bentinck, 1st Earl of Portland; they shared little information with their English counterparts.[51] The net result was that the Netherlands remained independent, and France never took control of the Spanish Netherlands. The wars were very expensive to both sides but inconclusive. William died just as the continuation war, the War of the Spanish Succession, (1702–1714), was beginning. It was fought out during the reign of Queen Anne, and ended in a draw.[52]

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

Further information: International relations, 1648–1814

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 handled foreign policy himself, using Dutch diplomats whenever possible. After 1700, Britain built 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.[53] William Pitt the Younger, the Prime Minister during much of the French Revolutionary period, was saddled with the largely incompetent Foreign Secretary, Francis Osborne, 5th Duke of Leeds, from 1783 to 1791. However Pitt managed to bring 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.[54] Pitt brought in William Eden (1744–1814), who negotiated a difficult commercial treaty with France in 1786.[55]

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 PM Pitt. George Canning (1807–9), and Viscount Casterleagh (1812–15) were highly successful in organizing complex coalitions that in the end defeated Napoleon.[56] Castlereagh to Canning displayed imagination and energy, although their personalities clashed to the point of fighting a duel.[57]

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.[58] 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.[59][60][61]

1701–1712 – War of the Spanish Succession

Main articles: War of the Spanish Succession and Treaty of Utrecht

Queen Anne (1665–1714)

Britain was a player in the first world war of modern times with theatres of fighting in Spain, Italy, Germany, Holland, and at sea.[62] At issue was the threat of a French-sponsored Bourbon heir as king of Spain, that would allow the Bourbon kings of France to take control of Spain and its American empire.

John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough (1650–1722)

Queen Anne was in charge, but she relied on an experienced team of experts, generals, diplomats, cabinet members, and War Office officials—most notably her most successful general John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough.[63] He is best known for his great victory at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. In 1706 he defeated the French at the Battle of Ramillies, captured their garrisons, and drove the French out of most of the Spanish Netherlands. The Royal Navy with an assist from the Dutch in 1704-5 captured Gibraltar, which ever since has been the key to British power in the Mediterranean.[64] The war dragged on and on, and neither France nor England could afford the mounting expenses, so a compromise solution was finally reached in the Treaty of Utrecht that protected most of England's interests; the French abandoned their long-term claim that the Old Pretender (the Catholic son of James II by his second marriage) was the true King of England.[65] Utrecht marked the end of French ambitions of hegemony in Europe expressed in the wars of Louis XIV, and preserved the European system based on the balance of power.[66][67] British historian G. M. Trevelyan argues:

That Treaty, which ushered in the stable and characteristic period of Eighteenth-Century civilization, marked the end of danger to Europe from the old French monarchy, and it marked a change of no less significance to the world at large, — the maritime, commercial and financial supremacy of Great Britain.[68]

England resolved its long-standing problem with Scotland in the Acts of Union 1707, which integrated Scotland into the British political and economic system. The much smaller Scotland kept its traditional political elite, its established Presbyterian church, its superior universities, and its distinctive legal system. The War of the Spanish Succession had again emphasized the danger of an independent Scotland in alliance with France as the dagger aimed at England. Awareness of the danger had helped to determine the timing, manner and consequences of union, and Scots began to play major roles in British intellectual life, and in providing diplomats, merchants, and soldiers for the emerging British Empire.[69]

1742–48, – War of the Austrian Succession

George II leading his troops at Dettingen, the last occasion on which a British King led his troops into battle

Main article: War of the Austrian Succession

Britain played a small role in the inconclusive but hard fought war that convulsed central Europe, while funding its ally Austria.[70] The goal, as defined by foreign minister John Carteret was to limit the growth of French power, and protect the Electorate of Hanover, which was also ruled by King George II.[71] In 1743 King George II led a 40,000-man British-Dutch-German army into the Rhine Valley. He was outmaneuvered by the French Royal Army 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.[72] 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 the Austrian Netherlands (modern Belgium). Prussia and Savoy were 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.[73]

1754–63 – Seven Years' War

Main articles: Seven Years' War and French and Indian 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.[74]

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 (the Battle of Fort Necessity near modern-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), the fighting spread to Europe. 1759, was the "annus mirabilis" ("miraculous year"), with victory after victory. 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.[75] 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 million, but London had a financial system capable of handling the burden.[76]

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.[77]

1775–83 – American War of Independence

Main articles: Diplomacy in the American Revolutionary War and Treaty of Paris (1783)


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,[78] and Denmark.[79]

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.[80] 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.[81]

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 1793, he led the British nation in its mortal combat with the French Revolution and Napoleon.[82]

Warfare and finance

From 1700 to 1850, Britain was involved in 137 wars or rebellions. It maintained a 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.[83] 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.[84][85] 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 million, with annual interest accounting for most of the budget.[86] Meanwhile, the banking system used its ownership of the debt to provide capital assets for economic growth.[87] When the wars with France began, the debt reached £359 million in 1797 and 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.[88]

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.[89] Spain seized small British commercial ships engaged in the fur trade in an area on the Pacific Ocean 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.[90] 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[91] and opened the way to British expansion in the Pacific.[92]

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.[93] 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.[94][95]

French Revolutionary Wars 1792–1803

Main article: French Revolutionary Wars

No conclusive winner.[96]

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.[97] 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.[98] 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.[99]

Defeating Napoleon, 1803–1814

Main articles: The United Kingdom in the Napoleonic Wars and Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh

"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.[102]

Britain ended the uneasy truce created by the Treaty of Amiens when it declared war on the First French Empire 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.[103]

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. Frank 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.[104]

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.[105][106][107][108]

Historian G. M. Trevelyan argues that British diplomacy under Lord Castlereagh played a decisive role:

In 1813 and 1814 Castlereagh played the part that William III and Marlborough had played more than a hundred years before, in holding together an alliance of jealous, selfish, weak-kneed states and princes, by a vigour or character and singleness of purpose that held Metternich, the Czar and the King of Prussia on the common track until the goal was reached. It is quite possible that, but for the lead taken by Castlereagh in the allied counsels, France would never have been reduced to her ancient limits, nor Napoleon dethroned.[109]

1814–1914: Pax Britannica

Further information: International relations of the Great Powers (1814–1919) and Pax Britannica

The main function of the British defence system, and especially of the Royal Navy, was defence of its overseas empire, in addition to defence of the homeland.[117] The army, usually in cooperation with local forces, suppressed internal revolts, losing only the American War of Independence (1775–83).[118] David 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.[119]

Away from the high seas, Britain's commitment in India, and exaggerated fears of Russian intentions, led to involvement in Great-Game rivalry with the Russian Empire.[120]

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 from 1814 to 1914. Five men stand out for their leadership in British foreign policy: Lord Palmerston, Lord Aberdeen, Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone and Lord Salisbury. Overt military action was much less important than diplomacy. British military interventions in 1815–50 included opening up markets in Latin America (as in Argentina),[121] opening the China market,[122] responding to humanitarians by sending the Royal Navy to shut down the Atlantic slave-trade,[123] and building a balance of power in Europe, as in Spain and Belgium.[124]



Lord Palmerston, as a Whig and then as a Liberal, became the dominant leader in British foreign policy for most of the period from 1830 until his death in 1865. As Foreign Secretary (1830-4, 1835–41 and 1846–51) 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.[125][126] Thus he aligned Britain with France in the Crimean War against Russia, which the allies fought and won with the limited goal of protecting the Ottoman Empire. Some of his aggressive actions, now sometimes termed[by whom?] "liberal interventionist", became 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.[127] 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 of his more conservative colleagues in government.[128][129][130] He was an innovative administrator who devised ways to enhance his control of his department and to 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.[131]


Lord Aberdeen (1784-1860) was a highly successful diplomat in many controversies from 1812 to 1856, but failed badly in handling the Crimean War, and retired in 1856.[132] In 1813-1814 as ambassador to the Austrian Empire he negotiated the alliances and financing that led to the defeat of Napoleon. In Paris he normalized relations with the newly-restored Bourbon government and convinced London that the Bourbons could be trusted. He worked well with top European diplomats such as his friends Klemens von Metternich in Vienna and François Guizot in Paris. He brought Britain into the center of Continental diplomacy on critical issues, such as the local wars in Greece, Portugal and Belgium. Simmering troubles with the United States were ended by compromising the border dispute in Maine that gave most of the land to the Americans but gave Canada critically important links to a warm-water port.[133] He played a central role in winning the First Opium War against China, gaining control of Hong Kong in the process.[134][135]


Benjamin Disraeli, the Conservative leader for much of the mid-19th century, built up the British Empire and played a major role in European diplomacy.[136] Disraeli's second term as Prime Minister (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 Ottoman expense. Disraeli arranged for the British to purchase (1875) 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 on 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 Conservative Party. Controversial wars in Afghanistan (1878-1880) and in South Africa (1879) undermined Disraeli's public support.[137]


Main article: Foreign Policy of William Ewart Gladstone

William Ewart Gladstone (Prime Minister 1868–74, 1880–85, 1886, 1892–94), the Liberal Party leader, was much less inclined to imperialism than Disraeli, and sought peace as the highest foreign-policy goal. However, historians have been sharply critical of Gladstone's foreign policy during his second ministry. Paul Hayes says it "provides one of the most intriguing and perplexing tales of muddle and incompetence in foreign affairs, unsurpassed in modern political history until the days of Grey and, later, Neville Chamberlain."[138] Gladstone opposed himself to the "colonial lobby" which pushed the scramble for Africa. His term saw the end of the Second Anglo-Afghan War in 1880, the First Boer War of 1880-1881 and outbreak of the war (1881-1899) against the Mahdi in Sudan.[139]


Historians largely view Lord Salisbury (Foreign Minister 1878–80, 1885–86, 1887–92, and 1895–1900 and Prime Minister 1885-6, 1886–92, 1895–1902) as 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".[140][141] 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.[142]

Free-trade imperialism

Main article: The Imperialism of Free Trade

The Great Exhibition of 1851 clearly demonstrated Britain's dominance in engineering and industry, which would last until the rise of Germany and the United States in the 1890s.[143] Using free trade and financial investment as imperial tools,[144] Britain exerted major influence on many countries outside Europe, especially in Latin America and in Asia. Thus Britain had both a formal Empire (based on British rule) and an informal one (based on the British pound).[145]

Latin America

Main article: Latin America–United Kingdom relations

The independence of Latin American countries, especially after 1826, opened lucrative prospects for London financiers. The region was gravely devastated by the wars of independence, and featured weak financial systems, weak governments and repeated coups and internal rebellions. However, the region had a well-developed export sector focused on foods that were in demand in Europe, especially sugar, coffee, wheat and (after the arrival of refrigeration from the 1860s), beef. There also was a well-developed mining sector. With the Spanish out of the picture, ex-Spanish America in the early 1820s was a devastated region suffering in a deep depression. It urgently needed capital, entrepreneurs, financiers, and shippers. British entrepreneurs rushed in to fill the void by the middle 1820s, as the London government use its diplomatic power to encourage large-scale investment. The Royal Navy provided protection against piracy. The British established communities of merchants in major cities—including 3000 Britons in Buenos Aires.[146] London financiers purchased £17 million in Latin American government bonds, especially those of Argentina, Chile, Peru and Mexico. They invested another £35 million in 46 stock companies set up to operate primarily in Latin America. The bubble soon burst, but the survivors operated quietly and profitably for many decades. From the 1820s to the 1850s, over 260 British merchant houses operated in the River Plate or Chile, and hundreds more in the rest of Latin America.[147][148] The Latin American market was important for the cotton manufacturers of Lancashire. They supported the independence movement, and persuaded the British government to station commercial consuls in all the major trading centers in Latin America. The British were permanently committed, and it took decades – until the 1860s – before the commercial and involvement paid serious dividends. By 1875 Latin America was firmly integrated into a transatlantic economy under British leadership. After 1898 the British had to compete commercially with the United States.[149]

In long-term perspective, Britain's influence in Latin America was enormous after independence became established in the 1820s. Britain deliberately sought to replace the Spanish in economic and cultural affairs. Military issues and colonization were minor factors. British influence operated through diplomacy, trade, banking, and investment in railways and mines. The English language and British cultural norms were transmitted by energetic young British business agents on temporary assignment in the major commercial centers, where they invited locals into British leisure activities, such as organized sports, and into their transplanted cultural institutions such as clubs and schools.[150] The impact on sports proved overwhelming as Latin America enthusiastically took up football (soccer). In Argentina, rugby, polo, tennis and golf became important in middle-class leisure. Cricket was ignored.[151] The British role never disappeared, but it faded rapidly after 1914 as the British cashed in their investments to pay for their Great War of 1914-1918, and the United States moved into the region with overwhelming force and similar cultural norms.[152]

No actual wars in 19th-century Latin America directly involved Britain, however several confrontations took place. The most serious came in 1845–1850 when British and French navies blockaded Buenos Aires in order to protect the independence of Uruguay from Juan Manuel de Rosas, the dictator of Argentina.[153] Other lesser controversies with Argentina broke out in 1833, with Guatemala in 1859, Mexico in 1861, Nicaragua in 1894, and Venezuela in 1895 and 1902. There also was tension along the Mosquito Coast in Central America in the 1830s and 1840s.[154]

Relations with the United States

Further information: United Kingdom–United States relations and Britain in the American Civil War

British relations with the United States often became strained, and even verged on armed conflict when Britain almost supported the Confederacy in the early part of the American Civil War of 1861-1865. 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 the 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.[155]

British public opinion was divided on the American Civil War. The Confederacy tended to have support from the elites—from the aristocracy and gentry, which identified with the landed plantation owners, and from Anglican clergy and some professionals who admired tradition, hierarchy and paternalism. The Union was favored by the middle classes, the Nonconformists in religion, intellectuals, reformers and most factory workers, who saw slavery and forced labor as a threat to the status of the workingman. The cabinet made the decisions. Chancellor of the Exchequer William E Gladstone, whose family fortune was based on slave plantations in the West Indies, supported the Confederacy. Foreign Minister Lord Russell wanted neutrality. Prime Minister Lord Palmerston wavered between support for national independence, his opposition to slavery, and the strong economic advantages of Britain remaining neutral.[156]

Britain supplied warships and blockade runners to the Confederate Navy, but had a large scale trade with the United States and many British men volunteered to fight for the Northern Union Army. Northern food supplies were much more essential to Britain than Southern cotton.[157] 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.[158]

Relations with the Ottoman Empire

Further information: Foreign relations of the Ottoman Empire and International relations of the Great Powers (1814–1919) § 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.[159] 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 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.[160]

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.[161][162]

The war began with Russian demands to protect Christian sites in the Holy Land. The churches quickly settled that problem, but it escalated out of hand as 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.[163] It proved quite difficult to reach Russian territory, and the Royal Navy could not defeat the Russian defences in the Baltic. 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.[164]

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 Russia and diplomatically isolate 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 aggression wars in the 1860s that reshaped Europe.[165]

Of the 91,000 British soldiers and sailors sent to Crimea, 21,000 died, 80 percent of them from disease. The losses were reported in detail in the media and caused revulsion against warfare in Britain, combined with a celebration of the heroic common soldier who demonstrated Christian virtue. The great heroine was Florence Nightingale, whose was hailed for her devotion to caring for the wounded and her emphasis on middle-class efficiency. She typified a moral status as a nurse that was superior to aristocratic militarism in terms of both morality and efficiency.[166]

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.[167][168]

Takeover of Egypt, 1882–1914

Further information: History of Egypt under the British

The most decisive event emerged from the Anglo-Egyptian War, which resulted in the occupation of the Khedivate of Egypt.[169] Although the Ottoman Empire was the nominal owner, in practice Britain made all the decisions. In 1914, Britain went to war with the Ottomans and ended their nominal role. Historian A. J. P. Taylor says that the seizure, 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."[170] 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.[171]


Main articles: Splendid isolation, Causes of World War I, and British entry into World War I

After 1900 Britain ended its policy of "splendid isolation" by developing friendly relations with the United States and European powers – most notably France and Russia, in an alliance which fought the First World War. The "Special Relationship" with the United States starting about 1898 allowed Britain to largely relocate its naval forces out of the Western Hemisphere.[172]

According to G. W. Monger's summary of the Cabinet debates in 1900 to 1902:

Chamberlain advocated ending Britain's isolation by concluding an alliance with Germany; Salisbury resisted change. With the new crisis in China caused by the Boxer rising and Landsdowne's appointment to the Foreign Office in 1900, those who advocated a change won the upper hand. Landsdowne in turn attempted to reach an agreement with Germany and a settlement with Russia but failed. In the end Britain concluded an alliance with Japan. The decision of 1901 was momentous; British policy had been guided by events, but Lansdowne had no real understanding of these events. The change of policy had been forced on him and was a confession of Britain's weakness.[173]

Germany's Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had dominated European diplomacy 1872–1890, with the determination to use the balance of power to keep the peace. There were no wars. However he was removed by an aggressive young Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1890, allowing French efforts to isolate Germany to become successful. Joseph Chamberlain, who played a major role in foreign policy in the late 1890s under the Salisbury government, repeatedly tried to open talks with Germany about some sort of an alliance. Germany was not interested.[174] Instead, Berlin felt itself increasingly surrounded by France and Russia.[175] Meanwhile, Paris went to great pains to woo Russia and Great Britain. Key markers were the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894, the 1904 Entente Cordiale linking France and Great Britain, and finally the Anglo-Russian Entente in 1907 which became the Triple Entente. France thus had a formal alliance with Russia, and an informal alignment with Britain, against Germany.[176] By 1903 Britain had established good relations with the United States and Japan.[177]

Britain abandoned the policy of holding aloof from the continental powers ("Splendid Isolation") in the 1900s after standing without friends during the Second Boer War (1899–1903). Britain concluded agreements, limited to colonial affairs, with her two major colonial rivals: the Entente Cordiale with France in 1904 and the Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907. Britain's alignment was a reaction to an assertive German foreign policy and the buildup of its navy from 1898, which led to the Anglo-German naval arms race.[178] British diplomat Arthur Nicolson argued it was "far more disadvantageous to us to have an unfriendly France and Russia than an unfriendly Germany".[179] The impact of the Triple Entente was to improve British relations with France and its ally Russia and to demote the importance to Britain of good relations with Germany. After 1905, foreign policy was tightly controlled by the Liberal foreign minister Edward Grey (1862–1933), who seldom consulted the Cabinet. Grey shared the strong Liberal policy against all wars and against military alliances that would force Britain to take a side in war. However, in the case of the Boer War, Grey held that the Boers had committed an aggression that it was necessary to repulse. The Liberal party split on the issue, with a large faction strongly opposed to the war in Africa[180][181]

The Triple Entente between Britain, France and Russia is often compared to the Triple Alliance between Germany, Austria–Hungary and Italy, but historians caution against the comparison. The Entente, in contrast to the Triple Alliance or the Franco-Russian Alliance, was not an alliance of mutual defence and Britain therefore felt free to make her own foreign policy decisions in 1914. The Liberal party members were highly pacifistic and moralistic, and by 1914 they have been increasingly convinced that German aggression violated international norms, and specifically that a German invasion of neutral Belgium was completely immoral. However the all-Liberal British cabinet decided on July 29, 1914, that being a signatory to the 1839 treaty about Belgium did not obligate it to oppose a German invasion of Belgium with military force.[182] According to Isabel V. Hull :

Annika Mombauer correctly sums up the current historiography: "Few historians would still maintain that the 'rape of Belgium' was the real motive for Britain's declaration of war on Germany." Instead, the role of Belgian neutrality is variously interpreted as an excuse to mobilize the public, to provide embarrassed radicals in the cabinet with the justification for abandoning the principal pacifism and thus were staying in office, or in the more conspiratorial versions to cover for naked imperial interests. [183]

As war neared the cabinet agreed that German defeat of France and control and the continent of Europe was intolerable and would be a cause for war.[184]

Naval race with Germany

Main article: Anglo-German naval arms race

The British Dreadnought (1906) made all battleships obsolete because it had ten long-range 12-inch big guns, mechanical computer-like range finders, high speed turbine engines that could make 21 knots, and armour plates 11 inches thick.

After 1805 the dominance of Britain's Royal Navy was unchallenged; in the 1890s Germany decided to match it. Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz (1849–1930) dominated German naval policy from 1897 until 1916.[185] Before the German Empire formed in 1871, Prussia never had a real navy, nor did the other German states. Tirpitz turned the modest little fleet into a world-class force that could threaten the British Royal Navy. The British responded with new technology typified by the Dreadnought revolution. It made every battleship obsolete and, supplemented by the global network of coaling stations and telegraph cables, enabled Britain to stay well in the lead in naval affairs.[186][187]

At about the same time Britain developed the use of fuel oil in warships instead of coal. The naval benefits of oil were significant, making ships cheaper to build and run, giving them greater range, and removing strategic limitations imposed by the need for frequent stops at coaling stations.[188][189] Britain had plenty of coal but no oil, and it had relied on American and Dutch oil suppliers, so its foreign policy made it a high priority. At the prompting of Admiral John Fisher, this was addressed by Winston Churchill, beginning with the Royal Commission on Fuel and Engines of 1912. Urgency was applied when it was learned that Germany was organising a supply of oil in the Middle East. Britain secured its own supplies through foreign policy and its 1914 purchase of a controlling, 51% stake in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, of which BP is successor.[190]

First World War

Further information: British entry into World War I, Diplomatic history of World War I, and Treaty of Versailles

Daily Mail on Aug 5

Besides providing soldiers and fleets, one of Britain's most important roles was financing the war, with large-scale loans and grants to France, Russia, Italy and others. It tried to stay on friendly relations with the United States, which sold large quantities of raw materials and food, and provided large-scale loans. Germany was so convinced that the United States as a neutral was playing a decisive role, that it began unrestricted submarine warfare against the United States, which it knew it would lead to American entry into the war in April 1917. The United States then took over Britain's financial role, loaning large sums to Britain, France, Russia, Italy and the others. The US demanded repayment after the war, but did negotiate better terms for Britain. Finally in 1931, all debt payments were suspended.[191][192]

Interwar years 1919–1939

Further information: International relations (1919–1939), Interwar Britain, and United Kingdom and the League of Nations

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.[193]

Vivid memories of the horrors and deaths of the World War made Britain and its leaders strongly inclined to pacifism in the interwar era.[194]

Britain was a "troubled giant" wielding much less influence than before. It often had to give way to the United States, which frequently exercised its financial superiority.[195] The main themes of British foreign policy include a conciliatory role at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, where Lloyd George worked hard to moderate French demands for revenge.[196] He was partly successful, but Britain soon had to moderate French policy toward Germany, as in the Locarno Treaties.[197][198] Britain was an active member of the new League of Nations, but the League had few major achievements, none of which greatly affected Britain or its Empire.[199][200]

Breakup of Ottoman Empire

Main article: Dissolution of the Ottoman Empire

The Sykes–Picot Agreement was a secret 1916 agreement between Great Britain and France,[201] 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.[202] France got control of southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon Russia was to get Constantinople, the Turkish Straits and Armenia. The controlling powers were left free to determine state boundaries within their areas. Further negotiation was expected to determine international administration pending consultations with Russia and other powers, including Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca.[203]

The promises to Russia expired when it left the war. After the Ottoman defeat in 1918 the subsequent partitioning of the Ottoman Empire divided the Arab provinces outside the Arabian peninsula into areas of British and French control and influence. Britain ruled Mandatory Iraq from 1920 until 1932, while the French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon lasted from 1923 to 1946.[204]

The British took control of Palestine in 1920 and ruled it as Mandatory Palestine from 1923 until 1948. However, the British in the Balfour Declaration of 1917 promised a Jewish zone of ambiguous status, which was unacceptable to the Arab leadership.[205]

Fall of Lloyd George

Lloyd George in 1922

A series of foreign policy crises gave Prime Minister David Lloyd George his last opportunity to hold national and international leadership. Everything went wrong.[206] The League of Nations, off to a slow start, was a huge let down from utopian dreams. The Treaty of Versailles had set up a series of temporary organizations, composed of delegations from key powers, to ensure the successful application of the Treaty. The system worked very poorly. The assembly of ambassadors was repeatedly overruled and became a nonentity. Most of the commissions were deeply divided and unable to either make decisions or convince the interested parties to carry them out. The most important commission was on Reparations, and France took full control of it. The new French prime minister Raymond Poincaré was intensely anti-German, was unrelenting in his demands for huge reparations, and was repeatedly challenged by Germany. France finally invaded parts of Germany, and Berlin responded by imposing a runaway inflation that seriously damage the German economy and also damaged the French economy. The United States, after refusing to ratify the League in 1920, almost completely disassociated itself from the League.

In 1921, the Anglo-Soviet Trade Agreement successfully opened trade relations with Communist Russia. Lloyd George was unable to negotiate full diplomatic relations, as the Russians rejected all repayment of Tsarist era debts, and conservatives in Britain grew exceedingly wary of the communist threat to European stability. Lloyd George in 1922 set about to make himself master of peace in the world, especially through a world conference in Genoa that he expected would rival Paris of 1919 in visibility, and restore his reputation. Everything went wrong. Poincaré and the French demanded a military alliance that was far beyond what the British would accept. Germany and Russia made their own sweeping agreement at Rapallo, which wrecked the Genoa conference.[207] Finally, Lloyd George decided to support Greece in a war against Turkey in the Chanak Crisis. It was yet another fiasco as all but two of the Dominions refused support and the British military was hesitant. The Conservatives rejected a war, with Bonar Law telling the nation, "We cannot act alone as the policeman of the world."[208] Greece lost its war and Lloyd George lost control of his coalition. He never again held major office.[209] Internationally and especially at home, Lloyd George the hero of the world war had suddenly become a failed model.[210]

Naval disarmament and debts

Disarmament was high on the popular agenda, and Britain supported the leadership of United States in the Washington Naval Conference of 1921 in working toward naval disarmament of the major powers. Britain played a leading role in the 1927 Geneva Naval Conference and the 1930 London Conference that led to the London Naval Treaty. However the refusal of Japan, Germany, Italy and Russia to go along led to the meaningless Second London Naval Treaty of 1936. Disarmament had collapsed and the issue became rearming for a war against Germany.[211][212]

Britain was less successful in negotiating with United States regarding the large wartime loans. The U.S. insisted on repayment of the full £978 million. It was agreed to in 1923 at the interest rate of 3% to 3.5% over 62 years.[213] Under Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald Britain took the lead in getting France to accept the American solution to reparations through the Dawes Plan and the Young Plan, whereby Germany paid its reparations using money borrowed from New York banks.[214][215] 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 collapsed in 1931. The debts were renegotiated in the 1950s.

Seeking stability in Europe

Britain sought peace with Germany through the Locarno Treaties of 1925. A main goal was to restore Germany to a peaceful, prosperous state.[216]

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 programme was flawed by his misperceptions and fallacious judgments.[217]

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.[218]

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.[219]

Foreign policy in domestic politics

The Labour Party came to power in 1924 under Ramsay MacDonald, who served as party leader, prime minister and foreign secretary.[220] The party had a distinctive and foreign policy based on pacifism. It held that peace was impossible because of capitalism, secret diplomacy, and the trade in armaments.[221] 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 straitjacket and proved highly successful in managing foreign affairs. In 1929 the Americans gave him a ticker-tape parade in New York City.[222][223]

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.[224] 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.[225] 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 defence programme would be the best policy.[226]


Main article: Causes of World War II

Further information: Appeasement and Neville Chamberlain's European Policy

The challenge came from dictators, first Benito Mussolini of Fascist 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.[227]

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.[228]

Coming of Second World War

Further information: Causes of World War II and Diplomatic history of World War II

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 defence. The final act of appeasement came when Britain and France sacrificed the Sudetenland border regions of Czechoslovakia to Hitler's demands at the Munich Agreement of 1938.[229] Hitler was not satiated and, in March 1939, seized all of Czechoslovakia and menaced Poland. At last 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.[230]

Second World War

Further information: Causes of World War II and Diplomatic history of World War II

Since 1945

Further information: Political history of the United Kingdom (1945–present)

Despite the heavy American grants of Lend Lease food oil and munitions (which did not have to be repaid) plus American loans, and a grant of money and loans from Canada at the end of the war Britain was on the verge of bankruptcy. John Maynard Keynes argued the only solution was to drastically cut back the spending on the British Empire, which amounted to £2,000 million.[231] The postwar overseas deficit was £1,400 million, warned Keynes, and, "it is this expenditure which is wholly responsible for either financial difficulties." Both Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee ignored his advice and kept spending heavily, in part by borrowing from India.[232] The United States provided a £3,500 million 50-year loan in 1946 and sudden grant of independence to India and Pakistan in 1947 did solve much of the problem. Marshall Plan money began flowing in 1948, And by the time it ended in 1951 the financial crisis was over.[233] The new Labour government knew the expenses of British involvement across the globe were financially crippling. The postwar military cost £200 million a year, To put 1.3 million men in uniform, combat fleets in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean as well as a Hong Kong station in China, bases Across the globe, as well as 120 full Royal Air Force squadrons.[234] Britain now shed traditional overseas military roles as fast as possible.[235] American financial aid was available on Washington's terms, as seen in the 1945 Anglo-American loan, the convertibility of sterling crisis of 1947, the devaluation of the pound sterling in 1949, and the rearmament programme in support of the U.S. in the Korean War, 1950–53. On the other hand, he had some success in convincing Washington to take over roles that were too expensive for Britain, including the rebuilding of the European economy, and supporting anti-communist governments in Greece and elsewhere.[236][237] Bevin had the firm support of his party, especially Prime Minister Clement Attlee, despite a left-wing opposition. Top American diplomats such as Dean Acheson trusted Bevin and worked through him.[238]

Cold War

Main article: Cold War

With the election of a Labour government in the 1945 general election, union leader Ernest Bevin became foreign secretary despite his lack of foreign policy experience. He is best known for taking a strong anti-Communist position regarding the emerging Cold War, and encouraging the U.S. to take a more active role as budgetary constraints forced Britain to reduce its role in Greece.[239] However that was not his original plan. At first he envisioned a European "third force", led by Britain and France, to mediate between the two superpowers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union. In 1945–46 he hoped that European integration would also allow establish Britain to be free from US economic domination. In January 1946, however, Charles De Gaulle retired and Bevin expected some sort of "imminent Sovietization" would move France to the left. Furthermore, it became clear that American loans and grants were essential to British solvency. He now decided on a friendly collaboration with the U.S. hoping to guide its role in the Cold War. and strongly encouraged Washington to assume Britain's old role of helping the Greek government suppress a Communist rebellion through the Truman Doctrine.[240][241]

Marshall Plan

Main article: Marshall Plan

The American Marshall Plan (officially the "European Recovery Program", ERP) gave $12 billion in financial grants (not loans) to war-torn nations.[242] ERP required the recipients to organize as the "Committee on European Economic Co-operation". Under Bevin the UK took the lead in coordinating support from the Western European nations that accepted the aid. (Eastern Bloc satellites turned the money down.) The British economy has started to recover by 1948—the main goal was not so much rescue or recovery as modernization of the economy. The Marshall Plan wanted to stimulate long-term economic growth. It required the removal all sorts of economic bottlenecks and restrictions, and called for free trade and low tariffs (a long-time American goal). Britain received $3.2 billion; separately Canada gave an unrestricted $1 billion grant. Repayment was not required. The grants were used to purchase oil, wheat, meat and other foods exported from the two donor nations. These products were in turn purchased by British consumers for pounds, and the revenue became matching funds used by UK government to modernize its economy. Britain also received large loans from the U.S. that were repaid over six decades at low interest, used to balance the budget.[243]


Main article: History of NATO

British diplomacy under the leadership of foreign secretary Ernest Bevin set the stage for NATO.[244] Britain and France in 1947 signed the Treaty of Dunkirk, a defensive pact. This expanded in 1948 with the Treaty of Brussels to add the three Benelux countries. It committed them to collective defence against any armed attack for fifty years. Bevin worked with Washington to expand the alliance into NATO in 1949, adding the U.S. and Canada as well as Italy, Portugal, Norway, Denmark and Iceland.[245] West Germany and Spain joined later. Historians give credence to the old wisecrack that the organization's goal was "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down".[246]

The formation of NATO in 1949 solidified UK-US relations. Britain allowed—indeed encouraged—building American air bases in Britain to threaten the USSR with nuclear attack. Stationing American bombers in Britain gave London a voice in how they could be used and avoided American unilateralism.[247] However the U.S. went its own way after 1945 in building nuclear weapons; Britain and later France developed their own.[248]

Breakup of British Empire

Main articles: Decolonization, East of Suez, and United Kingdom–European Union relations

The British built up a very large worldwide British Empire, which peaked in size in 1922. 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 demanding independence. The India region split into India, Pakistan, Ceylon and Burma. By the late 1950s, almost all the colonies were independent. Most colonial territories joined the Commonwealth of Nations, an organisation of fully independent nations now with equal status to the UK.[249]

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.[250] 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.[251] After years of debate, Britain voted on 23 June 2016 for "Brexit", to leave the EU.[252][253]

Palestine and Israel

Main article: Mandatory Palestine

The League of Nations assigned Palestine as a mandate to the UK in 1920. The British tried, but failed to stop large-scale Jewish immigration into the mandate. Britain returned it to UN control in 1947 and the UN divided Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. Israel came into existence on May 14, 1948, fought off the Arab neighbors, and became a power in the region.[254]

Prime Minister Thatcher, 1979–1990

Main article: Premiership of Margaret Thatcher

President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher at the White House, 26 February 1981
President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher at the White House, 16 November 1988

Thatcher appointed Lord Carrington, a former Defence Secretary, as Foreign Secretary, 1979–82.[255][256] Although unlike Thatcher he was a centrist Conservative (a "wet"), he avoided domestic affairs and got along well with the Prime Minister. The first issue was what to do with Rhodesia, where the five percent white population was determined to rule the prosperous largely-black ex-colony in the face of overwhelming international disapproval. After the collapse of the Portuguese Empire in Africa in 1975, South Africa – which had been Rhodesia's chief supporter – realized that country was a liability. Black rule was inevitable, and Carrington brokered a peaceful solution at the Lancaster House conference in 1979, attended by Rhodesia's leader Ian Smith, as well as the key black leaders Abel Muzorewa, Robert Mugabe, Joshua Nkomo, and Josiah Tongogara. The conference ended Rhodesia's Bush War. The end result was the new nation of Zimbabwe under black rule in 1980.[257][258]

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.[259] It was reported that her government secretly supplied Saddam Hussein with military equipment as early as 1981.[260]

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.[261] 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[262] at an eventual cost of more than £12 billion (at 1996–97 prices).[263] 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 a consortium which included the Italian firm Agusta in favour of the management's preferred option, a link with Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation. Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine, who had helped to assemble the consortium, resigned in protest.[264]

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.[265] The subsequent crisis was "a defining moment of her [Thatcher's] premiership".[266] At the suggestion of Harold Macmillan and Robert Armstrong,[266] 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, [267] which by 5–6 April had authorised and dispatched a naval task force to retake the islands.[268] 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.[269] 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.[270] 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.[271]

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.[272] 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.[273]

Although saying that she was in favour of "peaceful negotiations" to end apartheid,[274] Thatcher stood against the sanctions imposed on South Africa by the Commonwealth and the EC.[275] 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.[276] Thatcher dismissed the African National Congress (ANC) in October 1987 as "a typical terrorist organisation".[277][278]

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.[279] Thatcher and her party had supported British membership of the EC in the 1975 national referendum,[280] 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;[281] 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".[281]

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,[282] despite the urging of her Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson and Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe,[283] but she was persuaded by John Major to join in October 1990, at what proved to be too high a rate.[284]

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.[285] 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."[286] Polls suggested that fewer than one in three British citizens approved of Thatcher's decision.[287] She was in the US on a state visit when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded neighbouring Kuwait in August 1990.[288] During her talks with President George H. W. Bush, who had succeeded Reagan in 1989, she recommended intervention,[288] and put pressure on Bush to deploy troops in the Middle East to drive the Iraqi Army out of Kuwait.[289] Bush was apprehensive about the plan, prompting Thatcher to remark to him during a telephone conversation that "This was no time to go wobbly!"[290] 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.[291][292]

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".[293] 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.[294] 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.[295]

See also



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  9. ^ Garrett Mattingly , "An Early Nonaggression Pact," Journal of Modern History 10#1 (1938): 1–30. online
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Further reading



Since 1919

British Army and Royal Navy


Primary sources