Splendid isolation

Splendid isolation is the term used at the time for the 19th-century British diplomatic practice of avoiding permanent alliances, particularly under the governments of Lord Salisbury between 1885 and 1902. The practice emerged as early as 1822 with Britain's exit from the post-1815 Concert of Europe and continued until the 1902 Anglo-Japanese Alliance. Then, with the 1904 Entente Cordiale with France, Europe was divided into two power blocs and Britain's isolation during the 1899–1902 Second Boer War led to a final reversal of the policy.

The term was coined in January 1896 by a Canadian politician, George Eulas Foster, indicating his approval for Britain's minimal involvement in European affairs by saying, "In these somewhat troublesome days when the great Mother Empire stands splendidly isolated in Europe."[1]


Satirical depiction of the 1822 Congress of Verona.

The policy was characterised by a reluctance to enter into permanent alliances or commitments with other Great Powers. Often assumed to apply to the latter part of the 19th century, some historians argue it originated when Britain withdrew from the post-1815 Concert of Europe after the 1822 Congress of Verona. This decision was made by George Canning, whose principles dominated British foreign policy for decades and were summarised by historian Harold Temperley as follows:

Non-intervention; no European police system; every nation for itself, and God for us all; balance of power; respect for facts, not for abstract theories; respect for treaty rights, but caution in extending them ... England not Europe... Europe's domain extends to the shores of the Atlantic, England's begins there.[2]

For much of the nineteenth century, Britain sought to maintain the existing balance of power in Europe, while protecting trade routes to its colonies and dominions, especially those connecting to British India through the Suez Canal. In 1866, the Foreign Secretary Lord Derby explained this policy as follows:

It is the duty of the Government of this country, placed as it is with regard to geographical position, to keep itself upon terms of goodwill with all surrounding nations, but not to entangle itself with any single or monopolising alliance with any one of them; above all to endeavour not to interfere needlessly and vexatiously with the internal affairs of any foreign country.[3]

An exception was the 1839 Treaty of London, recognising the independent state of Belgium; the strategic importance of the Belgian ports of Ostend, Antwerp and Zeebrugge was such that Britain guaranteed Belgian independence, by military means if required.[4]

Bismarck and SalisburyEdit

Lord Salisbury caricatured by Spy, 1900.

After the creation of the German Reich in 1871, German Chancellor Bismarck sought to isolate France with the 1873 League of the Three Emperors or Dreikaiserbund between Austria-Hungary, Russia and Germany. Austria left the League in 1878 due to conflicts with Russia in the Balkans; Bismarck replaced it with the 1879 Dual Alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary, which became the Triple Alliance when Italy joined in 1882.[5][6]

'Dropping the Pilot' by John Tenniel, 29 March 1890; Bismarck dismissed by Wilhelm II, one of the most famous political cartoons of its time.

However, his primary foreign policy aim was keeping Russia and Germany aligned, and he persuaded Austria to join a reconstituted Dreikaiserbund in 1881 in response to attempts by France to engage with Russia diplomatically.[7] When the League was finally abandoned in 1887, Bismarck replaced it with the Reinsurance Treaty, a secret agreement between Germany and Russia to remain neutral if either were attacked by France or Austria-Hungary.

British policy-makers were concerned at the post-1871 increase in German industrial and military strength, but were reassured by Bismarck's evident intention to maintain the status quo. This changed after his dismissal in 1890 by Wilhelm II, who subsequently initiated the Anglo-German naval race supported by Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz.

Salisbury once defined his foreign policy as "to float lazily downstream, putting out the occasional diplomatic boathook."[8] He viewed this as avoiding war with another Great Power or combination of Powers and securing communications with the Empire. A recurring concern for Britain throughout the 19th century was the impact of Russian access to the Mediterranean through Constantinople and the Dardanelles. This was a factor in the 1853–1856 Crimean War; it resurfaced during the 1875–1878 Great Eastern Crisis, when Jingoism demonstrated a growing sense of insecurity among British media and politicians.[9]

After Britain seized Egypt in the 1882 Anglo-Egyptian War, Mediterranean policy focused on ensuring stability, resulting in the 1887 Mediterranean Agreements with Italy and Austria-Hungary. The three countries agreed to work together in times of crisis, but as these were not binding agreements, neither had to be approved by Parliament.[10]

Grover Cleveland twists the tail of the British Lion on Venezuela; a policy designed to appeal to Irish Catholics in the U.S.

This allowed Salisbury to align British and German policy without a formal alliance, while providing a counterweight to French interference in Egypt. Since Britain shared Austrian concern at Russian expansion in South-East Europe, Bismarck did not have to choose between his two allies when they were at odds in the Balkans. This mutually beneficial policy ended in 1890 when Bismarck was dismissed by Wilhelm.

In the 1890s, Britain was challenged on a number of fronts: in Europe, by a combination of Wilhelm's erratic foreign policy, German naval expansion and the instability caused by the decline of the Ottoman Empire; in the Americas, where for domestic political reasons, U.S. President Cleveland manufactured a quarrel over Venezuela's border with British Guiana; and in Central Asia, where the 3,000 kilometres that separated Russia and British India in 1800 was down to 30 kilometres in some areas.[11]

By the end of the century, Europe was split into two power blocs, and Wilhelm's stated policy was to end "Britain's free ride on the coat-tails of the Triple Alliance."[12]


The Entente Cordiale; John Bull (Britain) leaving with Marianne (France), while the Kaiser pretends not to care.

In 1898, then Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain made two attempts to negotiate an alliance with Germany and spoke publicly of Britain's diplomatic predicament, saying, "We have had no allies. I am afraid we have had no friends ... We stand alone."[13] He was unsuccessful, but these efforts reflected a growing realisation that Britain's diplomatic isolation during the 1899–1902 Second Boer War left it dangerously exposed.[14]

In 1902, Britain and Japan signed the Anglo-Japanese Alliance; if either were attacked by a third party, the other would remain neutral and if attacked by two or more opponents, the other would come to its aid. This meant Japan could rely on British support in a war with Russia, if either France or Germany, which also had interests in China, decided to join them.[15] With Britain still engaged in the Boer War, this was arguably a defensive move rather than an end to isolation, a view supported by T. G. Otte, who sees it as reinforcing Britain's aloofness from the Continent and the European alliance systems.[16] Britain also started to build a "Special Relationship" with the United States.[17]

Primarily for domestic British consumption, the 1904 Entente Cordiale with France and the 1907 Anglo-Russian Convention were not formal alliances and both focused on colonial boundaries in Asia and Africa. However, they cleared the way for co-operation in other areas, making British entry into any future conflict involving France or Russia a possibility; these interlocking bilateral agreements became known as the Triple Entente.[5] Britain supported France against Germany in the 1911 Agadir Crisis, with the two countries informally agreeing to cooperate in other areas. By 1914, both the Army and Royal Navy were committed to support France in the event of war with Germany but few even in the government were aware of the extent of these commitments.[18]

Appraisal by historiansEdit

Diplomatic historian Margaret MacMillan argues that in 1897 Britain was indeed isolated, but far from being "splendid" this was a bad thing, for Britain had no real friends and was engaged in disputes with the United States, France, Germany, and Russia.[19]

Historians have debated whether British isolation was intentional or dictated by contemporary events. A. J. P. Taylor claimed that the policy existed only in a limited sense: "The British certainly ceased to concern themselves with the Balance of Power in Europe; they supposed that it was self-adjusting. But they maintained close connection with the continental Powers for the sake of affairs outside of Europe, particularly in the Near East."[20] John Charmley has argued that splendid isolation was a fiction for the period prior to the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894, and that the policy was reluctantly pursued thereafter.[21] E. David Steele asserts that when Salisbury once referred to 'splendid isolation' he "was being ironical at the expense of those who believed in the possibility."[22]

Salisbury never used the term 'splendid isolation' to describe his approach to foreign policy; he explicitly argued against its use. He considered it dangerous to be completely uninvolved with European affairs. One of his biographers has argued that the term "has unfairly affixed itself to Salisbury's foreign policy."[23] Britain was not isolated during this period, given its informal alignments arising from the two Mediterranean Agreements and the fact that it still traded with other European powers and remained heavily connected with the British Empire.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Andrew Roberts, Salisbury: Victorian Titan (2000) p 629.
  2. ^ H.W.V. Temperley (1925). The Foreign Policy of Canning, 1822–1827. p. 342. ISBN 9781136244636.
  3. ^ Great Britain. Parliament (1866). The parliamentary debates. p. 735.
  4. ^ Paul W. Schroeder, The Transformation of European Politics 1763–1848 (1994) pp. 671–91
  5. ^ a b Willmott 2003, p. 15
  6. ^ Keegan 1998, p. 52.
  7. ^ Medlicott, W N (1945). "Bismarck and the Three Emperors' Alliance, 1881–87". Transactions of the Royal Historical Society. 27: 66–70. doi:10.2307/3678575. JSTOR 3678575.
  8. ^ Morgan, Roger (ed), Silvestri, Stefano (ed) (1982). Moderates and Conservatives in Western Europe. Heinemann Educational Books. p. 115. ISBN 978-0435836153.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  9. ^ Whitehead, Cameron Ean Alfred (2014). The Bulgarian Horrors; Culture and the International History of the Great Eastern Crisis 1875–1878 (PDF). PHD Dissertation, University of British Columbia. pp. 308–310. Retrieved 30 October 2018.
  10. ^ Charmley 1999, pp. 222–223.
  11. ^ Hopkirk, Peter (1990). The Great Game; On Secret Service in High Asia (1991 ed.). OUP. pp. 4–5. ISBN 978-0719564475.
  12. ^ Charmley 1999, p. 228.
  13. ^ Robert K. Massie (1997). Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War. pp. 245–47. ISBN 9780307819932.
  14. ^ Avner Cohen, "Joseph Chamberlain, Lord Lansdowne and British foreign policy 1901–1903: From collaboration to confrontation." Australian Journal of Politics & History 43#2 (1997): 122–134.
  15. ^ Cavendish, Richard (January 2002). "The 1902 Anglo-Japanese Alliance". History Today. 52 (1). Retrieved 15 August 2018.
  16. ^ T.G. Otte, The China Question: Great Power Rivalry and British Isolation, 1894–1905 (Oxford, 2007) p 306.
  17. ^ Charles Kupfer (2012). Indomitable Will: Turning Defeat into Victory from Pearl Harbor to Midway. Bloomsbury. pp. 42–43. ISBN 9781441186638.
  18. ^ Brock, Michael (ed), Brock, Elinor (ed) (2014). Margot Asquith's Great War Diary 1914–1916: The View from Downing Street (Kindle ed.). 759–781: OUP Oxford; Reprint edition. ISBN 978-0198737728.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link) CS1 maint: location (link)
  19. ^ Margaret Macmillan, The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (2013) p 40.
  20. ^ A.J.P. Taylor, Struggle for Mastery of Europe: 1848–1918 (1954) p 346.
  21. ^ Charmley, 1999 & Introduction.
  22. ^ E. David Steele (2002). Lord Salisbury. Routledge. p. 320. ISBN 9781134516711.
  23. ^ Roberts, Salisbury: Victorian Titan (2000) p 629.

Further readingEdit

  • Chamberlain, Muriel E. Pax Britannica?: British Foreign Policy 1789-1914 (Routledge, 2014).
  • Charmley, John (1999). Splendid Isolation? Britain and the Balance of Power 1874–1914. Sceptre. ISBN 978-0-340-65791-1.
  • Charmley, John. "Splendid Isolation to Finest Hour: Britain as a Global Power, 1900–1950." Contemporary British History 18.3 (2004): 130-146.
  • Goudswaard, Johan Marius. "Some aspects of the end of Britain's" splendid isolation", 1898–1904" Diss. RePub (Erasmus University Library), 1952. ch 5 online
  • Hamilton, Richard F. (2003). Origins of World War One. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-81735-6.
  • Howard, C.H.D. Splendid isolation: a study of ideas concerning Britain's international position and foreign policy during the later years of the third Marquis of Salisbury (1967).
  • Howard, C.H.D. Britain and the Casus Belli, 1822–1902: a study of Britain's international position from Canning to Salisbury (Burns & Oates, 1974).
  • Mombauer, Annika. The origins of the First World War: controversies and consensus. (Routledge, 2013).
  • Naamani, Israel. The Abandonment of "Splendid Isolation:" A Study of British Public Opinion and Diplomacy, 1895—1902 (Indiana UP, 1946). 311pp
  • Partington, Angela (1992). The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, Fourth Edition. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-866185-6.
  • Roberts, Martin (2001). Britain 1846–1964: the challenge of change. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-913373-4.

External linksEdit