By John Gunther
BRITISH FOREIGN POLICY, by John Gunther, from his Inside Europe, published by New York, Harper and Brothers, 1937, pp. 224, 225.
John Gunther, foreign news reporter for the Chicago Daily News, of America, has worked for his newspaper in almost every country of Europe. He then made a trip around the world and expected to put out a new book Outside Asia very much along the lines of his Inside Europe.
British foreign policy, which is extraordinarily constant, changing little (as Sir Samuel Hoare recently said) from generation to generation, is based, broadly speaking, on the concept of the balance of power with Britain holding the balance. “All our greatest wars,” Sir Austen Chamberlain put it, “have been fought to prevent one great military power dominating Europe, and at the same time dominating the coasts of the Channel and the ports of the Low Countries.” Trevelyan has said, “From Tudor times onwards, England treated European politics simply as a means of insuring her own security from invasion and furthering her designs beyond the ocean.” In modern times, following this policy, Britain has tended, when France was stronger than Germany, to support Germany; when Germany was stronger than France, to support France. Since the war the League of Nations has been a convenient mechanism to this end; if the League ceases to serve British purpose, Britain ignores it. Since with great shrewdness in 1919, Britain obtained the entrance of the Dominions (and India) into the League as separate states, she is always able to dominate its deliberations. Before the war it was a cardinal principle of British politics not to commit the nation to any action on the Continent in regard to hypothetical future contingencies. Locarno, the apex of the balance of power policy, changed this. All these considerations are, of course, dominated by the principle of Pax Britannica; Britain, a great trading nation, wants peace. When the sanctions crisis arose, as Walter Duranty put it, “the British did not want a war to such a degree that they were prepared to fight to avoid it.”
Another and a very curious minor factor should be mentioned. It causes much puzzlement to observers on the Continent. The British think even of foreign policy as a sort of game. Unlike the Germans or the French, to whom politics is a matter of life or death, the British are capable of extreme detachment in the direction of their complex foreign affairs. Europe is a sort of stage;the play that is going on is a play. And if someone misses his cue, or blunders with his lines, the average Briton always assumes that the drama is merely a rehearsal, and can be played over again—better.
Roughly there are two groups in the foreign office. The first comprises the pro-Leaguers who are idealists. They hope through a system of collective security to bring Germany into the amicable concert of great powers. They view war as a literal horror; the Abyssinian crisis meant to them the collapse of moral law in Europe. The second group, mostly represented by older men, are willing enough to give the League a bit of rope, but they distrust the efficacy of the collective security principle, and put their hopes in (1) a powerful navy, and (2) isolationism. The opinions of this group served to encourage Germany, because isolation—noninterference in Europe—is tantamount to taking the German side.