British fortunes suffered during the high tide of imperialism from 1897 to 1907. The South African, or Boer, War (1899-1902) against the independent Boer republics of the South African interior proved longer and costlier than the British expected, and although they won the "dirty little war" the British saw their world position erode. Germany partitioned Samoa with the United States, and the latter annexed the Hawaiian Islands. Germany abandoned her long apathy toward the Middle East and won a concession for Turkish railroads. The Kaiser, influenced by his envy of Britain, his own fondness for seafaring, and the worldwide impact of The Influence of Sea Power upon History by the American naval scholar Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, determined that Weltpolitik was impossible without a great High Seas Fleet. The prospect of a large German navy--next to the growing fleets of France, Russia, Japan, and the United States--meant that Britain would no longer rule the waves alone.
THE DEATH OF IMPERIALISM:
THE BIRTH OF NATIONALISM
The failure of the Anglo-German talks condemned both powers to dangerous competition. The German navy could never hope to equal the British and would only ensure British hostility. But equality was not necessary, said Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. All Germany needed was a "risk fleet" large enough to deter the British, who would not dare alienate Germany and thus lose their only potential ally in the continuing rivalry with France and Russia. In this way Germany could extract concessions from London without alliance or war. What the Germans failed to consider was that Britain might someday come to terms with its other antagonists.
The dawn of the 20th century was thus a time of anxiety for the British Empire as well. Challenged for the first time by the commercial, naval, and colonial might of many other industrializing nations, the British reconsidered the wisdom of splendid isolation. To be sure, in the Fashoda Incident of 1898 Britain succeeded in forcing France to retreat from the upper reaches of the Nile. But how much longer could Britain defend her empire alone? Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain began at once to sound out Berlin on the prospect of global collaboration. A British demarche was precisely what the Germans had been expecting, but three attempts to reach an Anglo-German understanding, between 1898 and 1901, led to naught. In retrospect, it is hard to see how it could have been otherwise. The German foreign minister and, from 1900, chancellor, Bernhard, Fürst von Bülow, shared the Kaiser's and Holstein's ambitions for world power. If, as Germany's neo-Rankean historians proclaimed, the old European balance of power was giving way to a new world balance, then the future would surely belong to the Anglo-Saxons (British Empire and America) and Slavs (Russian Empire) unless Germany were able to achieve its own place in the sun. Bülow agreed that "our future lies on the water." German and British interests were simply irreconcilable. What Britain sought was German help in reducing Franco-Russian pressure on the British Empire and defending the balance of power. What Germany sought was British neutrality or cooperation while Germany expanded its own power in the world. Bülow still believed in Holstein's "free hand" policy of playing the other powers off against each other and accordingly placed a high price on German support and invited Britain to join the Triple Alliance as a full military partner. Understandably, the British declined to underwrite Germany's continental security.
The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 was an ominous turning point. Contrary to all expectations, Japan triumphed on land and sea, and Russia stumbled into the Revolution of 1905. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt mediated the Treaty of Portsmouth ending the war, and the Tsar quelled the revolutionary flames with promises of parliamentary government, but the war resonated in world diplomacy. Japan established itself as the leading Asian power. The example of an Oriental nation rising up to defeat a European Great Power emboldened Chinese, Indians, and Arabs to look forward to a day when they might expel the imperialists from their midst. And tsarist Russia, its Asian adventure a shambles, looked once again to the Balkans as a field for expansion, setting the stage for World War I.
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This was precisely what Britain did. The Edwardian era (1901-10) was one of intense concern over the decline of Britain's naval and commercial dominance. German firms shouldered aside the British in numerous markets (even though they remained each other's best trading partners). The new German navy menaced Britain in her home waters. The French and Russian fleets, not to mention the Japanese, outnumbered the Royal Navy's Asian squadron. The French, Italian, and potential Russian presence in the Mediterranean threatened the British lifeline to India. Soon the Panama Canal would enable the United States to deploy a two-ocean navy. Accordingly, the foreign secretary, Lord Lansdowne, set about reducing the number of Britain's potential opponents. First, he cemented friendly relations with the United States in the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty (1901). He then shocked the world by concluding a military alliance with Japan, thereby securing British interests in East Asia and allowing the empire to concentrate its regional forces on India. But when growing tension between Russia and Japan over Manchuria appeared likely to erupt in war in 1904, France (Russia's ally) and Britain (now Japan's ally) faced a quandary. To prevent being dragged into the conflict, the French and British shrugged off their ancient rivalry and concluded an Entente Cordiale whereby France gave up opposition to British rule in Egypt, and Britain recognized French rights in Morocco. Though strictly a colonial arrangement, it marked another step away from isolation for both Britain and France and another step toward it for the restless and frustrated Germans.
The following pages explore the principle events in the British Empire which defined the future and paved the way for the metamorphosis of the “Empire” into the “Commonwealth,” a transformation conducted by the mother country in a civilised and forward-looking manner which by and large ensured a largely bloodless and smooth transition.
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