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Prior to the 20th century Britain had opted for a stance of isolationism against the other powers in Europe, with no formal alliances it allowed them to manoeuvre amongst the other nations without being pulled into conflict. Therefore, it had once seemed unlikely that Britain would become a player if a war were to break out across Europe. Yet in the summer of 1914 the British Government made the decision to go to war, scholars continue to debate on the reasons why this decision was made more than 100 years since the outbreak of the war.
British foreign policy looked to achieve a balance of power across Europe before World War one, hoping that no one country could dominate over the continent. Many believe that by maintaining this balance, the war would be prevented by deterring any aggressors. However, the unification of Germany in 1871 upset this balance as the country’s economic strength proliferated and the foreign policy under Kaiser Wilhelm II, who wanted to elevate Germany’s position further, began to challenge that status quo which led to neighbouring countries to protect themselves with alliances with French-Russo alliance signed in 1894. With this alliance signed, two competing alliance blocs were now formed, with Russia and France on one side and Germany and Austria-Hungary on the other. Until the late 1890s, the British Government had refused to ally itself with other nations, instead opting for “splendid isolation”. Imperialists argued that a large overseas empire and navy would safeguard Britain; this argument fell through after the Boer war highlighted the weakness In Britain’s war machine and the problems this posed to Britain’s empire. With the formation of the alliances mentioned, the British Government now realised that Britain was left exposed in isolation with a small army and no friendly alliances. Before 1906, Russia was considered the most significant threat. So, when weighing up the options, the British Government had to consider the threat of a victorious Russia with an ally of France in a potential war. Britain was looking to find an ally that did not contain excessive commitments. With Anglo-German tensions rising, Britain began to look towards their old enemy France, and the entente cordial was signed in 1904, but it did not involve an official military obligation. Sir Edward Grey had feared by turning the entente into an official alliance it may have given France and Russia the initiative to declare war. So it can be seen as a careful diplomatic balancing at retaining both countries while also deterring Germany. A balance of strength between both alliance blocs should in theory strengthen deterrence as neither side can see a clear victory, However the problem was that both sides could envision victory leading to both wanting act before the balance tipped out of their favour. Steiner and Neilson in their book “Britain and the origins of the first world war” argued that if Germany was indeed intent on tipping the balance of power in their favour that without a strong coalition of powers to stop them then a victory would be possible. Therefore, although Britain had no military obligations to provide aid to France and Russia the British Government may have came to the conclusion that the only way to maintain the balance of power was to join the war in 1914 to provide extra power against Germany. The British would also rely on these entente powers to fight a war on land as with only a small army compared to the other powers in Europe, Britain relied heavily on its naval power in order to exert control.
Britain felt the balance of power threatened further with Germany’s ambition to expand its naval fleet from 1897 onwards. The British naval dominance relied on having a significant enough fleet to resist any threat of two combined European powers. Germany already had the most prominent military force, but Britain believed that Russia and France’s combined powers could counterbalance this, therefore deterring Germany from conflict and maintain the status quo across Europe. With a growing naval fleet, the balance would be tipped in favour of Germany, increasing fears of Britain’s position as a world power, and threatening their home defence. The British Government saw that the only adequate response to the naval plan was to partake in a naval arms race to maintain a balance and safeguard themselves. This competition further aggravated Anglo-German relations. There were attempts to mend ties between the two countries in 1912 with the Haldane mission’s undertaking; the hope was to bring an end to the naval arms race. The German Government agreed to halt naval building under British neutrality conditions in the case of European conflict. For the British Government, this was too big a concession as their maritime supremacy was intended to intervene against disturbances to the balance of power. The failure to agree only worsened relations and aided in developing Germany’s image as a threat to Britain’s world position. There were growing fears that Germany would seek European dominance, not unlike Napoleon in the early 19th century and achieving this dominance would allow them to outbuild the British navy and use the continental ports leading to domination of the seas, therefore we can see a clear link between the naval power of Britain and the wish of the Government to maintain the balance of power in Europe.
Until early August, the British cabinet was divided on how they should navigate the crisis unfolding in Europe, with many believing Britain should remain neutral. Between the 30th of July and the 2nd of August, Liberal MP Charles Honhouse highlighted the many opposing views inside parliament, stating that “The P.M., Haldane and I for war if there was even a merely technical breach of the Belgium treaty”. Unlike the alliances with France and Russia, Britain did hold military obligations under the 1839 treaty with Belgium, which guaranteed its neutrality. Germany felt trapped between France and Russia and facing a war on two fronts was their biggest worry; it was decided that the best way to win a quick victory against France would advance through Belgium. As Margaret Macmillan highlighted in “The war that ended peace”, this decision would not only dampen Germany’s reputation but would threaten to bring Britain into a war it was originally decisive over whether or not to enter. The British Government argued that their decision to go to war in 1914 was to uphold their treaty with Belgium and defend its neutrality as the foreign secretary. Sir Edward Grey stressed that in violating the treaty, Britain was damaging its own “good name and reputation before the world”. However, it can also be noted that the threat of Germany conquering the low countries is something that the British Government could not allow as this would give Germany a chance to dominate Europe, in turn threatening the balance of power. There was a consensus among people that Britain should stay out of the war and remain neutral as this was not Britain’s fight, with King George V having written in his diary on the 1st of August that public opinion in the country is against joining the war. It was necessary to find a reason for joining the war in order to halt Germany from becoming dominate and the idea that Britain would be defending a small nation against an aggressive Germany swayed public opinion, allowing the British Government to join the war with a moral high ground.
To sum up the arguments outlined above, it can be seen that the balance of power did influence the British Government’s decision to join the war in 1914 to a certain extent. The balance of power was a driving force to World War One; it created further tensions and suspicions between the great powers that culminated in growing military and ally defences that could not be fixed once reaching boiling point. Britain felt their position as a world power being threatened with this power shift, especially the growth of a large German navy as unrivalled dominance at sea was Britain’s only defence as an Island to protect its homeland and the sizeable overseas empire. However, the balance of power cannot be seen as the sole reason for the British Government joining the war in 1914. The alliance system had long been believed to be a way to keep one country from becoming dominant and upsetting the balance of power. However, it soon became apparent that rival alliances dividing Europe would cause growing tensions between the powers. Although the alliances with both France and Russia had no official obligations the British government understood that by remaining neutral would either result in a victorious Germany which could dominate Europe, or a victorious France and Russia left resentful of no support.
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