British foreign policy

When discussing Britain's foreign policy in the 1920s, it is important to remember that British politicians were forced to respond to the real and potential actions of a wide variety of powers. Indeed, non-Britons, as well as the Prime minister, Parliament, and public opinion, largely determined foreign policy. In this light, what first appeared to be foolish political errors might actually have been fully justified decisions.

For example, British conduct at the Treaty of Versailles has been widely criticised; Lloyd George, the prime minister at the time, was accused of being too soft in his attempts to ease the harsh terms France wished to impose, and of ignoring his Cabinet's advice. Lloyd George talked hard, but this was merely an effort to please the voters back home, and this has led to historians branding him a political chameleon. However, we must bear in mind that the prime minister was dealing with a very stubborn, aggressive France, and a more peaceful USA.

While Clemenceau was demanding reparations from Germany, Wilson (US President) opposed French foreign policy. In reality, there was little Lloyd George could do to influence the outcome of the Treaty- he simply could not satisfy both powers. This is just one example of outside factors largely determining British foreign policy. The Versailles agreement played a major role throughout the political world in the 1920s. While the French believed the treaty should have been harsher on Germany, the Germans themselves viewed Versailles as being unfair, and the reparations unreasonable.

The French, fearing Germany would regain much of its former strength if stricter measures were not taken, looked to Britain for support and the guarantee of security; they found neither. British politicians, apparently, believed the French to be secure following Versailles (a fact disproved following the construction of the Maginot Line 1927), and their obsession with security to be foolish and unjustified. Britain's reluctance to be drawn into an alliance with France was, however, understandable, especially after the experience of backing the French in WW1.

France's invasion of the Ruhr in 1923 merely strengthened Prime Minister Balfour's argument that the French were over-reacting to the threat of Germany. Historians often criticise British Foreign policy for being too optimistic. British politicians accepted the view that the Locarno Pact of 1926 had succeeded in solving the 'German question' without hesitation, despite Gustav Stesemann's demands for further concessions to Germany. In addition to this, Britain still remained unwilling to back East Germanyy's borders, and her guarantee to enforce the Western frontiers was little more than an empty gesture.

Yet Chamberlain's approach to foreign affairs was not entirely unjustified. The Prime Minister realised that public opinion would have been against him, should he have chosen to use strong-arm military tactics. Britain was also more concerned with maintaining her vast overseas empire, rather than providing the troublesome French with the security they desperately desired. Chamberlain was therefore fully prepared to co-operate with Gustav Stresemann and the Germans, believing them to be, generally, peaceful and respectable.

Although this in itself seems foolish, especially in light of Germany's eastern ambitions, one must bear in mind that extremist parties, such as the Nazis, were very unpopular at the time (the Nazis themselves only gained 2. 6% of the vote in 1928). Stresemann was eager to build strong relations with the allied powers, although in reality he was working to dismantle the Versailles agreement of 1919. It was, however, Germany's friendly attitude that ultimately convinced Chamberlain that Germany posed no threat, and at the time the Prime Minister would have had little reason to suspect Stresemann or his motives.

British politicians in the 1920s have often been accused of placing too much faith in the newly created League of Nations, believing it to be a highly effective organisation. There is evidence to back this argument. British foreign ministers eagerly attended the LON Assembly and Council meetings, and many politicians thought no aggressor would dare to risk an attack on the League, despite the fact that it had no armed forces of its own. However, as foolish as this may seem, Britain did have good cause for supporting the League.

With over 50 members, an attack on the LON did seem to be highly improbable. The LON union, in the 1920s, was also proving to be a highly effective pressure group. Britain even attempted to solve the problem of the lack of LON armed forces with the Geneva protocol in 1923, though by 1925 this had been abandoned by the new Conservative government. British foreign policy in this case was ultimately determined by how much potential the League appeared to have.

Britain's politicians judged how strong the LON was, and responded accordingly. Their belief that the League was effective, or at least could be effective, is therefore completely justified. Britain was aware of the lack of military strength and commitment from the other states, and there were few politicians who realistically believed in the League's efficiency- hence, they concentrated on the Empire, which in the 1920s seemed to be a far more valuable asset, both economically and militarily.