British Foreign Policy 1815-65

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Europe after the French Wars

Europe in 1815. Click on the image for a larger view

In 1815, Europe comprised a number of different systems of government including autocracies, democracies, constitutional monarchies and countries that were in a state of development. Three main 'zones' may be identified:

Zone 1

1. Russia under the Czars

The Russian empire was huge, taking in eastern and western peoples. It was multi-racial because it included, for example, Poles, Cossacks, Mongols and Siberian peoples. A number of different religious groups were also to be found within the Russian empire, such as Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Muslims.

From the time of Peter the Great (1689-1725), Russia had tried to modernise and westernise; advances were made in such disparate areas as the development of the navy and in dentistry. French was the 'civilized' language of the court and foreign experts were imported to help the country to modernise. Russia saw itself as a western power and expanded into Europe in the 18th Century at the expense of Poland, which was partitioned in 1772, 1793 and 1795. Russia's main political ambition was the acquisition of permanent warm water ports and access to the world shipping routes. The easiest way to do this was to gain access from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean via the Straits - the Bosphorous, the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles - which were part of the Ottoman Empire. Russia also tried to expand what was essentially a feudal agricultural economy.

Britain was determined to resist Russia's ambitions to gain entry into the Mediterranean because that would affect the independence of the Ottoman Empire and also would have an adverse impact on Britain's trade in the Mediterranean. In both of these cases, Russian aspirations were in opposition to Britain's principles of foreign policy. However, the attitudes and ambitions of both Russia and Britain are understandable.

Czar Alexander I was responsible for the idea of the Holy Alliance.

2. Austria-Hungary under the Hapsburg emperors

The system of government in the Austrian empire and Hungarian monarchy was through a dual crown: the emperor had to be crowned both in Vienna and Budapest. The symbol of Austria-Hungary, appropriately, was a double-headed eagle - one head looking east and the other looking west. The empire was divided between being an eastern power and a western power.

Austria-Hungary was a multi-racial empire containing, for example, Germans, Poles, Serbs, Croats, Magyars, Slavs, Czechs and Italians. There was no cohesion and no reason for the existence of this empire. It had been built up by acquisition, conquest and accident. On its eastern frontier, Austria-Hungary was concerned with Russian designs on Turkey. Austria-Hungary depended on the Danube for trade because it gave the largely land-locked country access to the Black Sea the so to the Mediterranean Sea. However, at Belgrade the Danube entered Turkish territory. There was much Liberal Nationalism in Austria-Hungary and a desire for self-government by many different national groups. Ultimately, this was one of the causes of the First World War.

Britain had no particular enmity towards Austria-Hungary, nor did she have any preconceived policies. Relations were usually amicable. The problem for Britain was how to maintain amicable relations whilst supporting Liberal Nationalism there. Britain needed the friendship of Austria-Hungary to keep Russia out of the Ottoman empire.

3.Turkey - the Ottoman Empire - under the Sultan in Constantinople

This was a huge empire that rivaled Russia in size. It stretched east almost to the borders of India. The Sultan ruled from Constantinople. However, the Turkish Empire suffered from chronic maladministration although it refused to collapse. It was a multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-linguistic, multi-cultural empire that was crippled by campaigns for Liberal Nationalism in, for example, Greece and Egypt: Greece was the first flash point. Had the Turkish Empire collapsed, a power-vacuum would have been created exactly where Britain did not want a one.

Britain assumed a policy of maintaining the integrity of the Turkish Empire as a weak buffer to Russian expansionism and also as a method of maintaining the status quo. The problem for Britain was how to do this and support Liberal Nationalism. Britain would only support Liberal Nationalism if the new states were both constitutional and really neutral. Britain felt that she had to prevent the dismemberment of Turkey to stop others attempting it. The Sultans had a regular policy of capitalising on their weakness and turning them into strengths. They played off the Powers against each other successfully because they knew the strategic value of their Empire.

4. Prussia

Again, this was an eastern and a western power that comprised the divided territories of East and West Prussia. Prussia had expanded after 1815 because at the Congress of Vienna it was ceded the territories of Westphalia, Pomerania and North Saxony to help to consolidate Prussian lands. Prussia was an absolutist state ruled by the King and the Junkers [noblemen]. It was a militaristic state: conscription became compulsory in 1733 and in the 19th Century the Prussian army had at least ¼ million soldiers. Militarism accounted for 5/6 of Prussia's annual income.

Zone 2

The zone was divided by Switzerland into two main areas: the Germanic Confederation and the Italian lands.

1. The Germanic Confederation

This was a 'patchwork quilt' of thirty-nine states, all independent but linked through sending delegates/representatives to the Diet of Frankfort. These states were located between Austria and Prussia. Austria was President of the Diet (this was the western 'head' of the double-headed eagle) and Prussia - as a German state - also sent a delegate.

The Confederation was a new idea after 1815 to form a secure buffer zone against France. The French had found it easy to over-run the 349 states that had existed before 1789; the states had then been rationalised by Napoleon. The reorganised Germanic states were subsequently retained in a similar form by the Allies as a barrier to French expansionism. As members, Austria and Prussia created a balance of power but it created competition between the two for dominance.

Prussia, which had been enlarged by the Congress of Vienna, wanted to join up her lands and to control the Germanic Confederation but that would upset Austria which wanted to maintain supremacy in the area. Prussian aspirations came to fruition in 1870 with the Unification of Germany under Bismarck.

Austria-Hungary could not really afford to get mixed up with either the Germanic Confederation or Russia because she had conflicting interests in the east and west: to get involved with Germany would allow Russia to expand in the east and to get involved with Russia would allow Prussia to take control of the Germanic Confederation.

The Crimean War was a time of crisis for Austria-Hungary because all the Powers involved expected her to side with them. Austria-Hungary tried to stay friendly with them all by remaining neutral. At the end of the war, Austria-Hungary was isolated and friendless because of this neutrality.

Britain's interest was not predominantly in this area. She wanted to maintain the status quo - that is, a balance of power between Austria-Hungary and Prussia and also wanted to keep a strong buffer against France. However, the Royal Navy, Britain's main line of defence, was of no use on mainland Europe. Because of this, Britain was unable to prevent the Unification of Germany under Bismarck in 1870, for example.

2. The Italian Lands

These stretched from the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, southwards. After the Congress of Vienna, Metternich - the Austrian Chancellor who manipulated European diplomacy from 1815 to 1848 - called Italy "a mere geographic expression". Prior to the French Revolution, Italy consisted of eleven separate states under a variety of régimes:

During the French Revolution Italy was over-run by the French and Napoleon created the Kingdom of Italy. As in the Germanic Confederation, so the multi-state Italian lands were easy prey for the French, and Italy became a French satellite. However, the French created a national unity which eventually led to the rise of Liberal Nationalism and finally to the Unification of Italy under the King of Piedmont-Sardinia in 1861.

In 1815 the victorious Allies decided to return Italy to the status quo ante bellum [the situation as it was before the war]: to give the states back to their legitimate rulers as the 'honest thing to do'. With the benefit of hindsight, this can be seen as a mistake because in 1848 there was a Liberal Nationalism revolt in the south under Garibaldi and his Redshirts and then in 1860 Italian Unification took place under Cavour after the Risorgimento. Italy became a constitutional monarchy in 1861 under King Victor Emanuel, following the work of Cavour in creating the new nation. There were problems that delayed the Unification of Italy:

Britain's attitude was to favour Italian unification because it would

Britain was able to get involved in the process of Italian unification because she had access by sea; Britain felt that she ought to be involved because of trade and her need to secure the overland route to India. However, there was a problem for Britain in her relationship with Austria-Hungary: to lose the friendship of Austria-Hungary could lead to difficulties with Turkey and the Eastern Question on Austria-Hungary's eastern border. Also, the weakening of Austria-Hungary in the west might upset the balance of power and allow Prussia to dominate the Germanic Confederation. It was clear that Austria-Hungary intended to keep her Italian lands for as long as possible - thus taking her attention away from Turkey and the eastern border.

Zone 3

This was made up of western Europe: the Netherlands, France, Spain, Portugal as well as Britain. Britain was anxious to see the other countries have governments favourable to Britain and so she played a major rôle in promoting and/or encouraging constitutionalism there. It was believed that it was easier to negotiate for trade with like-minded governments: autocrats could blow hot and cold with amazing rapidity. Britain helped to set up constitutional governments in

Britain needed good relations with western countries.

The Netherlands provided a buffer to possible French expansion. Also the Netherlands were strategically important since from there, the entry to the Thames estuary was almost a direct route.

France was seen by Britain as the greatest threat to the peace of Europe, even long after that had ceased to be the case. Britain wanted to preserve the constitutional monarchy in France and also wanted to eradicate the long-standing Anglo-French hostility.

Portugal and Britain had a long-standing friendship that dated back to the May 1386 when the Treaty of Windsor confirmed a pact of perpetual friendship between the two countries. More recently, during the French wars, Portugal had provided a bridgehead onto the European mainland for Britain's armies under Sir John Moore and then the Duke of Wellington, from which the French were defeated. The constitutional monarchy in Portugal was fragile and, pursuing a policy of assisting the development of constitutionalism, the British government sent help when so requested. Anglo-Portuguese trade was very important to Britain, as was the strategic value of the country.

Spain was important to Britain for trade purposes; the constitutional monarchy there also was fragile. Spain was seen as a buffer against possible French expansion.

Britain did not have an automatic affinity only with the west. Each Foreign Secretary worked on the principle that Britain had neither perpetual allies nor perpetual enemies. Britain deliberately kept herself free of permanent commitments. However, British Foreign Secretaries did not see Britain in isolation from Europe because Britain needed Europe for its markets - Europe was Britain's biggest overseas market - and for her domestic security. Europe was in a state of flux and change in the period 1815-1865 and for British Foreign Secretaries there were many flash points and worries.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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