Lord Salisbury's Lessons for Great Powers

A master class in focused stewardship of national power that's greatly relevant to America in Ukraine.

In October 1897, John Hay, then U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, had an “informal talk” with British prime minister Lord Salisbury. The topic was Cuba, then in chaos from an insurgency against its Spanish overlords. Hay’s purpose in the conversation was to ascertain Britain’s interest, and likely reaction, if the United States determined it must get involved in the affairs of that troubled island, just ninety miles from U.S. shores, even including possible military action against Spanish colonial rule.

This was the same year that Britain celebrated Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, noting her six decades on the throne. It was a celebration of global power and influence rarely seen before or since throughout recorded history. A look at any map of the world at that time showed that a fifth of the global land mass was colored pink, denoting British domains that also contained a fourth of the world’s population. The Jubilee naval review displayed untold miles of ships—twenty-one battleships, fifty-three cruisers, thirty destroyers and twenty-four torpedo boats, all pulled together strictly from British home waters.

The French newspaper Le Mond, no fan of British power, compared Britain’s fin de siècle imperium to that of Rome at its height. And, indeed, Britain could project military power around the world far beyond the capacity of any other nation or combination of nations.

Hence, Lord Salisbury’s response to Hay’s subtle query is particularly noteworthy.

“He spoke with considerable reticence and habitual caution,” Hay reported to his boss, President William McKinley, in a letter dated October 6, “but he acknowledged the deplorable state of affairs in Cuba….He expressed the hope that the new government [in Spain] might do something to restore peace; said that England has no interests in the case except commercial ones, and that they would look with favor on any policy that would restore tranquility and some measure of prosperity to Cuba.”

Hay’s interpretation, conveyed to the president, was this: “On the whole, the conversation defined the impression I already had, that we need apprehend no interference from England if it became necessary for us to adopt energetic measures” in Cuba.

It is interesting to compare Lord Salisbury’s response with that of the U.S. government regarding recent events in Ukraine—which, like Cuba in relation to the United States, lies fully within Russia’s sphere of influence. Salisbury was bowing to the U.S. Monroe Doctrine, that audacious diplomatic challenge issued by President James Monroe in 1823 that carved out America’s sphere of influence and warned other nations that any encroachment would be fraught with consequences. To Salisbury, challenging America within its own sphere of influence simply wasn’t worth the price.

Salisbury disdained the kind of British jingoism often seen in the columns of the London Daily Mail, a newspaper he dismissed as being “written by office boys for office boys.” Rather, he saw the world in terms more closely aligned with the outlook of America’s modern foreign-policy realists. As Salisbury biographer Andrew Roberts, writing in History Today, put it, “Spheres of influence, buffer states and Realpolitik meant far more to him than the Anglo-Saxon imperial dreams of a [Joseph] Chamberlain or the Cairo-to-Cape schemes of a [Cecil] Rhodes.”

No doubt Salisbury also had in mind the Machiavellian concept of “balance of interests,” as described by German editor and geopolitical analyst Josef Joffe in a recent Wall Street Journal piece. It’s a question of which power has more skin in the game when interests clash. When Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev attempted to place nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962, he miscalculated the balance of interests—in other words, America’s fiery resolve to prevent such an alteration in the power balance in its own neighborhood. Similarly, wrote Joffe, the United States and European Union miscalculated the force of Russia’s resolve when they sought to pull Ukraine away from the Russian sphere of influence.

But Salisbury also understood that any hegemonic power inevitably will encounter multiple challenges at any given time, and hence it must assess carefully, in terms of its fundamental interests, the clashes it wishes to pursue. Britain in Salisbury’s time had plenty of adversaries around the world that were only too eager to pin the superpower down as the Lilliputians did Gulliver. Salisbury’s country engaged with America in 1895 over a land dispute involving Venezuela (the Monroe Doctrine again). It faced off against France over the Upper Nile. It clashed with Russia over Port Arthur and Germany over South Africa. It confronted a powerful challenge to its global position in the form of a relentless German naval buildup.

But, as Roberts points out, all these challenges and crises were handled “in a carefully arranged foreign policy vacuum”—meaning Salisbury steered clear of unnecessary conflicts and avoided getting embroiled in multiple crises at the same time. He particularly avoided shooting wars.

And here’s the clincher: Salisbury’s cautious approach, far from stifling the British imperium or forcing a retreat, actually brought vast new lands under the British imperial banner.

Britain’s particular brand of colonial imperialism, so powerful in the nineteenth century, is long gone now, of course. But the lessons derived from Lord Salisbury’s prudent leadership of that era are pertinent today for any global power that wishes to project influence around the world and foster global stability in key strategic locations.

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