The Washington Conference 100 Years Later: Averting Great-Power Conflict in Asia

The Washington Conference 100 Years Later: Averting Great-Power Conflict in Asia

The world's leading powers agreed to limit a naval arms race in 1921 at the United States’ urging. Lessons from the Washington Naval Conference are still relevant as the United States and China face a potential new arms race today.

Britain—Staying Number One Against a Pacing Challenger?

In Britain, domestic political motivations, as well as strategic calculations, brought the British government to accept the American invitation to attend a conference in Washington. At the war’s end, Britain’s navy was the strongest in the world, and the victory over Germany owed much to British sea power. While Britain had emerged triumphant in the war with Germany, the victory had come at a hideous cost. America’s naval buildup challenged Britain’s hard-won gains. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George refused to renounce Britain’s standing as the world’s leading naval power. In common with most Britons of that era, he considered it as a strategic axiom that Britain’s unique defense requirements called for a navy stronger than any other. Britain’s global security and commercial interests, the long sea lines of communication that linked together the empire’s far-flung territories, and the heavy dependence of the home islands on imports of foodstuffs and raw materials animated this demand for naval superiority. Lloyd George also had an emotional commitment to the tradition of Britannia ruling the waves. He “would pawn his shirt rather than allow America to dominate the seas.” Indeed, Harding’s speech trumpeting a coming era of American naval dominance so infuriated Lloyd George that “he felt like turning the Admiralty on to build all the capital ships they could as fast as possible in order to go for the Yanks.”

Britain’s admirals also did not want to lose the position of naval leadership that the British navy had won by dint of hard fighting during the just-concluded war. Germany’s naval offensives during the war underscored Britain’s vulnerability to a disruption of overseas supply chains and support from the empire. Having defeated the German naval threat, Britain’s admirals were determined to recapitalize the British battle fleet and meet head-on the American challenge by building the latest generation of capital ships. Admiral David Beatty, the uniformed head of the Navy as Britain’s First Sea Lord, vowed never to surrender “supremacy of the sea to America.” He would “resign rather than go down to posterity as the First Sea Lord in office at the time of such a shameful decision.”

The harsh light of the postwar world, however, dampened British enthusiasm for a naval competition with the United States. Despite Lloyd George’s attachment to the creed of British superiority at sea, he feared that a new competition in the building of capital ships might presage another conflict, this time with the United States, just as the naval contest had preceded the war with Germany. In December 1920, Lloyd George held high-level discussions within the British government on how to meet the American naval challenge. In these discussions, Lloyd George asserted that the British government “had to consider what was, in his opinion, about the most important question that had ever been submitted to them—the most important and the most difficult.” In a naval competition with the United States, Lloyd George feared that Britain “should be up against the greatest resources in the world. We should be up against a growing and intensely virile population.” If the government decided “Britain must enter into competition with the United States in naval shipbuilding, it would be the biggest decision they had taken since 1914, and, conceivably greater than that taken in 1914 [for war with Germany].” Britain’s prime minister also considered that an arms race might induce the United States to hurt the British economy. The United States might take punitive steps by demanding exacting terms in the repayment of the British war debt. The discussions among Britain’s leaders echoed Lloyd George’s alarming assessment of the high stakes at risk in the contest for naval mastery. Britain’s political leaders confronted the harsh reality that, if they failed to reach an arms control agreement, “we may see ourselves outdistanced by the American [warship construction] programme unless we are prepared to incur overwhelming expenditure.”

A severe downturn in the British economy added to the urgency of avoiding a naval competition with the United States. Britain’s gross domestic product slumped by 9.7 percent in 1921, a drop in the British economy not matched until almost a hundred years later in 2020. In these hard times, the government came under immense political pressure to curb spending, according to the economic rostrums of the day. Cutting government spending was deemed essential to bring about an economic recovery and to forestall social unrest.

Even major conservative media outlets, which usually supported naval spending, demanded deep cuts in the navy’s budget as the remedy for restoring the country’s economic health, rather than building warships. The press barons, the brothers Lord Northcliffe and Lord Rothermere, used their newspapers to denounce wasteful government spending, including expenditure on warship construction. Northcliffe asked why “should the nations waste thousands of millions on probably useless battleships, about the future utility of which the best experts are now violently divided, even if anybody wanted to fight—which, I firmly believe, nobody does.” Instead of spending money on warships, he suggested, “every million we can spare is needed for the works of real progress, for scientific research, for the cure of cancer, consumption, syphilis and the other real and deadly enemies of the United States, Great Britain and Japan.”

Lord Rothermere, in the mass-circulation Sunday Pictorial, echoed his brother’s call for economy in government spending. Rothermere demanded an end to the government’s “squandermania.” He insisted that the stakes for Britain amounted to nothing less than “solvency or downfall.” He attacked “the folly of the big battleship.” He asserted that “unless this almost bankrupt nation wakes up we may find ourselves irrevocably committed to the building of another fleet of obsolete marine monsters.”

While the barbs of hostile press barons often infuriated Lloyd George, he agreed with them on the matter of curbing the navy’s ambitions to build a new generation of capital ships. Lloyd George believed that the age of the capital ship was over. He did not trust the recommendations of the naval experts. In his view, the technology for fighting at sea was changing rapidly. He believed: “Naval construction was in a fluid state. We must ascertain how best we can spend our money.” To enforce spending cuts and rein in the admirals’ plans for a naval buildup, the prime minister even went so far as to offer Lord Rothermere, one of the government’s harshest media critics, the post of First Lord of the Admiralty, the civilian head of the navy. When Rothermere turned him down, Lloyd George turned to Lord Lee of Fareham to head up the navy. The prime minister provided Lee with clear marching orders: the naval spending “must be cut down and that, if necessary, ‘the Sea Lords must be told to go to hell’.”

Lloyd George thus welcomed negotiations to prevent a naval arms competition between Britain and the United States when the invitation for talks came from Harding. At the conference, the detailed proposal put forward by Hughes met with the quick approval of Lloyd George and the British government. The reaction of Winston Churchill, then serving in the government, captures the relief felt by British leaders when hearing Hughes' dramatic proposal. Churchill told the American ambassador: “He could not find words to express his rejoicing as an Englishman and his pride in his American ancestry. His hat was not only off but as high as he could throw it.” In the American proposal, Britain’s political leaders avoided the nightmare of an expensive competition in capital ships.

Japan—A Responsible Stakeholder

The American naval buildup was also viewed as a security threat by the leaders of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Japan’s dominant position in East Asia, in the view of the Japanese naval strategic planners, rested on the ability of the navy to deter or (if necessary) to defeat any American offensive across the Pacific. To meet the American challenge, the Japanese navy demanded a major increase in warship construction. They wanted to acquire a fleet of eight battleships and eight battlecruisers as powerful as those under construction in the United States. In the minds of Japanese naval officers, these sixteen modern capital ships would act as a deterrent force, shielding Japan’s empire from the United States. By deterring the United States from taking aggressive action across the Pacific, Japan could then pursue a forward foreign policy on the Asian mainland in confronting the rising challenge of Chinese nationalism and the threat from the newly established Soviet state. Admiral Katō Tomosaburō, Japan’s navy minister, won the Japanese government’s approval for warship construction to counter the United States.

The huge cost of the Japanese warship acquisition plan, however, soon tempered the enthusiasm of Japan’s leaders for competing against the United States. To meet the navy’s demands, Japan’s naval budget skyrocketed, increasing more than fivefold from ¥84,974,783 in 1915 to ¥483,590,000 in 1921. Even accounting for wartime inflation, this growth in the navy’s budget was extraordinary. Spending on the navy amounted to almost a third of Japan’s national budget. This spending bill, too, came at a time when Japan, like Britain and the United States, confronted a severe downturn in the economy. It is estimated that the Japanese economy contracted by more than 8 percent during 1921. A deterioration in Japan’s international balance of payments threatened the country’s financial system, and the government looked for support in American loans from Wall Street. Admiral Katō, although a champion of the navy’s buildup, understood that the expense of competing against the United States carried a higher price tag than what Japan could afford. The admiral lamented that Japan’s “national wealth has simply not increased in proportion to naval expenditure, and we cannot proceed at the current pace. I am at my wit’s end.”