26 July 2019

Lord Salisbury’s Law: Geopolitical lessons to save our world


He remains not an easy man to love, Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury. In his own highly class-conscious Victorian era, even Salisbury’s contemporary admirers found him haughty, imperious, and arrogant beyond belief. Perpetually aware of his distinguished lineage—he was a direct descendent of Lord Burghley, the able chief minister of Elizabeth I–Salisbury never let you forget for a moment that his family was used to running things.

Yet beneath this highly unappealing façade, Salisbury was also undoubtedly a first-rate thinker, one whose innovative foreign policy did nothing less than to save the British Empire. His brilliant foreign policy must be studied and adopted by the West today if we are to save our world, as Salisbury so cleverly rescued his.

Salisbury’s England as a lodestar for today’s West

In terms of geopolitics, Salisbury matters because he brilliantly mastered a world that is eerily like our own in terms of its structure. Britain, like the US of today, was first amongst equals at the great power table, but not wholly dominant. For Salisbury, Japan, the US, and Germany were rising; for the US now, China, India, the other global democratic market powers (Indonesia, Japan, Australia, Israel, South Africa, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Canada), are relatively gaining power.

The international relations jargon surrounding this commonality is that both Britain then and the US now inhabit a world of lopsided multipolarity. Both find themselves chairmen of the global board, first amongst equals, but with a growing number of board members at the table, all relatively gaining power, year on year.

From a geostrategic perspective, both the UK and the US are islands off the central Eurasian landmass. As anyone who has ever played a game of Risk knows, control of Eurasia is the key to world domination. As geopolitical pioneer Halford Mackinder put it, given Britain and America’s similar geographic (and thus geopolitical) position, the common overarching strategic imperative of both is to stop any one country dominating the whole of either Europe or Asia.

Both Salisbury’s Britain and today’s America were omnipresent powers; both were the only truly global powers of their era, as they had ‘lift,’ the ability to place more troops more places more quickly than any other rival. For the British the key to this was the Royal Navy, for the US it is its air force, navy, and amphibious forces (the Marines). But if both were omnipresent, both were far from omnipotent, as rival regional powers increasingly held sway in their immediate neighbourhoods.

Both were the epicentres of the world economy; for Salisbury’s Britain the City of London was the centre of the financial world, just as today the Dollar reigns supreme.

Both had the most cultural power in their worlds. Britain’s great rival Germany had a pronounced cultural inferiority complex regarding Victorian England, never more clearly exhibited than in the schizophrenic reaction of its Kaiser–who loved, emulated and hated his English relatives with equal fervour—in Salisbury’s age of Hardy, Tennyson and Galsworthy. As for today, it will come as little surprise to anyone that Hollywood amounts to one of America’s major export industries.

Salisbury’s genius was to take his country’s changed structural position in the world—from a period of easy hegemony to one of increased competition–and prolong British dominance, saving the UK in the pivotal year of 1918, over a decade after his death.

America finds itself in a hauntingly similar structural position in our present world to that of Late Victorian England. As such, Salisbury’s overall foreign policy strategy is clearly the right one to follow today as his views fit our times, with the US as the greatest power in the world but in relative decline.

What he thought

Salisbury was three times Prime Minister and Foreign Minister between 1885-1902, and the last premier to sit in the House of Lords. Throughout that time he pursued a highly successfully foreign policy, based on some simple but enduring precepts.  

First, Salisbury believed that the ascension of rising powers (Japan in Asia, the US in North America, and Germany in Europe) could not be easily stopped. Instead, if Britain was to retain its pre-eminent position, these emerging powers would have to be accommodated if possible, and opposed by a British-led alliance if necessary.

Second, Salisbury did not worry about the internal workings of other countries, which he saw as a waste of time, energy, and power. In modern terms, this meant he was against nation-building and democracy promotion as they would fritter away Britain’s waning power. As Prime Minister, he saw his job as securing Britain’s place in the world, no more and no less. All foreign policy ventures would be judged only by this exacting standard.

Third, Salisbury favoured a strong defence while pursuing his accommodationist strategy. As a foreign policy realist, he accepted that force has mattered in international relations as a tool since the dawn of the Athenians, and always will. During his second premiership, he crafted the Naval Defence Act of 1889, the largest ever peacetime expansion of the British fleet. Salisbury propounded the new British strategic doctrine that the Royal Navy must be maintained at the size of the next two largest navies in the world combined.

Fourth, Britain’s new foreign policy would revolve around its becoming the global off-shore balancer. As such, Britain would stay aloof from day-to-day local quarrels; it would only bring its power to bear if regional balances of power fell apart and any of the aspiring local hegemons came to dominate their region and threaten primary British interests.

Fifth, if any one power came to dominate a region (as Japan in Asia, the US in North America, and Germany in Europe did), Britain would be called upon to make a fateful strategic determination: was the rising regional power in question likely to be a status quo power helpful to Britain over the long run, or a revolutionary power determined to co-opt the British-inspired global order? From these five simple but profound precepts, Salisbury wove his masterful foreign policy.

What he did

It is hard to imagine anything less important in global politics than the demarcation of the Venezuelan border. Yet an obscure late nineteenth century dispute over this very question became the pivotal (if unlikely) catalyst for shaping Anglo-American relations over the next 120 years.

The argument was inherited from the Spanish and Dutch Empires, with Venezuela and Britain taking their respective parts. The dispute over where the border should be had already been simmering for half a century by the time gold was discovered near the mouth of the Orinoco River in the 1890s. Now, with something really to play for, the controversy heated up.

But there was now an added, and very dangerous, wrinkle. The United States, the prospective dominant regional power in the Western Hemisphere, saw the controversy in the new light of its expanding geopolitical profile. The administration of Grover Cleveland came to see British involvement in this matter as a clear violation of the Monroe Doctrine—propounded by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams in 1823—which was (and is) a cornerstone of American strategic thinking.

The doctrine states that any further attempts by European powers to colonise land or interfere with the Western Hemisphere’s countries would be viewed as unfriendly acts of aggression directed against the US. In essence, Washington had just declared the Western Hemisphere as its own sphere of influence. Fortuitous outside circumstances earlier in the nineteenth century had seen to it that the doctrine was not challenged, but now—with US power on the rise—America itself was in a position to make the grandiose claims of the Monroe Doctrine stick, backed as they now were by their vast and growing economic and geopolitical might.

Here Salisbury showed his greatness, determining that accommodating America was the correct course (though given his haughty temperament, it must have killed him). In January 1896 Britain recognised America’s right to intervene in the dispute, accepting the US argument that arbitration was necessary. Highly cordial talks between American and British diplomats in October 1899 led the international tribunal to award Britain 90% of the disputed territory and all the gold mines.

But what happened on the ground near the Orinoco was hardly the heart of the matter. The geopolitical significance of the Venezuelan demarcation crisis was that Britain as the global ordering power had accepted that the US—as the rising power of the Western Hemisphere—held regional primacy over what went on there. Salisbury’s reward for this brave, accommodationist strategy was that this incident marked the very last time a possible war between the two great Anglo-Saxon powers would ever be contemplated.

The crisis marked the birth of the ‘Special Relationship,’ with Salisbury as the unlikely midwife. From here on out, for more than a century up until today, the two great powers would work hand in glove as status quo powers, determined to defend the British-inspired global order.

Winning over the Japanese was far easier and less dramatic than it had been with the Americans. The Anglo-Japanese diplomatic alliance came into effect in 1902 (later expanded in 1905 and 1911). Here Britain was implicitly doing in Asia what Salisbury had done in the Western Hemisphere: Britain as the global ordering power ceded regional dominance to a primary rising regional power, as London determined they could be won over as a status quo power, helping safeguard the British-inspired world order.

Tokyo’s stunning victory in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05 confirmed Britain’s analysis that it was Japan and not Russia that was the rising power to watch in Asia, a power that was now firmly on Britain’s side.

Yet, tragically, the Kaiser’s Germany proved to not be as open to great power accommodation as the US and Japan were. Early on in his premiership all seemed well with Anglo-German relations as Salisbury and the great Otto von Bismarck both were determined to avoid antagonisms between the greatest rising power and the global status quo power.

However, relations dramatically worsened with Bismarck’s shock ousting in 1890 by the new, excitable Kaiser. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz led dramatic German efforts to threaten British naval supremacy (a cornerstone of Salisbury’s overall foreign policy) from 1898 onwards, leading to the Anglo-German naval arms race. This caused the UK to perceive German efforts to dominate Europe (unlike with the US and Japan) as fundamentally hostile to British interests. In line with Salisbury’s precepts, Berlin would have to be more actively balanced by the British.

As such, Salisbury’s standard off-shore balancing strategy gave way to a greatly increased British role in European politics. Britain’s entente with first France in 1904 and then Russia in 1907—originally agreements limited to colonial affairs—gradually over time became a fully fledged alliance, directed against the warlike Kaiser. World War I was not far away.

But if Salisbury’s innovative foreign policy had not averted war, it largely managed to win it. For in the crucial year of 1918, it was Salisbury’s cultivated rising powers, the US in Europe and Japan in Asia, that contributed mightily to ultimate victory and secured—for a little while longer yet—Britain’s pre-eminent place in the world.

Far before that pivotal year, on July 11, 1902, in failing health (largely due to his great weight) and distraught over the recent death of his beloved wife, the old man finally resigned the premiership in favour of his nephew, Arthur Balfour. Salisbury died quietly a year later in 1903. But this forgotten man saved the British Empire from disaster, a full 15 years after his death.

Conclusion: What Salisbury can teach us today

Above all else, Salisbury’s law is that it is necessary to know your country’s true place in the world and devise a foreign policy to suit that reality. So how do Salisbury’s precepts translate into today’s world?

Looked at through the lens of Salisbury’s precepts, President Trump has been right to return US foreign policy to a national interest basis, unlike the more utopian neoconservatives and Wilsonians who dominate the GOP and Democratic Party establishments. Also in keeping with a Salisburean strategy there has been a correct de-emphasis on both nation-building and democracy promotion.

Further, Salisbury’s strategy means the US should keep out of wars in the Middle East, as there is no single rising power to worry about. As Russia is clearly in decline, it can be managed and contained, as its very real economic and demographic weaknesses worsen (presently the Russian economy is the size of the state of Texas).

Crucially, for a Salisburean strategy to work today, the other rising democratic market powers (India, Indonesia, Australia, Israel, South Africa, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, etc) must be accommodated and co-opted into the western-inspired order.

Salisbury’s thinking means that the present and future primary concern of American foreign policy must be China and Asia, the engine of most of the world’s present and future growth as well as much of its political risk. China is the rising regional power in Asia, and one that is increasingly seen as not being open to great power accommodation. They are heading toward revolutionary power status.

If this remains the case, and unlike with the Middle East and Russia, it must be actively balanced by a US-led coalition of the other major regional Asian powers. A Salisburean strategy must be to use Americas Asian allies (through nascent institutions like the Quad, a security grouping of the US, Japan, Australia, and India) to balance China and blunt its efforts at regional domination. Paradoxically, as the great man would readily understand, only this hawkish response can prevent a catastrophic war, so the US does not have to militarily intervene to stop an unfriendly regional power trying to upend the American-inspired global order.

Finally, for the UK, following the precepts of the country’s late Victorian Prime Minister means looking at Brexit, the most important strategic revolution in the UK for generations, in a very different way. Rather than (rather comically) obsessing about the exact terms of the final deal with the EU, the key is instead to think globally once again, about the parts of the world actually growing economically and rising politically, the places where fully 90% of the world’s growth is now coming from.

For the key to Brexit’s success is not the terms of the deal with Europe, but given Britain and a declining EU’s place in the world, whether in three to five years the UK can craft free trade deals with Commonwealth countries, the US, India, China, and South Africa. If London can then all is well, and Brexit is a success; if not, it’s a calamity. But in Salisbury’s genius for coolly seeing his country’s place in the world as it truly is, lies the true metric that will determine whether Brexit is a success or a failure.

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Dr. John C. Hulsman is Chairman of the global political risk consultancy John C. Hulsman Enterprises, and author of 'To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk'