British foreign policy in the aftermath of the first world war has generally been judged a failure. At the armistice the British Empire stood alone as a great and cohesive power, with the enemy empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans decimated and Russia in collapse. But the colonial empire was soon making concessions to nationalist movements in Ireland, India and Egypt; modern Turkey and the USSR emerged to complicate the peace-making process; and within 20 years Germany was resurgent. The ostensible failures of policy have been explained largely by the decline of the Foreign Office under Arthur Balfour and George Curzon, as Lloyd George undermined its traditional role.
G. H. Bennett challenges such received views convincingly. The unity and continuity for his study are provided by Lord Curzon's tenure of the foreign secretaryship under three successive prime ministers, Lloyd George, Bonar Law and Stanley Baldwin. His breadth of archival research is remarkable, extending to some 75 collections of private papers. His approach is essentially regional, with chapters on policies towards western Europe, eastern Europe, the USSR, Asia Minor, the Arab Middle East, Persia, the Mediterranean, and the Far East. He sweeps away the excessive expectations of contemporaries oppressed by the horrors of the first world war and the criticisms from hindsight of a later generation impressed by those of the second. He emphasises the limitations imposed by the reality of Britain's military and economic weaknesses. The major failure of policy remains, through his analysis, the unsolved problem of recovering a balance of power in western Europe, especially between France and Germany. The major success appears as the consolidation of imperial security in Asia, by agreements with France, Turkey and Egypt. He gives credit for retreats skilfully conducted and the preservation of respect for imperial diplomacy. One might well ask what more could reasonably be expected from policymakers denied martial options by a peace-craving public.
While Bennett's essential concern is policy not personality, he also presents a reappraisal of Curzon. Concentration upon Curzon's work rather than his personality reveals that his defenders have erred in over emphasising his subservience to Lloyd George in extenuation of his weaknesses. Curzon's own diatribes and excessive expectations of himself are shown, paradoxically, to have contributed to their underestimation of his historical importance.
Robin J. Moore is professor and head of the faculty of social sciences, Flinders University of South Australia.
British Foreign Policy During the Curzon Period, 1919-24
Author - G.H. Bennett
ISBN - 0333 647 5
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £45.00
Pages - 243pp