The gunboat diplomat who struck a minefield

July 11, 2003

Lord Palmerston's foreign policy led to British mastery of the seas but also the burden of imperialism. So is he an appropriate hero for George W. Bush? asks Miles Taylor.

When thousands of anti-war demonstrators brought London to a halt on March 21, Tony Blair was not the sole target of their anger. A British prime minister from the reign of Queen Victoria was also singled out for abuse.

Protesters homed in on the statue of Lord Palmerston in Parliament Square, daubing the slogan "another warmonger" across his feet.

Palmerston died in 1865. Yet the reputation of his strong-arm foreign policy lives on, especially in the US. A recent episode of the TV series The Simpsons had Homer arguing with Moe the barman over whether Pitt the Younger or Palmerston deserved the accolade of greatest British prime minister ever. More seriously, White House and Pentagon commentators have been quick to note the parallels between Palmerston's British bulldog spirit and George W. Bush's adoption of the role of global policeman since the terrorist attacks of September 11.

In particular, the apparent contradiction of America's support for Saddam Hussein in the 1980s prior to his identification as public enemy number one has been explained away by defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld with the argument that the US has no permanent allies, only permanent interests.

Palmerston said much the same thing in 1848, telling parliament that Britain had "no eternal allies... and no perpetual enemies". Moreover, Bush's promise to defend American lives wherever they are under threat recalls the British prime minister's famous "civis Romanus sum" speech of June 1850, when, like the Romans, he vowed to protect Englishmen and English interests overseas just as he would at home.

For Americans, Palmerston recalls the days when Britain was a European military and economic giant, hawkish and resolute in its defence of global security. At that time, the US was the new kid on the block - a small, defenceless new republic, barely able to keep its states united, let alone ready to take on the rest of the world.

Now the roles are reversed. As Robert Kagan, author of the highly regarded Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order, has pointed out, the European powers have become dove-like and multilateralist, whereas the US has come to rely on the blunt diplomacy of the preemptive strike. No wonder Palmerston, who sent gunboats into Greece, Portugal, the Persian Gulf, China and even the sea lanes of America itself, should have become such a model.

But how merited is Palmerston's reputation as global bully? This week, an international conference hosted by the University of Southampton will subject the life and times of the former British prime minister to closer scrutiny. Scholars from around the world, including the US, France and Japan, will discuss all aspects of his political career and his colourful personal life.

Inevitably, his foreign policy will loom large, and it is highly unlikely that the modern Pentagon's version of Palmerston will be endorsed by much of the latest research on offer. For as historians have been arguing for some time, Palmerston's foreign policy was as much a matter of bluff and brinkmanship as of military might. Dwarfed by the standing conscript armies of continental Europe and mindful of keeping domestic taxation to a minimum, Palmerston's Britain could only stand and watch as, first, Louis Napoleon of France, and, then, Otto von Bismarck of Prussia, tightened their grip on the destinies of smaller European states.

His bluff was called on two occasions - the Crimean war of 1854-56, and the Schleswig-Holstein crisis of 1864. In both instances, British diplomats were forced to concede to the autocratic regimes of the Continent. Beyond Europe, it was a different matter, however, for Palmerston's attempts to maintain the balance of power were bolstered by the presence of the British navy. As prime minister between 1855 and 1858, and again from 1859 to 1865, he oversaw the evolution of the Royal Navy from wooden ships to "ironclads", in the process ignoring both the mid-Victorian peace lobby and his own chancellor, William Gladstone, who opposed war in favour of retrenchment.

So armed, Britain policed the oceans of the world. The frontier of its commercial interests expanded into China, Japan, South America, west Africa, and Persia. Such a policy was not without short-term success.

Palmerston's navy ensured that the Mediterranean did not become a "French lake", kept the Persian Gulf free of Russian encroachment and saw off pirates and slave traders in the China seas.

Even the "special relationship" was not sacrosanct. During the American civil war, Palmerston's navy became embroiled in conflict at sea with ships supporting the North's struggle against the South.

But all this came at a longer-term cost. The more Palmerston's navy policed the world, the more Britain was drawn into annexing territory and sending in troops to quell resistance, and civil servants to tax HM government's newest colonial subjects.

After all, it was in the heyday of Palmerston's influence in the mid-Victorian decades that so much of the map of the world began to be painted red. How quickly the age of naval mastery gave way to the age of imperialism. When enthusing about their favourite British prime minister, Americans may wish to heed that lesson above all.

Miles Taylor is professor of modern British history at the University of Southampton. The three-day Palmerston conference begins on Friday.


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