In the Saturday Wall Street Journal, John Micklethwaite and Adrian Wooldridge of the Economist had an article, based on their new book The Fourth Revolution, putting forward William Ewart Gladstone–the Grand Old Man of Victorian politics–as a role model for 21st century Republicans.
Their effort to revive Gladstone’s reputation can only be cheered by anyone interested in 19th century British politics (which I confess is one of my quirkier interests) and the proposals they put forward for improving the effectiveness of government while reducing its cost appear laudable. But I was struck by the complete absence of a discussion of foreign policy where Gladstone left a large imprint with his once-famous Midlothian campaign of 1880. As a parliamentary candidate and leader of the Liberal Party, he campaigned against what he saw as the imperialist excesses of the Tories in places such as southern Africa and Afghanistan where, in the First Boer War and the Second Afghan War, respectively, Britain was then suffering embarrassing reverses.
In his campaign Gladstone laid out the principles of what was then known as a Little England policy and today would be called non-interventionism. Among his principles: “1. The first thing is to foster the strength of the Empire by just legislation and economy at home. 2. My second principle of foreign policy is this: peace. 3. In my opinion the third sound principle is this to strive to cultivate and maintain, ay, to the very uttermost, what is called the concert of Europe; to keep the Powers of Europe in union together. 4. My fourth principle is that you should avoid needless and entangling engagements. 5. My fifth principle is this, gentlemen, to acknowledge the equal rights of all nations. 6. And that sixth (principle) is, that in my opinion foreign policy, subject to all the limitations that I have described, the foreign policy of England should always be inspired by the love of freedom.”
Gladstone was certainly no isolationist. He criticized the Tories for not doing more about the Ottoman Empire’s slaughter of Christians in Bulgaria, and as prime minister he oversaw the virtual annexation of Egypt in 1882. But, contradictory as his thinking often appears, he was less imperialist than his Conservative rivals such as Disraeli and Salisbury.
No matter how much Disraeli and Gladstone, in particular, were often ranged against each other on matters of policy both domestic and foreign, they shared in the Victorian consensus that Britain needed to keep defense spending low so as not to be a burden on the people’s purses or liberties. Britain spent enough to maintain the world’s largest navy but even its naval hegemony was increasingly challenged by a German naval buildup in the early 20th century. Meanwhile the British army remained tiny, fit only for imperial campaigning.
This was all part of a strategy that today is called “offshore balancing”: British policymakers vowed they could safeguard their interests by controlling the seas without having to intervene in a major land war in Europe. This is the same strategy that many urge on the U.S. today–in fact a strategy that the Obama administration seems to be implementing as we downsize our army to the lowest level since 1940. Yet all it takes is a passing familiarity with British history to see how delusional and self-destructive this policy can be.
The very fact that Britain lacked an army capable of fighting the armies of Europe meant that Britain was unable to deter German aggression in either 1914 or 1939. Indeed the British aversion to land warfare called into doubt its commitments to allies such as Belgium and France and led German militarists to gamble they could overrun Europe without major hindrance from London. In the event, the German calculation was wrong–Britain’s entry into both World War I and World War II was a key obstacle to German designs. But Britain paid a huge price for not being able to deter German aggression in the first place.
Worried about spending too much on defense, the Victorians and their successors spent too little, and wound up having their country and their empire bled dry in conflagrations that might have been avoided if Britain had done more to defend itself and its allies. There is an important lesson here for present-day Republicans who focus only on reducing the size of government. They should not forget that government’s first duty is to defend the country and if it is unable to do that–or even if it is able to do so but only after a long, costly struggle that might have been avoided–then short-term cost savings on defense will prove ephemeral. In the end military weakness is far more costly than military strength. That was a lesson that Gladstone and other Victorian titans ignored and that their would-be successors should heed.