The Crisis in Ukraine and the Making of Modern British Foreign Policy

By Niles Webb

During the Ukrainian crisis, the British government has taken a position distinct in key regards from its European counterparts. London seems more closely aligned with Washington’s position than Germany and less willing than France to recognise Russian security concerns regarding NATO. Why? Johnson has defined Britain’s position as the defence of the post-Cold War order, but to be fully understood it must be placed within a much longer-term context.

The challenge to the balance of power

From the seventeenth century, balance of power calculations underpinned British foreign policy. Britain would cooperate with any country necessary to prevent one power from rising to dominate Europe. This ‘balance’ served British interests by keeping European powers too busy with each other to threaten Britain or her maritime empire. This was a problematic doctrine. It presumed a desire to protect British rights and liberties, but sometimes demanded cooperation with governments which did not even have constitutions. This contradiction inevitably led to tension between policies based on interest and principle.

This tension was dramatically personified in the rivalry between William Gladstone and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. In 1875, Ottoman forces violently suppressed a Christian Bulgarian uprising. Because British interests required a strong Ottoman Empire to counter-balance Russia, Disraeli resisted calls to challenge Constantinople. Gladstone lambasted his rival in an 1876 pamphlet in which he derided the pursuit of national interests and Disraeli’s rejection of ‘the general sentiment of civilized mankind’. [1] London could not pursue its own interests at the expense of universal morality, and therefore could not cooperate with just any kind of government. The balance of power doctrine faced a sustained ethical challenge.

The rise of the US

Criticism of self-interested foreign policies was not the greatest challenge Britain faced in this period. The US achieved an astronomical economic rise in the late nineteenth century, putting it on a potential collision course with the British Empire. [2] Despite clashing interests and several war scares, the two nations managed to avert military confrontation with diplomacy underpinned by ideas of shared identity. Anglo-American diplomats referred to each other as ‘Anglo-Saxons’ or ‘English-speaking people’, seeing themselves as a unique race endowed with a special destiny to govern the world and promote constitutional government. [3]

Gradually, policymakers downplayed the racial element, but Anglo-American desires to promote constitutional, and increasingly democratic, governments endured and was on show in the First World War. In January 1918, Prime Minister David Lloyd George pronounced democratic war aims, foregrounding the language of ‘self-determination’ in wartime debate, a contribution often misattributed to US President Woodrow Wilson. [4]

Though Wilson’s influence is overstated, he was an admirer of Gladstone, who he called ‘the greatest statesman that ever lived’, and pursued a foreign policy which supported Lloyd George’s call for self-determination whilst precluding cooperation with regimes seen as illegitimate. Wilson demanded that the German Kaiser abdicate and make way for democratic reform before peace could be negotiated. He explicitly rejected the balance of power as the basis for peace, calling instead for a ‘community of power’ in which fellow states would come to the defence of victims of aggression. [5] British and American leaders, admiring each other and taking each other’s prompts, formulated policies claiming to transcend narrow self-interest and promote principles applicable to all humanity.

Britain and the Ukrainian crisis

Anglo-American statesmen have not always successfully implemented or faithfully pursued this vision. Nevertheless, close transatlantic cooperation based on shared identities and the promotion of certain principles has left an institutional legacy which has shaped recent events.

During the Second World War, with President Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill issued the Atlantic Charter, envisioning a post-war order led by Washington and London. Territorial aggrandisement was spurned, national sovereignty defended. [6]  

This enshrined the principles upon which Britain has committed itself to aid Ukraine today. In 1994, in a move Wilson would have approved of, Britain and the US signed a memorandum promising ‘to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine’, and to assist Kiev ‘should it become a victim of an act of aggression’. [7]

It is within these long-term contexts that a confrontation rationalised largely as a defence of principles is comprehensible. Placing Britain’s position in the context of a sustained challenge to interest-based policies also raises difficult questions. Does Johnson’s response really serve British interests? Do legal and moral principles really coincide with national interests? In the wake of the Ukrainian tragedy and a British response which may well prompt direct Russian retaliation, these are the dilemmas that policymakers will face.


[1] W. E. Gladstone, Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East (London, 1876), p. 57.

[2] Bradford Perkins, The Great Rapprochement: England and the United States, 1895-1914 (New York, 1968); Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (Boston and New York, 2017), chapter 5.

[3] Stuart Anderson, Race and Rapprochement: Anglo-Saxonism and Anglo-American Relations, 1895-1904 (East Brunswick, 1981); Duncan Bell, Dreamworlds of Race: Empire and the Utopian Destiny of Anglo-America (Princeton, 2020).

[4] Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order (London, 2014), chapter 9.

[5] John A. Thompson, Woodrow Wilson (London and New York, 2002), p. 22, chapter 6.

[6] Stephen Wertheim, Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy (Cambridge, 2020), chapters 2 and 3; Andrew Roberts, Churchill: Walking with Destiny (Bungay: Allen Lane, 2018).

[7] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-60159622.

[8] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/22/world/europe/ukraine-russia-coup-britain.html.

Image credit: The Batak massacre (1889), painted by Antoni Piotrowski.

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