IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Friday, May 20, 2011

America, China, and the Crowe Memorandum (1907)

From Jonathan Spence's review of Kissinger's On China, citing a memorandum by Eyre Crowe, a career official in the British Foreign Office, that warned of the threat Germany posed to the balance of power:
Crowe’s celebrated twenty-three-page memorandum, handed in to British Foreign Secretary Earl Grey on New Year’s Day of 1907, took a hard-eyed realist’s view of the march of European international politics, with special focus on the naval arms race in which England and the recently unified Germany appeared to be locked. Crowe’s conclusion was sharp and devastating. Whether Germany chose to spread its influence by the force and richness of its cultural inheritance, or chose to project its strength by constant pressures on the British Empire and its many colonial dependencies, it essentially had no choice in the matter of survival: “In either case Germany would clearly be wise to build as powerful a navy as she can afford.” England’s choice of options was also limited. Given Germany’s urgent race for expansion, England was faced with a similarly stark choice: "England must expect that Germany will surely seek to diminish the power of any rivals, to enhance her own by extending her dominion, to hinder the co-operation of other States, and ultimately to break up and supplant the British Empire."
The Crowe Memorandum is a document projecting a kind of ruthless common sense rather than profound complexity. Perhaps for that reason, as Kissinger explains, there are senior military officers and policymakers in both China and the United States today who, more than a century after Crowe, wonder whether his formulations could be adapted to the present time so as to replace early-twentieth-century Germany and England with the choices facing China and the United States today. In its most direct form, this might point to a possible struggle between the two major powers in the Pacific, in a situation with room for only two major protagonists, only one of whom can win. The main riposte to this argument is to seek a richer pattern of alliances in the current century, and to diversify trade in resources, minerals, and cultural relics in a nonthreatening way that can promise wide-scale access to valued resources without major greed and disagreements. 
Some of these answers can be found in the early texts with which Kissinger began his book; some can be seen in the patterns of political and commercial assertiveness that we are now witnessing in both China and the United States. But we need to remember one fact, small but relevant, that Kissinger does not pursue: namely, Crowe’s memorandum did not go unchallenged. The most important critique came from another senior career officer in the Foreign Office, Thomas Henry Sanderson (1841–1923), who on February 21, 1907, handed to Grey his own careful assessment and criticism of Crowe’s logic. After reading Sanderson’s countermemo, Grey exclaimed that “somewhat to my surprise he [Sanderson] has taken up the cudgels for Germany.”

What Sanderson wrote in his own notations to Crowe’s memorandum was that "Germany is a helpful, though somewhat exacting friend, that she is a tight and tenacious bargainer, and a most disagreeable antagonist. She is oversensitive about being consulted on all questions on which she can claim a voice….Her motto has always been 'Nothing for nothing in this world, and very little for sixpence.'"

With China substituted for Germany this is perhaps not a bad description of how things stand at the moment. As for Sanderson’s depiction of the old British Empire in 1907, that too was trenchantly written, and one can only hope that it does not apply to the United States today. “It has sometimes seemed to me,” wrote Sanderson, "that to a foreigner reading our press the British Empire must appear in the light of some huge giant sprawling over the globe, with gouty fingers and toes stretching in every direction, which cannot be approached without eliciting a scream. " 
Both of the memos, Sanderson’s and Crowe’s, were marked “secret.” But they could not both be right. Either Germany had to be stopped in her tracks or England had to lose her paramount global position. No clear decision had been taken when—seven and a half years later—World War I broke out in Europe.