05 November 1965

Ditchley Foundation Annual Lecture IV

The Roots of British Foreign Policy 1929-1965


by H.  V.  HODSON, Provost of Ditchley

The Ditchley Foundation Lecture is an annual event in the Ditchley calendar.  Lord Caccia was the fourth to deliver a Foundation Lecture since the operational work of the Foundation began in the spring of 1962, the first occasion having been my own Inaugural as Provost, and the other Foundation Lecturers General Lauris Norstad (1963) and Mr. Arnold Heeney, Canadian Chairman of the United States—Canada Joint Commission (1964).  The lecture is given to an invited audience in the Great Hall at Ditchley Park, and is open to the Press.

We were specially fortunate in persuading Lord Caccia to speak in 1965.  Earlier in the year he had retired from the Foreign Service after a most distinguished career culminating in his tenure of the British Embassy in Washington and the Permanent Under-Secretaryship of State for Foreign Affairs.  Reflection on his thirty-six years as a diplomat was bound to present a fascinating picture of foreign policy and world events, and to be of close concern not only to Britain and the Commonwealth but also to the United States, the study of such matters of common concern being the principal object of the Foundation and its use of the noble house at Ditchley Park.  We were rewarded for our choice, as the lecture here printed demonstrates, even beyond our hopes.

The lecture is printed just as it was delivered on 5 November 1965, bar one or two minor verbal amendments.  The Foundation, which is precluded by its impartial and educational purpose from advocating opinions or entering into political controversy, takes no responsibility for views which are Lord Caccia’s own.  But it does offer this text as a contribution of outstanding value to the understanding of international affairs and Britain’s role in the world, and would like to take this opportunity of publicly thanking Lord Caccia for the services he has rendered to Ditchley both as a member of its Council and in his former post at the head of the Foreign Office.

The Roots of British Foreign Policy 1929-1965

Delivered by

Lord Caccia, GCMC, GCVO, Provost of Eton; former Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and British Ambassador in Washington.

So far Foundation Lectures have rightly and properly concentrated on the nature and working of the relations between the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States.  They have done so authoritatively.  It is perhaps time for a check in this quest before one of my successors returns to this theme, vital to the well being of this country.  It is for this reason that I have rather chosen ‘The Roots of British Foreign Policy’ as a subject for today.  I do it also because it comes within the purpose of Ditchley, which provides that we should meet together in quiet surroundings in order to discuss and learn about the issues and difficulties which face our respective countries.

In looking at the diplomatic scene from a particular point of vision, I must ask your indulgence for taking an arbitrary span of years from 1929 to 1965, the years of my own service.  There is to my knowledge no particular characteristic which marks off these years; they do not form, so far as I know, any natural division or chapter in the events of this century.  They are merely a convenience to myself, and I hope that they may serve no less well by the hazard of their choice in searching for what is constant and what shifting in diplomacy from London, in determining what are the eddies and what the tides.  This may help to give an answer to those commentators who claim to know us and who in the case of one outstanding United States Secretary of State, Mr. Acheson, has declared that we have not found a role, and is now reported as suggesting that the word ‘Great’ in Great Britain has no meaning.  For my own part let me state an interest straight away.  I should regret his threat to copyright his words.  I do not believe it harmful to raise such questions provided it is done to provoke thought rather than just to wound.  In the same way we here might equally ask whether the United States is fully entitled to the word ‘United’ after what we have recently read of the tragic events in Los Angeles, Alabama, and Mississippi.  Fortunately Mr. Acheson has provided his own country with a prescription which we here can adopt with advantage, that is not to take world opinion too seriously.

What in broad outline was the scene when I entered the American Department of the Foreign Office in 1929? The Kellogg Peace Pact outlawing war had just been signed, and the donkey work for us had been done in the department I joined.  The crisis of the Credit Anstalt in Vienna and the crash on Wall Street had not yet taken place.  We were still on gold, though the number of unemployed in the United Kingdom was so high that we are still living with the consequences.  The Commonwealth consisted only of what are now called the old Commonwealth countries and few then imagined that the Raj in India had little more than twenty years to run.  We could still rely on the Indian Army East of Suez.  China was a geographical expression.  Russia had yet to embark on the first of her five-year plans and was a dark star without satellites.  Locarno was a recent event, and Hitler no more than a prophet’s nightmare.  Against this background the Prime Minister, Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, opened the London Naval Conference in an ominously thick fog with the phrase, ungrammatical but trenchant, ‘The Navy is us’.

In ten years’ time, by 1939, we were off gold and at war, a war in which we were nearly destroyed and even more nearly bankrupt.  By 1949 the nuclear bomb had come, the population explosion had become a recognizable threat to stability, the Indian Empire had been transformed into two independent members of the Commonwealth, and although our formal commitments for the defence of the Indian sub-continent had gone, we could no longer call on the Indian Army East of Suez for what had previously been considered legitimate imperial interests.  Indeed, we, like the rest of Europe and the uncommitted world, owed such peace as there was in overwhelming degree to the military and financial strength of the United States.  By 1959 the resurgence of Asia had been carried a stage further through the consolidation of a Communist Government in Peking.  Africa had already begun to emerge into the main stream of world affairs, and a start at European unity had been made in the Common Market and in the European Free Trade Area.

In all these changes one thing at least has remained relatively constant, and that is our own physical and economic base of operations in these islands.  This factor inescapably limits our possibilities and governs our actions.  The war brought out its main characteristics, some of which had been veiled before.  Let us remind ourselves of a few salient points.

Although in land mass about seventy-fifth amongst the countries of the world, we have almost 2 per cent, of the world’s population and rate about tenth in numbers.  Only three major countries, Japan, the Netherlands, and Belgium, are more densely populated.  We have few natural resources.  We only provide around half the food we eat, although we do it with as little as 4 per cent.  of the working population.  Our single major natural resource is coal.  It still provides nearly two-thirds of our primary energy needs, but the proportion is declining and imported oil is steadily increasing its share.  In commerce we do about 10 per cent.  of world trade, and are the third largest trading nation.  We provide about one-sixth of world exports of manufactures, and we buy about one-fifth of world exports of primary products.  We are the world’s largest importer of wheat, meat, butter, citrus fruits, tea, tobacco, wool, and hard timber.

In finance we are the central banker of the sterling area, which comprises about a quarter of the total world population, and about a third of world trade is financed in sterling.

Since the nineteenth century we have been a major international investor.  True, during the last war we sold over £1,000 millions of our overseas investments.  But over the last ten years the average net overflow has been at the rate of about £200 millions annually.  This means that we must aim to earn a substantial surplus on our current international transactions in order to finance this capital outflow of private investment and aid.  We are thus involved and committed on every continent, in every sea; this is the condition of our being.

I remember Mr. Macmillan in Algiers in 1943 summarizing these basic elements of our position in the phrase: ‘After the war we shall have ourselves, a little coal, and a lot of debts.’ Later, when he became Foreign Secretary, Mr. Bevin said much the same, though he added the point that we not only had a little coal under our island, but a lot of fish in the seas around.  It is often easier to see where you stand by contrast with others.  For some of these other countries the problem is to make the most of the resources which God has given them.  The United States and Canada are outstanding examples of this, and it would be churlish not to rejoice at the success which they have made of their chances.  In our case the problem is the exact antithesis.  It is how to get hold of the resources which God has given to others, transform them by our own skill, and make our livelihood out of their sale around the world.

These conditions help to explain our tradition and our method.  Our tradition is to beware of set courses and rigid policies.  Our exposed position, economic and geographic, demands that we should be able to tack and turn as circumstances change.  It is Hobson’s choice and is epitomized in the story recorded by Lord Sanderson when Permanent Under-Secretary of State at the beginning of the century.  ‘It has happened’, he wrote, ‘not infrequently in the last years that Count Hatzfeldt’, the then German Ambassador, ‘has complained “voila une chose que j’ai causé avec Lord Salisbury et que le diable me prenne si je comprends la politique de votre Gouvernement”.’ To which Lord Sanderson went on: ‘I used to reply that he ought to know that we had not got a policy and worked from hand to mouth.’

This story only means, and should only be taken as meaning, that we do not make precise and inflexible plans.  You need not do that to have clear aims.  Peace abroad to secure independence and prosperity at home is such an aim, and it has remained constant during the whole of my period of service and for long before it.  I concede that this characteristic of ours may lead to misunderstandings and to accusations of perfidious Albion.  I reject them as ill founded in exactly the same way as I should reject as imperceptive of our essential needs those who are disappointed that we should not cast ourselves in any particular histrionic role.

During my own time our methods have remained as constant as our aim.  These methods have been described as commercial.  We like to look on a successful diplomatic transaction as similar to a successful business deal in the sense that both sides should consider that there has been a fair exchange, and if neither party has got all it wanted, each has at least obtained sufficient to enable it to proceed in peace.  This method has been contrasted with the military tradition of which past Prussian diplomacy provided the standard model.  In this concept negotiation is not undertaken with the object of reaching any enduring arrangement, but of taking a position from which further advance can be made.  Bismarck’s successive attacks on Denmark, then Austria, then France, are one instance.  Hitler’s progress from the Rhineland to Austria, to Czechoslovakia, to Poland, and last Russia, is another.  There is also the Communist approach which demeans diplomacy even as a craft.  The Russians, and in this the Chinese are like them, are not normally to be persuaded by eloquence nor convinced by reasoned arguments.  They prefer to rely on what Stalin used to call ‘the proper basis of international policy, the calculation of forces’.

Whatever may be done elsewhere, I do not myself think it likely that we will or should change our method.  It has its dangers.  It is always easier to sell something worth five shillings for half a crown than to extract the proper price.  A habit of compromise can mean giving up the argument too soon.  There is the temptation to want to be liked as well as respected.  So be it.  These are the risks.  That is unless we have a Foreign Secretary like Anthony Eden in his hey-day, a negotiator of extraordinary patience, acumen, and energy, who drove himself and goaded his department to see that we got value for money.  But whatever the risks, we can do no other.

With this equipment how has this country managed the tides in which we have sailed in my years in the Foreign Office, and in which we still have to navigate? It is easy to be cynical about the past.  In 1929 Germany, though resentful, though partly rearmed in contravention of the Treaty of Versailles, had not remotely got it in her power to be a direct threat to the peace.  Yet within little more than a decade she was holding Europe to ransom and we were on our own.  His Majesty’s Government were one of the major parties to this European tragedy, the unnecessary war.  So were others by their acts of omission and commission.  Certainly no power on either side of the Atlantic can claim to have acted in those interwar years with any greater prescience or moral courage.

In the upshot we have, if you want to put it that way, lost an Empire.  But we have survived and created a new concept of Commonwealth.  If wounded, we are yet able to look back on that war with pride as well as sorrow and can in independence develop our own way of life as we wish to live it in these islands.  Meanwhile, others in Europe have fared far worse than we.  Germany herself, though economically prosperous, is left divided, and who can say when and at what cost she may be reunited.  Still the nagging question remains.  How is it possible to reconcile the misery of our blood-soaked century with the knowledge that in our own country Governments have been composed of men of above average intelligence, of more than ordinary vigour, and of undoubted patriotism? In our case we may reflect that such men have at least done their own countrymen and the world less harm than the dishonourable men who ruled in the dictatorships of Europe.  This is chilly comfort.  All those involved in Government might with some humbleness wonder whether Professor Hoyle may not be right when, in his John Danz Lectures at Washington University last year entitled ‘Of Men and Galaxies’, he expressed his own conviction about the present stage of the human condition…

‘Who then is in the driver’s seat? If not Governments, if not Scientists, who? Nobody…  Of course we do possess a far greater measure of control over the physical environment, and even over ourselves, than our forebears ever did.  The big question is whether we possess sufficient control.  My own conviction is that today we are still being swept along by the tide of events like a canoe in the rapids.  But ideas change, and as we understand more about inanimate things and about ourselves the whole culture itself changes.  Possibilities arise that were not present before.  It is symptomatic of the present day that we are becoming aware of the rapids.’

Here perhaps you will allow me to make some general reflections on Government.  It has been one of the most extraordinary and most stimulating discoveries of my working life to find how in country after country a belief remains ever alive that human beings have some entitlement, some hope, some rational expectancy of good Government or at any rate Governments that will not land them again into the horrors that have been perpetrated in the past.  The weight of evidence is surely against this belief.  It persists, and as I go on this evening you will see that I too suffer from this incurable human optimism.  Before taking off in this direction I should add, while my feet are still somewhere near the ground, that Government, even when backed by good organization and run by devoted and enlightened men, is apt to be a very imprecise instrument in selecting the means to achieve its declared ends.  In making this comment I would of course draw no distinction between politicians and officials.  We are all in this together and in foreign affairs we are all playing for England in our different ways.  To be sure, the politicians usually grab the ball in the important matches and the officials find themselves scurrying around the out field.  But in our system this is part of elective and responsible Government and, home apart, one of the lessons of Eton for all its sons must be that in this country politicians and officials are not two different breeds of cat.

So far as war and peace are concerned there have been many forces to contend with.  The evolution of life in general, and the human race with it, is not a bloodless story.  The struggle for survival and the evolutionary process has taken place with tooth and claw and weapon.  Indeed it is only in this century that an increasing number of countries have come to the conclusion that the game is not worth the candle, and part of the trouble of our time has been that some have reached this point earlier than others.  Sir Winston Churchill caught the spirit of an earlier age when he wrote ‘Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.’ If you will permit a personal aside I would quote two sentences from an unknown work by a distant French member of my far-flung clan, Count Max Caccia, in his book Des Vertus Militaires published in Paris in 1846.  In the copy of this book which I now have, and which used to belong to Marshal Radetsky, I came on these sentiments: ‘La guerre est pour le soldat ce que le temps de moisson est pour le laboureur, son espoir and sa recompense.  La Paix c’est le temps des travaux, des privations, des humiliations.’ I do not believe he was a callous man.  He would certainly have considered himself a devout Christian.  So we should not forget the nature of man nor the novelty of the idea that war should no longer be a court of last appeal.

Against this background, what are our prospects as seen from the London end of the telescope in face of the two new and inescapable factors, the bomb and the population explosion, which now threaten peace and stability? Others may arise and we in Britain shall no doubt, in the future as in the past, allow a margin of manoeuvre for the unknown factor.  We may thus be exposed to the accusation made by ourselves or others of living from hand to mouth.  Maybe, but you will observe the word ‘living’.

Having made these allowances, to turn to the factors that we can already identify.  First the bomb.  This came half-way through my own time as a diplomat and it is no surprise that it has radically altered the conduct of affairs.  Up to the beginning of the last war it was possible for countries to think of war on something of a profit and loss basis.  Hitler could have argued that for the stake of one million men out of a population of 8o millions he might achieve the mastery of Europe.  The Japanese military in 1941 may have thought that for a similar investment they might win Asia.  In the initial phase they both went a long way towards success with a far lower casualty list than a million.

Contemplate the scene now.  No such calculation is conceivable.  A United States estimate has it that in an all-out nuclear exchange between Russia and America the United States might have to face casualties of the order of 150 million.  Since their capability is many times that of the Russians, it is an idle inquiry to try to calculate how many Russians might survive such a holocaust.  While Governments are trying to adjust themselves to this wholly new prospect we have had a stalemate of terror.  Will it last and what are the other consequences?

Because of the nature of man and on the evidence of past performance there can be no certainty in these things.  Yet even in the brief span since 1945 there are some straws in the wind which to my mind give grounds for that incurable optimism to which I earlier alluded.  You cannot prove a negative, that is that the bomb will not be used.  But you can already see the added caution which the bomb has brought in those areas where a clash might lead to fatal escalation.  In Europe, for instance, there has since 1945 been enough tinder lying around and enough temptation to provide the occasion for an outbreak, if we had been living in an era of conventional weapons.  This was particularly the case in Stalin’s time and during those years of Western weakness before the Atlantic Alliance got under way.  It has not happened, and within human calculation looks less and less likely.  There was the Cuban crisis in which the Soviet decided with great prudence and in broad daylight that it was better to turn Russian ships back hundreds of miles from the brink rather than to go anywhere near it.  There is the way in which the latest nuclear powers, France and China, speak of their reasons for the acquisition of the bomb.  In both cases their justification is purely defensive.  So far this may be no more than words.  Still, for what it is worth, and I would not dismiss this consideration, the more Governments know from their own experience what nuclear weapons are like, the less glibly they speak of their use and the more reluctant they are to be a party to their dissemination.

We, like the Russians and the Chinese, have, out of our relative poverty compared with the U.S.A., decided that we must be among those Powers who have these weapons.  There are many other pressing demands on our economies.  There are strict limits to what can be achieved by their possession.  But I cannot find our acts out of proportion.  Nor, short of general and complete disarmament, can I easily conceive that any Power who at present has this capability will find a worth-while bargain for trading it in, or will of its own free volition surrender it.  Above all I cannot regret that Her Majesty’s Government should be amongst those who have a voice of right, based on possession, in the nuclear debate.  From the United States we learned the phrase, ‘no taxation without representation’.  There is a counterpart to this; no representation without taxation.  In this case there is also a further compelling reason: those who do not have this weapon or do not keep up with its development will not be listened to, because they will not know what they are talking about.

We cannot, of course, be sure that our views will always be acceptable to others on nuclear matters.  Nor can they.  But they, like we, are interested in survival, and this is an argument about the means of survival rather than threats of annihilation.  In all this I find the attitude of the British Government constant, and fully in line with anything that could have been expected by argument a priori.

To turn to the population explosion, a phrase to try to bring into the focus of our imagination that the human race is currently doubling its numbers every thirty-five years.  The population now is estimated to be of the order of 3,ooo million and on this calcula tion will be over 6,ooo million by the end of the century.  Mean while food production is not increasing as fast as the population.  We can already see that the hard core of the problem will lie in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, and the figures have recently been set out in all their starkness by U.S.  News and World Report.  They are broken down in this way.  Latin America’s population may in the next thirty-five years increase no less than 157 per cent., from 245 million to 630 million, and even now Latin America as a whole is compelled to import food to feed its own people.  Asia, which already has 55 per cent, of the world population, is expected to show a rise of 80 per cent., going up from 1,800 million now to 3,400 million in the year 2000.  Here again is an area that must import food to live.  Africa is expected to have a population growth of 151 per cent in the remainder of this cen tury and faces the problem of feeding 466 added millions by 2000.  On the basis of such figures it follows that Communist countries, including China, will have to deal with a smaller explosion than non-Communist countries, that is of the order of 49 per cent, as against 98 per cent, in the non-Communist world.  This means that the places of greatest instability on this score are in all probability going to be in areas not now Communist.

What can we do about this? The answer must be precious little on our own account alone.  We have not got in this country the resources to resolve the issue either by the transfer of our own agricultural surpluses or by the use of our capital to finance any significant purchase of supplies wherever there may be any surplus.  We can only join with others in helping to see that what can be done, should be done.  As in the case of the bomb, we shall not have an overriding voice.  But the problem is of such dimension that no single other country, not even the United States, can take this on single-handed.  If we run our own economy successfully, and have some capital to deploy, we may retain through aid, investment, and experts a degree of influence.  This degree may turn out to be greater than we should be allotted on a strict calculation of weight and size.  Once again this would be in line with the constant pattern of our past.  To be sure, we must become solvent if we want to have influence.  Aid and investment depend on this, and other countries rightly consider solvency a touch stone.  Many of them know as well, if not better, than we what a stiff test of Government it is to run a country like ours with so large a population, so many commitments, and so few resources.  They will watch this in the future as they have in the past.  Beggars cannot be choosers, nor expect others to listen to advice while borrowing their money to remain afloat.

What else is predictable about us? First and foremost I should say that we will stay a world-wide Power.  This as much from economic necessity as from geographic compulsion.  We must trade everywhere to survive; Europe is not enough, nor is it the continent where instability may deter trade.  Above all I cannot see us doing anything that might be construed as abandoning the Commonwealth old or new.  On these counts alone I doubt if the recurrent argument will prevail that because we spend more than some think we ought on defence, we should fall back on Europe.  Of course if there were other reliable means to take the place of such stability as our military presence in changing forms has and does provide east of Suez, it might be a work of supererogation for us to add our bit.  But that is not yet the case, and until it is I should question whether any Government in this country—and no matter what has been said to the contrary by individuals when responsibility does not rest with them—will in the foreseeable future abandon the threatened areas for what is now by comparison the safe haven of Europe.

This does not mean that we should not want to join the part of Europe represented by the Common Market if opportunity offers.  We might then even have a better chance of getting them to work out with us and others some more equitable scheme for sharing the cost for law and order and food in the more exposed continents.  But here again, and despite what those who do not hold present responsibility may say, I cannot see any British Government accepting anything tantamount to unconditional surrender to the Common Market.  Per contra if the prospects were reasonable and compatible with the other calls on us, I equally cannot think that any British Government would be likely to spurn the chance.

To conclude.  My theme is that we have by economic necessity and national temper, an attitude, an approach to foreign affairs which is constant and predictable.  It cannot with any credibility be forced into the straight-jacket of a role.  We should soon and rightly escape from that.  It is all much simpler, and has been succinctly put by Lord Palmerston: ‘If’, he said, ‘I might be allowed to express in one sentence what I think ought to guide any English Minister I would adopt the expression of Canning and say that with every British Minister the interests of England ought to be the shibboleth of his policy.’ I do not think that this will alter, for our abiding interests are based on the economic structure of our island and on our resulting needs and character.  Despite the richness of our diversity we are, in this political sense, one people; a grumbling, disputatious people maybe, with a passion nowadays for running ourselves down and for equality at any price.  But whatever we may say about ourselves, or others say of us, what ever the brain and tax and climate drain may be, and however precarious our economy will of its nature remain, let no foreigner be misled—we are one also in this; that the vast majority of us would not change our birthright for all the gold in China, or should we now say in Fort Knox or in the Banque de France.

So despite all the loss and sorrow and suffering of the years between 1929 and 1965, I have nothing but thankfulness that it has been my lot to give the service of my life to successive Governments who in their days and in their ways have defended the interests of England.

© The Ditchley Foundation, 1965.  All rights reserved.  Queries concerning permission to translate or reprint should be addressed to the Communications Officer, The Ditchley Foundation, Ditchley Park, Enstone, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire OX7 4ER, England.