[FOUNTAIN]Centuries ago, Europe had its own‘balancer’Napoleon found asylum on the British-ruled island of Saint Helena because he had asked the British government for personal protection. Defeated at Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon was contemplating his next move, and decided that England would be more generous to him than any of the other European countries. He was relying on the British diplomatic philosophy of “splendid isolation.”
This state of “splendid isolation,” which 19th-century British took pride in as a “graceful and glorious” tradition, essentially meant playing the role of a balancer in Europe. This was not the unintentional, passive isolation that results from being ignored by one’s neighbors, nor was it an exclusionist shutdown of communications. It was an active diplomatic strategy, aimed at keeping the powerful from having too much influence and at helping smaller, weaker nations survive.
Accordingly, the British backed France in the post-war negotiations, even though the British had played a key role in ending Napoleon’s domination of the continent. While Russia and Prussia were blinded by their desire for territory and for postwar compensation, Britain had its eye on the bigger picture: the balance of power in Europe. As the wealthiest nation of the time, with its empire on which “the sun never set,” Britain was neither obsessed with money nor interested in acquiring European territory.
Britain’s “splendid isolation” began in earnest in 1805, when its navy defeated the combined French and Spanish fleet at the battle of Trafalgar. To safeguard its position as a balancer, England needed hegemonic military power. Foreign Minister Viscount Palmerston always began negotiations by mentioning the courage and patriotism of Admiral Horatio Nelson, which was meant to signal Britain’s willingness to use military force if necessary. Minister Palmerston famously said, “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”
Britain’s splendid isolation ended with the 19th century. As a balance keeper, Britain failed to check the rapid emergence of Prussia, which would lead to the First World War. In the 20th century, the United States became the hegemonic power. Some impetuous observers predict that the hegemony of the 21st century will be China’s. With Japan trying to dominate the region as a U.S. proxy, tension in East Asia is inevitable. In international politics, with no eternal allies and no perpetual enemies, it is hard to be a balancing force without power.
by Oh Byung-sang
The writer is the JoongAng Ilbo’s London correspondent.