Crossroads of Conflict: Central Asia and the European Continental Balance of Power

By McDaniel, Cadra P. | The Historian, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Crossroads of Conflict: Central Asia and the European Continental Balance of Power


McDaniel, Cadra P., The Historian


IN THE FINAL DECADES before the outbreak of the First World War, Russian and German aspirations clashed with British efforts to preserve their empire and maintain the European balance of power. Assessing the Russian menace to the empire, British officials reasoned that Russian military advancements in Central Asia and economic agreements with the Shah of Persia demonstrated Russia's efforts to extend its historic influence. The British determined that these actions significantly threatened Great Britain's Central Asian holdings, especially India; therefore, British statesmen concluded that the most promising solution to ease strained relations was an Anglo-Russian agreement that clearly defined the British and Russian Central Asian spheres of influence.

While Anglo-Russian relations were strained, the British election of 1906 resulted in the appointment of new British ambassadors and officials within the Foreign Office who focused on the tense nature of Anglo-German relations. Prompted by the German official stated objective of building a navy capable of combating British control of the seas, these British diplomats regarded Germany's challenge as a direct menace to British naval supremacy and the British Empire. Should Great Britain lose control of the seas, she would not be able to guard her overseas possessions effectively. Therefore, both Russian territorial ambitions and German naval designs threatened the British Empire.

British leaders sought a diplomatic solution to overcome these Russian and German challenges. British diplomats determined that the proposed Anglo-Russian Agreement would serve two purposes: countering Russian designs in Central Asia as well as checking Germany's hegemonic naval designs and rising power on the European continent. Thus, the analysis of the agreement's dual purpose intends to demonstrate that the British statesmen who concluded the agreement understood it not as an exclusive Central Asian agreement, but as a means to maintain stability in both Asia and Europe and ensure the defense of Great Britain and the British Empire.

Historiographically, studies regarding the agreement's purpose divide into three schools of thought. One contingent of scholars maintains that the agreement intended solely to combat Russian actions in Central Asia and that European matters did not constitute the main impetus for the agreement. Instead, British statesmen, fueled by the fear of Russia's historic and more recent Central Asian endeavors, worked toward reaching an agreement. (1) Conversely, other researchers have concluded that the 1907 agreement served primarily to thwart German ambitions in Europe. The fear of Germany's growing power motivated British statesmen to conclude an agreement with the Russians. Though the agreement encompassed Central Asian affairs, the statesmen conceived of the agreement as a means to complete a series of accords aimed at maintaining the European balance of power. (2) A third group of researchers notes that the agreement actually served two purposes. These scholars argue that the British statesmen originally understood the agreement as a check on Russian ambitions, and, later, under the perception of a rising German threat, British officials recognized the agreement's potential to support the European status quo. (3) Although this paper relies on the research from the three historiographical trends, the author's interpretation of the 1907 agreement agrees with the third group of scholars. In making its case, this paper relies extensively on correspondence between the leading British statesmen. It provides insight into their perceptions of the German and Russian threats. In a detailed analysis of these sources, the paper demonstrates that leading British officials recognized that the agreement served the dual purpose of checking Russian and German designs.

A brief history of Russia's Central Asian and Trans-Caucasian expansion provides a framework for understanding Russian territorial ambitions and Great Britain's response around 1900. …

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