Pivotal Deterrence and the Chain Gang:
SIR EDWARD GREY'S AMBIGUOUS
POLICY AND THE JULY CRISIS, 1914
We can now snap our fingers both at the Triple Alliance and at France and Russia.
William Tyrell, Personal Secretary to Sir Edward Grey, April 1913
Our action is held in suspense, for if both sides do not know what we shall do, both will be less willing to run risks.
Herbert Samuel, British Cabinet member, July 1914
History looks unkindly upon British policy in July 1914. As the crisis in Europe escalated, Britain “muddied the European scene” by avoiding firm commitments to either fight with France and Russia or stand aside. 1 Instead it tried to play the pivot and broker a peace-saving compromise. British policy was roundly condemned at the time, and still is today. The policy of Sir Edward Grey, Britain's foreign minister, is seen as the archetype of waffling and reactive diplomacy. While Grey temporized, so the argument goes, the Continental powers careened headlong into war, both sides betting that in the end Britain would help rather than hurt them. Many of these criticisms came from statesmen at the time who were deeply implicated in the outbreak of war and eager to shift blame. German leaders argued that Britain caused the war by failing to declare that it would remain neutral. French and Russian leaders argued that Britain caused the war because it did not firmly commit to them at the outset of the crisis. 2 By their nature, such arguments attributed a great deal of causal significance to British policy; they had to if they were to exculpate those who made them.