Phillips Payson O'Brien
International relations in the twentieth century were defined by alliances. The groupings of various nations into different alliances determined the outcomes of the three great crises that framed the century. The Entente and Central Powers battled for the control of Europe in the First World War, while the Axis and Allies brutalized each other in their attempts to establish global dominance. The fact that the Cold War did not result in a cataclysmic conflict was in many ways because one of its two main alliances, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, proved far more resilient and committed than the other, the Warsaw Pact. By the standards of NATO or the Axis Powers, the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902-1922 seems rather small beer. Yet, while it did not decide the result of a global confrontation, it did play an important role in shaping the behaviour of its two signatories during an extremely fraught period.
The Anglo-Japanese Alliance was important both for reasons of style and substance. For both signatories, the single fact that they agreed to act as allies seemed to mark public shifts in their global position. For most of the nineteenth century the British had openly espoused a policy that, while perhaps not as grand as the phrase 'Splendid Isolation' would imply, indicated that the British Empire would provide for its security without a formal reliance on any other significant power. Now, however, the British government was admitting that the cost of maintaining forces, particularly naval, around the globe capable of protecting every element of the empire was no longer feasible. For the Japanese the public recognition of their strategic importance that the Alliance seemed to bestow can be seen as an important watershed in their growth as world power. Less than a half century before the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, Japan was a land closed to the outside world, with no 'modern' armed forces to speak of. Even twenty years before the Alliance was signed the Japanese Navy was an irrelevance on the world's oceans. Now, Japan was being asked by the world's most important power to provide security for some of its most important imperial components. While we must be careful not to overstate the importance of these symbolic changes - Britain was certainly not in dramatic decline as a world force and Japan was not the equal of a fully industrialized and modern world power - the psychological impact of the agreement was real.