Great Game: The Partition of Persia
BRITAIN PAYS THE PRICE OF FRIENDSHIP WITH RUSSIA
From The Spectator August 2nd 1913
LONDON — Certain tendencies in foreign politics fraught with great danger to this country made our statesmen come to the conclusion that we must arrive at an understanding with France, an understanding which the French people for reasons of their own were most anxious should be reached. This understanding led us to the further conclusion that it would be equally beneficial for us and Russia also to come to an understanding. Accordingly we shaped our general foreign policy in such a way as to form a substantial basis for friendship with those two Powers, and so created the Triple Entente.
That the Triple Entente has been beneficial to us and to the peace of the world, which after all is always the greatest of British interests, cannot be doubted for a moment. But by the very nature of things, an understanding so useful to this country could not be accomplished without some sacrifices on our part. There is a price for everything, and there was therefore a price, though we personally do not think it was a very heavy one, to be paid for our understanding with Russia. That price was the Anglo-Russian agreement, under which, instead of holding Russia off Persia at the bayonet’s point, we divided Persia into a northern sphere of influence for Russia, a southern sphere of influence for ourselves, and a neutral zone in which it was hoped against hope that a Persian independent buffer kingdom might be maintained.
Russia, very naturally from her point of view, we might almost say inevitably, has taken advantage of the agreement to make her sphere of influence in the north of Persia a reality. She has to a great extent got rid of the brigandage and anarchy within that sphere, but to do so has required the presence of a large number of Russian troops, and it is almost as certain as anything can be that those troops will never retire. We say this not out of a cynical belief that Russians never do retire from any place where they have once planted their flag, but from our own experience.
If a building is thoroughly rotten and you place beams under it to support it, you can never take away those beams unless you substitute for them a stone wall. If you do, the building will fall. So with an effete monarchy like that of Persia. Occupation by a European Power of any part of the territory always tends to become permanent. Everybody with any experience of Asian affairs must have known that this would be the result of the “spheres of influence” policy, It is true that we have not occupied our southern sphere of influence, but the only result has been that that sphere is hopelessly given up to anarchy. Further, there seems little chance that the buffer State or neutral zone can be maintained for much longer in a condition of independence. In all probability, though neither Russia nor Britain will really be anxious to do so, the buffer State will have to be divided, and partition, which everybody desires to avoid, will become, under some alias or other, an
accomplished fact. No doubt it may be wise to postpone this culmination for as long as possible, but that it will come sooner or later cannot be doubted.
For ourselves, we must say that we look with no particular dread or horror upon a friendly partition of Persia between Russia and England. In the first place, the degeneracy of the Persian nation makes it impossible for us to believe that an independent government can ever be restored. But if this is impossible the only ultimate solution is partition, for it is idle to suppose that Russia, which has been in intimate touch with Persia ever since the time of Peter the Great — fifty or sixty years before the East India Company got into political touch with Persia — could possibly stand by and let us turn Persia into another Egypt.
Further, we cannot share the alarm which is felt by so many people here and in India at the prospect of Russia and Britain possessing conterminous frontiers. We do not believe that Russia has any serious or thought-out design for conquering India, or if she has, that such design would be stimulated in any essential fashion by the partition of Persia. But, it will be said, if anything in the nature of partition takes place the Russians will push on their railways, we shall be bound to meet them, before long Russian and Indian railways will actually be linked up, and thus Russia will have an easy road into India.
The answer to this alleged railway danger is that in these days the laying of desert railways is not in any case a difficult matter. If Russia decides to attempt the invasion of India, the fact that she will have four hundred or five hundred miles of desert railway laid instead of requiring to be laid will not turn the scale in her favour. Though our local resources in Egypt were small, or at any rate very small compared to those of Russia on the Caspian, we found no great difficulty in laying the railway to Khartoum as we advanced.
But perhaps it will be said this is not the real danger. The real danger is that under partition Russia will get a hold upon the Persian Gulf, and that then all will be lost. We really cannot bring ourselves to accept this alarmist view. No doubt if we lose control of the sea generally, or even the local control of the Persian Gulf, and a Russian fleet superior to our fleet rides the waters of the Gulf, all will be lost, but the remedy for that is to see to it that our naval force in the Persian Gulf is always stronger than the naval force of any other Power. Sea power in the Gulf is the real protection of India, not quarrelling with Russia on a punctilio. We can protect ourselves in India in the last resort by ships, and ships alone. No doubt there are certain local pre- cautions at the mouth of the Persian Gulf which can and ought to be taken, but there is not the slightest reason to suppose that we shall be in danger if we are in earnest in taking those precautions.
We shall probably have left those of our readers who are suspicious of Russia, or who look at things purely from the Indian standpoint, quite unconvinced by what we have written. In that case we would ask them to consider the alternative. Do they really believe that if we quarrel with Russia about Persia, and so put an end to our understanding with her and make her once more occupy a position towards us of veiled hostility, that India will be safer than it is now? Of course India will not be. All we shall accomplish will be to make Russia come to the determination that we are a false and jealous Power with whom no dealings can be expected except on the principle of “heads I win, tails you lose”.
The breaking up of the understanding with Russia — and such breaking up must take place if in effect we are to say “hands off” to Russia as regards Persia — would inevitably produce the very evils which the repudiation of that agreement would be intended to guard against. Remember also that it would almost inevitably tend to throw Russia into the arms of Germany.
Of course some of our anti-Russian critics will say at once that we are indeed paying highly for our entente with France and our antagonism with Germany if the result of them is that we are to place India at the mercy of Russia and so risk our chief possession in Asia. Our answer is to repeat that we are not running any appreciable risk in India provided that we maintain our command of the sea. Everything always comes back to that. On the other hand, if we were to be so mad now as suddenly to alter our well-planned foreign policy and switch ourselves off from the Triple Entente and throw ourselves in with Germany, which is in effect what the anti-Russian grumblers are asking for, we should expose ourselves to the accusation of being the most perfidious Power in the world. Only those who forget all history can really ask us to do this.
Some ten years ago we were, as the lawyers say, put to our election in the matter of foreign policy. Things had reached a point where we were bound to choose the German side or the French side, and to accept the consequences that flowed from the choice. We chose the French side, as it was inevitable we should unless we had lost all our political sense and foresight.
We chose it, in the first place, because it was the policy which was most likely to secure the balance of power, and that supreme British interest, the peace of the world, for of course the balance of power is an instrument of peace not of war. We chose it in the second place because Germany was the aggressive Power, the Power “on the make”, the Power which desired, for good or evil, to disturb the status quo, the Power whose aspiration it was to obtain the hegemony of Europe.
We chose it finally because Germany challenged our command of the sea, that supremacy which we hold to be absolutely vital to our very existence. The Empire is a necklace of pearls, and sea power is the thread which holds the necklace together. Destroy the thread and the necklace is but a set of detached pearls for anyone to pick up and keep, and no longer an entity of its own. We made our choice, and we made it rightly.
But that choice involved certain consequences. One of them was a reasonable agreement with Russia — not a servile agreement, not anything in the nature of yielding to blackmail, but an agreement which demanded the abandonment of our old dog-in-the-manger policy. You cannot take a long step like that which we took in the formation of the Triple Entente without important consequences. You cannot enjoy the luxury of eating your cake and having it, or bring about the paradox of things being and not being at the same time.
The consequences of the Triple Entente are exhibited in Persia. For ourselves, we do not hold them to be terrible consequences, but to those who do we have only one concluding assertion to make. We believe that if they will honestly investigate that assertion they will be convinced. It is: Consider the only other possible courses. One is to haul down our flag and become the conscript ally of Germany, and the other is to stand apart, distrusted and condemned by every State in Europe, and thus expose ourselves to a general coalition for our destruction. Remember how many quarrels might be healed by the latter course. The destruction of the British Empire would mean plunder enough and “compensation” enough for anyone and everyone.