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261
N. Chamberlain to Ida, his sister, 23 Jul 1939, Chamberlain Papers, NC 18/1/1108.
Chamberlain as Buridan™s ass 317

and concepts of national destiny. Nor did Soviet Russia find Chamber-
lain™s policy, which appeared to it to be both weak and potentially
injurious to itself, appealing. Chamberlain was unwilling, in the last
resort, to tolerate Germany and Japan™s aggressions, but he was not
willing to ally with the Soviets to oppose them “ at least not on Soviet
terms. Like Buridan™s famous ass, Chamberlain found himself immobil-
ized between two equally, here unappealing, choices. The choice was
made for him when the German troops marched into Poland. Soviet
Russia, too, had made its decision. The future of Anglo-Soviet relations
would be determined by it.
Conclusion




The inter-war period was above all a period of transition in British
strategic foreign policy. Great Britain was caught between nineteenth-
century concepts of the balance of power, the experimentation that was
collective security and old-fashioned alliance diplomacy. The impact of
Soviet Russia on this transition was algebraic: the country was a factor in
the equation of British strategic foreign policy generally, but it was rarely
the dominant one. Soviet Russia™s isolation from world affairs for much
of the period meant that it remained a looming presence on the periph-
ery of British thinking about how to maintain the new world order that
emerged after 1919. However, it was a significant periphery. Soviet
Russia both threatened the status quo and acted “ at least potentially
and on occasion “ as one of its guardians. This gave Soviet Russia a dual
role in British thinking. The ideological menace of communism im-
perilled the British Empire and, to a lesser extent, even Britain itself,
but the military might of Soviet Russia acted as a possible deterrent to
both Nazi Germany™s and militarist Japan™s expansion.
This book has endeavoured to do two things. Its primary aim has been
to examine British strategic foreign policy. That goal has been pursued by
means of using Britain™s interactions with Soviet Russia as a case study
for the entire topic “ to provide the ˜bore-hole™ into British policy. While
Britain, Soviet Russia and the Collapse of the Versailles Order, 1919“1939 is
not a study of Anglo-Soviet relations as such, they are the red thread
that ties the book together. Nowhere is this more apparent than when
discussing the impact of ideology on British policy.
Resolving this matter turns on a key consideration: was Soviet Russian
(for most of the period, this means Stalinist) foreign policy based on
Realpolitik or communist ideology? This topic is a minefield, and one
that is only in part a historical topic. The competing interpretations “ the
ideological Cold War (also called the ˜German™) school and the Realpoli-
tik or ˜realist™ school “ are set as firmly in contemporary concerns as they
are in the historical events of the 1920s and 1930s. The two sobriquets,
˜Cold War™ and ˜German™, make evident the ˜presentist™ concerns

318
Conclusion 319

involved. For the Cold War camp, Soviet Russia™s policy before 1939
needs to be considered as a prelude to the events after 1945. Thus, given
the fact that during and after the Second World War the Red Army over-
ran, occupied and remained in much of eastern Europe, Stalin™s policy
before the Second World War “ particularly the Nazi“Soviet Pact “ must
be seen as a precursor to these events. This serves two purposes. It
provides a retrospective justification for Western, particularly American,
policy after 1945 and frees it from any charge that it was Western actions
that shattered the wartime Grand Coalition of Britain, Soviet Russia and
the United States and caused the Cold War.1
The ˜German™ variant is similarly rooted in ˜presentist™ concerns. By
portraying Soviet Russia as an inherently aggressive, expansionist power
that continually threatened all of Europe, such accounts do a number of
things. First, they allow the argument that Stalin pursued a duplicitous
policy during the alliance negotiations with the West in 1939 as he had
always intended to sign an agreement with Germany.2 This is a historical
point. But they also act to rehabilitate Hitler and the Nazis, who can be
portrayed as valiant and righteous, if somewhat premature and imper-
fect, defenders of Western civilization.
In a related fashion, realist interpretations are also inspired by ˜pre-
sentist™ concerns. This results from the fact that, if the wind is to be
taken out of the sails of the ˜German™ school, then it is essential to
present Stalin as a Soviet Machiavelli “ at whatever cost to the historical
facts “ rather than as a communist Tweedledee to Hitler™s Nazi Twee-
dledum. Thus, Stalin cannot be seen as motivated by any thoughts of
communism. Instead he needs to be seen as inspired only by a steely
Realpolitik worthy of a Bismarck. However, such an approach makes a
true understanding of both Anglo-Soviet relations and the Soviet impact
on British strategic foreign policy just as impossible as does the Cold War
approach. For this reason, it is necessary to demonstrate why it is wrong.
There can be little doubt that Stalin was a communist and that his
actions were shaped by this fact.3 First, there is the simple historical

1
In passing, it should be noted that the arguments in this book suggest that the British
Cold War began as early as 1917, and that the Anglo-Soviet co-operation during the
Grand Alliance of 1941“5 was an aberration. For useful discussion of the dating of
the Cold War, see Gabriel Gorodetsky, ˜The Origins of the Cold War: Stalin, Churchill
and the Formation of the Grand Alliance™, RR, 47 (1988), 145“70; D. Cameron Watt,
˜Britain, the United States and the Opening of the Cold War™, in Ritchie Ovendale, ed.,
The Foreign Policy of the British Labour Governments, 1945“1951 (Leicester, 1984), 43“60.
2
For a discussion, see Geoffrey Roberts, ˜On Soviet“German Relations: The Debate
Continues “ A Review Article™, E“AS, 50, 8 (1998), 1471“5.
3
See Geoffrey Swain, ˜Stalin™s Wartime Vision of the Postwar World™, D&S, 7, 1 (1996),
73“96, for an exposition of how this fact affected Stalin™s perceptions and policies.
320 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order

record of Stalin™s life as a revolutionary, something that needs little
emphasis.4 However, there is a second point: Stalin™s own concern with
ideology. Since communism was a movement inspired by and based
on political theory, ideological debate was the currency of power in the
Bolshevik Party™s economy. All aspirants to authority and power in
the party™s hierarchy had to demonstrate their prowess in the theoretical
discussions that were at the centre of all policy making. Stalin was
no exception. For example, in 1925 he engaged a special tutor, the
Bolshevik professor Jan Stein, to help him improve his understanding
of the mysteries of the dialectic. Stalin proved a weak student, but took
his revenge by having Stein executed in 1937 as a ˜theoretical “lickspittle
of Trotsky”™.5 While Stalin™s action was typical of the man, the fact that
he took lessons in political philosophy, that he could not permit anyone
who realized his theoretical failings to live, and the wording of his
denunciation of Stein all underline the importance of political theory
both in Soviet politics and for the Soviet leader™s career.
It could be argued that Stalin™s study of Marxism was merely the ploy
of an ambitious man who saw that such an endeavour was necessary to
advance his own prospects. While plausible, such a contention has two
interconnected defects. The first involves the nature of language. The
search for something™s ˜real™ or ˜deeper™ meaning outside its intellectual
framework is at best a dubious and unhistorical process.6 Language both
determines meaning and is in turn determined by its own intellectual
(here ideological) matrix. In the study of intellectual history, then, it is
impossible, with any certainty, to search for meaning beyond the bounds
of that determining framework.7 In short, what can be said and what can
be meant are circumscribed by the vocabulary of a particular ideology.
Thus, to argue that, even though Stalin couched his discussions of

4
For Stalin™s early life, see Robert C. Tucker, Stalin as Revolutionary, 1879“1929. A Study
in History and Personality (New York, 1973).
5
Dmitri Volkogonov, Stalin. Triumph and Tragedy (Rocklin, CA, 1992), 230“1, quotation
from 231.
6
For a salutary warning about this and an introduction to the issues, see C. Wright Mills,
˜Situated Actions and Vocabularies of Motives™, in Irving Lewis Horowitz, ed., C. Wright
Mills. Power, Politics and People: The Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills (New York, 1963),
439“52. I would like to thank Dr Arnd Bohm for drawing this article to my attention and
for his valuable discussion of the topic.
7
For some insights, see Quentin Skinner, ˜Motives, Intentions and the Interpretation
of Texts™, New Literary History, 3 (1972), 393“408; Skinner, ˜Some Problems in
the Analysis of Political Thought and Action™, Political Theory, 2, 3 (1974), 277“303;
Skinnner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, vol. I, The Renaissance (Cambridge,
1978), ix“xv; J. G. A. Pocock, ˜Languages and Their Implications: The Transformation of
the Study of Political Thought™, in J. G.A. Pocock, Politics, Language and Time. Essays on
Political Thought and History (New York, 1973), 3“41.
Conclusion 321

foreign policy (both publicly and privately) in Marxist terms, they had no
intrinsic, Marxist meaning and can be ˜better™ explained in some other
framework, is at best pure supposition and at worst misleading.8
The second flaw is to argue that Stalin™s policy is explicable only in
terms of Realpolitik. To use Occam™s razor to pare away the simplest
explanation for Stalin™s policy “ that it was communist in nature “ is a
misuse of that invaluable tool. In fact, to make such an argument at
all is to have both a limited view of communism and an incomplete
understanding of how ideological beliefs affect decision making. Basic
Marxism “ and Stalin™s understanding of Marxism never went much
beyond this “ presupposes a number of things, including that no long-
term accommodation between capitalism and socialism is possible. As a
communist, Stalin™s perceptions of the world were shaped by such
beliefs. He thus naturally believed “ and Soviet experiences in the period
from 1917 to 1920 would have reinforced this conviction “ that Soviet
Russia was surrounded by rapacious capitalist states of various (fascist,
Nazi, Japanese militarist, bourgeois liberal) stripes.
What was to be done? The answer comes from the fact that Marxism,
at least in its Leninist incarnation, posits that the inevitable contradic-
tions in capitalism will result in what might be called the ˜capitalist
thieves™ falling out among themselves. Thus Stalin believed that he
would always, in the last resort, be able to make a deal with one or some
of them, following on Lenin™s dictum that the last capitalist would sell
the rope with which to hang himself. As a communist, therefore, Stalin
could pursue a policy indistinguishable, but quite different both in its
inspiration and in its ultimate goals, from that pursued by any Realpoli-
tiker. In short, communism shaped Stalin™s decisions and ultimately
limited his range of options, but it was a doctrine sufficiently broad
enough to allow him to pursue a number of possible courses.
If, then, Stalin was a communist (but not with the implications that
the Cold Warriors posit), what does this mean for Anglo-Soviet relations
and the Soviet impact on British strategic foreign policy? First, it sug-
gests that those, like Vansittart and Collier, who advocated collaboration
with Soviet Russia against the revisionist Powers were correct in their
assessment that such a course of action was possible despite Stalin™s
ideological orientation. Second, and conversely, it also underlines the
difficulties of such a collaboration. The fact that Soviet foreign policy

8
For clear evidence that Stalin framed his foreign policy discussions in Marxist ideology
even in private correspondence, see, for example, Stalin to Molotov, 29 Aug 1929, in
Lars T. Lih, Oleg V. Naumov and Oleg V. Khlevniuk, eds., Stalin™s Letters to Molotov
(New Haven and London, 1995), 174“6.
322 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order

was communist and essentially hostile to British interests explains why
many, like Sargent and O™Malley, were chary of treating with Moscow,
for they believed that Stalin both wished to sow discord in the West and
to fish in muddy waters for his own advantage. Third, in a related
fashion, it cuts the ground from under those who wish to argue that
the British should have accepted Soviet offers of co-operation uncritic-
ally and that any refusal to do so resulted solely from British ideological
prejudice.9 Finally, it helps to explain why there was a fundamental
difference between the two states in their approach to international
affairs.
To appreciate this latter point necessitates a consideration of the
differing views of power in British and Soviet constructions of the
international order. Since class struggle was a fundamental part of
Marxism, power necessarily underpinned all Soviet thinking about this
topic. This contrasted with much of British thinking. In the inter-war
period, under all governments, British policy was essentially liberal, in
both its conservative and internationalist variants. One of the essential
beliefs in this system, going back to those stalwarts of British liberalism,
Richard Cobden and John Bright, was that free trade and universal
peace were indissolubly linked. Given this, any use of armed force was
an indication that the proper order of things had collapsed. In such a
system, there was no room for what Bright termed the ˜foul idol™ of the
balance of power.10
This religious imagery, with its moral undertones, found its reflection
in British meditations after the Great War about how to maintain the
international order. For example, in a discussion of the impending
Russo-German Treaty of Berlin, one member of the Northern Depart-
ment wrote that ˜the hairy heel of the old “balance of power” theory™ was
at the bottom of the agreement.11 The use of power was somewhat
sinful, something best avoided. Co-operation between Britain and Soviet
Russia was hampered by their sharply different ideological assumptions
about power. Both in the functioning of collective security and in the
alliance negotiations of 1939, these differing assumptions were a barrier
to any true Anglo-Soviet understanding. The Soviets saw all such

9
The argument of Michael Jabara Carley, 1939. The Alliance That Never Was and the
Coming of World War II (Chicago, 1999).
10
See Michael Howard, War and the Liberal Conscience (London, 1978), 41“51; Richard F.
Hamilton, ˜On the Origins of the Catastrophe™, in Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H.
Herwig, eds., The Origins of World War I (Cambridge and New York, 2003), 469“506,
esp. 500“1.
11
The minute (14 Apr) by Maxse, on D™Abernon (ambassador, Berlin) to FO, disp 196, 8
Apr 1926, FO 371/11791/N1617/718/38.
Conclusion 323

discussions in terms of power; the British ˜liberal conscience™, to use
Michael Howard™s felicitous phrase, shrank from power as a return to
the discredited values that had led “ and would necessarily lead again “
to war. The ˜foul idol™ was not to be worshipped.
Other aspects of power also need to be considered carefully. In gen-
eral, any analysis of British strategic foreign policy should avoid any
discussion of whether Britain was still the world™s foremost power,
whether there was any ˜transition™ in which Britain was superseded as
the global hegemon and whether Britain was in the midst of the inevit-
able ˜fall™ presupposed by a paradigm of cyclical ˜rise and fall™.12 Such
discussions, while interesting in themselves, are more artificial debates
among historians than ones likely to provide any insight into the realities
of British policy in any particular instance. The essential point about
power when considering strategic foreign policy is not just how strong
Britain was, but whether its power “ both ˜hard™ and ˜soft™ “ was sufficient
to enable it to achieve its aims.13
In the 1930s, Britain discovered, in both the Manchurian and Abyssi-
nian episodes, that no combination of its ˜soft™ power “ moral suasion,
the leadership of the League, public opinion, an appeal to liberal inter-
nationalist norms “ and its ˜hard™ power “ the traditional accoutrements
of Great Power status such as military force and financial and economic

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