Germany’s authoritarian regime also inflamed British anxieties by limiting access opportunities. ‘Access is shorthand for intervening in another state’s decision-making processand can take the form of lobbying officials, playing off rival bureaucracies, or cultivating influential societal groups that in turn pressure the government. Because Germany’s political system centralized authority, only one point of access existed: the Kaiser. This point of access was unfriendly. As one British diplomat serving in Berlin put it: ‘the Emperor and his people are actuated by feelings of hostility against England which are only limited by the German regard for law and by the practical fear of reprisals…’ With the Reichstag and other domestic actors inside Germany deprived of real authority, the British had nowhere else to turn for access, and thus, little prospect of shaping Germany’s future course.
Mistrust begets rivalry. Great Britain, fearing Germany’s intentions, took steps to hedge against its rise. Germany countered, a maritime arms race ensued, and the two countries started down the long road leading to the catastrophic violence of World War I.
The ascendance of the United States followed a different path. Institutions underpinning US democracy—rule of law and transparent governance—reassured Britain that the rising power of the Western Hemisphere posed little threat. Ultimately, the US political system reduced British fear of policy surprises. Because Congress played a critical role in foreign policy, and its deliberations were public and reported in the press, the British could readily discern the US position on the leading issues of the day. In addition, through reading newspapers, the British could monitor the outlook of a key domestic actor—the American public. The British therefore had sufficient information to trace changes in US foreign policy before they were manifested outwardly. In essence, the nature of the United States’ democratic regime made it predictable.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The transparency that accompanied a free press also forestalled the growth of British mistrust. US actions that at face value appeared to signal enmity could be contextualized. A good example of this dynamic was the British perception of President Grover Cleveland’s threat to delineate the Venezuela boundary by force. Surveying the US political landscape in late 1895, British observers could readily determine that the Democratic Party faced an uphill struggle in the coming presidential elections. The pressure to pander to Anglophobe sentiment was clearly evident. Accordingly, the British were able to interpret Cleveland’s public ultimatum for what it was—an ‘electioneering dodge’ in Lord Salisbury’s words—rather than take it as a sign of real antagonism. Transparency similarly prevented US posturing on the Panama Canal and the Alaskan border from fuelling British mistrust.
Also, domestic US institutions reassured the British by creating myriad opportunities for access. In the decentralized political system of the United States, foreign policy was the purview of executive branch officials, members of Congress, the media, the business community, and even the public at large. This presented the British with numerous groups to lobby, manipulate, and cultivate. They consciously fostered an ‘English faction’ in New York and Washington, and established close personal ties with US counterparts. This translated into unparalleled access; British diplomats regularly hobnobbed with senators and cabinet members. The results were more than social: the British could actually shape an ascendant United States’ foreign policy. A case in point was the Open Door notes, which were essentially spoon-fed to US Secretary of State John Hay by his British friends.