La moyenne puissance au XXème siècle

Recherche d’une définition










            Si l'impréparation militaire britannique pour une opération continentale contre l'Allemagne était notoire en 1938, elle ne relève pas du déclin de la puissance, mais d'une conjoncture : le Royaume-Uni était alors une Grande Puissance sur la défensive, gardant toutes les potentialités d'un déploiement économique et militaire offensif, comme le montrera, du reste, la guerre mondiale.

            En 1956, l'échec provient de la nature du conflit ; le Royaume-Uni n'est pas préparé pour une guerre rapide et limitée, mais pour une guerre du type de la dernière, longue et limitée, mais pour une guerre du type de la dernière, longue et lourde, et dont il a conservé une bonne partie de l'équipement logistique. La possession de la bombe atomique ne lui est pas d'un réel secours. Cette inadéquation n'est cependant pas plus qu'en 1938 un signe de déclin : pourtant, si la guerre de Suez n'était pas décidée pour le prestige mais pour la défense d'intérêts considérés comme vitaux (la voie du pétrole), elle montre néanmoins que le niveau de Grande Puissance historique est perdu et que le rang de Puissance Moyenne, disposant d'une marge d'initiative limitée, est devenu réalité pour le Royaume-Uni.




            Great powers in decline often turn into medium powers but there is nothing inevitable about the process. Despite diminishing resources and formidable external threats much depends on the responses of small groups of decision-makers. The study of British policy in two crises – Munich 1938 and Suez 1956 – illustrates the complexities of the issues and the danger of facile generalisation. Britain's capability for external intervention in 1938 was negligible. Unlike 1914 there was no substantial Field Force ready for continental warfare. After Hitler's Rhineland reoccupation in March 1936 Britain made her first peacetime military commitment to France, pledging two divisions, subject to the decision of the government of the day. But in 1938 the two divisions of the projected Field Force lacked essential equipment. From March to September 1938 the Chiefs of Staff did not waver in their opinion that no pressure that we or our possible allies can bring to bear, either by sea or land, or in the air, could prevent Germany from invading or overrunning Bohemia and from inflicting a decisive defeat on Czechoslovakia [2]. Demonstrably Britain was a great power on the defensive, her rulers all too conscious of world-wide commitments and over-stretched resources. Yet it would be wrong to conclude that Britain's inability to intervene in Europe was a necessary consequence of declining power. Not so. Diminishing power imposed a choice of priorities and produced a defence policy that excluded a continental commitment. However British governments could have decided otherwise and the provision of a Field Force in 1938 might have saved Britain and her main continental ally, France, from decline and defeat.

            Two preoccupations shaped British policy in 1938 : the desire to avoid a repetition of the First World War and the loss of British lives in France ; the determination to preserve Britain's world-wide interests in the face of mounting perils. The solution adopted was limited liability. It was agreed that Britain should give first priority to her home base, husbanding scarce resources to maintain economic stability. Only economic and financial strength, it was believed, would make prolonged resistance possible. The perils confronting ministers were daunting. By the mid-1930s the challenge of Nazi Germany and Japan was recognised. We cannot, wrote Neville Chamberlain, Chancellor of the Exchequer, in 1934, provide simultaneously for hostilities with Japan and Germany [3]. The Abyssinian conflict of 1935-36 added Italy to the number of potentially hostile states. By the summer of 1937 Italian submarines were attacking British and French ships trading with Spanish Republican ports. Japan's departure from the second London naval conference in 1936, followed by her attack on China in July 1937, increased the threat to British power in the Far East. There were limits to our resources both physical and financial, Chamberlain now prime minister told the Committee of Imperial Defence on 5 July 1937, and it was vain to contemplate fighting singlehanded the three strongest powers in combination [4]. Although there was as yet no military alliance between Germany, Japan and Italy, it was widely assumed at the time that the three would act together. Mussolini's visit to Berlin in September 1937 and his adhesion to the Anti-Comintern Pact seemed to set the seal on the Axis.

            Imperial defence was an added anxiety. Britain's main anxieties were Egypt, India and Palestine. After 1929 unrest in India tied down substantial forces. In the same year an Arab revolt against Jewish immigrants broke out in Palestine, then under British Mandate. The bulk of the Regular army was posted to Palestine. At the 1937 Imperial Conference an undertaking was given to New Zealand and Australia that in the event of a crisis a British fleet would be sent to the Far East. Since Britain did not have the naval strength to send fleets both to the Far East and to the Mediterranean it was argued that efforts must be made to reach agreement with Germany and Italy. Hopes that American help might be enlisted in stopping Japan were dashed by the failure of the Nine Power Brussels Conference on the Far East in November 1937. Over-stretched imperial defences induced caution and compromise in Europe. In 1938 a senior Foreign Office official defended Munich on the grounds that the risks of war were so much greater for Britain and France than for Germany : If we lose, the whole Empire gœs, if Germany loses, she can recover [5].

            What solutions did the Chamberlain cabinet envisage ? In the prime minister's view Britain's allies were no armour against the dictators. France was deemed politically and militarily unreliable. Though the French army was acknowledged the finest in Europe, Chamberlain and his advisors had serious misgivings about the French air force. The United States offered no salvation. The extension of the Neutrality Act in February 1936 confirmed American isolationism and made it impossible for the United States to supply arms even to League members combatting an aggressor. The dominions were more a hindrance than a help. Attempts to persuade them to share the burden of imperial defence failed. The 1937 Imperial Conference revealed Canadian and South African suspicions of European affairs. The one common factor in imperial foreign policy – recognition of the League – was destroyed. The Soviet Union was a potential ally, but Chamberlain was deeply suspicious of Stalin's motives. The aim of Soviet intervention in Spain, it was thought, was to stir up a general war in Europe. It was known that the purges had taken a heavy toll of the Soviet military leadership.

            Massive armaments were rejected on financial and political grounds. An arms race, it was held, would be self-defeating, acting not as a deterrent but as a cause of war. The assumption that war with Germany would be a long war made it seem axiomatic that financial reserves should be saved, not squandered on great armaments. In 1917 the United States had served as an arsenal for the two western democraties but the neutrality legislation of 1935-1936 meant that Britain and France would have to be self-supporting. For Chamberlain financial and economic strength was the fourth arm of defence. Nothing, Sir Thomas Inskip, minister for the coordination of defence, wrote in February 1938, operates more strongly to deter a political aggressor from attacking this country than our (economic) stability [6]. The government was haunted by the spectre of the financial and economic collapse of 1931. Revulsion from war re-inforced these arguments. Preparing a force for continental intervention seemed to invite a repetition of the senseless slaughter of 1914-1918.

            So much for official perceptions of Britain's world position. The situation was fraught with exceptional difficulty and menace yet the government's assessment of international perils and its choice of strategy can be criticised on several counts. The way in which the issues were perceived and tackled reflected a priori principles and choices. Pessimistic assessments were selected to justify a preconceived policy. Optimism about the prospects of detente with Germany and Italy contrasted with the gloomy opinions about Britain's principal allies, France and the United States. France certainly had her troubles but the Chamberlain cabinet's thinly veiled contempt and refusal to hold full staff talks strengthened the hand of those in France who wanted to withdraw from eastern Europe. Both countries had common ideals and interests. Full partnership might have solved their dilemmas. Anglo-French military co-operation, though exiguous before 1939, could produce decisive results. For example the Nyon Conference in September 1937 instituted joint Anglo-French destroyer patrols which soon stopped Italian submarines attacking ships trading whith Republican Spain. Indeed, Italy's strength was over-estimated in 1938. Much was made at the time of American isolationism but the progress in Anglo-American naval co-operation in 1938-1939 suggests that more might have been achieved.

            Chamberlain's intense distrust of the Soviet Union meant the cold-shouldering of what may have been genuine initiatives – for example the Soviet appeal in March 1938 for a four-power conference to consider measures against aggression. In conversations with French ministers British ministers stressed the lack of Dominion support for military intervention to stop Germany invading Czechoslovakia. Now although the Dominion high commissioners in London were almost wholly against a commitment for Czechoslovakia, it is significant that when the Dominions followed the same line in 1939 – only Australia supported the Polish guarantee – British policy was not deflected. In short Dominion attitudes were not a major contraint. Indeed Dominion opinion only confirmed Chamberlain on a course of action on which he had already decided [7]. Whether different handling would have won greater American and Soviet involvement is debatable but it is highly likely that different handling would have strengthened France and helped to save Czechoslovakia. On final point. Appeasement assumed that it was necessary to play for time because Britain was best fitted to wage a long war. However in July 1939 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir John Simon, told the Cabinet that the effect of rearmament on the balance of payments andon the level of taxation would be such that the war for which they were preparing would be lost before it began. Thus Simon sawed up one of the main planks of appeasement. The fact that by late 1940 the gold and dollar reserves were almost exhausted confirms the soundness of Simon's warning.

            The Anschluss should have prompted a reappraisal of the doctrine of limited liability since Czechoslovakia was obviously Hitler's next target. But the Chiefs of Staff assumed that nothing could be done to save Czechoslovakia. They advised against staff talks with France partly because they were afraid of being ensnared into a military alliance and partly because they were afraid of being ensnared into a military alliance and partly because they were reluctant to admit how little Britain could do by way of intervention. A maximum of only four divisions with considerable deficiencies of equipment was the most that could be envisaged by April 1939. But the idea of leaving the French in no doubt as to how little Britain could offer appealed to ministers and restricted staff talks were authorised.

            To sum up : Britain's inability to intervene in 1938 was the outcome of political choice, not military necessity. The prime minister had the army of his choice. As Chancellor from 1932-37 Chamberlain had done most to shape defence policy. He preached the importance of value for money by concentrating on air and sea power to make Britain an impregnable island fortress. With a secure home base Britain could intervene diplomatically to seek a modus vivendi with the dictators. Thus in 1938 the strategic factors received amazingly little attention : At no time during the crisis did either the Cabinet or the Chiefs of Staff try to draw up a balance sheet on… whether it was better to fight Germany in 1938 in order to gain the considerable asset of the Czech Army (35 well-equiped divisions and Air Force [8]. The government also ignored unpalatable advice. Witness its treatment of the reports of the British military attache in Prague, Brigadier Stronge. The Czech crisis revealed a sharp dichotomy between policy and strategy. Diplomatically Britain intervened vigorously in central Europe while seeking to avoid military intervention. But this semi-detached stance was a snare and delusion. Logically there were only two possible options-full commitment and delusion. Logically there were only two possible options-full commitment and military intervention or isolation.

            By contrast in 1956 the British government from the outset of the crisis decided to intervene by force to retake the Suez Canal. Again, however, Britain lacked the ability to intervene quickly. The governing factor in the outcome of events was military unpreparedness. Of course other elements contributed to the final failure – divided domestic opinion, hostile international opinion, Soviet threats, above all American pressure on the pound sterling – but these factors only came into play because Britain could not deliver a rapid riposte to President Nasser's seizure of the Canal. Nuri es-Said, prime minister of Iraq, was in London on 26 July when news came of the nationalisation. He advised the British prime minister Sir Anthony Eden, Hit him but hit him quickly and hard.

            At the beginning of August, Eden enjoyed the support of colleagues and the bulk of opinion. The national mood was warlike. In 1938 external danger had induced caution and compromise ; in 1956 the mood was bellicose. If Nasser wins, Alan Lennox-Boyd, Minister of Defence, wrote to Eden, or even appears to win, we might as well as a government (and indeed a country) go out of business [9]. Rapid intervention at this stage would have had overwhelming support. American and international opinion would have faced a fait accompli. However two considerations imposed delays which proved fatal to the enterprise. Firstly there was no rapid intervention capability. On paper Britain was a great military power – 750 000 men under arms, a powerful navy and air force plus nuclear weapons. Sadly much of the equipment was Second World War or even pre-1939 vintage. The 1956 Defence White Paper had stressed the need to be prepared for limited wars and to have forces which were flexible, mobile, well-trained and versatile [10]. This was a statement of intent. Despite high spending on defence (10 % of the GNP) such forces did not exist in July 1956. The second consideration which imposed delay was the government's wish not merely to reoccupy the Canal but to destroy Nasser. This meant that considerable forces would be needed and their preparation required months rather than weeks. The resulting three month delay was disastrous in two ways. It forced the British and French governments to enter into international negotiations thereby creating a gulf between what was said and what actually was being planned. Secondly the diplomatic moves which occupied the summer softened opinion and allowed domestic and international criticism to build up.

            In 1938 ministers and their advisors had been at one opposing British intervention in defence of Czechoslovakia ; in 1956 the Chiefs of Staff were divided about the threat posed by Nasser and how to cope with it. Lord Mountbatten, First Sea Lord, expressed doubts in mid-August. On 14 August in the Chiefs of Staff Committee he :

            …raised the question of what steps were being taken to ensure that in the event of a successful operation against Egypt and the downfall of the present Government, a new Government could be formed which would not only support our policy for the operation of the Canal but which would also have the support of the Egyptian people. He feared that the Egyptian people were now so solidly behind Nasser that it might be impossible to find such a Government [11].

            As for the plan for an Anglo-French landing at Alexandria and an advance through Cairo, Operation Musketeer, Mountbatten said he felt that there was a very real danger that the Operation would cause serious and continuing disorders in the Middle East… and necessitate the long-term retention of considerable forces in the area. Mountbatten's doubts hardened into dissent and culminated in his letter to Eden after the launching of the Anglo-French invasion force :

            I am writing to appeal to you to accept the resolution of the overwhelming majority of the United Nations to cease military operations, and to beg you to turn back the assault convoy before it is to late, as I feel that the actual landing of troops can only spread the war with untold misery and world-wide repercussions [12].

            The depth of the cleavage between Eden's military advisors can be gauged from a letter written by Sir Gerald Templer, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, to his minister, the Secretary of State for War, after the ceasefire had ended Anglo-French intervention :

            Whether this country was politically right in taking the action it did is obviously not for me to say. But I can at least have my personal opinion on the matter. Of course we were right-plumb right. And I say it with certainty on strategic grounds…

            Some people in England today say that what we've done in the Middle East will have terrible effects in the future… The reality is that we've checked a drift. With a bit of luck we've not only stopped quite a big war in the Middle East, but we've halted the march of Russia through the Middle East and on into the African continent [13].

            In conclusion two points can be made. Firstly it would be wrong to conclude that British military unpreparedness in 1938 and 1956 was the inevitable consequence of decline. It also reflected unwise political choices. An essential element in the survival of all states is skilful leadership. This was patently lacking in 1938 and 1956. Secondly Suez is often seen as the shattering of the illusion that Britain was still a great power. This is too simplistic. In truth policy-makers since 1945 had painfully adjusted to the realities of declining power. The decision to use force against Egypt originated not in folie de grandeur but in the conviction that a vital national interest-oil, was at stake. The two crises, Munich and Suez, underline the fluidity of international relations. Britain's possession of a rapid response capability might well have changed the course of European history.



[1] Université de Salford (Royaume-Uni).

[2] Quoted in Brian Bond, British Military Policy between the Two World Wars (Oxford, 1980), p. 280.

[3] Quoted in Anthony Adamthwaite, The Making of the Second World War (London, 1977), p. 63.

[4] Ibid., 63-4.

[5] Ibid., 32.

[6] Ibid., 65.

[7] Ibid., 70.

[8] Bond., op. cit., 280.

[9] Quoted in Peter Hennessy and Mark Laity, Suez-What the Papers say, Contemporary Record, April 1987, 2.

[10] Quoted in Roy Fullick and Geoffrey Powell, Suez : The Double War (London, 1979), p. 30.

[11] Hennessy and Laity, op. cit., 3.

[12] Ibid., 2.

[13] Ibid., 3.


 Copyright - 2005 - Conception - Bertrand Degoy, Alain De Neve, Joseph Henrotin