By Geoffrey Wheatcroft (THE GUARDIAN, 31/08/07):
For years past, international affairs have had an uncanny feeling of a time warp, a loop playing endlessly over and again, what goes round comes round. Ninety years ago there were British troops in Basra, and bloodshed between Jews and Arabs would shortly break out in Jerusalem. A hundred years or more after the Salisbury and Campbell-Bannerman governments, we have been dealing with just the same problems as they faced, from Ulster to South Africa, while even the conflicts in the Balkans have often seemed like the old Eastern Question writ new.
And an important anniversary also has contemporary resonances: today is the centenary of the Anglo-Russian convention of August 31 1907. Relations between the two countries are strained at present, and the Russian government is very unpopular here, as it was 100 years ago, but the issues that the agreement addressed – Persia and Afghanistan, as well as Tibet – are eerily topical. If Sir Edward Grey, the great foreign secretary who negotiated the agreement with Russia, had been told that Persia – now called Iran – would come to be seen as one of the gravest threats to international peace, and that British troops would be fighting in Afghanistan on the centenary of his pact, he would have been perplexed, and more than a little depressed.
For most of the century before 1907, Britain and Russia had been on bad terms, fighting one war in the Crimea in the 1850s and almost going to war again in 1885 (over an incident on the borders of – where else? – Afghanistan). The two empires had repeatedly clashed in the Himalayas, which separated Russia from India, and in Persia; the convention defused these conflicts by agreeing that both sides would keep out of Afghanistan and Tibet, and that Persia would be negatively partitioned, in the sense that the Russians agreed to keep out of the south and the British out of the north.
As Grey might have guessed, the agreement was acutely controversial at home. It was denounced from the right by Curzon, who thought it a dereliction of imperial duty, as well as from the left. The radicals wanted what might have been called a foreign policy with an ethical dimension; they detested Russia more than any other country, and were duly disgusted by the entente. It was bad enough that “the tsar of all the Russias” was a despot, whose regime was complicit in savage pogroms against the Jews, and who had only just suppressed the Duma, the first democratic assembly Russia had known, and for a very long time the last. (When that happened, a Russian parliamentary group was in London, where Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, the prime minister himself, told them, “La Douma est morte. Vive la Douma!”) Almost worse was what seemed to be a cynical partition of Persia, a country dear to many radical hearts.
But then there is a perennial debate between idealism and realism in foreign policy. Grey didn’t love tsarism any more than his radical critics did; he wanted to avoid war. As it turned out, the convention may have played a part in paving the way to a more terrible war than Grey had ever imagined seven years later, with Russia and Great Britain allies against Germany, but that’s the way with unintended consequences.
More than that, Grey thought that Russia, under whatever form of government, had legitimate national interests, as it still does. For much of the century since the convention, the two countries have again been on bad terms, with icy relations in the years after the Bolshevik revolution and then a 40-year cold war until the Soviet Union imploded, although they did fight two wars together, in 1914-17 and 1941-45.
Even now Grey’s shade might say that Russia has a point of view that should be respected. Vladimir Putin is a brutish former secret policeman presiding over a corrupt kleptocracy whose critics are likely to be bumped off, whether at home like Anna Politkovskaya or abroad like Alexander Litvinenko, and his sabre-rattling is demagogic and scary at once. But that doesn’t mean that his concerns about Russian security are all paranoid fantasy. If anything, Putin is playing to the gallery – the bombers flying “reconnaissance missions” close to western airspace, the Russian flag planted at the north pole – is more rhetorical than the practical challenges Russia has endured, up to the proposed installation of missiles in central Europe.
One of the mysteries of our age is why Nato remained in existence at all after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire, let alone why Nato’s reach was expanded to the Gulf of Riga and the Persian Gulf as an undisguised agent of American policy, rather than a pact for mutual aid, which allowed the members, as the original Nato treaty said, to take necessary collective action, “including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the north Atlantic area”. Quite how that covers the “record drug seizure in Afghanistan” which Nato’s website boasted late last year (prematurely, as it may seem) is as yet unexplained.
Another unintended consequence of the 1907 convention was the future of Persia-now-Iran. Writing in this newspaper (then the Manchester Guardian) on the 50th anniversary of the agreement, AJP Taylor said glibly that its work had ensured “the buffer states of Asia survive. Tibet is safe from Russia or the British empire [though not from China]. Afghanistan is still neutral and independent [no more]. Most remarkable of all, Persia still defies imperialist encroachment from every quarter.” Since that was written in 1957, only four years after the Anglo-American coup in Tehran that restored the Shah, it was surprisingly obtuse; and Iranian resentment of outside interference goes back not just to 1953 but to 1907.
After they received such a shock of their own in Afghanistan, the Russians would not be likely to repeat there the confrontation of 1885, even if there weren’t a new range of buffer states called “stans” between Russia and the Pamirs. But there is all too much opportunity for conflict elsewhere. And if, for example, the crazy idea of bringing Ukraine into Nato is pursued, the fault will not lie principally with Russia.
Another Anglo-Russian convention on the pattern of 1907 is improbable in any near future, but there’s still scope for what was more recently called detente. Could David Miliband be the new Sir Edward Grey?