In 1919, the British military was instructed to proceed on the assumption that it would not fight a major war for the next 10 years. The army, discredited in the eyes of the public by four years of seemingly futile bloodshed on the continent, returned to its prewar role as a colonial police force. The naval budget was slashed from £188 million in 1919 to just £52 million in 1923. Postwar ship-building programs were shelved in favor of international arms control, embodied by Britain’s unprecedented acquiescence to naval limitations at the 1921 Washington Conference. 

Despite this precipitous reduction in defense spending, it seemed as if Great Britain had resumed her historic role as an imperial power free of European entanglements. With the acquisition of new territories in Africa and the Middle East, the British Empire appeared more formidable than ever. In truth, the shortsightedness of Britain’s leadership during this period ensured that she was ill-equipped for the turbulent 1930s.

The parallels between Britain’s interwar myopia and today’s American foreign policy establishment, which is relentlessly fixated on Russia and the Middle East even as a rising China presents profound new security challenges, should be obvious. 

For at least a few years after the First World War, it seemed as if Britain had successfully turned back the clock. The country’s large conscript army was hastily replaced by a much smaller force of long-serving professionals. Before World War I, the British navy’s fighting strength had been ruthlessly consolidated in the North Sea to meet the rising German threat. Foreign squadrons were recalled and obsolete older warships retired. Arrangements were made, first with the Japanese and later with the French and Italians, for naval burden-sharing in the Far East and the Mediterranean.


In the 1920s, however, the navy resumed its Victorian posture. Squadrons were once again dispatched to the West Indies, North America, South America, the Cape of Good Hope, the East Indies, and China. These warships showed the flag and intimidated local potentates, missions that could be safely accommodated by the budgetary and political constraints of the era. Behind the scenes, however, the alliances that had buttressed Great Britain’s position during World War I were eroding, as Japan and Italy drifted from her political orbit. The continental system that had contained Germany was also faltering: France would not risk another war, Russia had effectively withdrawn from European affairs, and the new states of Central and Eastern Europe could not hope to contain a resurgent Germany.