Phillip E. Myers. Dissolving Tensions: Rapprochement and Resolution in British-American-Canadian Relations in the Treaty of Washington Era, 1865-1914. New Studies in US Foreign Relations Series. Kent: Kent State University Press, 2015. 320 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-60635-252-6.
Reviewed by Nicole Phelps (University of Vermont)
Published on H-SHGAPE (March, 2016)
Commissioned by Julia Irwin
The Politics of Waiting
I approached this book with great enthusiasm, hoping that it would prove to be an interpretation of Anglo-American (plus Canada!) relations between the Civil War and World War I that I could use with advanced undergraduates, or at least to inform the construction of my diplomatic history courses. After reading the introduction, I sighed, silently cursed the publisher for bringing the book out with this particular title, and recalibrated my expectations so they more closely matched what the book actually is: a study of high-level Anglo-American diplomacy from the end of the Civil War through the 1871 Treaty of Washington. Although the narrowness of the time frame and especially the challenging writing style preclude assigning it to my undergraduates, Phillip E. Myers’s work will affect the interpretation of Anglo-American relations I present in my classes. Most important, Myers stresses the significance of the series of treaties peacefully negotiated between the United States and Great Britain in the nineteenth century, downplaying the possibility of war between the two countries. Because his account emphasizes peaceful negotiations during a period often noted for its bellicose Anglophobic rhetoric, Myers implicitly raises useful questions about where real power lies in the formulation and execution of foreign policy.
A key link between that bellicose public rhetoric and the conduct of official Anglo-American diplomacy was the effect such rhetoric could have on the pacing of official diplomacy. Myers stresses the importance of domestic politics in determining when Anglo-American treaties (the Naturalization Treaty in 1870 and the Treaty of Washington in 1871) were presented for ratification. In Britain, both parties associated peace with the United States with staying in office, especially because financial interests preferred stability and peace with increased, profitable Anglo-American trade. In the United States, Reconstruction politics dominated, though not as a conflict between Republicans and Democrats or North and South, but rather among different Republican factions, most sharply between President Ulysses S. Grant and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Charles Sumner. Between 1865 and 1871, the people who actually conducted official Anglo-American diplomatic relations—presidents, prime ministers, secretaries of state, foreign ministers, and chiefs of diplomatic missions—were mutually content to slow the pace of Anglo-American dispute settlement until the opportune political moment had been reached, and they defined “opportune” in relation to domestic politics.
Also contributing to the success of the treaty process was willingness at the highest levels to link the various elements of Anglo-American dispute and seek a comprehensive settlement. There were four issues: the Alabama claims, the San Juan boundary, fisheries access, and naturalization. Also looming in the background was American desire to annex Canada. Myers argues that annexation was off the table very early; there was no way the US government could come up with the money to either acquire or govern Canada, especially because they had so much debt from the Civil War, which would require the assistance of British financial institutions to repay. Although the Fenians attempted to re-insert acquisition of Canada into the US foreign policy agenda, they were unsuccessful, and the first Anglo-American agreement reached in this period—the Naturalization Treaty of 1870—went a long way toward neutralizing Irish nationalism in the official Anglo-American relationship. The early recognition among high-level officials that Canada did not face an existential crisis and the resolution of the naturalization issue provided important political space to negotiate on other issues.
Of the more contentious issues remaining, the Alabama claims and San Juan dispute were settled via the Treaty of Washington. In both cases, commissions were established to decide the issues. The international commission that met in Geneva in 1872 awarded the United States 15.5 million dollars for the Alabama claims, and a commission appointed by the German monarch settled the San Juan dispute in favor of the United States. The British accepted these outcomes because of their general desire for peace with the United States and their acceptance of the arbitration process. The fisheries issue was referred to an Anglo-American-Canadian commission, and a series of temporary agreements were reached, but the issue continued to fester. The problem was exacerbated by Canadian desires for a new US reciprocity treaty to replace the one that had been in place from 1854 to 1865 and the fact that Newfoundland, where many of the contested fish were located, was outside the Dominion of Canada.
It is the ongoing fisheries issue, plus the related Bering Sea sealing issue, that receives the bulk of Myers’s eleven-page conclusion, displacing other potential topics, such as the Venezuela boundary dispute, which is mentioned in passing, or the politics of the Central American canal or imperial expansion in the Pacific, which are entirely omitted. Arguably, the Latin American issues might be left aside because they do not involve Canada, but the Canadian presence in the current body of the book is not large. Canada was involved in Pacific questions, including the implementation of Chinese exclusion policies. Is there a process through which British-American-Canadian relations become largely separate British-American and Canadian-American relations? Did the creation of a robust treaty system, including not only the Treaty of Washington but also earlier agreements like the 1842 Webster-Ashburton Treaty or the Convention of 1856, facilitate that process by shifting the management of Canadian-American and British-American relations to lower-level officials governed by the legal system the treaties created?
Myers’s account invites us to look more closely at the century of Anglo-American treaties that defined the countries’ official relationship. Those treaties and the officials who negotiated and then enforced them were strong enough to prevent popular bellicose rhetoric from corrupting official Anglo-American relations. This study leaves out much that could legitimately fall under the heading of “relations,” and it could cover a longer period of time, but it does highlight a crucial aspect of the Anglo-American relationship that deserves more prominence.
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Nicole Phelps. Review of Myers, Phillip E., Dissolving Tensions: Rapprochement and Resolution in British-American-Canadian Relations in the Treaty of Washington Era, 1865-1914.
H-SHGAPE, H-Net Reviews.
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