Gladstone vs. Disraeli- IBDP Paper 3 Exam sample essays

 From the November 2000 IBDP Paper 3 exam

How far can it be argued that “Gladstone pursued a more successful foreign policy than Disraeli”?

The divergent foreign policies of British Prime Ministers William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli in the 19th century have long been the subject of academic scrutiny and debate. Serving non-consecutive terms and belonging to opposing political ideologies, their approaches towards international relations differed markedly. While Disraeli is often characterised as an imperialist, Gladstone favoured a moralistic and liberal approach to foreign policy. This essay seeks to evaluate the relative success of their foreign policies, incorporating the views of historians such as Shannon for Disraeli and Matthew for Gladstone.

Gladstone's foreign policy was underpinned by a commitment to moral principles, often termed the 'Gladstonian liberalism'. Matthew suggests that Gladstone's approach prioritised ethical considerations over pure national interest, as evidenced in his stance on the Eastern Question. His initial opposition to the Ottoman Empire's suppression of the Bulgarian uprising in 1876 illustrated a foreign policy governed by moral imperatives. However, Seton-Watson argues that his policy, though well-intentioned, sometimes lacked coherence and strategic focus. For instance, his handling of the Anglo-Egyptian War and the subsequent occupation of Egypt in 1882 exposed inconsistencies in his application of liberal principles, which could be interpreted as veering towards imperialist objectives. the ambiguities in his approach became apparent in his handling of colonial matters. His decision to grant self-government to the Transvaal Boers in 1881, despite their recent defeat of British forces, can be interpreted as an adherence to liberal values, favouring self-determination over colonial subjugation. However, Ridley contends that this decision complicated Britain's imperial strategy in southern Africa, leading to further conflicts like the Second Boer War, albeit after Gladstone's time. Furthermore, his attempts to resolve the Irish Question through the introduction of Home Rule Bills, while not strictly foreign policy, had implications for Britain's relations with other colonial subjects and raised issues of inconsistency. Therefore, while Gladstone's moralistic approach distinguished his foreign policy and won him admiration among certain quarters, it often lacked the strategic clarity required for unqualified success.

Disraeli's approach to foreign policy was shaped by a desire to consolidate Britain's imperial position and foster its prestige. Shannon argues that Disraeli’s acquisition of the Suez Canal shares in 1875 was a masterstroke, enhancing Britain's strategic influence in the Middle East and securing easier access to India. Additionally, his handling of the Congress of Berlin in 1878 successfully prevented Russian expansion into the Balkans, thereby maintaining the balance of power in Europe. However, Cannadine criticises Disraeli's so-called 'imperialist' policy, stating that it often led to overextension and risk-taking, as seen in the Second Afghan War, which had a contentious domestic impact. Continuing with Disraeli's foreign policy, the concept of 'splendid isolation' often attributed to him is debated among historians. It is argued that his perceived neglect of alliances in favour of unilateral action could have been counterproductive. For example, Shannon acknowledges that the decision not to involve Britain in the Russo-Turkish War had ramifications, as it isolated Britain from European politics, allowing Germany to take a more dominant role. In the realm of colonial policy, his annexation of the Transvaal Republic in 1877 was seen by some contemporaries as a mistake that would later embroil Britain in the Boer Wars. Therefore, whilst Disraeli's foreign policy had its triumphs, particularly in terms of imperial consolidation, it also had its pitfalls, specifically the tendency towards overreach and unilateral decision-making. 

Comparing the foreign policies of Gladstone and Disraeli reveals a tension between moralistic liberalism and pragmatic imperialism. One could argue that the two approaches are not mutually exclusive but represent different facets of British interests. Matthew suggests that Gladstone's policy, though morally driven, sometimes dovetailed with imperial aims, as seen in Egypt. On the other hand, Shannon posits that Disraeli's imperial endeavours were not devoid of moral considerations, exemplified in his attempts to curtail the slave trade. Aldous goes a step further to suggest that the apparent differences in their policies often resulted more from political expediency than ideological commitment, evidenced by the frequent flip-flops each leader made in their respective policies. Continuing with the comparative analysis, the evaluation of the 'success' of their policies depends significantly on the metrics applied. If success is measured in terms of imperial expansion and the enhancement of national prestige, Disraeli's policies could be deemed more successful. However, if moral integrity and the fostering of international peace are the yardsticks, Gladstone's policies would fare better. Ridley suggests that both faced limitations imposed by the realities of their times, including changing public opinion and shifting international alliances, which often compelled them to adapt or moderate their policies. Therefore, the dichotomy between Gladstone's moralism and Disraeli's imperialism may be an oversimplification; both leaders navigated a complex international landscape, often crossing ideological lines to achieve what they perceived to be in the national interest.

The foreign policies of Gladstone and Disraeli were undoubtedly shaped by contrasting ideologies, yet they were both products of their time, constrained by political, social, and economic realities. While historians like Matthew commend Gladstone's moralistic approach, critiques by Seton-Watson and Ridley highlight its inconsistencies and strategic shortcomings. Similarly, while Shannon lauds Disraeli's imperialistic ventures, criticisms from Cannadine and Aldous reveal the risks and complexities involved. Thus, the assertion that Gladstone pursued a more successful foreign policy than Disraeli cannot be unequivocally supported or refuted; both had their triumphs and failings. The evaluation of their respective successes reveals the intricate interplay between ideology and pragmatism in the shaping of 19th-century British foreign policy.

From the May 2002 IBDP Paper 3 exam

Compare and contrast the foreign and imperial policies (excluding Ireland) of Disraeli and Gladstone from 1868 to 1886.

The political careers of Benjamin Disraeli and William Ewart Gladstone, two of Britain's most iconic 19th-century statesmen, have been the subject of extensive historical scrutiny. Their contrasting ideologies not only shaped domestic politics but also had a profound influence on Britain's foreign and imperial policies. Between 1868 and 1886, both men served as Prime Minister and had the opportunity to enact their visions on the international stage. This essay aims to compare and contrast their foreign and imperial policies during this period, with a particular focus on their strategies, objectives, and the ideologies that underpinned their decisions. 

Disraeli's approach to foreign and imperial policy was markedly influenced by his belief in Britain's imperial destiny. He saw empire not just as a source of material wealth but also as a means to augment Britain's influence and prestige on the world stage. One of his most significant achievements was the acquisition of a controlling interest in the Suez Canal in 1875. This strategic move enhanced Britain's naval influence in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean, fulfilling what Shannon described as a masterstroke in safeguarding the maritime route to India. Beyond the Mediterranean, Disraeli's role in the Congress of Berlin in 1878, where he effectively curtailed Russian expansion into the Balkans, underscored his belief in maintaining the European balance of power as a cornerstone of British foreign policy. Continuing with Disraeli's foreign and imperial policies, his tenure also witnessed a significant expansion of British territories. In 1877, he conferred the title of Empress of India upon Queen Victoria, symbolising the formal incorporation of India into the British Empire. However, it was not without its controversies. The annexation of the Transvaal Republic in 1877 sparked significant native resistance, culminating in the First Anglo-Boer War. Ridley argues that this annexation was more of a political misjudgment than a strategic necessity, revealing the limitations of a policy solely focused on imperial grandeur. Similarly, the handling of the Eastern Question exposed British diplomatic shortcomings. Although Disraeli managed to contain Russian influence in the Balkans, he could not prevent the Russo-Turkish War, a clear indication that a balance of power in Europe was easier conceived than maintained. Thus, while his foreign and imperial policies were ambitious, they were not without flaws and miscalculations.

Contrasting sharply with Disraeli, Gladstone's approach to foreign and imperial policies was deeply rooted in moralistic liberalism. His belief in the principles of self-determination and national sovereignty underpinned his reluctance to engage in imperial expansion. The most vivid example of this was his response to the Bulgarian Horrors in 1876, where he campaigned vigorously against Ottoman atrocities, prioritising moral imperatives over diplomatic pragmatism. According to Matthew, Gladstone’s stance was instrumental in shaping public opinion and forcing the government to reconsider its alliance with the Ottoman Empire. However, it's worth noting that Gladstone was not universally anti-imperialist. His decision to occupy Egypt in 1882, ostensibly to protect British financial interests and secure the Suez Canal, highlighted a willingness to employ force when British strategic interests were at stake. 

Continuing with Gladstone's foreign and imperial policies, one must also consider his handling of the Afghan crisis in 1879 as emblematic of his cautious, non-interventionist approach. Although Gladstone inherited a challenging situation in Afghanistan, he aimed for a peaceful resolution, emphasizing the withdrawal of British forces. Biagini posits that Gladstone's approach was a clear divergence from Disraeli’s aggressive, expansionist stance, opting for a strategy that sought to minimise the political and financial costs of empire. Moreover, the foreign policy adopted during Gladstone’s tenure often aimed at international arbitration. He was a proponent of the Alabama Claims arbitration with the United States in 1872, setting a precedent for the peaceful resolution of international disputes. However, these policies were not without their shortcomings. Gladstone's reluctance to intervene in the Sudan crisis resulted in the fall of Khartoum and the death of General Charles Gordon, a debacle that Taylor argues severely damaged his credibility. Moreover, the Liberal government's hesitance to confront Russian advances in Central Asia raised questions about whether morality and non-intervention could serve as effective foreign policy tools in an increasingly competitive geopolitical landscape. Thus, whilst Gladstone’s policies were underpinned by moral imperatives, the limitations of such an approach were evident.

When comparing the foreign and imperial policies of Disraeli and Gladstone, a distinct divergence in ideology and execution is evident. Disraeli's policies were ambitious and aimed at consolidating British influence across the globe, driven by a belief in Britain's imperial destiny. Conversely, Gladstone pursued a more cautious and ethical approach, aiming to uphold the principles of self-determination and national sovereignty, even at the expense of imperial expansion. Cowling notes that while Disraeli's policies achieved significant territorial gains, they often engendered local resistance and diplomatic tensions. On the other hand, Gladstone's ethical considerations sometimes compromised the national interest, creating a tension between moral imperatives and geopolitical realities. This tension manifested in the Sudan crisis and the Eastern Question, where a non-interventionist stance resulted in strategic losses or diplomatic complications. An assessment by Shannon suggests that neither Disraeli nor Gladstone could claim an unblemished record; their policies were products of their respective ideological frameworks, both of which had intrinsic limitations when applied to the intricate dynamics of foreign relations and imperial governance. Thus, the effectiveness of their policies should be measured not in isolation but in the context of the overarching goals they sought to achieve and the geopolitical landscape within which they operated.

In sum, the foreign and imperial policies of Disraeli and Gladstone from 1868 to 1886 were shaped by distinct ideological underpinnings. Disraeli's vision was one of imperial grandeur and geopolitical influence, resulting in significant territorial gains but also in local resistance and diplomatic tensions. Gladstone, imbued with moralistic liberalism, focused on ethical governance and international arbitration but faced challenges when moral imperatives clashed with strategic interests. The evaluations by historians Ridley, Matthew, Biagini, Taylor, Cowling, and Shannon offer nuanced perspectives that neither wholly validate nor entirely invalidate the policies of these statesmen. Instead, they reveal a complex tapestry of successes and failures, influenced by the ideological convictions and practical realities of their times. Therefore, it cannot be definitively stated that one pursued a more successful foreign and imperial policy than the other; rather, their legacies are multifaceted and subject to interpretation, reflecting the complexities of governance in a rapidly evolving geopolitical landscape.

From the November 2004 IBDP Paper 3 exam

Compare and contrast the foreign policies of Disraeli and Gladstone between 1868 and 1886.

The second half of the 19th century was a crucial period for British foreign policy, marking the reigns of two of the most notable Prime Ministers: Benjamin Disraeli and William Ewart Gladstone. Serving non-consecutive terms between 1868 and 1886, their approaches to foreign policy were distinctly influenced by their differing ideologies—Disraeli by a form of Romantic Conservatism and Gladstone by Liberal ideals. This essay seeks to compare and contrast their foreign policies in this period, examining key geopolitical crises, diplomatic ventures, and imperial expansions to elucidate their underlying strategies and philosophies. In the process, the insights offered by historians such as Ridley, Matthew, Cowling, and Shannon will be evaluated to provide a nuanced understanding of these policies.

Disraeli's foreign policy is often lauded for its vigour and vision, particularly when it comes to imperial expansion and the consolidation of British interests overseas. The purchase of the Suez Canal shares in 1875 is cited as a masterstroke that not only secured British control over a crucial maritime route but also elevated Britain's influence in the Middle East. Ridley contends that the Suez investment was an emblematic act, revealing Disraeli’s adeptness in seizing opportunities that furthered British imperial and commercial interests. Simultaneously, Disraeli was instrumental in the strategic acquisition of Cyprus through the 1878 Congress of Berlin, which served as a naval base in the Mediterranean. Moreover, his approach to the 'Eastern Question' was both proactive and strategic; the Treaty of Berlin successfully staved off the threat of Russian expansion in the Balkans, thus safeguarding the route to India via the Suez. According to Cowling, Disraeli's policy in this regard was a well-calculated move aimed at staving off immediate dangers while securing long-term advantages for the British Empire. However, it would be remiss to overlook the limitations and contradictions inherent in Disraeli’s approach. For instance, the Congress of Berlin left many of the Balkan issues unresolved, thereby sowing the seeds for future conflict. Additionally, his aggressive postures in Afghanistan and South Africa often led to local resistance, undermining British prestige and creating military quagmires. Matthew argues that Disraeli's penchant for imperial grandiosity sometimes blinded him to the practical challenges of governance and sustainable occupation.

Disraeli's realpolitik extended beyond imperial confines, notably in his relationship with the Ottoman Empire. While many criticised the empire's human rights record, most prominently in the Bulgarian Horrors, Disraeli saw the Ottomans as a bulwark against Russian expansion into the Mediterranean. This position led to considerable debate within Britain, particularly among Liberal circles that favoured a moralistic approach to foreign policy. Shannon argues that in maintaining the status quo with the Ottoman Empire, Disraeli adopted a pragmatic but ethically questionable stance, implicitly sanctioning an authoritarian regime for strategic gain. Yet, even in the face of public criticism, Disraeli was unwavering, driven by the belief that the national interest should supersede moral considerations. In doing so, his policies contributed to a polarised domestic debate on the role and scope of British foreign policy. This polarisation was perhaps most vividly illustrated in his confrontations with Gladstone, who took an almost diametrically opposite view on several of these issues. Such was the schism between their approaches that it would not be an exaggeration to posit that the foreign policies of Disraeli and Gladstone were reactionary in nature, each shaped to some extent by the worldview of the other. This duality notwithstanding, it is worth acknowledging that Disraeli's foreign policy was not uniformly successful. For example, the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878–1880) ended in a military victory but a strategic setback, with Afghanistan becoming a British protectorate in name only. Likewise, the Zulu War (1879) brought military glory but ultimately led to the annexation of territories that proved difficult to govern. In summary, Disraeli’s foreign policy was a blend of triumphs and pitfalls, influenced by a combination of realpolitik and imperial ambition. According to Matthew, while Disraeli had a grand vision for the British Empire, he often underestimated the complexities of local politics and overreached in his geopolitical calculations.

Turning to Gladstone, his foreign policy markedly deviated from Disraeli's imperialistic and realpolitik approach. Rooted in moralism and the concept of "Peace, Retrenchment, and Reform," Gladstone placed great emphasis on international law, arbitral solutions, and the welfare of smaller nations. Unlike Disraeli, who prioritised British interests almost unilaterally, Gladstone incorporated a more ethical dimension into his policy-making. Biographer Jenkins elucidates that Gladstone’s policies were profoundly influenced by his Christian ethics and liberal principles. Such was the power of his conviction that his rhetoric often swayed public opinion, as seen in his "Midlothian Campaigns" where he vehemently criticised Disraeli's imperial policies. A prime example of this moralistic approach was his stance towards the Eastern Question. Whereas Disraeli leaned towards maintaining British influence by supporting the Ottoman Empire, Gladstone published a pamphlet on the "Bulgarian Horrors," advocating for the defence of human rights and the self-determination of the Balkan states. This difference in perspective between the two men came to a head during the Congress of Berlin in 1878. While Disraeli was willing to compromise and form alliances, Gladstone was less flexible, which critics like Ridley argue led to missed opportunities for Britain on the international stage. However, it would be a simplification to categorise Gladstone’s foreign policy as naive or idealistic. As Ridley points out, his commitment to fiscal retrenchment and his distrust of jingoism often held him back from embarking on foreign adventures, unless he was convinced of their ethical necessity. This pragmatic restraint was evident in his dealings with Afghanistan and South Africa, where he took pains to reduce military expenditure and sought peaceful resolutions, albeit not always successfully. Therefore, Gladstone's foreign policy was a nuanced combination of moral imperative and practical concerns, one that diverged significantly from Disraeli's more imperialistic vision. The critical reception to Gladstone's foreign policy has been mixed. While his moralistic approach has been praised for its ethical underpinnings, critics like Aldous argue that his principles often clouded his judgement, making his policies inconsistent and less effective in safeguarding British interests. Even though his moral convictions were lauded, the lack of pragmatic flexibility sometimes resulted in less favourable outcomes for Britain. This moral rigidity, in comparison to Disraeli's malleable approach, delineates the primary difference between their foreign policies.

In the broader context of British foreign policy between 1868 and 1886, an evaluation of the impact of these contrasting approaches reveals a complex legacy for both leaders. Disraeli's policies, largely hinged on securing British imperial interests, often resulted in significant short-term gains. His acquisition of the Suez Canal shares and the subsequent control of this critical maritime route, for instance, ensured British dominance in the East. Likewise, the outcome of the Berlin Congress under his stewardship was considered a diplomatic triumph for Britain, a view articulated by historians like Blake, who contends that Disraeli successfully prevented Russian dominance in the Balkans, thereby safeguarding British interests. However, the long-term consequences of Disraeli's policies were not without their drawbacks. His imperialistic fervour led to heightened tensions with other European powers, most notably Russia. Additionally, the expansionist approach left an indelible mark on colonial subjects, cultivating a legacy of resistance that would culminate in future uprisings. Furthermore, historians like Aldous argue that Disraeli’s engagement in Afghanistan and South Africa laid the seeds for protracted conflicts that would later burden British resources and tarnish the nation’s image abroad. Gladstone's policies, on the other hand, prioritized ethical imperatives and international justice but were met with a varying degree of success and public approval. While his focus on fiscal responsibility and humanitarian concerns made him a polarizing figure, it could be argued that his approach laid the foundation for the modern, more balanced understanding of foreign policy, rooted in both national interest and ethical considerations. Although historians like Aldous suggest that Gladstone's moralistic approach sometimes undermined British strategic interests, they also acknowledge the long-term influence of his policies on international diplomacy. For instance, his emphasis on arbitration and international law can be seen as a precursor to later international institutions and agreements. The contrasting foreign policies of Disraeli and Gladstone demonstrate the interplay of ideology, ethics, and national interest in shaping the course of a nation's international engagements. Disraeli’s policies, rooted in realpolitik, secured short-term gains but sowed the seeds for future conflicts. Gladstone, driven by moral imperatives, took a more nuanced approach that, while not always successful in the short term, influenced future understandings of international relations. Both leaders left a complex legacy, with Disraeli securing Britain’s immediate interests at the potential cost of long-term stability, and Gladstone paving the way for a more ethical but sometimes less pragmatic foreign policy. 

In summary, the foreign policies of Disraeli and Gladstone between 1868 and 1886 were marked by profound ideological differences that influenced Britain’s international engagements. Disraeli’s focus on imperial expansion, control of strategic assets, and geopolitical manoeuvres yielded immediate gains but carried long-term risks, including strained relations with other European powers and discontent in the colonies. Gladstone’s moralistic foreign policy emphasised international justice, fiscal responsibility, and human rights. Although this approach was often criticised for undermining British strategic interests, it also set the groundwork for a more balanced, ethical foreign policy that would influence international diplomacy in the decades to come. Historians remain divided in their assessment of these contrasting approaches. Blake applauds Disraeli's diplomatic victories but warns of the lasting implications of his aggressive imperialism. Conversely, Aldous emphasises the ethical depth of Gladstone’s foreign policy while acknowledging its limitations in the realpolitik landscape of 19th-century geopolitics. The complex legacies of these two leaders exemplify the ongoing tension between national interests and ethical imperatives in the realm of foreign policy. Both Disraeli and Gladstone left an indelible mark on British history, but the full impact of their respective policies can only be understood in the broader context of their long-term consequences, whether it be in sustaining British power or in influencing the norms of international engagement. Thus, the assessment of their success or failure is intricately linked to the lenses through which one views the role of morality, strategy, and national interest in the conduct of foreign affairs.