Upon receiving the news that the British embassy in Tehran had been stormed, its windows smashed, and the Union Jack ignominiously burned and replaced with an Iranian counterpart, a question popped into my mind: What would Lord Palmerston do?
Henry John Temple — more commonly known to posterity as the 3rd Viscount Palmerston, or simply “Pam” — was notoriously intolerant of any action abroad that threatened British interests, or even individual British subjects. As both foreign secretary and prime minister, Palmerston readily eschewed diplomatic niceties, preferring, in Winston Churchill’s famous phrase, “to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”
“Taking a wasps’ nest,” he told Parliament in 1841, “is more effective than catching the wasps one by one.” He was serious. When the Chinese had the temerity to restrict trade with the West — in particular by blocking opium exports from British India — Palmerston sent gunboats up the Yangtze River, indiscriminately destroying the small towns along the banks with such confidence that the Chinese quickly changed their minds. The result was the Treaty of Nanking, by the terms of which various trading posts were ceded to the British, and restrictions on imperial trade were summarily lifted.
Under Palmerston, British opposition to slavery was extended beyond the traditional jurisdiction of nation and empire. The Royal Navy was employed to intercept and destroy slave ships, regardless of their origin (Niall Ferguson estimates that by 1840, 425 such ships were captured and condemned), a blind eye was turned to officers who destroyed slave quarters on the West African coast, and the policy of other nations was heavily influenced by British pressure: When Brazil refused to follow Wilberforce’s example, Palmerston sent a gunboat to deliver the message. The Brazilian government got the idea and banned the practice two years later.
In an early show of power, concerned about the prospect of the French taking over the Netherlands and using it as “a dagger poised to strike at the heart of Britain,” Palmerston was instrumental in the creation of a new independent country. Independent Belgium was created in 1831, and the British were determined to keep it neutral as a bulwark against those who might have nefarious desires to follow in the footsteps of William the Conqueror.
But Palmerston was not solely concerned with grand strategic matters, and it did not take a wasps’ nest to rile him. British interests were British interests — wasps, if you will, were wasps. And so, when a British subject living in Athens, Don Pacifico, had his property destroyed in an anti-Semitic riot (whose perpetrators included the son of a government minister and which the police watched from the sidelines) and the Greek government refused to compensate him, Palmerston sent enough warships to the port of Piraeus to maintain a naval blockade until they gave in. “Wherever British subjects are placed in danger,” he noted in 1846, “thither a British Ship of War ought to be . . . to remain as long as . . . may be required for the protection of British interests.”