This article explores Britain’s diplomatic action during the Cyprus crisis in summer 1974, considering the co-relations between the British concerns about its ‘remnant of Empire’ in the eastern Mediterranean and the disputes within the Western alliance in the region.
It is often emphasised that post-war British foreign policy was radically amended by the decision of withdrawal from ‘East of Suez’ in January 1968. This decision, however, did not mean Britain’s total retreat from post-imperial presence in the world. In the regions where the Cold War confrontation intensified, its influence and commitment continued, although British capability to contribute to the Western alliance was declining.
The eastern Mediterranean, where Britain’s historical ties and strategic bases were maintained, became a typical case of this dilemma. Matters were further complicated by Greco-Turkish dispute over Cyprus, which witnessed ethnic conflict originating during British colonial rule. Both Greece and Turkey were the members of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and, along with Britain, the co-guarantors of independent Cyprus. Britain’s remaining commitment, namely the ‘remnant of Empire,’ and alliance politics were thereby connected over Cyprus.
The Cyprus crisis of 1974 involved three guarantors and other alliance members. As a guarantor of Cyprus and the leader of Commonwealth, the British government led by foreign secretary James Callaghan played the central role for a diplomatic solution. Pursuing the stability of the region, at first Britain condemned the Greek junta, which had direct responsibility for the crisis. At the same time, it needed to restrain Turkey from unilateral military action.
In order to prevent the situation from escalating, the coordination between Britain and the United States was essential. However, American authorities, headed by Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, were primarily concerned with the Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union and NATO’s stability in the region rather than British interests. It was obvious to Kissinger that the Greek junta was already corrupt and Turkey was much more important for NATO than Greece, and therefore he was reluctant to bring pressure either on the Greek junta or on the Turkish jingoists. This precipitated Turkish military actions and the breakdown of peace talks among the guarantors.
Callaghan and British policymakers were irritated by Kissinger’s unsympathetic attitude. Although it lacked the possibility to achieve the diplomatic solution unilaterally, caught by its historical legacy Britain could not compromise on Cyprus with Kissinger. Therefore, as Callaghan complained after the crisis,Britain had the ‘responsibility without power’ for the eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus.