740.00119 (Potsdam)/5–2446

No. 223
Briefing Book Paper

top secret

Britain as Member of the Big Three


At meetings of the “Big Three”, Mr. Churchill may, occasionally, without due reflection, give the impression that he is the spokesman for the whole British Commonwealth. He is, on the contrary, only the representative of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which, despite its controlling authority over India and the colonial empire, forms one part and not the whole of the larger association of powers known as the British Commonwealth of Nations. Although the Dominions are kept closely informed, and consulted when time permits, Mr. Churchill has no authority to speak for or make commitments on behalf of Canada, Australia, South Africa, or New Zealand, not to mention Eire (Ireland) which has remained neutral in the war and is not a member of the United Nations.

[Washington,] July 4, 1945.

Britain as Member of the “Big Three”

Britain’s position in the “Big Three” inevitably differs from that of her two great allies which are geographically compact political entities. No one can think of the power popularly called Britain but legally known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland without simultaneously thinking of the worldwide constellation of nations and territories which make up the British Commonwealth and Empire. It is nevertheless the United Kingdom which is represented at “Big Three” meetings. On such occasions, Mr. Churchill may be more than usually conscious of the added prestige and influence in world affairs which accrues to the United Kingdom because of its special relationship with the countries of the British Commonwealth. It should, however, be borne in mind [Page 254] that, as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Mr. Churchill has no power to speak for or make commitments on behalf of Canada, Australia, South Africa, or New Zealand, not to mention Eire (Ireland) which has remained neutral in the war and is not a member of the United Nations.

According to accepted international and British constitutional usage, Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, and Eire are, like the United Kingdom, separate members of the “community of nations”. The Statute of Westminster 1 was passed in 1931 to remove all legal obstacles to the exercise by each of them of that equality of status with the United Kingdom enshrined in the famous Balfour Declaration of 1926: “They (the United Kingdom and the Dominions) are autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown and freely associated as member[s] of the British Commonwealth of Nations.”2 At foreign capitals where their interests demand it, the Dominions are represented by fully accredited diplomatic representatives; they separately negotiate treaties, and are treated like any other foreign nation by the Government of the United States and other governments with which they have to deal.

The British Commonwealth is, even if Eire be here left out of account, a group of nations whose divergent interests are apparent at every international gathering at which they are represented. The United Kingdom may be primus inter pares, but the Dominions do not hesitate to speak and vote against the United Kingdom when, in their opinion, their interests so dictate. This was notably true in the League of Nations (especially at the time of the Ethiopian crisis), in the Chicago Aviation Conference [1944] (especially on the issue of the “five freedoms” of the air), and it has been markedly true at San Francisco3 where Australia made herself a leading champion of the small states. Canadian interests in particular often do not coincide with United Kingdom interests on many important issues. Such disagreements among the members of the British Commonwealth will bear watching in this post-hostilities period in Europe which calls up memories of strained intra-imperial relations in the British family over policy toward Turkey in 1922 and which likewise may accentuate differences between the United Kingdom and Australia over policy in the Pacific.

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At the same time, these very real divergencies among members of the British Commonwealth must not be allowed to hide from view those unwritten conventions and customs which give vitality to a unique political association possessing far more cohesion than any other grouping of separate nations in this disturbed and unsettled world. Psychologically the symbol of the common Crown, though recognized by Eire only in the formalities necessary for the conduct of external relations, may be the most important of these conventions, but, practically, from the standpoint of day to day governmental administration, the constant consultation which takes place between and among the capitals—London, Ottawa, Canberra, Pretoria, Wellington and New Delhi—is the cement of the Empire-Commonwealth. Canada, Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand, though not attending “Big Three” meetings can never be as completely out of the picture there as are many other small or “middle” powers. On such occasions, they can, as a diplomat representing a small European state recently put it, “peek through a small window on the patio”. The extent to which their view is obstructed or “colored” from that vantage point is naturally known only to those high British officials intimately acquainted with the exact extent of consultation within the Commonwealth. There are undoubtedly secrets which the senior member of the association does not or cannot share with its other members—witness Australia’s extreme discomfiture at not being consulted before the Roosevelt-Churchill conference with Chiang Kai-shek in Cairo. The belligerent members of the Commonwealth now have highly developed machinery, through High Commissioners and other facilities, for consultation inter se. India, for which His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom can, and often does, still legally speak, is being more and more regarded as a guasi-Dominion which can avail itself of this machinery to a greater and greater extent as time goes on.

At meetings of the “Big Three”, Mr. Churchill, representing the United Kingdom which controls India and the colonial empire, acts for a power which is part of a larger association of powers of a very special character. The United Kingdom, though more populous and powerful than all the Dominions put together, and though a great power in its own right under existing world conditions, cannot be disassociated from the co-belligerent Dominions. Britain’s two great allies, conscious of the Dominion statesmen behind the scenes, must gauge the limitations of the influence of those gentlemen upon Mr. Churchill, and of his upon them, remembering always that Mr. Churchill often offends the susceptibilities of the Dominions by forgetting that the British Empire has changed since Kipling’s day.

  1. 22 Geo. V, ch. 4.
  2. See the “Report of the Inter-Imperial Relations Committee”, of which Balfour was chairman, printed in Imperial Conference, 1926: Summary of Proceedings (London, His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1926; Cmd. 2768), p. 14.
  3. i. e., at the United Nations Conference on International Organization, 1945.