Controversies in UK Foreign Policy: Diplomacy or Military Force?


This lecture series evaluates six controversial decisions in British foreign policy over the last century, all of which weighed in the balance whether to pursue diplomacy or to resort to military force.

Chamberlain favoured diplomacy to outwit the dictators but ended up with war; Bevin was the architect of Cold War foreign policy backing nuclear weapons and NATO; Eden authorised force against Nasser’s Egypt but its failure brought him down; Thatcher favoured war to reclaim the Falklands, impatient with diplomatic alternatives, Blair’s Iraq war was militarily successful but politically toxic; and Johnson established a bi-partisan support for Ukraine to oppose Putin.

Each policy was controversial at the time and has remained so under the spotlight of historical scrutiny.

Register for the whole series or individual lectures

For this lecture series, you can register for the entire series by clicking 'Book Now' on this page or you can register for individual lectures

Please note: enrolments for the complete series will close at 23:59 BST on 17 October 2023. Enrolments for each individual lecture will close a couple of days before each lecture.

Programme details

Lecture programme

Lectures take place on Fridays, from 2–3.15pm (UK time).

Friday 20 October 2023
Neville Chamberlain and appeasement

Although the British public has long regarded Neville Chamberlain as a poor Prime Minister because of his appeasement policy, which is regarded as unintentionally encouraging the military aggression of the Axis powers, professional historians have taken a more positive view. The first wave of ‘revisionist’ historians in the 1960’s praised Chamberlain’s Munich policy for buying time during which rearmament could begin in earnest, conscription could be introduced and technical innovation such as radar could be developed. A second wave of ‘revisionist’ historians towards the end of the 20th century argued that appeasement was a sensible policy in line with prioritising defence of the Empire and avoiding continental European military entanglements. This talk examines the evidence – are the revisionists right or wrong?

Friday 27 October 2023
Ernie Bevin and the Cold War

Much of the scholarship concerning the Cold War is understandably focused on the deterioration of diplomatic relations between the two main WWII victors, the USA and USSR.  But a parallel debate among historians has stressed the role of UK Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin who adopted a hard-line anti-Soviet policy, even before the Americans themselves. Appalled by Soviet behaviour in Eastern Europe, including the coup in Prague, the multiple show trials, and the violation of the 4 power Berlin agreement, which necessitated the 1948 Air Lift, Bevin actively encouraged US President Truman to respond with both diplomatic and military measures. In this way Bevin prompted the Truman Doctrine in 1947 and the creation of NATO in 1949. This talk evaluates Bevin’s influence on these momentous events.

Friday 3 November 2023
Anthony Eden and the Suez Crisis

The overwhelming consensus that Anthony Eden’s Suez policy was little short of disastrous has never seriously been challenged. But why did Eden – a renowned foreign policy expert with three terms as Foreign Secretary to draw upon – blunder so badly? This talk explains Eden’s mindset and exactly what he did and, as importantly, did not know prior to the launching of military action against Nasser’s Egypt in November 1956. It considers the extent of collaboration with France and Israel and Eden’s failure to admit this to Parliament. Moreover, the role of the Americans, particularly that of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, is analysed in detail. In truth, Dulles never supported the use of military force from the start, instead preferring a purely diplomatic response to Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal. In the endgame Dulles' arm twisted Eden to withdraw British forces but did this turn out to be a pyrrhic victory for the Americans?

Friday 10 November 2023
Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands War

Why did Margaret Thatcher decide to use military force to reclaim the Falkland Islands after the Argentine occupation in April 1982? Why did she take such a belligerent line in the House of Commons debate just two days after the invasion of the islands? Why did she reject diplomatic alternatives, including the peace shuttle of US Secretary of State Al Haig? Why did she incur the cost of the military operation which increased public spending and delayed the tax cuts that she had promised? These and other issues will be analysed in this talk, which looks behind the façade of the official explanations for the war. Also considered will be the UN resolution authorising the use of military force, the response of European countries to the conflict, and the crucial military engagements which determined the war’s outcome. The impact on domestic politics, including the ‘Falklands Factor’ in the 1983 General Election, will also be assessed.

Friday 17 November 2023
Tony Blair and the Iraq War

Following his Chicago and Warsaw speeches justifying military intervention to protect human rights and overthrow tyrants, it was always likely that Blair would back US President George W Bush in his invasion of Iraq aimed at toppling Saddam Hussein. And following the Kosovo war in 1999, which he regarded as a big success, Blair had developed an impatience with diplomacy to resolve humanitarian crises. Blair’s default position was to favour military force over diplomacy. But Blair did not claim that Saddam was in cahoots with Bin Laden and AQ, in contrast to the hawks in the US administration. Nor did Blair claim that the war was for oil. Additionally, while Bush enjoyed overwhelming public support, this was definitely not the case in Britain. Did Blair seek to create public backing for war by exaggerating the threat Saddam posed? Does this explain the ‘dodgy dossier’ which predicted (falsely) that Saddam had WMD and could use them against British troops at the sovereign base in Cyprus on a 45-minute timeframe? This talk evaluates all these and other relevant issues leading up to and beyond the Iraq War.

Friday 24 November 2023
Boris Johnson and the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Why was the Johnson administration so enthusiastic to support Ukraine following the Russian invasion of February 2022? Why did the UK provide more economic and weapons support for President Zelensky than any country except the United States? After all, as Foreign Secretary in the May government, Johnson had tried a ‘reset’ of relations with Putin and his reaction to the Russian incursion onto Ukrainian territory in 2014 was in line with the EU and NATO consensus to play down the crisis and to impose only symbolic and trifling sanctions. The 2018 Salisbury poisonings certainly led Johnson to reassess Putin’s motives and the nature of his regime and its hegemonic foreign policy. Johnson thus moved from regarding Putin as benign to malign. Some scholars claim that Johnson was influenced by his hero Winston Churchill and that he saw Putin’s aggression as equivalent to that of the Nazi regime in the 1930s. But does this claim stand up? These and other important issues, including the bi-partisan support of Opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer, will be addressed in this talk.

How and when to watch

Each lecture will last approximately 45 minutes to 1 hour, followed by questions.

For those attending in person at Rewley House, registration takes place at 1.45pm before each lecture. Tea and coffee are provided in the Common Room after each lecture, from 3.15pm.

For those joining us online, please join in good time before each lecture to ensure that you have no connection problems. We recommend joining 10-15 minutes before the start time. If joining from another time zone, please note that the first two lectures will take place from 2-3.15pm BST (UTC+1), whereas the lectures from 3 November onwards will take place from 2-3.15pm GMT (UTC).


Description Costs
Course Fee - in-person attendance (includes tea/coffee) £155.00
Course Fee - virtual attendance £140.00


If you are in receipt of a UK state benefit or are a full-time student in the UK you may be eligible for a reduction of 50% of tuition fees.

Concessionary fees for short courses


Dr Martin Holmes

Dr Martin Holmes is a member of the Senior Common Room at St Hugh’s College, where he was previously Lecturer in Politics for over 20 years. Additionally, he has been Director of the annual Nebraska at Oxford summer program since 1989. For the OUDCE he has taught several syllabi on the Foundations of Diplomacy course over the past decade, as well as guest lectures for the Diplomatic Studies Program. A strong supporter of lifelong education, he has also been a regular lecturer for the University of the Third Age (U3A). A specialist in International Relations and European Integration, he is the author of seven books. His latest publication, a diplomatic history of 20th century Europe, was published by Routledge in August: From the Treaty of Versailles to the Treaty of Maastricht: Conflict, carnage and cooperation in Europe 1918 – 93.


Please use the 'Book now' button on this page. Alternatively, please contact us to obtain an application form.

You can also register for individual lectures if you do not wish to attend the whole series.

IT requirements

For those joining us online

We will be using Zoom for the livestreaming of this course. If you’re attending online, you’ll be able to see and hear the speakers, and to submit questions via the Zoom interface. Joining instructions will be sent out prior to the start date. We recommend that you join the session at least 10-15 minutes prior to the start time – just as you might arrive a bit early at our lecture theatre for an in-person event.

Please note that this course will not be recorded.