World Policy, Diplomacy and Imperialism

Pascal Venier, “World Policy, Diplomacy and Imperialism: International Relations on the Eve of the Entente Cordiale”, in James K. Hiller and Christopher J.B. English (ed.), Newfoundland and the Entente Cordiale 1904-2004, St. Johns, Newfoundland: Newfoundland Studies, 2007, pp. 13-21.

The purpose of this paper is to provide an overview of the diplomatic and strategic context to the signing of the Franco-British agreements of April 1904. This will firstly involve analysing the structure of the international system. It will be a matter of looking back at both the formation of Bismarck’s alliance system in the 1870s and 1880s, but also at the establishment of a new balance of power in Europe, following the Franco-Russian alliance of 1893-4. If the alliance system was often blamed for the outbreak of the Great War, it is clear that between 1871 and 1904, it played a decisive role in ensuring peace and stability. Furthermore, the idea of a Europe divided into two blocks seems to be rather misleading. Whilst it is often invoked, right or wrongly, in relation to the situation during the 1914 July crisis, it nevertheless remains that such an alleged bipolarity seemed nothing short of elusive around 1904.

The history of international relations between 1898-1914 has been the subject of more scrutiny, perhaps, than any other period of history ((Jacques Droz, Les Causes de la Première guerre mondiale: essai d’historiographie (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1973) and Annika Mombauer, The Origins of the First World War, Controversies and Consensus.)). This reflects the controversy over the question of responsibility for the outbreak of war in August, 1914. Thanks to the sheer mass of studies on the origins of the Great War, there is an impression of moving along well-trodden tracks when looking at international relations on the eve of the entente cordiale. It is all too easy to think of this historical moment as part of the seemingly irresistible logic of “the march to war,” or “the road to Armageddon ((Sir Valentine Chirol, Fifty Years in a Changing World (London: Jonathan Cape, 1928), pp. 284-303.)).” Hindsight can be deceptive, since looking at this period solely in the light of what we now know happened in July and August 1914 can introduce a major distortion in our understanding. It is better to stop thinking backwards, using 1914 as a starting point, and to study the period around 1904 on its own terms.

A number of very powerful images have a hold over the way we think about this period. Such images, conveyed by immensely prestigious figures, contemporaries and historians alike, have left a deep and lasting mark on our perceptions of international relations before the First World War. Learning to un-think seems a necessary stage in the process of rethinking this period. This paper will revisit how such notions as the “fateful alliance” ((George F. Kennan, The Fateful Alliance : France, Russia and the Coming of the First World War (Manchester : Manchester University Press, 1984).)), and the “struggle for mastery in Europe ((A.J.P. Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918 (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1954).)),” far from helping us to understand the dynamics of international relations in the period concerned, seem rather to impede it. One hopes that this will fulfil the challenging task of introducing this special issue of Newfoundland and Labrador Studies with a snapshot of international relations on the eve of the entente cordiale. On account of its unusually broad scope, the paper relies on the historiography rather than on archival sources. It will focus on diplomatic relations, as it is not possible in such a brief piece to do justice to what Pierre Renouvin called the “deep forces” (forces profondes) in a time of such rapid change that, to take but one example, between 1900 and 1913 the volume of world trade in manufactured goods doubled ((John A.S. Grenville, A World History of the Twentieth Century, vol. 1: Western Dominance 1900-1945 (London: Fontana Press, 1987), p. 19.)).


Prince Otto von Bismarck was able, in the years following the defeat of France at the hands of Prussia and its allies in 1870, and the subsequent foundation of the Empire of Germany in 1871, to impose himself as the arbiter of European politics((A.J.P. Taylor, op. cit.)). He made a name for himself as a master-craftsman of diplomacy by setting up a diplomatic system centred on Germany which was meant to ensure stability in Europe. He was later able to summarize in one formula, a – if not the – guiding principle of his diplomacy: “the importance of being one of three on the European chess-board. That is the invariable objective of all cabinets and of mine above all others. Nobody wishes to be in a minority. All politics reduce themselves to this formula: to try to be one of three as long as the world is governed by an unstable equilibrium of five great powers ((G.A. Craig and A.L. George, Force and Statecraft, Diplomatic Problems of our Time (London, Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 38.)).” The first Bismarckian system took the form of a League of the Three Emperors (or Dreikaiserbund), bringing together Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia (1873). This ensured the isolation of France, set on La Revanche (Revenge) after a humiliating defeat and Germany’s annexation of Alsace and Lorraine. The Dreikaiserbund also served, at least for a time, to restrain both the Habsburg monarchy and the Russian Empire, whose interests clashed in the Balkans.

The Eastern Crisis of 1877-1878 and the Congress of Berlin marked the collapse of the first Bismarckian system, and left Germany relatively isolated. The German Chancellor therefore began patiently to rebuild a network of alliances. The first and most important was the 1879 Dual Alliance with Austria-Hungary. Initially signed for five years but renewable, it became the cornerstone of German foreign policy. It provided for “mutual defence in the event of an attack by Russia and benevolent neutrality if either ally were attacked by a power other than Russia ((Ibid..)).” While the terms of the treaty were kept secret, its existence was not. This encouraged the Russians to seek a revival of the League of the Three Emperors in 1881. Renewed in 1884 for a further three years, the treaty amounted to an entente between the three conservative empires ((Pierre Renouvin, Histoire des Relations Internationales (Paris: Hachette, 1994), volume III, p. 87-8.)). The French take-over of Tunisia in 1881 caused severe Franco-Italian tensions, and Bismarck was able to bring together Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy to form the Triple Alliance on 20 May, 1882. Concluded for five years, it was renewed in 1887. Finally, when the second Dreikaiserbund lapsed following the Bulgarian crisis of 1885-6, on account of poor relations between Germany and Austria-Hungary, Bismarck, in a damage limitation exercise, managed to sign the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia. Its main provision committed each power to remain neutral in any war involving the other, unless it was a war of aggression in which Germany had attacked France or Russia had attacked Austria-Hungary. The Bismarckian system was further refined in 1887 with a series of agreements designed to preserve the Mediterranean status quo, which involved Britain, Italy and Austria-Hungary, as well as Spain. On the whole, this complex system, established and carefully nurtured by a grand master of diplomacy, was a success. It ensured both the maintenance of peace and German semi-hegemony in Europe.


Following Bismarck’s fall from power in 1890, Germany refused to renew the Reinsurance Treaty, leaving Russia isolated, but renewed the Triple Alliance and the Mediterranean agreements the following year. This opened the way for a most unlikely alliance between republican France, the nation of the Great Revolution, and autocratic Russia, a bastion of conservatism. The first step in that direction was, following the highly symbolic visit of the French fleet to Kronstadt in July 1891, the establishment of a Franco-Russian entente cordiale by a formal exchange of letters on 27 August, 1891. The two powers agreed to hold discussions about current issues which might disturb the peace generally, but also more specifically about the measures which would be necessary should one of them come under a threat of attack ((Alfred F. Pilbram, The Secret Treaties of Austria-Hungary (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1920), vol. 1, p. 207.)). This was a purely political accord, which ended French isolation, and was a major development in international relations. However, its transformation into a military alliance was a very slow process. Whilst the French and Russian heads of staff signed a draft military convention on 27 August, 1892, its ratification took no less than 18 months. The alliance was strictly defensive, providing the two allies with mutual security against an unprovoked attack from members of the Triple Alliance. It was to stay in place as long as the Triple Alliance existed ((Alfred F Pilbram, ibid; W.L. Langer, The Franco-Russian Alliance 1890-1894 (New York : Octagon Books, 1967; 1st ed. 1929), p. 394.)).

As a leading German historian, Erich Brandenburg, wrote in 1924, the Franco-Russian alliance “certainly entailed a serious change for the worse in the general situation of Germany ((Erich Brandenburg, From Bismarck to the World War (London, OUP, 1927; 1st German edition, 1924).)).” While it was not initially intended as a pact of restraint, it nevertheless came to operate as one. France was not disposed to encourage Russian aggression in the Balkans, and Russia was not interested in the question of Alsace-Lorraine. The alliance was limited in focus as well, since it was not intended to cover French endeavours in Africa, nor Russia’s expansionist policy in the Far East. But the Franco-Russian alliance of 1893-4 had very broad ranging implications, since it clearly created a new balance of power in Europe. As Paul Schroeder puts it, “the most important change in European politics after 1890 […] as everyone knows, was that Germany lost control of the system ((Paul W. Schroeder, “World War I as Galloping Gertie: A Reply to Joachim Remak”, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 44, No. 3. (September, 1972), p. 323.)).” In his analysis, such control passed for a time to Britain before it fell to France and Russia.
This marriage of convenience between autocratic Russia and republican France was never an easy match. However, cemented by French loans to Russia, it arguably became a tool with which to manage general European questions, and surely “the maintenance of peace” belongs to this category. In 1899, at a time when the possible break-up of the Habsburg Empire was giving cause for concern, the alliance was reshaped by the French foreign secretary, Theophile Delcassé, to provide for the “maintenance of the equilibrium between the forces of Europe.” Using documents from the Russian archives, W.C. Fuller has shown that during the staff talks of 1900 and 1901, Russia promised that it would mobilise “to oppose, with force if necessary, an aggrandizement of Germany at the expense of the integrity of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy ((AVPR, f. sekretnyi arkhiv ministra, op. 467, d. 374, l. 147, quoted in W.C. Fuller, Strategy and Power in Russia, 1600-1914 (Oxford : The Free Press, 1992), p. 387.)).” Following the Fashoda crisis of 1898, the provisions of the Franco-Russian alliance were extended, by defining contingencies should a war with Britain arise ((Pierre Renouvin, “L’orientation de l’alliance franco-russe en 1900-1901,” Revue d’Histoire Diplomatique, LXXX, (1966), pp. 193-204.)). This did not mean that France had hostile intentions towards Britain, but it wanted to ensure French security against any potential threat.


During and after the Great War, much of the blame for its outbreak was assigned to the practice of secret diplomacy and the way in which the international system operated. For the American historian Sidney B. Fay, writing in 1936, “the greatest single underlying cause of the war was the system of secret alliances which developed after the Franco-Prussian war ((Sidney B. Fay, The Origins of the World War (London : Macmillan, 1936), vol. I, p. 46; Nicholas Mansergh, The Coming of the First World War, A Study in the European Balance 1878-1914 (London: Longmans, Green, [1949]), p. 34.)).” Some powerful images and phrases were, and are still, closely associated with this interpretation. It was commonplace in the interwar period to speak of the “fateful alliances,” a term recently resuscitated by the American diplomat and historian George F. Kennan. Related to this was the image of a bipolar international system with Europe clearly divided into two hostile blocks, the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente ((George F. Kennan, The Fateful Alliance : France, Russia and the Coming of the First World War (Manchester : Manchester University Press, 1984).)). The latter tendency is perhaps best illustrated by Winston Churchill who wrote in The World Crisis that “two vast combinations, each disposing of enormous military resources, dwelt together at first side by side, but gradually face to face ((Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis (London: Thornton Butterworth 1923), volume 1, p. 17.)).”
Narratives in this mould tend sometimes to present the signing of the Franco-Russian alliance as a fateful step towards Europe’s division into two armed camps. It ought to be borne in mind, though, that the first step was the formation of the Dual Alliance in 1879, followed by the Triple Alliance in 1882. These were significant departures from the previous practice of international relations, since before this time alliances in peacetime were virtually unknown. If most alliances after 1879 were short-term, they were regularly renewed, as was the case with both the Dual and Triple alliances which, de facto, became permanent features in international relations. Likewise, the Franco-Russian alliance, initially meant to last as long as the Triple Alliance, was eventually transformed and made permanent at a time when it was feared that the Habsburg empire might well disappear altogether ((Christopher M. Andrew, “German World Policy and the Reshaping of the Dual Alliance”, Journal of Contemporary History, I (1966), 3, pp. 137-151.)).
The 1890s, the age of the New Imperialism, were marked by a clear shift of focus from European to extra-European issues. While imperial competition sometimes led to intense rivalries, it must be stressed that they did not lead to war, nor even a serious risk of war, among the European great powers ((F.H. Hinsley, Power and the Pursuit of Peace (Cambridge: CUP, 1963), p. 253.)). Even during the Fashoda crisis of 1898, while preparing for every eventuality, France never seriously considered rising to the British challenge ((Jean Defrasne, “Les forces armées françaises devant la crise de Fashoda”, Revue Historique des Armées, 1982 (4): 96-107; 1983 (1): 102-113.)). Virtually all the disputes arising overseas were settled by compromise and peaceful arrangements ((J.A.S. Grenville, A World History of the Twentieth Century, vol. 1: Western Dominance 1900-1945 (London: Fontana Press, 1987), p. 17.)). The only recorded case of actual belligerence, nothing more than a skirmish involving troops from French Equatorial Africa and from Leopold II’s Congo Free State, was incidental. On the whole, the diplomacy of imperialism did not result in an increase of tensions between the European powers, rather it probably lowered them.
A major development was that in 1902 Britain, departing from its traditional policy of avoiding alliances in peacetime, formed an alliance with Japan. This was noteworthy because it was both defensive and offensive. It not only provided for British neutrality in a war between Japan and another power, for instance Russia, but Britain was also committed to become a belligerent were Japan to find herself at war with two powers, for example Russia and France. It is commonly thought that “with the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902, Britain left her ‘splendid isolation’ and entered the alliance system ((Paul Schroeder, “Alliance, 1815-1945″, p. 212.)).” This needs qualifying, since the Japanese alliance remained the exception rather than the rule, in British foreign policy after 1902. Nevertheless, de facto, bipolarity was transformed into a tri-polarity. In 1903-1904, Europe remained a long way from being clearly divided into two camps. Thinking of international relations in this way can have a distorting effect.


Most historians today would agree with the view that in the summer of 1914 Wilhelmine Germany made a bid for hegemony in Europe. For instance, Paul Schroeder has no hesitation in writing that “most of what [Fritz Fischer] says about Germany and her bid for world power is true”; nevertheless qualifying this statement by immediately adding : “Many of his formulations and emphases are open to challenge” ((Paul W. Schroeder, “World War I as Galloping Gertie: A Reply to Joachim Remak”, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 44, No. 3. (Sep., 1972), p. 320.)). International relations specialists, on the other hand, have been conceptualising international relations in terms of “hegemonic cycles,” and it is often argued that the history of international relations in the period 1848-1918 can best be described as a “struggle for mastery in Europe,” to use the title of A.J.P. Taylor’s celebrated monograph published in 1948. But how helpful is such a formula in understanding the specificity of international relations on the eve of the entente cordiale? Harry Hinsley stressed that “There was an even longer period of peace between the Great Powers after 1871- it was to last till 1914 -than there had been between 1815 and 1854 ((F. Harry Hinsley, Power and the Pursuit of Peace (Cambridge: CUP, 1963), p. 253.)),” and also that “for thirty of these years – until 1900 – the new status quo in Europe was as unchallenged and as widely accepted as the pre-1854 situation it had replaced (( Ibidem.)).” This was still valid in 1903-1904. At the same time, “from 1890 on, Germany did pursue world power ((Paul W. Schroeder, “World War I as Galloping Gertie: A Reply to Joachim Remak”, p. 320.)).” This may be true, for what the Kaiser actually achieved remained extremely limited. “Beyond Europe, as within it, this was basically due to the operation of the new balance of power between the major European states ((F. Harry Hinsley, Power and the Pursuit of Peace, p. 249.)).”
Schroeder has suggested that “to understand international outcomes from 1890 to 1914, one must stop looking first and foremost at what Germany and Austria-Hungary were doing, and concentrate on the powers who held the initiative in world affairs, basically running the system and making it work for them ((Paul W. Schroeder, Systems, Stability, and Statecraft (London, Palgrave, 2004), p. 171.)).” J.P.T Bury has observed that, “although there were now two alliance systems, the nineties were characterised by such a complex fluidity of policies that they have been called the period of the ‘interpenetration of alliances (( J.P.T. Bury, “International Relations, 1900-12”, chapter XI, David Thomson (ed.), The New Cambridge Modern History, XII, The Era of Violence 1898-1945 (Cambridge, CUP, 1960), pp. 301-2; William L. Langer, Diplomacy of Imperialism, 1890-1902 (New York: Knopf, 1935), vol. I, p. 297.)).’” Since the 1880s, one of the two main foci of tension in Europe had been the rivalry between Austria-Hungary and Russia. However in 1897 the two powers reached an agreement which established a form of collaboration in the Balkans. This was reinforced in 1903. Furthermore, during the Russo-Japanese war, “an Austro-Russian treaty of neutrality in 1904 gave Russia invaluable security in her rear ((Paul Schroeder, Alliances, 1815-1945, 212.)).” The weakening of the Triple Alliance is also one of the main characteristics of the early twentieth century. Following the Franco-Italian agreement of 1902, France was now assured of Italy’s benevolent neutrality in a war against Germany. David Stevenson has very aptly characterized the position of Italy vis-à-vis the Triple Alliance as ‘semi-detached’ ((David Stevenson, Armaments and the Coming of War, Europe 1904-1914 (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 9.)). The fact that talks between the German and Austro-Hungarian general staffs ceased in 1896, to resume only in 1908, is also noteworthy ((Holger H. Herwig, “Disjointed Allies: Coalition Warfare in Berlin and Vienna, 1914”, The Journal of Military History, 54, (July 1990), pp. 272-274.)). Russia and Britain remained rivals on a worldwide scale, and British foreign policy-making remained primarily focused on the Russian threat.
The improvement of Franco-British relations between 1898 and 1903 was remarkable ((On the making of the Entente cordiale : P. J. V. Rolo, Entente Cordiale : the origins and negotiation of the Anglo-French agreement (London : Macmillan, 1969), Christopher M. Andrew, ‘France and the Making of the Entente Cordiale’, Historical Journal, X (1967), pp. 89-105 and Christopher M. Andrew, Théophile Delcassé and the Making of the Entente Cordiale. A Reappraisal of French Foreign Policy. 1898-1905 (London: Macmillan, 1968).)). This initially involved an evolution from a time when war was in sight during the Fashoda crisis of 1898, to a period of détente following the settlement of the question of the Sudan by the agreements of March, 1899. On the whole, despite French popular anglophobia, the French government maintained a benevolent attitude towards Britain during the South African war (1899-1902)((Pascal Venier, “French Foreign Policy and the Boer War” in K. Wilson (ed.), The International Impact of the Boer War (New York: Palgrave, 2001), pp. 65-78.)). It is not purely incidental that exactly two months after the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese war, the two powers concluded the series of agreements, one declaration and two conventions, settling their imperial differences, which is generally known as the entente cordiale. This was a starting point for a possible diplomatic collaboration. For the time being, both France and Britain had a mutual interest in ensuring that the Far East conflict remained strictly localised, and in avoiding being drawn unwillingly into war.

It is very tempting to describe 1904 as a dangerous year. The second half of 1903 had been marked by rising tension in the Far East, where Russia was increasingly involved in an expansionist policy. War broke out following the surprise attack on the Russian fleet in Port Arthur by the Japanese Imperial Navy on 8 February, 1904. The war presented a risk of expansion since, under the terms of the terms of the 1902 agreements, Britain was bound to join in a war between its ally and any two other powers ((Ian Nish, op. cit.)). It has therefore been suggested that the outbreak of the war between Japan and Russia opened a period of “imbalance of power ((Keith Wilson, Problems and Possibilities, Exercises in Statemanship 1814-1918 (London : Tempus, 2004), p. 168.)).” Irrespective of how the situation is envisaged, and although most contemporary observers initially believed that Russia would prevail, it opened the way to German initiatives. Historians have often asked themselves why Germany chose to go to war in July 1914, but not in 1905, when it had a much better “window of opportunity.” The answer is that the Kaiser’s mind was set on alliance construction, driven by his ultimate fantasy, the formation of a continental alliance. Accordingly, during the Russo-Japanese war, Kaiser Wilhelm II twice proposed an alliance to Russia ((Sontag, 1928.)). A first attempt in October 1904 was unsuccessful ((Jonathan Steinberg, “Germany and the Russo-Japanase War”, The American Historical Review, Vol. 75, No. 7. (December 1970), pp. 1977-1981.)) but in July 1905, the Tsar signed the Bjorkö Treaty, a defensive alliance, though the Russians denounced it just a few months later ((Roderick R. McLean, Royalty and Diplomacy in Europe, 1890-1914 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 50-51.)). The Kaiser was very aware of the weakness of the German navy and feared the destruction of the Kriegmarine in the event of war. He was probably correct. Sir John Fisher, Britain’s First Sea Lord, acutely aware of the “unprecedented strength of our Navy at the present time,” hoped for nothing less than the opportunity a war would provide to mount a pre-emptive strike on the German fleet ((Fisher to Lord Tweedmouth, 23 December 1905, in Arthur J. Marder, Fear God and Dread Nought, The Correspondance of Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher of Kilverstone (London: Jonathan Cape, 1956), vol. II, p. 65.)).
However, the entente cordiale did not develop into an alliance before September 1914, and Britain did what it could to mitigate the implications of the Japanese alliance ((Christopher M. Andrew, “The Entente Cordiale From Its Origins to 1914”, in Neville H. Waites ed., Troubled Neighbours, Franco-Britain Relations in the Twentieth Century (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1971), pp. 11-39.)). This is often considered to mark the end of British diplomatic isolation, but the very idea of a formal and binding alliance in time of peace was alien to British decision makers. The experience of the Russo-Japanese war, which showed how Britain might be drawn into a global conflict, served as a lesson. If the British could ill-afford to renounce the Japanese alliance, which was renewed in 1905, they could defuse its inherent risks, which they did by bringing about in 1907 a series of bilateral agreements with Britain, France, Russia and Japan. As American historian John A. White, has somewhat provocatively argued, it would perhaps have therefore been fairer to speak of a Quadruple, rather than a Triple Entente, in the years before 1914. Effectively, it was this entente, turned into an alliance, which negated the Bismarckian legacy and prevailed to the First World War ((John A White, Transition to Global Rivalry. Alliance Diplomacy and the Quadruple Entente, 1895-1907 (Cambridge University Press, 1995).)) .