You've successfully subscribed to American Purpose
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to American Purpose
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
Success! Your newsletter subscriptions is updated.
Newsletter subscriptions update failed.
Success! Your billing info is updated.
Billing info update failed.
In Rivalry, Magnanimity?

In Rivalry, Magnanimity?

A look at British relations with France and Germany before the Great War suggests that the occasional, well-considered concession to a rival can rebound to one’s advantage.

Eamonn Bellin

Is it ever wise for a nation-state to be magnanimous in an age of great-power competition? What problems can—or can’t—be solved, or relationships improved, through a policy of purposeful generosity, of wise concessions freely given? An important example is the Anglo-French Entente of 1904, in which two inveterate enemies achieved trust and understanding, in sharp contrast with the story of contemporary Anglo-German relations. At the turn of the 20th century, both France and Germany pursued British cooperation. France overcame British resentment and suspicion through generosity and restraint. In contrast, Germany marred decades of British goodwill by attempting to exploit Britain’s fears to extract concessions. France gave—and, in return, gained an ally. Germany threatened—and created an enemy.

Modern Anglo-French solidarity, which has withstood two world wars and helped build modern Europe, is a 20th-century invention. In the 1880s, when Admiral Jacky Fisher warned about a coming naval “battle of Armageddon,” the enemy he had in mind was France; and his prediction was sound. France was then under the spell of General Georges Boulanger, a prophet of revanche, who whipped his country into a war frenzy against Germany and Britain alike. From 1688 until 1815, France and Britain were locked in a “second Hundred Years’ War,” which raged across the globe. Even in the relatively peaceful decades that followed, it was only the French fleet that challenged British naval primacy, only French merchants who threatened British trade, and only the Tricolor that competed with the Union Jack for prestige.

Germany, by contrast, was viewed favorably in Britain. Germany’s ruling Hohenzollerns had married into Britain’s House of Windsor. Since the days of Louis XIV, German armies and British fleets had together resisted French aggression. Anglo-German amity was also the policy of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. When Britain enjoined Prussia to respect Belgian neutrality during the Franco-Prussian War, Bismarck complied. When the “Eastern Question” threatened war between Britain and Russia in 1878, Bismarck convened a peace conference in Berlin. When German merchants clamored for colonies, Bismarck gained London’s approval to acquire unclaimed lands. Most important, Bismarck scorned naval armaments, leaving Britain’s Royal Navy unchallenged in its home waters.

Yet by the end of the 19th century, both France and Germany wanted British friendship. The Franco-Prussian War had damaged French honor—and cost it Alsace-Lorraine. Afterward, Germany kept France isolated for decades; but in 1894, France concluded a military alliance with Russia. Europe was now divided, with Germany and Austria arrayed against France and Russia. Britain held the balance. Britain might have maintained its “splendid isolation,” but many realized by 1900 that its empire was overextended. As Joseph Chamberlain put it, the “weary Titan staggers under the too-vast orb of its fate.” Britain needed friends to guarantee its vulnerable interests.

Then, the unthinkable: France, long Britain’s nemesis, became its partner. Part of the reason was French Foreign Minister Théophile Delcassé, who was determined to make unreciprocated concessions to gain Britain’s goodwill and trust.


In July of 1898, after trekking over 3,500 miles, Captain Jean-Baptiste Marchand and his ragged band of soldiers arrived at the Sudanese fort of Fashoda and claimed it for France. Fashoda was strategically valuable; it lay near the headwaters of the Nile and was positioned to curb Britain’s southward expansion from Egypt. Since 1882, Britain had ruled Egypt as a client state at the expense of French influence there. Now, France stood athwart Britain and its ambitions to control the Nile. Fashoda tempted France with visions of an African empire stretching from the Atlantic to the Red Sea.

The French arrival at Fashoda provoked British anxiety. As the prime minister, Lord Salisbury, lamented in 1890, “Up to ten years ago, we remained masters of Africa.” But since then, Africa had become the “plague of foreign offices” as Europeans scrambled for colonial spoils. French command of Fashoda seemed to menace British positions everywhere east of Suez. In 1895, the British Foreign Office warned France that any incursion into Sudan “would be an unfriendly act and would be so viewed.”

Marchand’s arrival in Fashoda was ill-timed. In 1898, an Anglo-Egyptian army had just reconquered Sudan; thus, the British were able to surround Marchand at Fashoda. What followed appeared at first to be another Anglo-French standoff; but Delcassé, unlike his predecessors, recognized that France could not defy both Britain and Germany. Thinking the German danger greater, Delcassé sought rapprochement with Britain. Fashoda gave him his chance. By renouncing French claims in Sudan, Delcassé could reduce Anglo-French friction across Africa and open the door to diplomacy elsewhere.

Fashoda was not easily renounced; nationalists in Britain and France made the fort into a cause célèbre. But Delcassé defied popular pressure. He reached an agreement with Lord Salisbury: Marchand evacuated Sudan while the British and French recognized one another’s suzerainty over, respectively, the Nile and Congo basins. More important, Salisbury recognized that Delcassé desired a fair settlement of territorial questions. Here was a Frenchman with whom he could work.

Delcassé moved to capitalize on the Fashoda agreement. He dispatched Paul Cambon as ambassador to London. Cambon, too, wanted better Anglo-French relations. But in 1899, when he suggested discussions to resolve more general colonial questions, Salisbury rebuffed him: “I have the greatest confidence in M[onsieur] Delcassé and your present government.… But … their successors will make a point of doing exactly the contrary. No, we must wait a bit.” Delcassé waited three years. During that time, however, Chamberlain replaced Salisbury as the driving force in British foreign policy and promptly launched overtures to Germany.

It seemed that the seeds planted at Fashoda were barren.

Yet Delcassé persisted, resisting popular demands to exploit Britain’s difficulties in the Boer War. Finally, in 1902, Delcassé received his chance. Berlin, seeing itself as Britain’s only possible ally, demanded treaty arrangements of a comprehensive type that Britain had not given any country since the Napoleonic Wars. Chamberlain, frustrated with Germany, said, “Delcassé seems to me to have done much to make possible an Entente Cordiale with France, which is what I should now like.”

Delcassé sprang into action, instructing Cambon to settle colonial questions with the new British foreign secretary, Lord Lansdowne. In those talks, France recognized Britain’s primacy in Egypt and Britain recognized France’s position in Morocco. In April of 1904, the French and British governments ratified a diplomatic convention stipulating that the two countries would assist one another in maintaining their positions in Morocco and Egypt. A year later, Britain backed France in resisting German demands over Morocco. Recognizing the significance of the event, Delcassé observed that it “should lead us … to a political alliance with England.”


Meanwhile, Germany took British friendship and acquiescence for granted, embarking on a policy that threatened Britain’s prosperity and security: the construction of a North Sea battle fleet. German diplomacy toward Britain also became more erratic: Britain’s alliance overtures were met with evasions or unrealistic conditions. Later, diplomat Friedrich von Holstein was regretful: “England, that rich and placid nation, was goaded into her present defensive attitude towards Germany by continuous threats and insults on the part of the Germans.”

What moved Germany to “goad” Britain by building a navy? Historically, Prussia viewed the navy as ancillary to the army, valuable only for coastal defense. Wilhelm II of Prussia, however, believed that “our future is on the water.” The pursuit of Germany’s “rightful” share of commerce and colonies gave rise to a new political creed: Weltmacht. This would be achieved via “risk theory,” which, in turn, required a fleet “so strong that even for the adversary with the greatest sea power, a war against it would involve such dangers as to imperil his own position in the world.” The “adversary with the greatest sea power” was, of course, Britain.

Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the author of risk theory whom Wilhelm appointed to launch Germany’s navy, calculated that Britain “would be more conciliatory … if we were able to throw two or three highly trained [battleship] squadrons into the political scales;” Britain would then accept Germany’s ambitions abroad and support Germany against France and Russia. In 1896, Germany planned seventeen modern battleships. In 1900 the number was more than doubled, with plans for thirty-eight battleships by 1920. The British took notice. “The more the composition of the new German fleet is examined,” brooded the Admiralty’s Lord Selborne, “the clearer it becomes that it is designed for a possible conflict with the British fleet.”

Yet by 1901 Chamberlain was still looking to Germany as a partner in bolstering Britain’s vulnerable interests. Britain was vexed by Russian expansion in Asia and French ambitions in Africa. Germany, for its part, was unsettled by Russia’s encircling alliance with France. Supporting one another, Britain and Germany could stabilize these disturbances, but Berlin’s behavior was cool: The British, they thought, had nowhere to turn but Germany. If Chamberlain wanted German assurances, he should “show himself responsive on certain colonial questions.” Bernard von Bülow, Germany’s foreign minister, thought, “We ought not to show any uneasiness or anxious haste, we must just let hope shimmer on the horizon.” This aloof posture, however, paired poorly with Germany’s aggressive naval build-up.

Eventually, the Germans did respond concretely to Chamberlain. German ambassador to Britain Paul von Hatzfeldt proposed the British formally enter the Triple Alliance of Austria, Germany, and Italy. The British recoiled. Lansdowne told Hatzfeldt, “We do not for a moment think we could take it up.” Even Chamberlain was dismayed, saying, “I have had enough of such treatment, and there can be no more questions of an association between Great Britain and Germany.” The Germans could not be trusted. As King Edward VII put it, “For a long time at least, there can be no more question of Great Britain and Germany working together on any conceivable matter.”

None of this was enough to lead Britain to take France’s side when the guns of August sounded the arrival of the Great War. Yet Fashoda and the Anglo-German talks of 1901 merit attention because they illuminate behavior that drew France and Britain together and drove Germany and Britain apart. France continued Delcassé’s policy toward Britain—avoiding entanglements, offering support, seeking cooperation. Germany stubbornly went on believing that throwing “squadrons into the political scales” would make Britain deferential, but the opposite proved true. When war erupted in 1914, Germany was surrounded. Its policy of force had made it weaker. France, which had been isolated and impotent after the Franco-Prussian War, went into the Great War with mighty allies. Its policy of generosity had made it stronger.

The fact that France gained Britain’s favor and Germany its enmity underscores the importance of properly balancing magnanimity and force in diplomacy. The Germans distorted this balance, believing that strength alone would draw Britain into their orbit. The French optimally managed the balance, moderating their ambitions and offering concessions to overcome British suspicion, thus acquiring a powerful friend.

As leaders today compete to amass industrial, commercial, and military advantage, they should remember that an accumulation of strength for oneself should be tempered by a show of goodwill toward others. From George Marshall through Henry Kissinger, American leaders have generally understood this, allowing the United States in the years since 1945 not only to acquire power but to gain friends and thereby become more powerful still. The past, of course, only offers analogies. Reviving this tradition of magnanimous diplomacy may be neither feasible nor desirable for 21st-century America. Nonetheless, it behooves American leaders to recall their predecessors, to interpret historical cases like the Anglo-French Entente, and to determine the appropriate balance of magnanimity and force in diplomacy today.

Eamonn Bellin is the academic programs and editorial associate at the Alexander Hamilton Society, a nonprofit promoting foreign policy education and careers in public service for young people.

U.S. Foreign PolicyEurope

In 2022, we’ll remain dedicated to our mission—the defense, reform, and future of liberal democracy. You’ll see additional podcasts, a fellows program, in-person meetings, and illuminating new essays and published symposia. But your support is critical; we ask you to please consider a donation. American Purpose is a 501(c)(3) and contributions are tax deductible. To continue your generous assistance, click . To view our growing list of supporters, click here.

Best,
Jeffrey Gedmin, Francis Fukuyama, and the American Purpose team