Washington’s Missing China Strategy
To Counter Beijing, the Biden Administration Needs to Decide What It Wants
POLITICAL alliances are not, as Herr Hitler rightly remarked, concluded upon a basis of compatibility of temper; they are concluded for the purpose of assuring certain common ends. The history of Anglo-French relations during the last thirty-five years is a proof of that aphorism. Our national characters, and at moments our immediate national aims, have proved incompatible; it is because we have throughout been faced by a basic common danger that we have been obliged, in spite of many quarrels, to retain our connection.
The American people have a congenital sympathy for France. To the great mass of Americans, France signifies a fellow Republic inspired by a common faith in the rights of man. Gratitude to Lafayette is even today a constantly renewed inspiration and the American schoolboy learns to look upon France as a hereditary friend. Contacts between the two countries are sentimental rather than actual, and those richer Americans who visit France are charmed by the luxuries and elegances of her ancient civilization. True, the war and its aftermath have done much to diminish this sentimental legend; yet the feeling is there; it is vague but widespread; it might at any moment again become operative.
The British people do not share these sympathies. It is not only that our history books indicate that France has for centuries been hostile towards us, it is that the two national characters are diametrically opposed. The average Englishman (and most Englishmen are extremely true to type) is slow, unintellectual and puritan. He regards Frenchmen as vivacious, and therefore volatile; as nimble-witted, and therefore unreliable; as hedonistic, and therefore profligate. He mistrusts their politicians, whom he regards as treacherous and corrupt. He is irritated by their press polemics, which he attributes, and not without reason, to foreign subventions. And he dislikes their foreign policy, which jars on his isolationist feelings and makes him dread lest we be dragged into trouble "at the coat-tails of France."
These instinctive prejudices are not mitigated by personal contacts. Neither the French nor the British are good linguists, and the uneducated Englishmen who in their thousands visit France during the holidays are distressed and humiliated by their incapacity to make themselves understood. The French, for their part, are not fond of foreigners and are apt to adopt towards the incursions of us barbarians a purely commercial point of view. The Englishman thus feels that he is being exploited by people who are both ill-mannered and acquisitive. And it must be confessed that the French do not always display that good humor or patience which we ourselves try to show visitors from overseas.
The Germans, on the other hand, manage these things better. The English visitor to Germany is welcomed with open arms; he is spoken to in his own language and is assured on every hand how the great heart of Germany beats in unison with that of her British cousins. The similarity of physical type, the German interest in sport and bodily prowess, the extreme politeness of the German officials, all combine to impress the Englishman with the fiction that the Germans are essentially like ourselves. Upon such superficial impressions rests the strong pro-German feeling which, even today, animates large sections of Britain.
There is another point which is worth noting. The great majority of Englishmen who have knowledge of France or Germany acquired that knowledge very young. It is customary for many young Englishmen on leaving college to spend some months abroad, either in a French or in a German family. The impressions which they derive from such sojourns remain with them as profound convictions all their lives. The contacts which they have formed have generally been with younger people and owing to this circumstance the French are at a disadvantage. The German of eighteen or nineteen years of age is almost invariably a delightful human being; it is only when he reaches middle age that the German's less attractive qualities become apparent. Conversely, the young Frenchman of the same age is passing through an unattractive phase, and is all too often vain, arrogant and sensual. It is with middle age that the more solid and magnificent virtues of the French race come to the surface.
Thus whereas the virtues of the Germans are apparent to the youngest and most superficial observer, the virtues of the French are disclosed only to more adult or more studious minds. A man must have reached a certain standard of experience and culture before he is able to recognize that the merits of the French transcend any faults which they may possess. Let us admit that the French people are arrogant, insular, narrow, acquisitive, ill-tempered and suspicious. Let us also admit that they possess superb courage, amazing taste and extreme determination. Above all, let us admire the lucidity of the French mind and the brilliance of their attainments. Those of us who, as myself, have more affection for France than for any other European country, must realize that the pleasure we derive from the French genius is predominantly an intellectual or æsthetic pleasure. It is as such esoteric. It is not shared by, and cannot be communicated to, those who have little appreciation of literature, art or elegance. The intellectuals of England are a tiny group of eccentrics. The great mass of the people are impervious to the charm of the French mind. And it thus arises that, whereas the French are angered by our failure to appreciate their magnificent intellect, we are hurt by their tendency to describe our muddle-headed and often timid idealism as "Anglo-Saxon cant."
I have often sought to mitigate this incompatibility of temper by begging my French friends to concentrate upon our feminine characteristics, upon our gentleness, our tolerance and our kindness; and by begging my own countrymen to pay more attention to the virile qualities of France, to her energy, her endurance and her courage. I cannot say that I have been very successful. The fact remains that most Englishmen dislike the French and that most Frenchmen dislike the English. How comes it therefore that so uncongenial a relationship has survived all these years?
In the last two decades of the nineteenth century the friction between France and Great Britain became so acute that they found themselves at moments on the brink of war. We squabbled about Egypt, about Muscat, about Siam, about the Somali coast, about the Newfoundland fisheries, about the New Hebrides. The Fashoda incident all but provoked a conflict, and our humiliation of the admirable Major Marchand aroused feelings of vindicative bitterness in every French heart. During the Boer War the French public were solidly anti-British and some of the caricatures of Queen Victoria published during that period filled the British people with angered disgust. We retaliated by adopting at the time of the Dreyfus Case an attitude of unctuous self-complacency and by refusing to extend to France the slightest benefit of the doubt. An observer in 1900 would have asserted that any understanding between the two peoples was an impossibility.
During the years between 1895 and 1900 a change had, however, come over British policy. On the one hand the conquest of the Sudan and the impending conquest of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State produced a reaction against aggressive imperialism. Great Britain felt that it was high time that she became a satisfied and static Power. On the other hand the hostility aroused against us in Europe by the Boer War convinced our statesmen that we could not permanently maintain our "splendid isolation" or remain for ever estranged from the whole world. Early in 1898, therefore, Mr. Joseph Chamberlain opened tentative conversations with Germany. These overtures were treated with a dilatoriness which amounted almost to a rebuff. They were resumed in November 1899 during the visit of the Emperor William II to Windsor. On that occasion the Emperor appeared willing to consider an alliance and urged Mr. Chamberlain to advocate it openly. He did so in a famous speech delivered at Leicester ten days later. On December 11 following, Count Bülow responded to this speech in terms which startled Europe. Not only did he ostentatiously ignore the offer made by Chamberlain in his Leicester speech, but he reaffirmed in ardent terms the Triple Alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, and concluded his speech with an undisguised menace. "It is exactly," he said, "because our international position is now favorable that we must utilize it to make ourselves secure for the future." He then proceeded to advocate the strengthening of the German Navy: "Without power, without a strong army and a strong navy, there can be no welfare for us. . . . In the coming century the German nation will be either the hammer or the anvil."
Mr. Joseph Chamberlain decided to swallow this almost intolerable affront. He continued, through the intermediacy of Baron von Eckardstein, his tentative conversations with the German Government. These conversations were not assisted by the violent anti-British propaganda of the German press. Gradually British opinion came to realize that the most dangerous menace came, not from Paris, but from Berlin. Our Government began to seek friends elsewhere. Negotiations were opened for a Treaty of Alliance with Japan, which was concluded on January 30, 1902. Several weeks later Eckardstein, paying a farewell visit to Windsor, observed Mr. Chamberlain in close conversation with the French Ambassador, Paul Cambon. He approached as close as he dared. The ominous word "Morocco" caught his ear.
From that moment Anglo-German relations rapidly deteriorated. There was the dispute regarding Venezuela, the beginnings of the conflict over the Baghdad Railway, a controversy over Canadian preference, and a growing sense of commercial rivalry. These causes of conflict were aggravated by the new German program of naval construction. The German Navy Law of 1900 convinced British opinion that the Emperor and Admiral von Tirpitz were determined to challenge our command of the seas. Our own navy was rapidly reorganized and redistributed by Sir John Fisher. In October 1905 the first Dreadnought was laid down.
This short narrative of Anglo-German tension between 1896 and 1902 has been necessary in order to show how the British Government was edged into an understanding with France owing to the rejection of their overtures to Germany and the menacing attitude of the German Emperor and Navy League.
In July 1902 Lord Salisbury (who had a patrician distrust of French politicians) was succeeded in the control of foreign policy by Lord Lansdowne, who had French blood in his veins and who possessed a deep knowledge of French ways of thought. M. Paul Cambon played his cards with consummate skill. He opened tentative conversations with the Foreign Secretary and he enlisted the ready sympathies of King Edward VII. In May 1903 came that convivial monarch's famous state visit to Paris. With a single speech he wiped away all the bitterness of twenty years. The Entente Cordiale was born.
It was not sufficient, however, to have aroused some common sentiment, to have recognized a common interest, and to have sensed a common danger. Some more concrete elimination of differences was needed. An opportunity was provided by the British desire to dispose of the surplus funds of the Egyptian Caisse de la Dette and the French desire to establish a protectorate over Morocco. The agreement of April 8, 1904, provided for mutual concession on these two points. It also eliminated differences which had arisen regarding Siam, Madagascar, the Newfoundland fisheries and the New Hebrides. All outstanding controversies were, by this agreement, allayed.
It is interesting to consider what would have happened to the Entente Cordiale had not Germany reacted to it with her usual ineptitude. Although not unpopular in England, the 1904 agreement was regarded in France as a deplorably bad bargain. Had Germany behaved with skill and forbearance, it is more than probable that the Entente would have drained away into the sands of unpopularity. By taking immediate and forcible steps to break the Entente, Germany succeeded in welding it into something approaching an alliance.
Her first action was to despatch the unfortunate Emperor upon a sudden and dramatic visit to Tangier. By this means it was hoped to demonstrate to the world that Germany would never recognize a French protectorate over Morocco. "It is to the Sultan in his position of an independent sovereign that I am paying my visit today," he declared upon his arrival. The British public was not at the time incensed by this dramatic intervention. They felt indeed that M. Delcassé had made an error in ignoring Germany and that the Emperor's visit was a not unjustified reminder and rebuke. But when they learnt that a special German mission under the formidable Count Tattenbach was being sent to Fez, their anxieties became aroused. These anxieties were turned into indignation when the German Government brought about the dismissal of M. Delcassé. It was felt that France was in danger of losing her status as an independent Power and that, unless resistance were offered, Germany would dominate the continent of Europe. The French Government for their part were convinced that Germany was about to threaten war. They appealed to Sir Edward Grey, who had by then succeeded Lord Lansdowne, asking him what, in that event, would be the attitude of the British Government. Sir Edward refused to commit himself; he did, however, allow staff conversations between Generals Grierson and Hugeut; these conversations, which were expressly stated not to bind the governments, continued until 1914.
Meanwhile on the diplomatic front the solidity of the Franco-British Entente had been demonstrated at the Algeciras Conference, at which Great Britain had resisted all attempts on the part of Germany to drive a wedge between her and France. The Entente was still further strengthened by the conclusion of the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 and the strong support given to France by Great Britain during the Agadir crisis of 1911. By that time it was generally recognized that Europe was divided into two opposing camps: on the one side, France, Russia and England; on the other, Germany and Austria, with Italy as a somewhat volatile element between the two.
What, then, did France mean to us in those all-important years between 1904 and 1914? The agreement of 1904 had at first been regarded as little more than the removal of a tiresome controversy between powerful neighbors. Germany's attempt to force us by menaces to abandon this new-found friend added to what was mere negative appeasement the more positive factors of pride and loyalty. It was not love of France which cemented the Entente, it was a growing fear of Germany and an increasing dislike of her violent methods. We entered the war of 1914-1918 in a mood which was not so much pro-French as anti-German.
The tribulations of that great ordeal left Great Britain (as they left the United States) in a mood of disillusioned isolationism. They left France in a mood of nervous vindictiveness. Great Britain, having joined with the United States in refusing France the Rhine frontier, also followed the American example in repudiating the guarantee which we had offered as an alternative to that drastic measure of security. This was a grave error on our part. While it increased the isolationist feeling in England, while it deprived us of any justification for influencing French postwar policy, it encouraged the French in their desire to destroy Republican Germany economically and in their policy of encircling her by a ring of eastern allies.
Great Britain, during that period, assumed an attitude of somewhat sulky aloofness. We bickered with France over reparations and over the Arab question. We took a stand upon the Ruhr occupation which was just strong enough to excite her bitter indignation and not strong enough to restrain her from that cruel enterprise. The personal animosity between Lord Curzon and M. Poincaré added acerbity to this conflict. And then arose the Turkish question over which the Anglo-French Entente almost split.
It is not necessary to enter into the details of that unhappy wrangle. The British Government supported the Greeks. The French Government, while pretending to support the Greeks, entered through the intermediacy of M. Franklin-Bouillon into secret arrangement with the Turks. Denunciations and invective passed between London and Paris. On one occasion, at a Conference in the Quai d'Orsay, Lord Curzon burst into threats of mortification and rage. And in the end we were faced with a situation in which our troops at Chanak were menaced by the Turkish army and our allies the French threatened to abandon us to our fate. It was at this moment that the memories of a past danger endured in common were revived. The French General Staff did not relish the prospect of seeing British troops massacred while the French looked on. At the Conferences of Lausanne, which settled the Turkish question, Anglo-French amity was restored. The period from 1923 to 1930 was a period of comparative coöperation and calm. Locarno appeared to all of us to have settled the triangular problem of France, Germany and Great Britain in a reasonable way.
It would be impossible to understand these fluctuations in Anglo-French relations without realizing the difference which exists between the respective concepts of policy. The French have a constant directive in their policy, namely the fear of Germany; their eyes are forever fixed upon the blue line of the Vosges. With us, policy is a far less stable affair. We have no hereditary enemies and all we aim at is to prevent any one Power in Europe achieving such dominance as to reduce us to a position of subservience. We know that our vital organs are exposed to attack to a degree which the vital organs of France and Germany are not exposed to attack. You may defeat Germany or France and they will still remain Germany and France; if Great Britain were defeated, she would cease to exist as an independent Power. This intense vulnerability imposes upon us a certain empiricism in foreign policy.
The fact that we can never allow ourselves to become the inferior of any continental state obliges us to resist European domination. This principle is called "The Balance of Power." In the old days we sought to achieve that balance by forging armed alliances. After the war, we hoped to achieve it by the League of Nations. Unfortunately, the governing classes in Great Britain failed to realize that the League was a direct British interest. They imagined that it was a fantastic invention of President Wilson which bore but slight relation to our own security and might in fact imperil it. Thus, although the British public had vast sympathy with the ideal of the League, they failed to understand that it was essentially realistic. To them the phrase "collective security" was a mere electoral slogan without meaning other than that we might be drawn into the quarrels of the continent. This was a grave error.
It thus came about that Anglo-French relations, having survived the war, the Ruhr, Chanak and Lausanne, came into conflict over this League conception. For whereas we regarded the League as a valuable ideal which might become dangerous, the French regarded it as an instrument which might prove useful. They took the League too narrowly and we took it too vaguely. If their conception had been less precise and ours more realistic the League might have survived. In making it an instrument of policy, the French destroyed its moral efficiency; in regarding it as a desirable but rather imaginative theory we destroyed its practical effect.
At the time, for instance, of the Corfu incident of 1923, the British Government were anxious to demonstrate that the League could be efficacious against a Great Power. Our statesmen, as distinct from our public opinion, saw that this was an occasion on which it would be valuable to emphasize the League's functions in the Balance of Power. The French, being always obsessed by the monomania over Germany, imagined that action over the Corfu crisis would further weaken Italy. They thus manœuvred the Corfu incident out of the hands of the League and into the hands of the Conference of Ambassadors in Paris, with the result that it was settled in terms of the old diplomacy and not in terms of the League idea. That was a lamentable episode.
Almost exactly the same conditions arose over the Ethiopian crisis. M. Laval, thinking only of combinations against Germany, had in January 1933 made overtures to Mussolini and promised him, in return for Italian "friendship," a free hand in Ethiopia. The British Government (then under the influence of Anthony Eden) saw that the Ethiopian question would become the final test case of League authority. We desired to reaffirm the Balance of Power -- an expression which causes the lip of any good American to curl in scorn, but which in fact means "preponderance of power as against aggressive states." Unfortunately, Mr. Eden did not receive the support in the country or the Cabinet to which he was entitled. Although, at some risk, we could have overthrown Mussolini, the majority of the Cabinet preferred to capitulate. France and Great Britain became, for the first time, partners in disgrace. This partnership appears today indissoluble.
A similar trend of development has occurred over this Czechoslovak crisis. British opinion was divided into two camps. On the one hand there were those who foresaw that the destruction of Czechoslovakia by Germany would lead to German domination over Europe and the complete reversal of the Balance of Power. On the other hand there were those who believed in "appeasement," namely in the policy of conciliating Germany and Italy by concessions irrespective of their moral justification. The former school pointed out that such methods would destroy the Balance of Power, hand over all the small countries to German domination, leave Germany still unsatisfied and even more ambitious, and alienate democratic opinion throughout the New and the Old World. Such people were called "war-mongers."
It was curious, none the less, to observe how the Czechoslovak crisis cemented Anglo-French relations. In the earlier stages there was a feeling in this country that our relations with France were a danger to the Empire and that France was certain to drag us into a war over the Sudeten Germans. So soon, however, as it became apparent that the French were even more anxious to surrender to Hitler than we were ourselves, the feeling changed. On the one hand, we eased our conscience by the consideration that France had behaved with even greater treachery and cowardice than we had; on the other hand, France was delighted to discharge upon the broad back of Mr. Chamberlain the onus of defeat. A certain identity of feeling was thereby achieved. We both felt equally guilty; we both felt equally frightened; we both felt equally ashamed; we now both feel equally menaced.
Whether any firm basis for future coöperation can be found upon an equal sense of humiliation and of fear remains to be seen. There was a tendency at one stage for each side to blame the other. This tendency was short-lived. The linen on either side was so stained with dishonor that we each tacitly agreed to bundle it back into the clothes basket. It is probable that the Entente Cordiale will now be reformed again on a basis of joint ignominy and fear. It will be called "The Defense of the West."
It should be noted also that the British attitude towards France has been profoundly altered by the progress of aviation. London is extremely vulnerable to air attack and we well know that it is difficult for us to detect and prevent aircraft descending almost suddenly upon our docks and harbors from over the sea. France has therefore become for us a vital strategic feature; were France to become either an enemy herself or in possession of an enemy, our air defense would be immensely complicated. Conversely it is only by close coöperation between the British and French air staffs that the superiority of German aviation can be mitigated. This important consideration renders France more necessary to us than ever before.
What, then, do the French mean to us? To me they mean that lovely cultured country, the lush meadows of the Seine, the balance and beauty of French intelligence, the art of life. I fear that I am in a minority. I fear that to the French we mean a regrettable necessity and that to us the French mean unwelcome companions in adversity. We find ourselves in the same dug-out with the shells screaming around. That I suppose creates a certain sullen solidarity. It may be that when British opinion fully realizes what was lost at Munich, a great movement of national revival will occur. It may mean that when the French realize what Laval and Bonnet have done to them a similar outburst of indignant energy will take place. If that happens, then indeed the Entente will again live as the expression of all that is most virile and most idealistic in the two peoples. But if it does not happen, then we shall be united only by a slinking sense of shame.
Let me summarize my conclusions. The Entente in its origin was not a spontaneous understanding between two neighboring countries. It was born of a sense of weakness in face of the German menace. It began by a desire on our part at least to diminish the number of our enemies. Owing to German provocation this negative aspiration became a positive desire for coöperation. Gradually this crystallized into a united front against Germany, a front which triumphed in the World War. Thereafter came isolationism on our part, and on the part of the French a frantic search for security. In that search they organized future difficulties and created immediate problems which complicated our relations. Finally, when the swastika flung its shadow over our uneasy somnolence, we cowered close together as two orphans in a storm.
Is this too cynical a picture? As regards the politicians and the statesmen I do not think I have drawn it in too sombre a light. With the peoples it is different. Each feels that something has happened which is unworthy of itself. Each feels that -- deep below the superficial differences of character, aims and temperament -- there are basic ideals which we hold in common. We both hate cruelty, violence and untruth. Under all the diplomatic falsities of the Entente these fundamental verities are beginning to pierce. I believe that out of this disaster will grow an understanding between the two peoples which may be inarticulate, which may be intermittent, but which represents in the last resort an identity, not of interest only -- certainly not only of diplomatic manœuvre -- but of fundamental democratic determination.