Courtesy Reuters

Entente Infernale: How 300 Years of Anglo-French Rivalry Shaped the World

In This Review

That Sweet Enemy: The French and the British From the Sun King to the Present.

By Robert Tombs and Isabelle Tombs
Knopf, 2007
816 pp. $40.00
Purchase

Why read a long book on Anglo-French relations? Whatever the United Kingdom and France may have been in the past, they are secondary powers today -- character actors rather than protagonists on the stage of world history. And good arguments can be made that even the limited prominence in world affairs that the two countries currently enjoy is transient. The failure of the European Union to thus far develop an effective single foreign policy gives Paris and London and their relationship more prominence than they will have when (or if) the Europeans begin to speak with one voice. With the Soviets gone, the Europeans disunited, and China and India still at a relatively early point on the road to world power, the United Kingdom and France today look more important than they really are and are likely to be in the future.

So is the writing and the reading of That Sweet Enemy, however delicious and well researched the book is, more of an indulgence than a serious project? Instead of reading about foppishly Anglophile eighteenth-century French aristocrats or about bad nineteenth-century English cuisine, should we not be reading about coal production in China, labor-market reforms in India, and bureaucratic progress, or the lack of it, in Brussels today?

The answer is no. While it is true that the long-term absolute decline of both the United Kingdom and France as world powers is unlikely to end, their past still shapes the world today. The Anglo-French relationship -- or, more fully, the relationship between France and the leading Anglophone powers of the last three centuries -- remains an essential subject for the serious student of world affairs. During those three centuries, the Anglophones, or, as the French still say, the Anglo-Saxon powers, have built successive global hegemonies based on the principles of economic liberalism. France unsuccessfully vied for global power against the British from the accession of William III to the English throne, in 1689, to Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo, in 1815. Since

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