On April 8, 1904, French Foreign Minister Théophile Delcassé took a telephone call from Paul Cambon, his ambassador in London. “C’est signé!” Cambon roared into the phone—“It is signed!” The modern era’s most significant treaty, the Franco-British Entente Cordiale was signed.
What had been one of the world’s most significant historical rivalries from shortly after the Norman Conquest in 1066 up to that April day in 1904, was over. France and England reached agreement on a host of issues, specified and sorted out in painstaking detail through three treaties signed at once. The world would never be the same.
The treaties were breathtaking in scope and audacity. The first treaty addressed issues as diverse as French fishing rights to claims in Gambia and Guinea. The second treaty resolved issues regarding Egypt and Morocco. The final treaty concerned Siam, Madagascar, and the New Hebrides. With the stroke of a pen, Great Britain and France resolved nearly every standing issue between the two countries, some of which dated back almost three hundred years.
Although neither side understood it at the time, the treaty also laid the groundwork for what would later become joint Franco-British maneuvers and finally the formal Franco-British alliance in World War I. The rest, as they say, is history… history U.S. leaders attempting to change the world through great power diplomacy would be well advised to consider.
It may be tempting to look back at 1904 as long ago, but in a sense the world at the turn of the century was not terribly different from our own, albeit with some different players. While radio, television, and the internet had not been invented, mass communications via telegraph, telephone, and printed dailies occupied a similar role in the public conversation. Populations and the press, suspicious of the hidden machinations of diplomacy and government, frequently lobbied for more transparency in foreign and domestic policy, occasionally aided by rival parties in both French and British parliaments. While the world was more multipolar than it is today, Great Britain’s place was not unlike the contemporary United States as she was the chief among equals, and could boast greater expeditionary military power than any of her near-peer competitors. Like the U.S. today, the British Foreign Office noticed the beginnings of a decline in relative power compared to other countries, particularly Germany and Russia.
With these similarities in mind, there are two valuable lessons to learn from studying the Entente Cordiale and one major warning. Taking a walk through events at the turn of the 19th Century will provide insight into our own world at the turn of the 21st.
Lessons of the Entente
For the first lesson, it is necessary to look to the years immediately preceding the Entente. Historical grievances between the United Kingdom and France existed long enough by 1904 to have grown into cultural norms and stereotypes. Some of these issues could endanger political careers and even governments if not handled properly. France, in particular, had a demonstrated history of instability over foreign policy issues including the African Colonization, the Panama Scandal, and the infamous Dreyfus Affair. Making deals was no less fraught with political risk then than it is today.
Progress began on the Entente in 1899, a full five years before the actual Entente came to fruition, when French Prime Minister Delcassé set the course for a rapprochement with her British rival in the aftermath of the 1898 Fashoda Crisis in Egypt. In the short term, this new strategic direction produced a single, limited treaty settling the borders of Egypt and the Congo. In the wake of that treaty and the retirement of the notoriously isolationist Lord Salisbury from the British Foreign Office, Delcassé proposed a new, more sweeping treaty in 1900.
The reaction in both countries was disappointing. The British Foreign Office noted the French popular press’ virulent hatred for the proposed treaty, attributing it to the “feeling that we are always getting the better of them all over the world.” While they may have chuckled at French outrage over the proposed treaty, the mood in Britain was not much better. The British press still regularly castigated the French over the systemic anti-semitism revealed by the Dreyfus Affair five years earlier. Such was the outcry from both sides of the channel that meaningful official diplomacy did not resume until 1903.
Still, private societies analogous to today’s think tanks and councils sprung up with the goal of advancing Franco-British relations. Most notable was the Entente Cordiale Association, which scored a major coup by securing public backing from the Prince of Wales who maintained his support when he ascended to the throne in 1901 as Edward VII.
His official visit to Paris in May of 1903 proved an unequivocal success. On the French side, Delcassé did not let the opportunity to push for a treaty slip him by. Between Edward VII’s official visits and public itinerary, Delcassé lobbied the King during private meetings. Edward VII’s embrace of the goal of better relations combined with his excellent personal diplomacy impressed the French. By the end of Edward’s visit, Delcassé and French President Loubet had scheduled their reciprocal visit to England in July and the stage was set.
During the months intervening between visits, the French and British Foreign Offices enjoyed the public political cover provided by their respective heads of states. Under pressure to resolve things as British-allied Japan and French-allied Russia ramped up tensions in the East, the diplomats set to work exchanging lengthy telegrams, conferring with both national parliaments, and sending difficult issues to committee. Delcassé proposed a sweeping treaty the day after he arrived in England, telling Lord Lansdowne, the British Foreign Minister, that he was “entirely in favor of a comprehensive settlement” between the two long-standing rivals.
Months of work and several near-derailments later, Cambon placed his celebratory call to Delcassé, made possible because of dogged commitment to the idea of an agreement agreed to by the highest levels of government and ratified in the popular press by skillful public diplomacy.
The lesson for policy makers is as obvious as is it profound. Paradigm shifting diplomacy is difficult, politically risky, and time-consuming, so it requires unwavering commitment to see it through. Every political entity involved, from the British and French Foreign Offices to Delcassé and Lansdowne undertook risks to their careers, parties, and governments.
Rather than hide behind those risks, Delcassé, Cambon, Edward VII, and Lord Lansdowne—who held positions analogous to the American President, ambassadors, and Secretary of State—led instead of followed public opinion. Instead of kowtowing to the easy, reflexive, anti-French or anti-British sentiment of their respective populations, French and British leaders made their case for diplomacy. In both countries, members of parliament listened to the reasoned arguments put forward by their Foreign Offices and chose difficult peace over easy conflict. Delcassé even went so far as to keep the substance of some discussions with the British secret from his cabinet, lest political opportunism and leaks to the press endanger the chances for a deal. While this jeopardized his career, it illustrates the depth of commitment required to see through truly world-changing diplomacy.
In addition to being fraught with political danger, the Entente process was slow and moved in fits and starts. Again, the principals—whether politicians, kings, or private societies—refused to give up, with an attitude best summed up by Lord Cromer, British Consul-General of Egypt, who wrote Lord Lansdowne in late 1903, “We must come to terms. We must not fail.” When negotiations broke down, both the civil servants and politicians resisted the urge to issue public recriminations blaming the other side and, for the most part, politicians not directly involved in the negotiations did not insert themselves for easy political gain.
The second lesson to be learned from the Entente is more subtle than the first: when it comes to difficult diplomacy, a comprehensive approach may be better than a piecemeal approach. Had the British and French attempted to solve the wide-ranging issues addressed in the Entente one at a time, the political capital and goodwill Edward VII and Delcassé amassed during their 1903 trip would have been frittered away in arguments in parliament and the press. Without the assurance that all five treaties would be signed at once as a single package, the Entente would have foundered on the uncertainty that remaining issues would ever be resolved. Delcassé and French Ambassador Cambon understood this probably better than anyone involved, which explains why Cambon insisted that the Entente had to be comprehensive or not at all, and held the entire talks hostage until each specific matter could be resolved.They understood that to alleviate the historical tensions and turn the page on Franco-British relations, everything had to be resolved. This approach proved wise, because while every decision maker in both England and France found something in the final treaty to object to, the ultimate prize of a Franco-British reset proved too much to pass up over less significant issues.
U.S. leaders should consider the wisdom of this approach when negotiating with states with which the U.S. has long-standing historical frictions such as Iran, Russia, or North Korea. By presenting agreements as packages rather than single deals, the all-or-nothing approach helps get recalcitrant political figures on both sides in agreement as well as highlight each country’s obvious win for their respective domestic audiences. In contrast, a piecemeal approach means risking a breakdown in negotiations due to domestic concerns as opposing political factions or the press paint the negotiations as giving up too much and encourage skepticism that they will emerge winners on future points. Since this is a danger after each agreed-upon treaty, the more items there are for discussion, the less likely a piecemeal approach yields success.
To discover the warning the Entente Cordiale yields for U.S. policy makers it is necessary to uncover the true underlying causes for both France and Great Britain’s push for the Entente. The popular view, as seen through the retrospective lens of two world wars, is the Entente was aimed at countering German power. This view of the Entente Cordiale is a mischaracterization that conflates historical cause with historical effect. The reality is something altogether different.
...the French dreaded having finally escaped Bismarck’s imposed isolation via their alliance with Russia only to be dragged into conflict with Great Britain because of it.
From the French perspective, while they certainly saw Germany as a threat at the turn of the century—only 33 years removed from their thrashing in the Franco-Prussian War—the Entente was designed to prevent war with England, not as the foundation for a future partnership. There is no French correspondence, official or otherwise, that supports the idea of the Entente as the beginnings of an anti-German alliance, nor any indication that France had designs on countering German influence in Africa or elsewhere. When the French government began its tentative moves towards the Entente in 1899, warming Anglo-German relations concerned Delcassé, but the Entente was signed after the Boer War when French fears of an Anglo-German alliance had all but disappeared.
In fact, by the time the Entente was signed in 1904, by far the biggest driver for the French was the fear of being dragged into a war with the United Kingdom via a Russian conflict with Japan, with whom Britain had just signed her first peacetime general alliance post-Napoleon in 1902. Given that the terms of the Anglo-Japanese treaty were secret, the French dreaded having finally escaped Bismarck’s imposed isolation via their alliance with Russia only to be dragged into conflict with Great Britain because of it.
Delcassé and the French government had no desire to fight the United Kingdom on behalf of the Russians—certainly not over Russo-Japanese differences that concerned Paris not one whit—and felt the best way to head off the possibility of unintentional war was to resolve all major differences between the two countries. There is no evidence that the French government viewed it as the pathway to anything else.
The British were even more concerned at the possibility of being dragged into war with both Russia and France via their 1902 treaty with Japan. Although the secret terms of the treaty specified that Great Britain need only intervene in the case that Japan faced attack by two major powers, this did little to allay British fears because the terms of the Franco-Russian treaty were also secret. British strategists feared that if Russia declared war on Japan, the terms of the Franco-Russian alliance might compel France to declare war on Japan—thus putting Japan under attack by two major powers and triggering a British declaration of war on both France and Russia and beginning a general European war. This provided the primary impetus to resolve differences between France and England. Germany scarcely warrants a mention in Lord Lansdowne’s letters from the time, and there is nothing to suggest that the collective minds of the Foreign Office were occupied by anything besides the Russian threat in 1904. Given the trouble His Majesty’s government faced not two years after the ink had dried on their precedent-setting 1902 treaty with Japan, it seems highly unlikely the British would have been in any hurry to sign yet another alliance.
In this historical understanding the Entente’s warning reveals itself: perception is reality. Contemporary observers may take solace that they are not alone in misunderstanding both the true goals of the Entente—the lessening of tension—and the true state that drove England and France together—Russia.
Germany also misunderstood and misconstrued the Entente, to horrible effect. The Kaiser was furious. He and his advisors saw every French diplomatic move as aimed at them and regarded any successful negotiation as the prelude to an anti-German partnership. Worse, German diplomats had long felt sure that if England turned to anyone in Europe for help in countering the Russian threat to British territories in the East it would be to the German-led Triple Alliance. True intent of the Entente was to reduce the chance of a European war, but the Germans assumed the it was an attempt to form an anti-German block aimed at winning a European war. The Kaiser’s policy based on that assumption became a terrible self-fulfilled prophecy. Reassuring diplomatic overtures to Germany would have been well-nigh politically impossible for the French government, but quiet reassurances from the British Foreign Office would have cost little and saved much. Lansdowne, brilliant strategist and statesman, never made the effort.
U.S. leaders attempting future paradigm-shifting diplomacy cannot afford to make the same mistake. The lesson is a stark one: no matter what the intentions of a treaty are, it is imperative to understand how other international players see it—even ostensibly uninvolved ones. A hypothetical comprehensive deal with China must involve reassurances to not only Vietnam, India, the Philippines, and Japan, but also to Russia, the EU, and even North Korea. A future holistic agreement with Iran must have a messaging campaign that begins before negotiations start to allay concerns from Russia, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. Likewise, major rapprochement with Russia must come with promises and explanations not to just to NATO allies and the European Union, but to the Scandinavian countries, Turkey, Iran, and China.
The Entente Cordiale proves historic world-changing deals are not out of the question by illustrating that even hundreds of years of rivalry, suspicion, and occasional warfare can be tackled—provided the political resolve is present, the diplomats and leaders are skilled, and the stakes high enough. What’s more, while the Entente offers signposts along the way to paradigm-changing diplomatic success, it also stands as a grim warning of the consequences of mistakes on such a grand stage.
David Dixon is a former active duty Armor officer who now serves in the South Carolina Army National Guard. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Army National Guard, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: Postcard celebrating the Entente Cordiale (Grenville Collins Postcard Collection)
 Keith Eubank, Paul Cambon: Master Diplomatist (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1960), 87.
 G.P. Gooch and Harold Temperley, eds., British Documents on the Origins of the War 1898-1914 (vol 2), 373-384. From the full text of the convention.
 Ibid., 385-395.
 Ibid., 397.
 John F. V. Keiger, France and the Origins of the First World War (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983), 6.
 As measured in fleet tonnage. See Zara Stiener, “Great Britain and the Creation of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance,” Journal of Modern History 31, no. 7 (1959) and George Modeliski and William Thompson, Seapower in Global Politics, 1494-1993 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988) for for a more in-depth breakdown of relative fleet strengths by year and era.
 British Documents, (vol 2), 108. Lansdowne to MacDonald.
 Frederick Schuman, War and Diplomacy in the French Republic: An Inquiry into Political Motivations and the Control of Foreign Policy (New York: Howard Fertig, 1969), 167.
 Christopher Andrew, Théophile Delcassé and the Making of the Entente Cordiale: A Reappraisal of French Foreign Policy 1898-1905 (London: St. Martin’s Press, 1968), 45.
 British Documents (vol. 2), 287. Maquess of Defferin to the Earl of Rosebery.
 Schuman, War and Diplomacy, 170.
 Ibid., 169.
 British Documents (vol. 2), 289-298. Correspondence between Lansdowne and Monson.
 Ibid., 294. Lansdowne quoting Delcassé to Monson.
 Andrew, Théophile Delcassé, 99.
 Eugene Anderson, The First Moroccan Crisis 1904-1906 (Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1966), 92. Italics in original.
 Ibid., 213.
 Stiener, The Foreign Office, 47.
 Albrecht-Carrie, Britain and France, 311.
 British Documents (vol. 2), 224. Lansdowne to Monson.
 Schuman, War and Diplomacy, 251.