USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

The British Alliance with France and Russia

The most peculiar outcome of late 19th and early 20th century diplomacy was the British alliance with France and Russia, its two principle antagonists on the world stage. Two things drove England’s alliance with its long-time nemesis, France. First, though the Anglo-German relationship had been quite strong in previous decades, it had started to rapidly deteriorate in the 1890s as Germany started to flex its muscle in the colonial world, especially in terms of naval armaments. This added pressure on Britain’s naval forces, which were already spread very thin around the globe. Britain had to maintain its naval presence over three oceans, as well as in the Mediterranean Sea. It was more than happy to share the financial and naval burden of policing the seas with the France. It is no surprise, then, that the first agreement between France and England was a naval defense pact, signed in 1902. The second reason why the English were friendly to the notion of agreement with France is that most of the sites of tension between the two states were relatively minor and had been worked out by 1900. Increasingly, hotspots of tension and conflict between the two long-time antagonists (like the Fashoda Incident) saw the establishment of recognized, agreed-upon borders and thus faded from public and diplomatic view.

The British relationship with Russia was similarly more about a cessation of acute threat and worry and less about any truly heartfelt alliance or mutual friendship. For decades, the Russian threat had provoked terror and thoughts of Armageddon in London, so much so that it became a main driver of British policy and action in India and Central Asia. By the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, however, the perception of the Russian threat was greatly diminished. Japan’s complete domination on land and at sea exposed the outmoded Russian Empire as much weaker than assumed. The British needed not orient their Indian policy around confronting a Russian land attack, after all. For Britain it was time the Russians were be brought into domain of responsible European diplomacy.

What’s striking about the formation of the British alliances with Russia and France is that neither was first and foremost directed against Germany. For Britain, the principle concern was not (as it was for France) European balance of power or the rising Germany. For Britain, the key was global power, naval power, and economic might. True as this may be, the following decade after 1905 saw a dramatic deterioration of the Anglo-German relationship.

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