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France’s bitter war of survival from 1914 to 1918 shaped every aspect of its
foreign and security policy. The conflict created the political conditions necessary for internationalist ideas about peace and security to become much more
influential. Although internationalist impulses existed within the political and
policy elite over this entire period, it was the experience of the Great War that
presented internationalists with the opportunity to bring alternative conceptions of peace and security into the policy mainstream. French security professionals were forced either to adapt to changes in the internal and external
environments or face marginalisation. This process took time. At no point was
the internationalist vision of security ever dominant. But by the middle of the
post-war decade the traditional conception no longer enjoyed the status of a
practical logic. A new approach had evolved that combined traditional with
internationalist approaches, the balance-of-power reflexes of French security
professionals with the muscular internationalist doctrines of Cartel political
leaders. The result was a multilateral security policy based on mutual assistance and the rule of international law that, at the same time, attributed decisive
importance to British power. Reconsidering the course of French policy within
an analytical framework of contending conceptions of security provides a new
perspective on the international politics of this crucial period. The history of
the period looks very different when the influence of internationalist ideas is
taken seriously.
An analysis spanning the period before, during and after the Great War draws
out interesting continuities that have been missed in the existing literature. Among
the most important are the links between the legalist character of French internationalist thinking before 1914, the juridically inspired programme for a ‘society
of nations’ put forward by Bourgeois at the peace conference in 1919 and French
attempts to bolster the collective security provisions of the League Covenant in
1924–5. Also interesting and important is the role attributed to compulsory
arbitration by juridical internationalists at the turn of the century and its pivotal
status in French planning for both the Protocol and Locarno. One scholar of
inter-war Europe has observed recently that a tendency to underestimate or
ignore the vitality of internationalism is a distinctive feature of the international
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history of this period.1 This is certainly true in the case of France. Also
neglected, but equally important, is the persistent inclination to engage
with democratic elements inside Germany throughout this period. Such
engagement was of course a fundamental tenet of socialist internationalism
and was advocated consistently by every SFIO spokesperson on foreign
affairs. But it was also an important feature of the long-term policy conceptions of Clémentel, Aubert and Clemenceau in 1919 and of key figures such
as Seydoux, Loucheur and Herriot in the 1920s. This current in thinking
about long-term security would gain its fullest expression in Briand’s project
for a federal Europe.
There are also important continuities in various conceptions of economic
security. Before the outbreak of war, French and German heavy industries
seemed on the road to ever greater integration. At the heart of their relationship
was France’s shortage of coking coal and the German market for Frenchproduced iron ore. Support for reviving this relationship after the war survived
the ambiguities of French economic security planning during the conflict. The
economic programme adopted by the Clemenceau government in 1919 aimed
above all at the construction of a transatlantic regime of economic cooperation
that would be strong enough to underpin Europe’s economic recovery while at
the same time enmeshing and restraining Germany. The assumptions underpinning this strategy endured even after hopes for American cooperation
evaporated. The need for Franco-German commercial and industrial cooperation was at the centre of various plans to settle the reparations issue developed
by Seydoux, Monnet and Loucheur in the early 1920s. The temporary resolution of this issue brought about by the Dawes Plan also hinged on international cooperation and was interpreted, on the French side at least, as a prelude
to more extensive economic arrangements between France and Germany. This
strategy came to partial fruition with the negotiation of the International Steel
Entente in September 1926. It was given more comprehensive expression with
the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951. The vision
of a European economic community mooted by Seydoux in the 1920s anticipated in important ways that of Robert Schumann in 1950.
A longer chronological span at the same time highlights a number of interesting discontinuities. Among the most striking is Briand’s evolution from a
committed practitioner (and passionate defender) of power politics in 1916–17
to Europe’s foremost prophet of multilateral cooperation under the League of
Nations. Briand’s political transformation probably tells us more about the
underlying trends at work in the domestic and international political contexts
than it does about the development of his personal belief system. His convictions evolved in response to deeper transformations in attitudes towards peace
and security both in France and abroad.
D. Lacqua, ‘Preface’ to D. Lacqua (ed.), Internationalism Reconfigured: Transnational Ideas and
Movements between the World Wars (London, 2011), xii.
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Another discontinuity is the sharp decline of military influence over this
period. In 1919 France’s senior military leadership enjoyed tremendous symbolic power in the realm of national security. Although Foch was outmanoeuvred
by Clemenceau, his opposition to the Versailles settlement provoked a political
crisis in France. Five years later, when the entire military establishment lined up
to oppose the Geneva Protocol, their opposition was muted in the public sphere
and easily brushed aside by Herriot and Briand. A necessary cause for the
progressive marginalisation of the high command was the changed political
context of the post-war era. Military prescriptions for security were profoundly
out of step not only with international norms of the 1920s but also with the
evolution of attitudes towards war and peace inside France.
Integrating the history of French policy making with the historical literature
on internationalism provides other insights. French juridical internationalists
were part of a much wider network of civil society activism not only through
their involvement in the transatlantic peace movement but also by their membership in the emerging profession of international law. The similarities
between the highly juridical visions of the Association de la paix par le droit
in France and the League to Enforce Peace in the USA are striking. They are
fascinating not least as an example of the way political ideas moved across
linguistic and oceanic divides in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At the same time the episode of the peace conference illuminates the
important differences between the French conception of international organisation, with its emphasis on automatic sanctions and a robust machinery of
enforcement, and the more abstract ideas of Smuts, Cecil and Wilson. Lloyd
George’s private secretary Philip Kerr was right when he observed ‘when we
talk of peace we mean a moral situation . . . [but] . . . when the French talk about
peace they mean a juridical situation . . . Peace for them means the Treaty of
Versailles as the political structure of Europe with irresistible force behind it.’2
The use of force was a vital element in juridical internationalist doctrine.
Pascal’s maxim concerning the interdependence of force and justice was –
and remains – central to all French thinking about political order. It has been
invoked by politicians and political theorists of all ideological positions over the
past two centuries. It has also been central to the interpretation advanced in this
book, not least because it provided the necessary common ground for the
marriage of traditional and internationalist visions that underpinned Cartel
security policy in 1924–5.
It is strange that this dimension of French policy remains absent from the
historiography of the League of Nations. Even the most recent work on the
origins of the League, for example, fails to acknowledge that French proposals
rested on a substantial and coherent body of theorising on the nature of
National Archives of Scotland, GD40/17, Papers of Philip Kerr, 11th Marquess of Lothian, vol.
241, Kerr to Lord Houghton, 24 May 1928.
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international peace and security.3 Here, as in so many other cases, the untenable divorce between the history of internationalism and that of policy making
has allowed basic misconceptions to endure and remain central to prevailing
wisdom. The same is true of recent work done on the remarkable growth of civil
society support for the League of Nations in France in the mid-1920s. This
research sets the internationalism of the Cartel des gauches in its proper
context. The Cartel’s emphasis on a powerful League based on a robust regime
of international law and with the power to impose military sanctions was an
expression of French internationalist thinking stretching back into the nineteenth century. This vision of international security endured as a central
principle of policy-making into the 1930s. It underpinned the ‘constructive
plan’ for an international force put forward by Paul-Boncour at the World
Disarmament Conference in November 1932. It was also at the heart of the
demand for inspection and verification central to every French proposal for
arms limitations through to the late 1930s. These and other connections
between pre-1914 thinking and post-1918 policy have been missed almost
entirely in the existing literature.
A different set of insights has been derived by integrating the cultural history
of the First World War with that of security policy making. Official representations of the war as a struggle to restore the rule of law complemented the
juridical internationalist campaign for ‘peace through law’ in fascinating ways.
Just as important was the discourse of democracy versus autocracy that was
deployed with increasing vigour after the collapse of Russia and the entry of the
USA into the conflict. The unintended consequences of casting the meaning of
the war in these terms came home to roost during the parliamentary crisis over
war aims in June 1917. It was in the aftermath of the dramatic closed-session
debates that the Ribot government followed through on its commitment to
establishing a League of Nations by appointing the CISDN under the leadership of Bourgeois.
At the centre of wartime debates over France’s security was a fascinating
paradox. For some, the unprecedented sacrifices made to secure victory in
1918 illustrated the need for total security and thus the permanent transformation of the balance of power in France’s favour. For others, however, these same
sacrifices provided the most powerful argument conceivable for eradicating the
balance of power as a source of security. The dynamic tension between these
opposing conceptions of security has been the focus of this book. The year 1917
was the crucible within which popular attitudes towards peace and security
began to be reshaped in the French public sphere. Traditional power politics
were increasingly discredited as a basis for international security while support
for alternatives based on international cooperation began to gain traction.
See, for example, M. Mazower, Governing the World: The History of an Idea (London, 2012),
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These tectonic shifts in the structural environment had profound consequences for security policy. A persistent trope in memoir accounts of this
period is a sense that the First World War had created a new and very different
world that was ‘big with new ideas’.4 France would need to adapt to its new
environment if it wished to retain its influence in international relations.
Responses to this challenge were conditioned by the cultural backgrounds
and practices of policy agents. Of the three major security policy constituencies, politicians and diplomats proved better equipped in a cultural sense to
adapt to the rules and norms of post-1918 international politics. Negotiating
skill is a fundamental requirement for both politicians and diplomats. Both
constituencies tend to lose influence during wartime. The core function of the
soldier, conversely, is to apply military force in pursuit of policy aims. It
followed, then, that cultural predispositions of French military elites were
less suited (and less easily adaptable) to policy making in a European context
where military violence was increasingly ruled out as a legitimate tool of foreign
policy.5 Bourdieu’s theory of cultural action has provided a helpful framework
for better understanding these dynamics.
The concept of a ‘practical logic’ is also useful for identifying and understanding the role of traditions and beliefs in shaping policy responses. For most
of this period, the traditional approach to security constituted a practical logic
for both political leaders and security professionals. The existence of
internationalist-inspired counter-currents did not threaten the dominant status
of traditional practices. The advent of Clemenceau, and his decision to concentrate all important planning and decision making with himself and his close
circle of advisers, posed a much greater threat to the traditional practical logic
than did internationalist calls for a new approach to international politics.
Clemenceau did not openly challenge the legitimacy of traditional practices.
On the contrary, he proclaimed his commitment to traditional security concerns before parliament. Yet under his leadership, French security policy
pursued an ideological vision based on a transatlantic community of democratic power into which a reformed Germany could eventually be integrated.
The peace settlement that resulted was an ambiguous and open-ended
arrangement that was far from a classic expression of traditional power politics.
This change in course was in part a product of the structural limitations placed
on French policy choices by the other peacemakers. But it also reflected
Clemenceau’s political convictions and those of his inner circle.
Although the end of Clemenceau’s tenure marked a return to more traditional practices, the episode anticipated in interesting ways the confrontation
Albert Thomas quoted in P. Clavin, ‘Conceptualising Internationalism between the World
Wars’ in Lacqua (ed.), Internationalism Reconfigured, 6.
This argument is developed in greater detail in P. Jackson, ‘Pierre Bourdieu, the “cultural
turn” and the practice of international history’, Review of International Studies, 34, 1 (2008),
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between traditionalist and internationalist conceptions under the Cartel. The
process that saw the traditional conception lose its status as a practical logic to
be displaced by something new provides an interesting case study in the
cultural sources of adaptation and innovation (and indeed the failure to
adapt and innovate) within a policy-making elite.
Generational differences were also important in shaping diverse responses to
the new structural environment within the policy establishment. It was no
coincidence that divisions within the foreign ministry over fundamental questions of policy tended to fall along generational lines. There was a genuine
appetite for new thinking and a new approach among the younger generation of
diplomats. Jacques Seydoux acknowledged the existence of a pronounced
generation gap when he observed that the war had ‘made all things anew’.
The older generation, he lamented, did not understand that ‘the war of 1914
was not that of 1870 to the tenth degree. A new Europe has emerged, a new
world, and it is this new world that they fail to understand.’6 References to a
generational cleavage are predictably absent from the official internal correspondence of Quai d’Orsay officials. But they are manifest in their personal
recollections and in the fiction of younger writer-diplomats. They are central to
Jean Giraudoux’s Bella and also to Paul Morand’s Ouvert la nuit.
It was no coincidence that the majority of officials belonging to this younger
generation were protégés of Philippe Berthelot. For Berthelot the need to adapt
to new conditions was an immutable law of policy making. ‘There are a
thousand imperatives that leave only a narrow way open for human agency
and its execution,’ he once reflected, ‘and at every moment politics replies with
a new reality that we must accept and to which we must adapt.’7 This adaptability was by no means shorn of principle. If Berthelot accepted the need to
adjust to the realities of the mid-1920s, seeking to embed a British commitment in a multilateral system, he refused to follow Briand in his initiatives for a
bilateral arrangement with Germany or in his project for European federalism.
The result was growing tension within the Briand–Berthelot partnership that
led ultimately to the breakdown that provided Alexis Léger, one of Berthelot’s
protégés, with the opportunity to displace his mentor as Briand’s chief
Much of the evidence presented in the latter chapters underlines
the remarkable flexibility of the European order as it was devised in
1919. The Treaty of Versailles provided a political and legal framework that
could accommodate Franco-German economic cooperation as envisaged
most notably by Seydoux, Loucheur and Briand (among others). But this
same framework allowed for punishment and coercion. It could even
Quoted in S. Jeannesson, ‘L’Europe de Jacques Seydoux’, RH, 299 (1998), 129.
Quoted in J. L. Barré, Philippe Berthelot: l’éminence grise, 1866–1934 (Paris, 1998), 350–1.
R. Meltz, ‘Alexis Léger: de Philippe Berthelot à Aristide Briand’ in J. Bariéty (ed.), Aristide
Briand, la Société des nations et l’Europe, 1919–1932 (Paris, 2007), 431–4.
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accommodate efforts to break up Germany under Poincaré in 1923. The
extraordinary flexibility of the Versailles system has rarely been fully recognised, even in recent studies that seek to rehabilitate the efforts of the peacemakers in 1919. Clemenceau was right when he advised his parliamentary
colleagues that ‘this complex treaty will be worth only what you are worth; it
will be what you make of it’.
Several of the findings of this study speak to core debates within international
relations theory. The standard account of the evolution of twentieth-century
thinking about the nature of international politics needs to be rewritten to take
account of French theorising about peace and security. Léon Bourgeois fashioned the domestic political doctrine of solidarité into a reasonably coherent
theory of international relations. What is more, he attempted to apply his ideas.
His solidarité-inspired theory, with its focus on the mutual obligations of
nation-states under the rule of international law, formed the conceptual core
of the CISDN programme for a ‘society of nations’ rejected by British and
Americans in 1919. The failure of the French conception of the League also has
theoretical significance. Bourgeois’ call for a binding regime of international
law and an international armed force assumed a willingness on the part of all
states to sacrifice a significant measure of their sovereignty in return for greater
international security. This idea proved anathema to British and American
delegates (as it was to most French policy elites). The French programme ran
up against the same barriers as so many other propositions for collective action
ever since: the stubborn refusal of the Great Powers to surrender their sovereignty for the benefit of collective enterprises. The same problem hampers
contemporary efforts to control the international arms trade or to agree and
enforce emissions standards that will protect the environment.
The book’s evidence and arguments are also relevant to debates over the role
of power and ideas among international relations theorists. In many ways, the
foregoing analysis illuminates problems with realist international theory. It is
hard to comprehend the massive influence of new normative standards based
on international cooperation and collective security after 1918 from a purely
realist perspective. One of the chief contributions of this book, moreover, is to
illustrate the way that cultural dispositions conditioned French responses to
the problems of peace and security. Structural realists get around these difficulties by pointing out that theirs is ‘not a theory of foreign policy’. The explanatory power of structural realism, they argue, operates at the systemic level. The
dynamics of anarchy place systemic pressures on states to pursue self-interested
policies that inevitably undermine all prospects for collective security.9
At first glance the realist point of view seems persuasive – particularly when
one reads the history of the post-1918 period through the lens of the 1930s
and the Second World War. Yet it cannot account for the fact that many of the
K. N. Waltz, ‘International politics is not foreign policy’, Security Studies, 6, 1 (1996), 54–7.
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‘systemic pressures’ on French statesmen during this period ran in precisely
the opposite direction. France’s political and policy elites came under intense
international pressure to renounce power politics and embrace new norms
based on international cooperation under the auspices of the League of
Nations. Nor can this pressure be understood in purely realist terms.
Wilsonian rhetoric, for example, was not eyewash to disguise a traditional
strategy to expand American power. Whatever his personal faults and political contradictions, Wilson was sincere in his desire to transform international relations. The result was that the system placed contradictory pressures
on French policy. Some came from the threat posed by German demographic
and industrial superiority. Others emanated from powerful inter-subjective
expectations that the international system must be reformed to prevent
another catastrophe on the scale of 1914–18. Both types of pressure were
‘real’. Neither could be ignored.
This is not to say that a constructivist perspective offers a better understanding either of French policy or international politics during this period.
German power existed independently of the cultural context of French policy
making. The Reich posed a potential threat to France’s existence that no
amount of new thinking could remove entirely. Structures of power exercise
a permanent and profound agency in international politics that policy makers
ignore at their peril. The constructivist focus on culture and subjectivity tends
to underplay this crucial fact. The influence of new international norms both
during and after the conflict provides a good illustration of the way power and
ideas are intertwined in the international realm. The pervasive influence of postwar norms, interestingly, derived in no small part from the fact that their most
prominent advocate was also the president of the world’s most powerful state.
Wilson used his position to press for a thorough reorganisation of world politics.
His message was hugely influential not least because it was backed up by
economic and military power so formidable that it alarmed even America’s allies.
In sum, realism and constructivism both offer valuable perspectives that can
enrich the historical analysis of international politics. Both approaches force
the historian to keep the wider picture in mind. Yet neither seems able, on its
own at least, to capture the complex dynamics at work in the international
system during and after the Great War. The historian, happily, does not need to
choose between realist and constructivist approaches. Yet it is interesting and
worthwhile to keep in mind the larger issues at stake in a theoretical debate that
is unlikely ever to be resolved.
In the end, Foch was right. The great problem with the security strategy that
evolved under the Cartel in the mid-1920s was that its success depended on the
willingness of other European states to abide by the rule of international law.
Jean-Baptiste Duroselle long ago dismissed this commitment to legalism and
multilateralism in French foreign policy under Briand as ‘illusions of pactomania’. Anthony Adamthwaite agreed that France’s ‘obsessive search for
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security through treaties’ was ‘a snare and a delusion’. More recently Robert
Boyce has described the Locarno Accords as ‘the emasculation of international
security’.10 There is considerable merit to these criticisms. Attempts to devise
legal solutions to intractable political problems were naïve and probably always
doomed to failure. Yet it may also be worth remembering that such an
approach had never before been tried. The international convulsions of the
next decade, the great depression, the collapse of transatlantic cooperation and
the rise of Nazism, were unknowable to policy makers in 1925. The truth is that
the most damaging policy failures, leading to disaster in 1940, were not the
adaptations of the mid-1920s but instead the inability of French leaders to
adjust to the political transformations of the early 1930s. They were not alone
in this regard.
It should be acknowledged, finally, that the strategy of enmeshing and
constraining Germany that failed so miserably during the 1930s was dusted
off and applied with much greater success after 1944 (albeit with American
support and towards a devastated and divided Germany). As I write the final
lines of this book, France and Germany are preparing to celebrate the fiftieth
anniversary of the 1963 Élysée Treaty of Friendship. This accord has underpinned one of the closest, most profitable and most durable partnerships in the
long and troubled history of European politics. The success of this partnership
suggests that the optimistic vision of the internationalist movement was not as
misguided as the history of the period 1914–45 suggests. The tragedy is that it
took another world war and the destruction of European society to realise this
J.-B. Duroselle, ‘The Spirit of Locarno: illusions of pactomania’, Foreign Affairs, 50 (1972);
A. Adamthwaite, Grandeur and Misery: France’s Bid for Power in Europe, 1914–1940 (London,
1995), 229; R. Boyce, The Great Interwar Crisis and the Collapse of Globalization (London,
2009), 77–141.
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