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Sometimes defence agreements can produce rather unexpected outcomes

By Keith Suter - posted Friday, 23 April 2004

A hundred years ago this month, Britain made a major change in its foreign policy – and took Australia with it. Then when Britain went to war in 1914 it took the colonies with it, and so part of the reason why Australians died in World War I is contained in this fateful document.

The Entente Cordiale (“friendly agreement” or “warm understanding”) was signed by Lord Lansdowne the British foreign secretary and Paul Cambon the French ambassador in London on 8 April, 1904. For some British people, the Entente Cordiale was the worst foreign policy decision Britain made last century.

There were actually two treaties: the public one and the secret one. The public treaty was an agreement that British rule in Egypt would be respected by France and French rule in Morocco would be respected by Britain and that they would continue their co-operation over the Suez Canal (which they jointly owned). The secret treaty dealt with arrangements for dividing up the Spanish colonies in North Africa.


At first sight, the two treaties did not seem to amount to very much. They were not, for example, a formal military agreement.

But the importance of the agreement is not what it said but what it signified. Britain had overturned almost 900 years of tradition. Britain had agreed to end its traditional rivalry with France.

Britain had previously tried to avoid getting involved in European affairs. In recent centuries, it had concentrated on building up its worldwide empire, leaving the Europeans to squabble among themselves. It preferred to play one European power off against another. For example, when Germany successfully fought France in 1870, Britain did not get involved. The British regarded that war as just another round in the traditional Franco-German rivalry (another long-running feud). It was not a problem for Britain.

In fact, France was Britain’s chief rival in Africa, with an African empire larger than Europe. It was the largest empire in Africa and covered about a third of the continent. Britain’s African empire was the second largest but probably wealthier. There was much scope for imperial friction.

Why, then, the dramatic change in 1904? Britain was worried that its global dominance was now under threat and so it needed allies to survive. Germany and the United States were both developing economically and industrially and so Britain was losing its financial edge. The British empire was overcommitted. It had just fought an unsatisfactory war in South Africa against the Boers (1899-1902) that showed the British army was not as effective as was thought. Germany was pleased to see Britain’s military problems and expressed sympathy for the Boers.

Therefore, Britain decided to end the longest-running tradition in British foreign policy and become an ally of France. One treaty led to another (including the creation of secret agreements that British and French citizens did not find out about at the time). By 1914 Britain found itself locked into an alliance with France and France’s allies that dragged it into the second-most destructive war in world history.


What was supposed to be a treaty to keep Britain safe was actually the bridge over which the country travelled to its near destruction in 1914-18. Britain eventually won that war but was economically wounded by it. It would never regain the economic and military supremacy it once enjoyed. A potentially limited European war became last century’s first world war. It would involve colonies around the globe, including Australia.

One continuing implication for today is that many Britons still do not accept the underlying philosophy of the 1904 agreement – that Britain is part of Europe. They remain “Euro-sceptics”.

Second, it is a reminder of how a comparatively small agreement can give rise to a large number of consequences. That remains the case today. Did the Australian diplomats who drew up the 1951 ANZUS Treaty to defend Australia and New Zealand in the event of (highly unlikely) Japanese attack, expect to be fighting for the US in Iraq in 2003-4?

Third, the 1904 agreement attracted some controversy in Britain at the time but it gradually slipped off the public’s radar screen. Indeed, foreign policy was not a major issue in British politics or general elections immediately prior to World War I. The UK – like the other European countries – slipped into World War I almost in a fit of absent-mindedness. Ignorance can be a killer. The citizens received a wake up call in World War I but then lost interest again in world affairs – until the next war came along.

If warfare is too serious to be left to generals, then defence agreements are too serious to be left to politicians. There needs to be an informed public debate on Australia’s foreign policy.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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