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The fateful alliance: France, Russia, and the coming of the First World War.

Why else the history lesson in Kennan's new book, The Fateful Alliance: France, Russia, and the Coming of the First World War? This is volume two in a projected three-volume study of the Franco-Russian relationship during the four decades preceding the Great War. Part one, Decline of Bismarck's European Order: Franco-Russian Relations 1875-1890, is not in fact about the European order in general but rather, as the subtitle indicates, about Franco-Russian relations between 1875 and 1890. The present volume continues the story, concluding with the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894. Kennan writes that the third part will carry the tale from 1894 to the total collapse of the alliance during the Russian Revolution.

As Kennan notes in The New Yorker, he has been "observing Soviet affairs in one capacity or another for some fifty-five years." Thus, on one level, his decision late in life to undertake a major historical study of Franco-Russian relations at the turn of the century can be seen as an extension into the more distant past of a lifelong occupation. On another level, this book continues his habit of drawing from the past on behalf of the present.

Kennan's Decline of Bismarck's European Order concludes with the warning that war in our age would be "apocalyptically destructive" to "millions of innocent bystanders, and to the entire civilization of which they form a part," and with the hope that this truth will be reinforced by the examination of mistakes made nearly a century ago. (In his review of the book for The Times Literary Supplement, A.J.P. Taylor noted dryly, "Many historians have had similar hopes. No statesman has taken any notice of them.")

The same history lesson is spelled out even more clearly in The Fateful Alliance. Kennan writes that in the story of the negotiation of the Franco-Russian alliance:

One sees how the unjustified assumption of war's likelihood could become the cause of its final inevitability. One sees the growth of military-technological capabilities to levels that exceed man's capacity for making any rational and intelligent use of them. One sees how the myopia induced by indulgence in the mass emotional compulsions of modern nationalism destorys the power to form any coherent, realistic view of true national interest. One sees, finally, the inability of otherwise intelligent men to perceive the inherently self-destructive quality of warfare among the great industrial powers of the modern age.

Kennan scarcely needs to add, but does, that in the nuclear age we cannot afford to repeat that performance, lest we prepare, this time, "a catastrophe from which there can be not recovery and no return."

Ironically, though, The Fateful Alliance does little to reassure us that we will do better this time around. It is not a question of malevolent statesmen willfully ignoring the past. It is, rather, that Kennan demonstrates all too vividly both the myopia of clever men and the lethal incrementalism that ultimately brings them to a place they never intended to go.

What distinguishes Kennan's history from the many other accounts of Europe in the years before World War I is the rich detail of his tapestry. In this volume, by focusing on the relationship between France and Russia over only a four year period and drawing freely from archival materials such as letters, notes, accounts of face-to-face talks, diaries and memorandums drawn up by some of the leading actors, he is able to reconstruct for us the interpersonal activity that constitutes history. That is not to say he gives short shrift to the stage on which the actors perform. To the contrary, Kennan provides a strong sense of France and Russia in the last decade of the nineteenth century. But it is the actors themselves who are at the heart of his narrative.

On the Russian side, the three major characters were Czar Alexander III, a "huge, ponderous, taciturn man," somewhat tired but still" fully aware of his power and his responsibility"; Alexander's Foreign Minister, Nikolai Karlovich Giers, whom Kennan refers to as "probably the most seasoned and able statesman of his time in Europe, after Bismarck"; and Gen. Nikolai Nikolayevich Obruchev, for whom, as for his French counterpart, Raoul le Mouton de Boisdeffre, the alliance between France and Russia "may be said to have been life's work." The other major figures on the French side were Charles de Freycinet, a "superbly competent" politician and administrator who assumed the premiership in the spring of 1890; Alexandre Ribot, Freycinet's Foreign Minister, a man of "complete and widely recognized integrity," endowed as well with "intellectual powers of a very high order"; and Sadi Carnot, the French President who all along had taken a special interest in the possibility of an alliance with Russia and "did all in his power to further the project."

Kennan argues that preliminary exchanges between France and Russia during the summer of 1890, as well as Germany's curious inattention to their budding relationship, set the stage for a Franco-Russian alliance. By the time that summer was over, each of the leading actors--with the notable exception of Giers--supported the idea of a formal tie between the two countries.

The Fateful Alliance proceeds to trace the diplomatic maneuvering among the various players that culminated in a contractual arrangement. The jousting is reminiscent of an ungainly and difficult courtship. There were times when both the french and the Russians refused to budge, each waiting for the other to take the next step. At one point the momentum was provided by Alexander's urgent desire for an alliance, while at another, it was Freycinet who acted the anxious suitor while the Czar played hard to get.

Kennan is particularly struck by the inability of even this gifted cast to foresee the consequences of their actions. Locked in a mating dance, they failed to transcend the passions of the moment. Kennan repeatedly remarks on how obtuse the Russians were about the realities of the post-Bismarck era, on how they pursued "in the most extreme isolation and secrecy a project rooted in a world that was rapidly ceasing to exist." Unlike the Russians, French officials at least had the comfort of knowing that the Franco-Russian Alliance had the overwhelming support of their people. Perhaps as a result of that consensus, they never questioned, any more than did Alexander and Obruchev, the wisdom of their choices. They did not demand that the alliance--a military convention--have an underlying political rationale; nor did they entertain the possibility that preparing for war may in fact make war inevitable.

This most recent of Kennan's cautionary tales about the disastrous effects of mindless war games recalls the Kennan enigma: Why is it that the work of the early Kennan, the cold-warrior, has remained influential in Washington for forty years, while the later Kennan, the thinking man's dove, has been all but locked out of the policy-making process? Surely this is so because Kennan evokes the past; our policy-makers hurdle into the future. He is ambivalent; they are convinced. He tends to be obsessed with maintaining the peace; they tend to be obsessed with winning the war. More's the pity. For to have Kennan's voice confined to the Groves of academe, and to liberal circles just beyond, is to make him inaudible where he most needs to be heard.
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Author:Kellerman, Barbara
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 15, 1984
Words:1211
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