From the Archives: To A British Friend, Are You In Europe?

This article was originally published in the Journal of International Affair's print edition, Vol. 16, No. 1 in 1962.

René Albrecht-Carrié
June 24, 2019

In American colleges and universities we offer courses dealing with many aspects – political, economic, cultural – of European history. It is customary in such courses to include developments in the British Isles, regarded as European islands in much the same way that Sicily and Corsica are, due allowance naturally being made for differences in dimensions and importance. No doubt, when thinking of cultures that have grown up in Africa or Asia, Britons unhesitatingly range themselves with other European, or at least Western, peoples; yet the phrase “going to Europe,” commonly used in Britain, is expressive of greater consciousness of distinctness than “going to America” contains for the inhabitants of the American island of Martha’s Vineyard.

The issue of whether or not Britain is going to go to, or rather with Europe – one fraught with heavy consequences for Britain and for Europe – is a live question of the moment, which is the reason for presenting the following reflections. We are often told that, for some centuries, the central tenet of British foreign policy has been the prevention of the emergence of a dominant power on the mainland of Europe. This is true enough, and indeed you fought with equal catholicity and vigor Philip II, Napoleon and Hitler, and perhaps tomorrow will fight some successor of Stalin. This has sometimes been interpreted by others as lack of reliability on your part; the phrase “perfidious Albion” is familiar. But this is less than fair, and if one puts it in the form “Britain has no permanent allies, she has only permanent interests,” it will appear that the basic motivation of your record differs little from that of others. The virtues of the balance of power were hardly a British discovery, but rather the recognition by all that in that principle lay the surest guarantee of the continued independent existence of all; the peculiarities of your island position, hence your sound stress on the relatively inexpensive form of naval power, is what gave rise to the myth of a peculiar British policy. To a degree at least, your position was indeed unique, hence also the manifestations of your policy; the basic understanding of the facts of power was not.

In modern times you have been a great, in fact the great, imperial power, an accomplishment that seems to me little cause for apology and certainly an admirable one as the record of human affairs goes (though conversely to glory in it may be warranted only to a point and is now in any case out of fashion). However that may be, the judgment can hardly be other than favorable of the record of your imperial evolution, now become devolution. The highly complimentary expressions that General de Gaulle used in your Parliament in characterizing the mode of your domestic operation – expressions tinged by the wistfulness of combined admiration and envy – apply to your imperial record as well. So now we have the Commonwealth which it may be worth looking at for a moment.

Few but unreconstructed “Blimps” would at this hour contend that to have let India go was other than an act of wisdom, and you have been rewarded by Mr. Nehru’s presence at the coronation and at Commonwealth conferences, though the concrete substance of this recompense may be another matter again. The current South African case is a different situation that raises some important and awkward questions. The vagaries of Afrikaans nationalism are, in terms of human behavior, not difficult to understand; they may even evoke a measure of sympathy – the Boers are individually not necessarily or especially wicked people and Dr. Verwoerd has an authentic faith – for all that the vagaries and the faith may also be described as probably suicidal folly. The point in this context is rather, as has been emphasized in much discussion in Britain, that the forcing of the South African Union out of the Commonwealth represented the abandonment of a principle, one of larger dimensions – unlimited freedom of difference within an association – in favor of a more limited, if concrete, one – racial equality. The decision was in effect a matter of expediency, an art the practice of which you have not found uncongenial. What the future may hold we do not know, but for all that George Bernard Shaw at one time situated the future capital of the British Empire in Bagdad, one may be permitted some skepticism about the likelihood of the realization of the change that this quaint idea expressed. The manner in which you have accepted and handled the devolution of empire commands respect for its wisdom, but this has little to do with the reality of the outcome. In the Commonwealth you retain important economic positions and it may well turn out to be the case that you will have made possible the continuation of amicable and useful relationships with the newly emerging nations. But this is a very different matter from the effects of these changes upon your position of power.

Until the Second World War you have been able by one means or another – freely taken decision (e.g., Australia) or sufficient control on your part (India, the colonies) – to carry along with you in the struggle the entirety of your imperial domain, an impressive collection of power. But there is reason to believe that this was the last occasion on which such a performance was possible. Of course we all hope to avoid the ultimate test of power, but the criterion is far that judges the extent of power by the dimensions of the resources that it can command. It does not seem necessary to go into elaborate detail to point out that Ghana, for example, is likely to adopt an independent course; that if India should decide to take sides it will not be primarily because of the British connection. Even Canada, however much she may grumble at a real or supposed degree of American control, seems in the last analysis more securely bound to the American than to the British chariot. And what or who maintains nowadays the security of Australia? Here in fact is a vicious circle, for the defection (if one may use an exaggerated expression) of Australia and Canada, implying judgement of the possibilities of British power, in turn serves to diminish the degree of that power. This should not be unduly magnified, and we are witnessing a transition rather than an accomplished fact, but the trend has been clear for some time, even before the last war.

Granting that it is common sense to eschew the use of coercion and to retain what may be saved of position and power in circumstances that no longer allow former behavior, the fact remains that conditions have radically altered. The question is precisely this: how much, in these modified circumstances, can you retain of your former position? – a problem different from, but intimately connected with, that of maintaining the population of an overcrowded island not only in a mere state of existence but in the face of a steady pressure for an improvement in the standard of life of the mass of this population. The enormous diminution of your foreign holdings that the wars and revolutions of our time have entailed has necessitated a readjustment which has not yet been successful effected and over which for that matter you have but limited control. To say “we must increase our exports” is obvious and simple, to contrive it less so.

When thinking of these matters I believe that some useful light may be thrown upon them by looking at the record of another people, one with whom your record of contact is long, be it n strife or friendly association. I have in mind the French. To many among you the juxtaposition of Britain and France will elicit a picture of contrasts. And indeed there is no denying that your ways, your politics, your culture present many points of contract with those of your trans-Channel neighbors. But I am also struck by certain similarities that, briefly, I should like to point out.

Take first the case of power. The record of French power is both long and impressive. It certainly was so in the time of Napoleon, but after him came sharp and at least relative decline, only in part concealed and mitigated by the weight of this past record; within a half century the Franco-Prussian War made clear the realignment that has taken place in European power relations. Thereafter the process continued in accentuated fashion; the First World War in this context was a distortion, the special circumstances of which gave an erroneous picture of French power. Victorious France had suffered greater injury than vanquished Germany. The aftermath was even worse, placing France in a totally false and unreal position, with the absurd consequence that French power asserted itself so long as t was subject to no real threat, then abjectly abdicated as soon as such a threat materialized. Incidentally, in the failure to recognize the false bases of the relationships of power – by others as much as, and perhaps rather more than, by the French themselves – lies one of the major reasons for the renewed outbreak of war in 1939. Came 1940 and for France the bottom was reached when it appeared (another distortion) that French power was wholly nonexistent.

Compare this with your own record. It would be difficult to imagine a sharper contrast than that between your and the French performance in 1940. And, going back a hundred years, when the French power was, as pointed out, already in decline, you were becoming more than ever established, and recognized by others, as the great power of the day. But, seen in the perspective of the present, how closely does this contrast correspond to reality? The Franco-Prussian War, if it registered French demotion, simultaneously had the effect of creating the Second Reich which thereafter launched on an unparalleled course of development. Before the century was out Germany has become your chief economic rival and was making a bid to challenge all aspects of your position of power, not excluding the traditionally most characteristic – the naval. The rising powers of the second half of the nineteenth century, the fifty years before 1914, were in fact the United States, Germany and Japan, and the contrast between the respectively rising and declining curves of British and French power appears as a less accurate picture of the reality of things than would similarly declining graphs, somewhat out of phase in time. After all, when all allowance is made for the clumsiness of German diplomacy, it does not seem unfair to say that the Entente of 1904 was an expression of the deeper truth that a vigorously rising power was challenging established positions of nations which were inevitably and primarily powers of conservation.  

But this you recognized only in part and the First World War easily inserted itself into your unquestioningly accepted tradition of preserving the balance of power. You fought the Kaiser’s Germany – with the aid of the French – with the same purpose that you had fought Napoleon’s France – with the aid of the Prussians. You came out of the war having enhanced – or rather thinking that in customary fashion you had enhanced – your imperial position: the gap from Suez to the Persian Gulf was apparently closed. You were even concerned, again in customary fashion, about the European imbalance of power that you endeavored to redress by adopting a generally sympathetic attitude towards overly diminished Germany, half-heartedly and ineffectually though you did this.

That the French did many foolish, and some unpleasant, things would be hard to deny: fear can be a poor counselor. But I cannot refrain from expressing the view that the greater failing was yours, taking the form of a well-nigh unpardonable misreading of the facts of power. To put it perhaps harshly, the quality of your diplomacy between the two world wars seems to me to have been sadly deficient, quite out of line with your past record in that craft. For the war had caused you also serious and lasting injury and diminution: lost markets and investments, if less concretely dramatic than ruined factories and fields, are no less serious loss. The combined power that Britain and France could together command after 1919 would not have been too much, if enough, to lead a distraught world back to some orderly mode of operation. To part company was for both suicidal folly and an invitation to precisely the sort of thing that happened in 1939. Thus, from this point of view, the stress is not on the vagaries of Nazism but rather on the failure to find a viable solution to the problem of the relationship of power.

There would be little purpose in the unrewarding attempt to assess the relative British and French responsibility, negative in both cases for that matter, for the muddle of the long armistice and its termination; the common ground of fundamental similarity of position vis-à-vis the outside is the more important fact. That you were in the same boat, as you had really been for quite some time, was given renewed evidence by the fact that 1939 found you again in alliance. But the unfolding of the new war once more seemed to put stress on difference. France after her collapse could be no very active factor in the war, whereas Britain emerged as one of the Big Three; even the readmission of France to the inner charmed circle of the Great, as in the Security Council of the United Nations for example, was, apart from the expediency, more a matter of courtesy – yours more than anyone else’s – than a reflection of the objective reality of power standing.

Yet, once again, how accurate an expression of this reality was the enormous difference in appearance? However much one may respect and admire your wartime performance, especially during the time you were alone, the facts of power pay little heed to sentiment or moral values unless these are accompanied by more concrete material substance. Among the Big Three there are unquestionably two bigger ones, a fact that you would be the last to deny; and without trying either to minimize or conceal appreciable differences between British and French power and standing, the hurt caused by the Second World War to your position can hardly ben gainsaid. Moreover, things have altered during the past fifteen years; if Britain has participated in the general economic expansion of the last decade, she has also lagged in comparison with others, until one hears about Britain some of things – a conservative tendency to rest on past laurels, difficulty in accommodating to change – that have often been said to explain the relative backwardness of the French economy. Even if only an illustration, from which therefore it would be rash to generalize, the contrast has symbolic significance between the plans of Boulogne and Calais in preparation for the building of a Channel bridge and the lack of similar activity in Dover.

To be sure, il ne faut pas exagérer, but the important thing is that in the great outburst of economic expansion that is taking place on the continent of Europe, and in which France is fully sharing, your rate of growth has lagged behind others. I might refer, even discounting their partisan motivation, to the warnings recently issued by Mr. Gaitskell in Blackpool; and that the phrase “sick man of Europe” should be used at all in Britain, even if largely for startling effect, is not wholly devoid of meaning. Incidentally, it may be worth pointing out the peculiar nature of the economic transformation in France. If there is still much disorder and backwardness in the French economy, what is remarkable about the change is that the possibility seems to exist that a body that was suffering from a hardening of the arteries may be in process of recovering from that disability. Perhaps the most telling aspect of the French situation has been the willingness or capability to enter into competition, to the extent that the escape provisions of the initial Rome accords have not been called into operation by France. In this respect one might even speak of a French “miracle” rather more startling than the German, for the German case is one of continuity rather than of break with the past and change of direction.

As it has been becoming clearer since the end of the war that the British complex was not in the same category as the two superpowers, you have done two things. On the one hand, you have very sensibly accepted diminution and cut your coat to suit your cloth; but on the other you have also endeavored to salvage or maintain as much of your position as possible. You were not after all at any time invaded and it is only natural that you should feel reluctance to accept parity with members of what has been aptly described as “the club of the defeated.”

Here again I should like to revert to the French case. Having reached bottom after a long decline, and perhaps because of the very fact that bottom has been reached, France has been the scene of rejuvenation. The vagaries of French politics and recent imperial mismanagement are perhaps less solid realities than the just mentioned economic revolution and the not unrelated one in the demographic domain. Inevitably, France has to pay for the cost of defeat in lost position and prestige; hers is not so much a case of retaining place as of regaining some of it at least. This explains her cantankerousness, of which General de Gaulle has been a brilliant and (for others) at times a most troublesome exponent, during the war and lately. Given the circumstances, he is fundamentally right, though that makes him a trying partner on occasion. Unfortunate as it may be, the assertion of power often commands respect. And I should venture the interpretation that his are not the unrealistic delusions of grandeur often attributed to him, but that his policy is a coolly calculated bid based on a sound appraisal of the possible; greater weight, I believe, is to be given to his German and imperial policies than to the grandiloquent wording. Within these limits he is of course also playing for position, especially in Europe.

What then? I have been stressing what appear to me similarities between the British and the French positions, similarities that stem from the fundamental fact that, allowing for a lag in the process, Britain and France have for some time been powers in retreat, powers of far from negligible potential, powers that are seeking for adequate place n the scheme of a fast changing world. The moral of the tale might seem to be a plea for close cooperation. To a degree it is, but that is not the chief burden of this exposition.

For, as I was just saying, ours is a very fast changing world indeed. Strangely as it may seem in a way, in the attempt at adaptation the French may even have an advantage over you. For just as the First World War did not sufficiently shake the existing French structure which went lamely on to ultimate disaster, whereas the second war did adequately jolt complacency, so likewise in your case (and despite a substantial if peaceful social revolution) much, too much perhaps, of your old structure and outlook has survived. Yet, as a nation, you have too much of value to offer and it would be a tragic loss if, owing to avoidable faults of operation, your possible contribution were lost.

In that part of Europe that is free, now and for quite some time, the fortunes of the whole depend primarily on the relations among three: yourselves, the Germans, and the French. Difficult as it may be to renounce tradition, you must accept, I think, that, within Europe, the balance of power view is superseded and will no longer serve even you. Quite likely it may apply on a revised world scale, but surely within Europe no longer. The continentals, the club of the defeated, have in large measure at the moment come around to this view, of which the new climate of the Franco-German relationship is the most interesting and hopeful manifestation. And so have we in America fully grasped this, having fought two wars for the same purpose that you traditionally have – that of preventing the establishment of a particular hegemony. In this respect I consider quite sound our staunch opposition to the designs of Soviet power, sounder than your at times too accommodating tendency, however much individual and specific actions of ours may on occasion seem or even be unreasonable or foolish. That is why American policy has been in favor of the integration of Europe; we do not fear such a combination.

The situation at this point is not devoid of some irony. For, when looking at Europe, we have long felt that you were our most valuable and dependable connection; whatever our differences, the element of common language and similar institutions is no small thing. There were those among us who, immediately after the war, hoped that you might use your position to “annex” Europe; that is to say, you might assume decided leadership to your own as well as Europe’s best advantage – a thing that Europe in her distraught and chastened mood might have allowed to happen. It was perhaps too much to ask, and you chose instead to concentrate on your domestic problems; the above-mentioned revolution in your society and your imperial relations was no little achievement, though greater vision still would have been welcome. At any rate an opportunity was lost.

Among the continentals the war had different effects. The performance of German power had been undoubtedly impressive, and the peculiar mode of operation that the Nazi aberration entailed understandably left a legacy of bitterness and fear. We all recall the French insistence upon not being left alone – without you as a balance vis-à-vis Germany. But to mention the French again, the tendency among the new generation especially, though not only among them (one more vide de Gaulle), to “accept” Germany is a remarkable reversal. It is born of two things: acknowledgement of past error – the interwar policy – is one; a revival of self-confidence, the bases of which have been mentioned, is the other. In the midst of the seeming confusion of the politics of the Fourth Republic, much of lasting value was accomplished in France, which has also been fertile in ideas for Europe as a whole. Some of the French proposals may clearly be regarded as schemes for the enhancement of the French position, or at least its defense, capitalizing on certain German disabilities of the moment. Granting that they have been such, I am tempted to use the American colloquialism, “so what?” If Europe can be sufficiently “scrambled,” taking advantage of possibly fleeting conditions, the unscrambling might become impossible, and many of the fears born of a narrow national approach eventually lose much of their sting and meaning. This has not happened yet, and there are many possibilities that the process may bog down, but there are also forces powerfully working to that end, perhaps in simplest form the will to survive. It is at any rate an interesting attempt that seems to hold promise in it, and I for one must admit to feeling relatively little exercised over the technicalities of federation versus confederation, l’Europe des patries, or what you will. This may seem flippant, but there are situations which call for imaginative treatment and the willingness to take chances. Both Roosevelt and Churchill at times at least displayed these qualities.

Your suspicion of continentals, their politics, their quarrels and their ways is wholly understandable yet also small, especially as you no longer have it in your power to let things drift in the assurance that you could always control their ultimate outcome. At the moment the most concrete issue centers on the relations between the Six (the European Economic Community) and the Seven ( the European Free Trade Area), mainly yourselves that is. I quite appreciate the complexity of the economic questions involved, though being no economist, I may perhaps be pardoned if I confine myself to the reflection that on ne peut pas faire une omelette sans casser des oeufs rather than attempt to intrude with incompetence in a debate that must in the end be resolved by yourselves.

To be sure, it would not be too difficult to take an optimistic view of things and to contend that the outcome is already inevitable. It might be pointed out that Britain has taken the decision of formal application for membership in the Common Market, and that negotiations are currently under way as a consequence of her application. Also, it is no secret that the American position has for some time been sympathetic, not to put it in stronger terms, both to the union of the Six and to the merger of the Six and the Seven. The recently issued report of Messrs. Herter and Clayton and the address of Under-Secretary Ball may be seen as public notice of this American position that may in turn be variously interpreted as a device intended for the education of American opinion or a means of pressure mainly directed toward you.

Yet time is passing and we are faced with a fast-changing, fluid, and possibly transitory state of affairs. On the one hand one might mention such things as the recently announced French four-year program for acceleration of development and the French plans for closer political integration of the members of the Common Market. At the same time the uncertainties of the political situation both in France and in the Federal Republic contain possibilities that might lead to developments in divergent directions, not all facilitating closer integration, whether economic or political.

I would eschew the invidious charge of advice given by an outsider. My intention has rather been to indicate how matters look as seen from what in some respects is the vantage point of not direct participation. America is called the melting pot, and the majority of her inhabitants is said no longer to be of British derivation. But not so our institutions, and in any event, British or otherwise, we are undeniably of overwhelmingly European descent. It has also been said that the quarrels of Europe are not our quarrels, and this in large measure is true when referring to the ancient and outworn legacy of intra-European feuds. Those disputes do not thrive well or long among us. Perhaps it is precisely because of our mixed heritage, resting upon a broad British base, that some of us at least strongly feel that a continental union with a likely anti-British orientation would be a very sad outcome, and that it may largely depend upon you whether or not Europe succeeds in uniting. We are indeed for a variety of reasons vitally interested in the issues of European integration, and in view of the past record of Europe and of the divergent possibilities that exist I am reminded of the familiar quotation: 

There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood,… 

A well known Englishman wrote it.