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France, Britain and the United States in the Twentieth Century 1900-1940: A Reappraisal

This book is an original and stimulating contribution to two literatures that generally subsist apart; the literature of the international relations discipline and that of international history. In this work, the first of a projected two volume study, Andrew Williams seeks to reintroduce that third voice in the global conversation of power that is almost routinely neglected in Anglo-American accounts, the voice of France. The period covered in the present volume runs to 1940; the second volume (its argument outlined in the book’s introduction) will carry the story to the 1990s. Eschewing the beguiling, but faulty, perspective provided by awareness of subsequent events, Williams employs evidence ranging from diplomatic exchanges to contemporary historical and theoretical writings to reconstruct carefully the discourses of the time. It was an era in which France was a rival to Britain as a power with global reach, and was acknowledged as the principle military power in Europe until well into the 1930s.

If the book can be summarised with reference to a single theme, it is that in the Anglo-American world the French have served both as allies and also, at key times, as Cassandras. On the latter point, to exemplify Williams’ artfully weaving of multiple narratives, the French were routinely suspicious of the extent to which Germany could be trusted to adhere to those rules of international society that emerged in the 1920s. At the same time, French thinkers were instrumental in provided a theoretical counterpoint to the trust in enlightenment and in rationalist schemes more generally that were characteristic of the discourses of elite Anglo-American commentators housed in New York’s Council on Foreign Relations and in London’s Chatham House.

Throughout this account, references to the watershed of 1919 reappear constantly. As Williams observes, 1919 marked the beginning of the modern global order:

“When Lord Grey spoke of ‘the lights going out around Europe’ in August 1914 he was in part recognizing the end of a particular way of doing international relations. The lights that were to flicker into life in the 1920s and 1930s and finally grow brightly in the late 1940s were those of a much more complex form of international society, one with which we are now familiar.” (p.80)

Events at the end of the Great War were formative of the national outlooks of each of the powers. What is described as the French sense of entitlement of the 1920s (p.97) is an enduring theme of these years. It had its roots in the shortcomings of the Versailles treaty, given that its provisions both failed to construct adequate security guarantees while withholding those ample reparations payments which had apparently been promised under international agreement. Despite lacking an army or territory, Charles de Gaulle’s imperious behaviour in wartime Britain is thus seen as the culmination of French dissatisfaction with repeated attempts to work with the British and the Americans. British distrust of French intentions and American disengagement from the affairs of Europe were likewise rooted in the experience of that era. Williams shows that these outlooks were not exclusively the product of diplomatic experience; he perceptively argues that the proto-realism of some American commentators in the 1930s was employed as a basis for the advocacy of non-intervention (p.136).

In the United States the view was particularly influential, as Williams shows in some detail, that the failure of the 1919 settlement was principally economic and thus, whatever institutions had to be constructed after the second great cataclysm, the greatest attention had to be paid to establishing mechanisms for economic stabilisation. Here he foreshadows a theme that will undoubtedly preoccupy his second volume. 1919 and its immediate aftermath were also personally formative, with key individuals in the administrations and amongst the intellectual elites of the three powers, from Jean Monnet to John Foster Dulles, having been moulded by the perceived failures of Versailles and the concomitant frustrations of the advance towards disarmament and collective security promised by the League of Nations. Nevertheless, the League was also a test bed for some of the international mechanisms that came into being post-1945 as well as being one of the influences behind the growing impact in the international relations discipline of the idea of ‘international society’.

Despite the many disagreements manifest in the rich diplomatic and intellectual exchange of the triangular relationship, some common attitudes were characteristic of the Atlantic world. The book is also a challenge to those who would ascribe the concept of international society to an exclusively Anglo-American parentage. To this extent. Williams’ book is also a contribution to the work of situating the international relations discipline within a truly global context. His next volume is thus to be eagerly anticipated.


Andrew J Williams, France, Britain and the United States in the Twentieth Century 1900-1940. A Reappraisal. (London & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

Reviewed by Professor James Cotton, University of New South Wales, ADFA, Canberra.

Published March 2, 2015