Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz/The European Outlook

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Of recent events in Europe the official announcement of the “alliance” between Russia and France, on the occasion of the visit of President Faure at the Russian capital, has no doubt been the most sensational. But it may well be questioned whether this event has really changed the relations between the great powers of the Old World sufficiently to justify the sensation it caused at the first moment. A “friendly understanding” between France and Russia has existed for many years. European diplomacy has long been accustomed to take into account the expectation that under certain circumstances those two powers would support one another's interests and aspirations, and agree as much as possible upon common policies. To be sure, an alliance means much more than a mere friendly understanding. It involves a more or less clear definition of the points the understanding is about, and the assumption by each party concerned of certain definite obligations toward the other, binding it to act thus and so in certain emergencies. A mere friendly understanding may be changed or abandoned, as one party or the other may change its views as to its immediate or remote interests, without any breach of positive obligations. By a formal alliance the friendly understanding receives the character of a matter of honor, and thus a much stronger warrant of good faith and durability. But as to its objects the alliance need not go farther than the more informal friendly understanding did, and it is eminently probable that it does not go farther in the present instance.

To France the open demonstration of intimate friendship with Russia has had a peculiar importance ever since her defeat in the Franco-German war. The French Republic found herself in a state of distressing isolation, partly on account of the issue of the war which stripped her of much of her prestige as a great power, and partly on account of her republican institutions, at which the monarchical governments around her looked askance. Backed by Russia she would be relieved of that isolation; her prestige as a great power would be heightened by the combination with another great power, and in the family of European states the republic would be received on an equal footing with the monarchies. The assiduous wooing of the only great republic in Europe for the friendship of the most autocratic of European governments, grotesque as it appeared, was therefore, as a policy, by no means unnatural. With many Frenchmen, if not with a majority of them, there was in the background the thought that revenge on Germany might be made possible by Russian co-operation. Considering the excitable vivacity of the French temperament, it is not astonishing that the demonstrations of enthusiasm on the part of the French on the occasion of Russian visits in France should have assumed an almost hysterical character. But in moments of soberness it occurred to many of them that such paroxysms of French ecstasy about the Russian friendship had almost regularly been taken advantage of by the Russian government to raise large loans in France, to which the French enthusiasts very liberally subscribed, and that they had a right to demand for their money something more substantial than a mere flirtation, something stronger than a mere friendly understanding, something as solid and impressive as a real alliance. This demand was not unfair, and it has been gratified.

But it is extremely improbable that the Czar should have bound himself to anything in support of any French design of revenge upon Germany. The Czar has not sought the alliance, but he has granted it to France as a boon. It was his privilege therefore to dictate its terms, and so he has undoubtedly done. The policy of Russia is not sentimental. It will sacrifice nothing of Russian interest merely to gratify a friend. It pursues its own aims with cold-blooded calculation, and will shape its alliances accordingly. If it is the predominant desire of France to restore her military prestige as against Germany, it is not at all impossible that Russia may give her to understand that as France was defeated in the war of 1870 by Germany single-handed and alone, her military prestige can be really restored only by her defeating Germany single-handed and alone, and not by Russian armies doing half of the fighting, thus bringing two great powers against one. If it is the main object of France to strengthen herself by recovering from the German Empire the two provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, Russia will consider with the utmost coolness whether it will be to her interest to make enemies of Germany and her allies, or whether it will not be far more profitable to her to make Germany only apprehensive of irksome possibilities, and then to put a higher price upon Russian friendship. Her cleverness in making Germany and France at the same time serve her aims she successfully demonstrated at the close of the war between China and Japan, when, with the aid of both Germany and France, she made the victory of Japan redound to a very considerable enlargement of the moral influence and material power of Russia in eastern Asia. Nobody need be surprised if in the course of time it should turn out that the policy of making both powers subservient to her ends in Asia and in the Orient, by exciting the hopes of one and the misgivings of the other, was the real meaning and intent, so far as Russia is concerned, of the French alliance.

The terms in which the Czar announced the alliance as “a fresh bond between the two friendly and allied nations, which are equally resolved to contribute with all their power to the maintenance of the peace of the world in the spirit of right and equity,” must be recognized as admirably serving that purpose. A sanguine French chauvinist may interpret this as meaning that “the spirit of right and equity” demands the restoration of Alsace and Lorraine to France. Another interpretation may be that, as Alsace and Lorraine once belonged to Germany, and were taken from Germany by France, the reconquest of the two provinces by Germany in a fair fight constitutes a state of things which, according to “the spirit of right and equity,” should be maintained. The probability is that Russia, while she may permit this conflict of interpretations to go on, sincerely desires the “maintenance of the worlds's peace,” while looking for opportunities to derive from her way of maintaining the world's peace very valuable advantages for herself.

A far more serious danger of disturbance in Europe threatens to arise from the complications surrounding the settlement of the difficulties between Turkey and Greece. The sudden resurrection of Turkish power and prestige as a consequence of the Cretan insurrection and the war made by Greece in behalf of it, is one of the most astounding developments in the history of our time. Nothing could be more grotesque as an upshot of European diplomacy. But however abhorrent to modern civilization, it is now a fact of the most serious significance. It has inspired the whole Mohammedan world with a consciousness of power such as has not been known for generations. It is felt not only in the Turkish dominions, but far away on the confines of the British Indian Empire.

It is the belief of the Moslem that the Sultan has overcome in battle not only Greece, but all Christendom, and that it is in his power to carry the triumphant crescent much farther. Under such circumstances the concert of the European powers seeks to prevail upon the Sultan to evacuate and give up the conquered province of Thessaly. To have the Christian population of Thessaly put back under the Turkish yoke, and thus to permit a substantial extension of Mohammedan rule in these days of ours, is considered by European opinion as an outrage not to be endured. But the question is whether the Sultan can, in the present excitement of the Mohammedan world, give up that conquest of Mohammedan arms without risking his life, and whether such an attempt on his part were made, it would not cause an upheaval of Mohammedan fanaticism apt to bring on at once that explosion and that confused and destructive struggle of conflicting interests and ambitions which European diplomacy has worked so long and so clumsily to avert.

There is far more danger of conflagration in the trouble about Thessaly, therefore, than in the Franco-Russian alliance; and Europe cannot look into the future without anxious apprehension until the peace between Turkey and Greece is finally settled and calmly acquiesced in on both sides. In this state of uncertainty the nations of Europe stand there armed to the teeth, “every laborer at his work carrying a soldier or a sailor on his back,” all nervously dreading the arrival of the moment when the tremendous engines of war will be let loose for the work of bloodshed and destruction. This republic is the only great power untroubled by dangerous entanglements. What patriotic citizen would advise the American people to forfeit the blessing of such a privilege?

Carl Schurz.    

This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.


Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz - 1897-09-11 - The European Outlook.PNG