Magnanimous Statecraft

“Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom,” Edmund Burke observed. At the turn of the twentieth century, both France and Germany were wooing Great Britain as an ally against the other. Why was it France, Britain’s nemesis for centuries, which succeeded in gaining British friendship? The answer is complex, but a large part is attributable to Theophile Delcasse, a French foreign minister who, like Burke, was willing to make a concession to gain the goodwill of a rival foreign power.

In July 1898, a motley band of French soldiers arrived at the Sudanese fort of Fashoda. They promptly claimed it for France. This sat poorly with the British, who had just reconquered Sudan for their Egyptian client state. Accordingly, the British encircled Fashoda, demanding the French withdraw or be forcibly expelled. In France, an outraged public, parliament, and government clamored for war to uphold French honor. Delcasse saw things differently. He sought “entente” with Britain to strengthen France vis-a-vis Germany. Colonial friction, however, had made even the discussion of improved relations with Britain impossible, much less a formal military alliance. Fashoda was Delcasse’s opportunity to change this. Defying popular pressure, Delcasse “gave in,” withdrawing from Fashoda and renouncing French ambitions in East Africa. What Delcasse lost in colonial possessions or national pride, however, he was compensated for in British goodwill. By 1904, the Anglo-French Entente was a reality and by 1914, French and British soldiers were fighting side by side to eject German armies from France. 

Magnanimity in politics is not without danger. One example of this approach, after all, is Neville Chamberlain’s tragic policy of “appeasement.” Nonetheless, are there contemporary issues in which American diplomats could profit from Delcasse’s example?


Knowing when to be firm and when to be generous is crucial to the diplomat’s art. Few books better describe this challenge of calibrating postures and strategies than CIA Director William Burns’ The Back Channel. Burns, who retired from the U.S. Foreign Service in 2014 after a thirty-three-year diplomatic career, chronicles how the priorities, approaches, and dilemmas of diplomacy evolved from the Cold War through the War on Terror and into our present period of great power competition.

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