New political leaders do not invent new national strategies. Rather, they adapt enduring national strategies to the moment. On Tuesday, Francois Hollande will be inaugurated as France's president, and soon after taking the oath of office, he will visit German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. At this moment, the talks are expected to be about austerity and the European Union, but the underlying issue remains constant: France's struggle for a dominant role in European affairs at a time of German ascendance.
Two events shaped modern French strategy. The first, of course, was the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and the emergence of Britain as the world's dominant naval power and Europe's leading imperial power. This did not eliminate French naval or imperial power, but it profoundly constrained it. France could not afford to challenge Britain any more and had to find a basis for accommodation, ending several centuries of hostility if not distrust.
The second moment came in 1871 when the Prussians defeated France and presided over the unification of German states. After its defeat, France had to accept not only a loss of territory to Germany but also the presence of a substantial, united power on its eastern frontier. From that moment, France's strategic problem was the existence of a unified Germany.
France had substantial military capabilities, perhaps matching and even exceeding that of Germany. However, France's strategy for dealing with Germany was to build a structure of alliances against Germany. First, it allied with Britain, less for its land capabilities than for the fact that Britain's navy could blockade Germany and therefore deter it from going to war. The second ally was Russia, the sheer size of which could threaten Germany with a two-front war if one began. Between its relationships with Britain and Russia, France felt it had dealt with its strategic problem.
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