European Affairs

Who? – or What Tectonic Shift? – Created the Special Relationship     Print Email

The King and the Cowboy
By David Fromkin
The Penguin Press, 256 pages, $25.95

Reviewed by Michael D. Mosettig

From one of America’s foremost diplomatic historians comes this curious contrivance of a small intriguing book. Tracing the origin of the U.S.-British “special relationship” to the origin of the century it shaped, it offers a version of the “great man” theory of history to explain its conception in the connections between Britain’s King Edward VII and U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. In making its case, the book revolves just as much around a third man, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II. However, including his name on the cover might have spoiled the theme of an Anglo-American world bestriding the 20th century.

Fromkin enjoys a growing reputation and popular appeal, and The King and the Cowboy is eminently readable. The problem is that the author has an exceptionally difficult premise to advance: that between them, Roosevelt and Edward laid the foundation of the “special relationship” and wider partnership of the Anglo-Saxon nations that shaped the twentieth century – largely on increasingly liberal domestic systems that were generally paired with tough foreign policies. Any number of practical issues stand between the author and his premise: the two leaders never met face to face; the American was head of government as well as head of state while the British monarch’s role in affairs of state is much harder to prove or decipher. By the time Europe entered the decade of World War I, the murderous conflict that shaped the rest of the century, the monarch was deceased and the cowboy was out of office.

Yet thoughtful speculation has its role in history; and there is plenty of it here, developing a thesis about the origins of what some have subsequently called “the Anglosphere.” As the great-power alliances of post-Napoleonic Europe were withering, Germany was seen by Britain to be emerging as a new empire-builder bent on dominating Europe. Britain’s longstanding conflict with the United States was over; a sound basis for future peace was to be built on an alliance of English-speaking peoples. The analysis of how history unfolded is clearly sound and based on geo-political shifts seen in the same light by the two men. What is perhaps less well demonstrated is how significantly the history was shaped by the personalities and largely indirect interaction between these two protagonists in Fromkin’s book. There is ample material for him to work with, as Fromkin does brilliantly. He draws on volumes of history written since World War I, his characters have all been worthy of major biographies and Fromkin delves deftly into the rich substance.

First the sex part, as might be said by Fromkin. His early pages could be titled The Sex Lives of the Rich and Royal. Edward VII, as Prince of Wales and then as King, rarely if ever spent a night alone, whether he was separated from his wife by thousands of miles or even a few hundred yards. He especially loved the upscale brothels of Paris. And for those needing more than words, the book thoughtfully provides a picture of a love seat (“fauteuil d’amour”), an erotic contraption that could accommodate the ever-more portly royal and his single or multiple sex-partners. The mistress of his final years was Alice Keppel, a prominent figure in her era and a distant ancestor of Camilla Parker-Bowles, who would play a similar role for the current Prince of Wales. This couple’s marriage was possible amid modern mores of church, state and society that are radically different from those which blocked any divorce in Edward’s day. Roosevelt was something of a prude whose adventurous life took place beyond the bedroom – often in the West or on a battlefield. It was said of him that “he liked a war, any war.” Wilhelm, on the other hand, may have been a repressed homosexual. (What is more provable is that he detested his mother, who, like King Edward, was a child of Queen Victoria.)

In that sense, it might have been easier for Fromkin to approach his subject via Freudian theory. In tackling the history, he often finds it easier to describe the influence and policies of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm, whose power was much less constricted than the unwritten constitutional limits on his British uncle. Fromkin captures the destabilizing rise of the Reich, an ultimately fateful development that he blames more on Germany’s political leaders than on its monarch, whom he portrays more as a fool than a real menace – an inconsistent, blustering figure whose bark was worse than his bite. As Fromkin says:

The Kaiser was an embarrassment to Germany’s military and civilian leaders. He was always changing his mind, and he was inconsistent. ....As he loved making striking and dramatic pronouncements, his staff would receive bold orders from him that he would have to rescind the next day. Sometimes without consulting anyone, he would issue statements that later would have to be explained away. At times he sounded or acted like an intelligent, well-informed man, while at other times he acted or sounded like a foolish one. Often there was little follow-through on what he said or what he ordered.

But to Edward, Fromkin attributes more than might have really been there at a time when Britain’s foreign policies had shifted largely into the hands of politicians. Fromkin makes much of the king’s ability to use his version of the “bully pulpit” that comes with the titular top job in a nation. He depicts the origins of the Entente Cordiale in these terms:

King Edward’s state visit to Paris in the spring of 1903 was one of the turning points in the politics of the twentieth century. He told the people of Paris he was one of their own – and they believed it… The crowds shouted; the opinion of the country was carried; a return visit by the French President to London took place. It seems that what Edward had in mind was something more than a successful state visit. What now commenced was a process in which, after a thousand years of conflict, Britain and France became friends. What they developed was an association that was different from an alliance; it was an entente, a warm understanding.

Fitting President Roosevelt into this triangle becomes more complicated. The American President and British monarch did carry on a correspondence, but never met face to face. Circumstances allowed a convergence of their views however. Only after Britain’s imperial ambitions ran aground in the Boer War could an American president finally contemplate putting aside nearly two centuries of conflict and suspicion between the two English-speaking nations. Only at the Algeciras conference of 1906, did Britain and France resolve their colonial skirmishes in Africa and begin collaborating against the developing threat and provocations of Imperial Germany and its erratic ruler – and Fromkin credits Roosevelt with an invisible but powerful role in the reconciliation. Fromkin explains his interpretation in these terms:

There are those who plausibly argue that the change of alliances, with all its consequences, would have taken place if King Edward and President Roosevelt had never been born. That seems doubtful. France never would have entered into the Entente Cordiale if the King had not personally persuaded France to do so; and it is entirely possible that the Kaiser would not have backed down at Algeciras if President Roosevelt had not been involved. There is also a strong case for crediting both the American and the Englishman for having made a start – even if it was only a start – in pulling their respective countries out of their deep rooted isolationism in foreign policy.

Fair enough, and the author’s decision to put the emphasis on the American President and British monarch rather than the German Kaiser at least eliminates the problem of putting three names in a title. But it leaves unsaid a nagging fact: that great conflicts in two successive centuries are rooted in decisions by other leaders who proved less successful in preserving global stability. Less adept and less liked than their predecessors, often referred to as TR and ER (an acronym for Edward Rex), these later leaders (like Wilhelm) were identified by the letter W – as in Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush.

Michael Mosettig is a senior producer on foreign affairs at The News Hour with Jim Lehrer broadcast by PBS.

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 10, Issue number 1-2 in the Winter/Spring of 2009.


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