The Triple Entente (from French entente [ɑ̃tɑ̃t] "friendship, understanding, agreement") refers to the understanding linking the Russian Empire, the French Third Republic, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland after the signing of the Anglo-Russian Entente on 31 August 1907. The understanding between the three powers, supplemented by agreements with Japan and Portugal, was a powerful counterweight to the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy.
Historians continue to debate the importance of the alliance system as one of the causes of World War I. At the start of World War I in 1914, all three Triple Entente members entered it as Allies against the Central Powers: Germany and Austria-Hungary.
However, the Triple Entente, unlike the Triple Alliance or the Franco-Russian Alliance, was not an alliance of mutual defense. Thus, Britain felt free to make its own foreign policy decisions in the 1914 July Crisis.
Otto von Bismarck planned to isolate France diplomatically; he feared that France's revanchist aspirations might make it attempt to regain its losses suffered in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian War. The alliance also served to fight against progressive sentiments, which the conservative rulers found unsettling, such as the First International.
However, the League faced great difficulty with the growing tensions between Russia and Austria-Hungary, mainly over the Balkans, where the rise of nationalism and the continued decline of the Ottoman Empire made many former Ottoman provinces struggle for independence.
The situation in the Balkans, especially in the wake of the Serbo-Bulgarian War and the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, which made Russia feel cheated of its gains made in the Russo-Turkish War, prevented the League from being renewed in 1887.
In an attempt to stop Russia from allying with France, Bismarck signed the secret Reinsurance Treaty with Russia in 1887. The treaty assured that both parties would remain neutral if war broke out.
The alliance between Russia and France and Bismarck′s exclusion of Russia from the German financial market in 1887 prevented the treaty from being renewed in 1890. That ended the alliance between Germany and Russia.
In 1904, Britain and France signed a series of agreements, the Entente cordiale, mostly in solving colonial disputes.
That heralded the end of British splendid isolation and was partly a response to growing German antagonism, as expressed in the expansion of the Kaiserliche Marine (Imperial Navy) to become a battle fleet that could threaten the supremacy of the British Royal Navy.
The Entente, unlike the Triple Alliance and the Franco-Russian Alliance, was not an alliance of mutual defence and so Britain was free to make its own foreign policy decisions in 1914. As British Foreign Office Official Eyre Crowe minuted, "The fundamental fact of course is that the Entente is not an alliance. For purposes of ultimate emergencies it may be found to have no substance at all. For the Entente is nothing more than a frame of mind, a view of general policy which is shared by the governments of two countries, but which may be, or become, so vague as to lose all content".
In the last decade of the nineteenth century, Britain continued its policy of "splendid isolation", with its primary focus on defending its massive overseas empire. However, by the early 1900s, the German threat had increased dramatically, and in Britain thought it was in need of allies. For most of the 19th century, Britain had regarded France and Russia as its two most dangerous rivals, but with the growing threat of Germany, policy began to change for several reasons:
During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871, Prussia defeated the Second French Empire, resulting in the establishment of the Third Republic. In the Treaty of Frankfurt, Prussia forced France to cede Alsace-Lorraine to the new German Empire. Ever since, relations had been poor.
France, worried about the escalating military development of Germany, began building up its own war industries and army to deter to German aggression. Also, France developed a strong bond with Russia by ratifying the Franco-Russian Alliance, which was designed to create a strong counter to the Triple Alliance. France′s main concerns were to protect against an attack from Germany and to regain Alsace-Lorraine.
Russia had by far the largest manpower reserves of all the six European powers, but it was also the most backward economically. Russia shared France′s worries about Germany. After the Germans started to reorganise the Ottoman army, Russia feared that they would come to control the Dardanelles, a vital trade artery that carried two fifths of Russia's exports.
There was also Russia's long history of rivalry with Austria-Hungary. Austria-Hungary had recently annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina, greatly angering Russia, which had considered itself the leader of the Slavic world (Pan-Slavism). Russia viewed the invasion as another step towards annexing Serbia and Montenegro.
Russia had also recently lost the humiliating Russo-Japanese War, a cause of the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the apparent transformation into a constitutional monarchy. To counter its enemies militarily and politically, Russia sought to revive the Franco-Russian Alliance.
Although it was perceived as useless during the war with Japan, the alliance was valuable in the European theatre. Russia also signed the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 with Britain to counteract the threat of the Triple Alliance.
The alignment of the autocratic Russian Empire with Europe's two largest democracies was controversial on both sides. Many Russian conservatives mistrusted the secular France and recalled British past diplomatic maneuvers to block Russian influence in the Near East. In turn, prominent French and British journalists, academics and parliamentarians found the reactionary tsarist regime distasteful. Mistrust persisted even during wartime, with British and French politicians expressing relief when Tsar Nicholas II abdicated and was replaced by the Russian Provisional Government after the February Revolution in 1917. An offer of political asylum for the Romanovs was even withdrawn by the British king for fear popular reaction. Also, France never brought up the subject of asylum with the deposed tsar.