THE 1890s were, as George Kennan says, an age of incipient change. Already, the 20th century was coming into existence: skyscrapers, psychoanalyis, telephones, multi-nationals, Big Government, trouble with the unions -- all had made their appearance.

In that decade, too, international relations became complicated as never before. There was an arms race, and much of the world was divided between two rival groups of powers -- France and Russia on the one side, Germany, Austria and Italy on the other. When, in 1904, the British became associated with the Franco-Russian group, the lay-out for the First World War was established.

George Kennan's elegant, tersely written and well founded boo concerns a decisive step in this: the making of the Franco-Russian alliance in the years 1891-1894. He tells the story mainly through its principal actors -- devious Third Republic politicians on the make, bluff soldier men, the vastly fat, bewildered Czar Alexander III and his fuss minister, Nikolai Giers -- and because, in that era, statesmen and generals had to communicate by telegraph and letter rather than by telephone, there is very little that we do not know about this story. And a very good one it is: for here, in the blunderings of these ambitious mediocrities, we have the first act in the tragedy of 1914.

One great theme running through that tragedy is the division between Germany and Russia. In this century, a myth was launched to the effect that the struggle between Teuton and Slav, the Germans' Drang nach Osten, had been age-old. This was quite incorrect. For most of the time since the reign of Peter the Great, Russia and Prussia had been on excellent terms; a sign of the closeness of their relationship was that each sovereign had, attached to his suite, a general from the other's army. The same Baltic Junker families -- Manteuffels, von Anreps, Hahns -- served both Berlin and Saint Petersburg: even in 1914, over half of the Russians' army commanders had unmistakably German names. In 1890, this changed: German nationalism and Russian pan-Slavism collided; and the czar took up alliance with France, Germany's deadly rival. In 1891, political agreement was reached in an exchange of letters. In August 1892 the general staffs agreed on a joint strategy in the event of a German attack on either power; and in January 1894 the full text of the treaty of alliance was ratified.

There were many problems on the way. Conservative Russians, such as old Giers, much preferred the partnership of Imperial Germany to that of Republican France; and many Frenchmen on the left disliked alliance with anti-Semitic, dictatorial czarist Russia. Then again, there were difficult military problems to overcome, and it is odd, in Kennan's pages, to find generals and statesmen already anticipating the actual course of events in July 1914. It was always likely that European war would begin with a conflict between Russia and Austria over some Balkan issue. Germany would then mobilize her forces in support of Austria; and France, holding true to the alliance, would have to act similarly, for Russia's sake. The French generals were dismayed to think that they could be dragged into some Balkan quarrel; and Russian generals were equally dismayed to think that they would have to abandon their campaign against Austria for the sake of France's quarrels with Germany.

It took several months of negotiation for any military agreement to come about. Even then -- a point that Kennan does not make with sufficient strength -- it was fraudulent. The Russians promised to put up 800,000 men right away against Germany. But their war plans remained defensive, to the point of supineness: they put all of their money (to fatal effect later on) into fortresses, designed to buttress their weak Polish position in the event of a German attack. The army could not even afford hot breakfasts, and its actual war plan provided for attack on Austria, not Germany. On the French side, too, the military promises were empty. Far from preparing for a great offensive against Germany, French generals also put much of their money into a version of the Maginot line -- the great fortress system of General Sere de Riviere, which swallowed so much money that the French army could not afford the field artillery and the NCOs that gave Germany such an advantage in 1914.

Not the least of the ironies of the Franco-Russian alliance was that, though it was ostensibly designed against Germany, it was prompted by anti-British considerations. In 1890, it looked as if the British and the Germans were going to get together: Germany would protect the British Empire against its Russian rival, while England would help Germany into a world empire. This partnership is the real might-have-been of the 20th century -- a will-of-the-wisp that danced before the British imperialist statesman, Joseph Chamberlain, at the time of the Boer War of 1899-1902, as it danced before his son, Neville, in the days of the "appeasement" of Nazi Germany. In 1890, the threat of this Anglo-German partnership sufficed to push France and Russia into an alliance: no one foresaw that, one day, the British would join it.

Kennan's book is a splendid, rather old-fashioned, historical narrative of an important phase of international relations. He is not quite satisfactory in his handling of imperialism as a theme; he perhaps does not give adequate weight to the domestic pressures affecting the powers' handling of international relations (he does not, for instance, mention the Franco-Italian tariff war that affected French foreign policies at this time); and I could have done with much more on the increasing complexities of military and naval matters. But Kennan is not the sort of historian who tries to kill his subject with facts: On the contrary, he has brought it vigorously to life.