Foreign and Defense Policy, Asia

The Great War’s lessons for 2013

Photo Credit: Marine Corps Archives and Special Collection/Flickr

Photo Credit: Marine Corps Archives and Special Collection/Flickr

In yesterday’s Financial Times, Gideon Rachman wrote another one of his interesting columns, “The Shadow of 1914 falls over the Pacific,” noting some of the similarities in the current situation in the Far East and the international situation before World War I. In WWI, Germany was a rising power, Great Britain was concerned over its rise, and an isolated incident—the assassination of the Austrian archduke—brought about a global conflict. Today, China is rising, the US is the concerned party, and the dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands has many worried that a more serious, armed struggle could break out. Rachman correctly writes that “the rising tensions between China, Japan, and the US have echoes of the terrible conflict that broke out almost a century ago.”

Rachman is right to point out the similarities and to suggest that by dismissing them, commentators and political leaders are being “far too complacent.” Where he falls short is suggesting that the key problem during the pre-war era lay in the fact that “a small incident could invoke alliance commitments that lead to a wider war,” implying that the real problem today is the United States’ security commitment to Japan, a commitment understood to include the defense of the Senkaku Islands. The goal, Rachman writes, should be to “never again stumble into a war.”

But was World War I—the Great War, with its massive armies, its global character, and its horrific casualties—truly a product of an automatic system of security guarantees? Not really. While existing alliances certainly shaped the general context for the war that followed, more important were Berlin’s own ambitions and London’s failure to make clear in the weeks before the war that it would indeed go to war if Germany’s army violated Belgium’s neutrality and attacked France.

In the aftermath of the Austrian duke’s assassination in late June 1914, it was German prodding and assurances to Austria that led Vienna to make the kind of impossible ultimatums to Serbia that it did. Berlin wanted war, not only because it believed it was a propitious time given the relative military strength of its potential adversaries but, more fundamentally, because it believed it had a greater, more expansive role to play globally. In short, Germany was spoiling for a fight.

As for London, it was British diplomacy that inadvertently opened the door to Germany believing it could go to war and not face a British intervention. Hoping to keep open the possibility of a negotiated end to the crisis, Britain was less than clear with the Germans as to whether London would defend Belgium’s neutrality and the French. Arguably, if Britain had declared early support for France in July of 1914, it is likely that Germany would have convinced Austria-Hungary to settle with Serbia rather than declare war. It was the absence of clarity about a security guarantee, not its existence, which was the proximate critical ingredient that led to World War I.

There are plenty of useful lessons to be learned from the years, months, and days leading up to the Great War that today’s statesmen should not ignore. However, the one lesson they should not take away is that the war’s start was some sort of accident of history or the inevitable product of the international system of the time. Rachman is right to point out the parallels of today with 1914, but getting the history right is the first step to not repeating its terrible results.

7 thoughts on “The Great War’s lessons for 2013

  1. Fascinating piece, sir. I do have one question, though:

    With Germany spoiling for a fight, do you think a clear message from the Brits would have prevented war? As it was, there were facing the French army and the Russian (which was, I believe, the largest in the world at the time. Please correct me if I am wrong). Would the British have been the breaking point, or just another enemy to sweep away for Germany’s rise to power?

    • I think that you are wrong to ignore the role that Britain played in the origins of the War. On page 249 in the reference below you will find what Colonel House had to say about the issue. Britain wanted war because it was threatened by a German increase in naval power. The war was a stupid error by men who knew far less than they thought that they knew. We have the same situation again as the advisers and presidents/prime-ministers show little understanding of the complexity of the issues involved.

      http://www.scribd.com/doc/33156561/The-Intimate-Papers-of-Colonel-House-Vol-1-4

      • On page 249 in the reference below you will find what Colonel House had to say about the issue.

        Who, the self-styled “Colonel” who never served in the military and after visiting Europe spouted that he had found “militarism run stark mad.” The same man who helped to draw up the failure of a manifesto for the League Of Nations? For a chilling read, try his book.

        • I have no admiration for anyone in the Wilson Administration. That said, it is quite clear that the simple, ‘it was the German’s fault,’ view is not correct because we have plenty of evidence from the period that paints a much more complex picture than the one painted by the victors after the war was over.

  2. But was World War I—the Great War, with its massive armies, its global character and its horrific casualties—truly a product of an automatic system of security guarantees? Not really. While existing alliances certainly shaped the general context for the war that followed, more important were Berlin’s own ambitions and London’s failure to make clear in the weeks before the war that it would indeed go to war if Germany’s army violated Belgium’s neutrality and attacked France.

    I disagree. Berlin was not alone in its push for war. Britain wanted war as badly if not more because it feared a rising Germany as it was in clear decline.

    • Vangel, I have to disagree. All of the main combatants were rife with internal divisions. So much so that they were not looking for war.

      It took London, bogged down with the Irish, almost a month after the assassination to realize that the fuse was already lit.

      If they were ll spoiling for war mobilizations would already be in place for France, Germany and Britain. As it was they were all caught off guard and raced to mobilize so as not to be caught short.

      • If they were ll spoiling for war mobilizations would already be in place for France, Germany and Britain. As it was they were all caught off guard and raced to mobilize so as not to be caught short.

        The French jumped at a chance to go after Germany once the treaty with Russia expired because it wanted the land it lost to Germany in the previous conflict. The British were worried about the growth of Germany and had fears that their navy would be threatened by growing German naval power. The Germans were not entirely to blame for the war because the other side had as much to do with it as they did.

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