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Post on Diplomatic History; Causes of WWI
Created by John Eipper on 09/11/15 12:22 PM

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on Diplomatic History; Causes of WWI (Hall Gardner, -France, 09/11/15 12:22 pm)

I thank Anthony D'Agostino for his comments of 20 August.  I apologize for the delay in response, as I just finished an article on "hybrid warfare" which should be out in October.

First let me express my agreement with Anthony that "Diplomatic history is not fashionable in the major universities."  It seems no one today wants to study "hard" politics of decision-making options and strategic choices, but they prefer to study soft politics, primarily political-sociology, including multiculturalism. At the same time, historians themselves sometimes tend to look only at the results of what states decide, and they do not always examine the differing policy options and internal debates that actually led to those results. Examining the different diplomatic and policy options--that were actually debated at the time--is what I attempted to do in The Failure to Prevent World War I: The Unexpected Armageddon.

I do not really disagree with Anthony's views that global conflicts were also a cause of WWI and I totally agree that Imperial Germany, as a rising naval power, and its burgeoning conflict with the USA, was a major factor in pushing Great Britain against Germany. And Berlin, at least in part, justified its "risk fleet" on the analogy that just as American naval power forced Britain into an accommodation, the German navy could do the same!

The problem, however, was that German threats failed miserably to force Britain into accommodation and instead provoked conflict. But this raises the question: why were the British willing to "appease" the USA (virtually ignoring the US fleet in British naval estimations) but not the fleet of Imperial Germany--which really only began to be perceived as a potential naval threat after 1902?

My argument is that Imperial Germany became Britain's enemy "by default" once the Franco-Russian alliance was forged in 1894 and once London found itself increasingly drawn to an entente with both France and Russia, despite its efforts to reach out to Germany and/or Russia (and not really to France) from the late 1880s to 1902--the date when it finally gave up trying to find ways to accommodate Berlin. I argued this in previous WAIS posts.

Anthony is right to argue that the USA played a significant role in further dividing Germany and Great Britain and raising disputes between them. London could not afford to ignore the rising American political-economic power--which even threatened to use force against British interests in Canada, for example. I make a number of similar points to those of Anthony's comments in my book, The Failure to Prevent World War I, and likewise discuss the Venezuela crisis as a factor turning Britain against Germany and closer toward the USA in the early 1900s.

But one could add to this analysis that it was France who helped to mediate between the US and Spanish after their war over Cuba and the Philippines, whose islands the Germans coveted, in addition to coveting Guam, Hawaii, Virgin Islands, Samoa, among others. Washington also perceived Berlin as trying to penetrate Latin America economically through Guatemala and Mexico. One could also add how the 1911 Agadir Crisis impacted the USA given Washington's fear that Germany could set up a naval base in the Atlantic Ocean that could eventually threaten US interests and security. In effect, Imperial German naval threats forced the US to assert tighter controls over its own expanding spheres on influence and security, while checking those of Germany.

Yet while Washington and Berlin had their own major disputes, my point is that French diplomacy, in working with the Americans, helped to further divide the US and British from the Germans--all for the larger purpose of achieving a closer French alignment with London.

But despite this global US-German dimension that is at the long term origins of the conflict, I do not think these overseas conflicts were necessarily the prime cause of the actual decision for London to enter into WWI--in defending the French. Here, I argue that issues that impact conflicts need to be divided between those concerns that appear absolutely "vital" and that apparently cannot be compromised, and those concerns that are secondary and tertiary and can more easily be compromised.

For London in the years before WWI, the English Channel and Straits of Gibraltar were considered "vital" and therefore Britain would oppose whoever threatened those vital interests, whether it was France or Germany or another rising naval power like Italy. The continental strategic concern just before WWI was this: If France had not made its naval deal with Britain, what French Ambassador Paul Cambon called "mon petit papier," in which France would concentrate its fleet in the Mediterranean (thus taking the French fleet away from the English Channel) and in which the Royal Navy would protect the Atlantic coasts of France in case of war, or if France had opted to attack Belgium first in a preclusive intervention, London could have shifted to support the German side--or more likely remain neutral. This is regardless of London's extra-European conflicts with Germany, that, as I have argued, were given additional fuel by the USA and France...

Should France, as hypothetical, have opted to attack Germany first through Belgium (as was demanded by French General Joffre, but rejected in Anglo-French defense discussions before WWI), it would have changed the nature and outcome of the war, with the British probably not entering the conflict, at least initially.  But to have prevented a major power war between France and Germany altogether would have necessitated a Franco-German deal over Alsace-Lorraine, the major dispute on the European continent. Such a deal would most likely need to be mediated by London.

Although the possibility of a "United States of Europe," that would bring France and Britain into cooperation with Germany, as called for by Victor Hugo, was actually promoted, at least to a certain extent, by the Kaiser himself, and although Franco-German reconciliation was urged belatedly by Jean Jaurès, as well by many Socialists and pacifists, it was vehemently opposed by French elites on both the Right and the Left. A horrific war on the continent and overseas was the consequence.

JE comments:  Hall Gardner will be able to continue this discussion with Anthony D'Agostino at WAIS '15--just one month away!  I hope to be an attentive fly on the wall.

Please RSVP if you plan to join us:  October 10th and 11th, Bechtel International Center, Stanford.

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