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PAX, LUX ET VERITAS SINCE 1965
Post More on Causes of WWI
Created by John Eipper on 08/20/15 4:31 AM

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More on Causes of WWI (Anthony D'Agostino, USA, 08/20/15 4:31 am)

I wonder if some who are making important decisions for the great states of today are familiar with the basic facts in the discussion that Gary Moore, Hall Gardner, and I having been having on the origins of World War I. Diplomatic history is not fashionable in the major universities where they may have got their degrees, having been displaced by fascination with multiculturalism for some forty years now. Yet one often hears that world politics in the period under discussion is disturbingly similar to our own time, in Robert Kagan's phrase, "the nineteenth century redux."

Hall Gardner and I have been arguing the main theses of our recent books. We have mostly agreed, but we have differed on whether in general the war should be understood primarily in terms of continental conflicts (Hall's view), or global ones (mine). Hall says that the British were concerned with matters "closer to home than in Asia" by 1914. True enough, if you think of Admiral John Fischer's desire to concentrate the Royal Navy's strength in home waters. But if we are asking how the alignment of the powers ended up the way it did, we have to consider the events resulting from the Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902, which I reviewed in my last post. Hall accepted this view which "ironically" (the right word!) begins with Britain trying to contain Russia, and ends with Britain allying with Russia.

But he insists that things were already going sour between Britain and Germany by 1902. The Salisbury tradition (Lord Salisbury's idea of Britain as a silent partner in the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria and Italy) was dead. The Mediterranean Agreements of the eighties linking Britain to Germany were defunct. Was this because of the Jamison Raid of 1895, Cecil Rhodes's attempt to seize the Transvaal, and German support for the Boers? Was it the German navy bill of 1897? Was it the Baghdad Railway project? Or the Kaiser's words of support to the Muslims in his visit to Jerusalem in 1898? Or the threat of the Far Eastern Triplice? No need to choose. Things often happen for more than one reason. At any rate, the period 1897-1901 was the period that all those who later lamented the falling out of Britain and Germany looked back to as the last chance to avoid war. Why could the two powers not agree?

I would answer this question by reference to the rise of the USA as a naval power. In the dispute over Venezuela in 1895 the USA cited the Monroe Doctrine and faced down Britain. After Salisbury had digested that, the British decided to stay on good terms with the USA. They accepted the US position on the Alaska boundary settlement, on Hawaii, on the Philippines, on Panama. The German conception of Weltpolitik, on the contrary, would have suggested using one or more of these events to demand compensation, as would befit Germany as a world power. In German eyes, that was how the British got Cyprus, and the French got Tunis. For example, Germany did not care when Britain tossed Morocco to France, but Bulow thought that Germany should have something in Africa comparable to Egypt or Morocco. Britain decided after the Venezuela crisis that it would back the USA against any German challenge anywhere on the seas of the world. Britain knew that in the age of world power, not merely just European great power, the USA, Britain, and perhaps Germany one day, were the only real contenders for the title of world naval power. So Britain had to choose between the USA and Germany.

The Germans could not see the choice that Britain had made. They kept hoping that Britain, once it learned to respect Germany as a world power, would come back to them. When the British joined the international naval force sent to prevent Serbia from reaching the Adriatic after the first Balkan war in 1912, the Germans thought the British had got over all their triple entente nonsense and returned to the Salisbury tradition. In 1914, they still entertained the hope that Britain would not be against them. That is a large part of the reason why they acted as they did.

JE comments:  Anthony D'Agostino adds several new twists to our discussion.  How much of the falling out between Britain and Germany had to do with the former's decision not to antagonize the US?  What about the Boer War?  As Anthony wisely comments, there is no need to choose.


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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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