Russian goals in the July Crisis (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 6)

Today’s lecture was very much a companion to Tuesday’s (which laid out for us German preferences in the July Crisis), as we fleshed out the other side of the equation that would take the world from an Austro-Serbian war to a general conflict involving the other Great Powers: specifically, Russia.

We worked out Tuesday that Germany’s most-preferred outcome of the July Crisis appears to have been successful localization of an Austro-Serbian war, which would have led to either Serbia’s forcible realignment with the Central Powers or its dismemberment and distribution of its territories to ostensibly grateful nearby states—handing Germany something close to a preventive outcome against Russia (by more or less permanently shutting the latter out of the Balkans and the Straits while bolstering the Dual Monarchy) at no cost. However, given that Austria couldn’t commit not to crush Serbia, which the delay between assassination and ultimatum made hard to believe—to say nothing of word leaking out all over the Continent about the Dual Monarchy’s extensive aims—Russia, it seems, couldn’t commit not to get involved to save Serbia. However, Russia knew that it would be stronger by 1916, and surely seems to have preferred most of all that war be avoided. As such, we worked out this tough preference ranking over outcomes, from top to bottom:

  1. Austria backs down (or just stops in Belgrade, making it a clear punitive operation)
  2. Austria attacks Serbia, Russia intervenes, Germany stays out
  3. Austria attacks Serbia, Russia intervenes, Germany intervenes
  4. Austria attacks Serbia, Russia doesn’t intervene

Clearly, Russia was able to avoid her worst outcome—losing the Balkans, and the promise of access to the Turkish Straits, to the Central Powers—but nonetheless ended up with her third best: a general war involving the Great Powers. Russia was able to guarantee that Germany didn’t get its best option, but Germany was able to force Russia down to its third, in what looks like a grim series of commitment problems: neither Russia nor Germany could commit not to take advantage of the other’s standing pat (Russia because it couldn’t stand aside and see Serbia crushed, Germany because it now believed that Russia had turned the assertiveness corner and made preventive war necessary), and as a result we saw the beginning of a war that would ultimately drag in France, the UK, Turkey…and a great many others.

Ultimately, we can understand the escalation of the July Crisis as the result of three interlocked decisions for preventive war:

  1. Austria to solve her nationalities problem by ridding itself of growing, nationalist Serbia
  2. Russia to prevent the loss of its position in the Balkans to the Central powers by supporting Austria
  3. Germany to prevent Russia from completing the Great Program of rearmament and strangling the former’s growth as a Great Power

without any one of which the war might’ve looked much, much different than it did.

Still, at this point in the class—with Russia lurching from partial to full mobilization as Germany embarked on a mobilization of its own—the war was still regional. It won’t be until next week, when the French and British dominoes fall, that it starts to become a World War. What was important, pedagogically, was to nail down the logic of commitment problems and how they lead to tragic outcomes, and to force students to spend some time in the heads of decision-makers—which, when you’re trying to understand why a war occurred when and how it did, is no mean task—working out their preferences, available actions, and seeing what we can learn by taking their dilemmas, their choices, and their goals seriously.

German aims in the July Crisis (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 5)

After a week that saw us talk about prewar crises and military planning for the big one, should it ever break out, today we dived directly into the strategy of the July Crisis following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Rather than follow the crisis in a linear fashion, though, we tried to tackle a part of the story: German preferences over the many possible outcomes of the crisis. German goals in the war and the preceding crisis have long been a subject of debate—beginning almost as soon as the war broke out—and our goal was to use the weight of available evidence to figure out how Germany might’ve ranked the possible outcomes of its choice over backing Austria in its proposed war on Serbia; doing so will give us some tools to think about the preferences and choices of the other great powers (particularly France and Russia) when we pick up the other part of the narrative—or, more properly, flesh out the other side of the game—on Thursday.

Without rehashing the historiography, here’s what we settled on. Given Austria’s desire to crush Serbia—either dismembering it or forcing it into an alliance with the Dual Monarchy—Germany’s options were to support its ally or not, and the likely outcomes all involved some form of Russian involvement. However, contrary to some accounts, it doesn’t look like Germany was bent on provoking a war with Russia; to be sure, its leaders had been wondering whether preventive war was attractive since Russian rearmament began in 1905, but it had always used Russian assertiveness as the indicator of whether the time had come to attack before the Great Program of rearmament would be complete. In 1905, 1908, 1911, and 1913, the indicator never appeared, and preventive war was never attractive. In short, Germany would fight a preventive war when Russian assertiveness indicated that the time was right, but it was hardly bent on it from the start. As such, we came up with the following ranking, from best to worst:

  1. Austria attacks Serbia, Russia doesn’t intervene (Serbian power eliminated, Dual Monarchy secured, Russia pushed out of the Balkans, and costs of war saved, Entente might fall apart)
  2. Austria attacks Serbia, Russia intervenes, Germany fights (Russian assertiveness reveals preventive war’s time has come)
  3. Austria attacks Serbia, Russia intervenes, Germany doesn’t fight (closest ally defeated, Russian interests ascendant in Balkans, and Russian growth continues unchecked)

Why specify these preferences? Two reasons. First, it lets us see how they “add up” and interact with Russian and French preferences to get us the World War that we had emerging from the July Crisis. (Hint: the revelation of Russian assertiveness turns out to be key in convincing Germany that it’s time to preventive war.)

Second, and more important for today, it’s a useful exercise in thinking hard about how we explain political phenomena. If Germany’s best possible outcome was “localization,” as contemporaries called it, where the threat to support Austria kept the Russians on the sidelines and ensured that the Triple Alliance would dominate the Balkans in the future, then it’s hard to assert—as a few still do—that Germany wanted a preventive war, pursued and then got its preferred outcome. It’s an easy argument to make, but it’s probably also fallacious: Germany seemed to have gotten its second best outcome, and we can’t infer from what did happen that this is what Germany wanted to happen. This means that, to understand why the July Crisis turned into the Great War, we need to know something about why localization failed—why the German threat to support Austria-Hungary was insufficient to deter Russia from mobilizing and continuing the Continent’s slide into war. If, on the other hand, we assume that what happens is exactly what people want to happen, then we can tell a nice linear story—but we also run a serious risk of mis-explaining one of the key events in world history.

Here’s a brief example: after the British indicated that they would have trouble remaining neutral, Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg actually tried to convince Austria to “halt in Belgrade,” limiting its own preventive war to a punitive raid, and while this is consistent with the idea that localization was the goal (British support would certainly embolden the Russians and the French), it’s an anomaly for the idea that Germany was bent on war. Thinking hard about preferences, choice, and strategic behavior, then, can clearly improve our understanding of even the biggest, most complex of events.

Just how German preferences interacted with Russian and French preferences to produce the War, though, will be the subject of the next lecture.

Battle Plans, Strategy, and Equilibrium (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 4)

It’s hard to talk about the First World War without at least a nod towards the war plans and strategies that the belligerents carried into the war—and that subsequently went pretty poorly for nearly all of them. Today, following Tuesday’s discussion of the crises that made a general war feel inevitable, we spent some time in the heads of the generals and civilians that would plot out how such a war would be fought. However, rather than look at France’s embarrassment in the Battle of the Frontiers, Germany’s disaster on the Marne, or Austria’s failure to crush Serbia to judge war plans, we looked at the strategic environment in which the plans were made—which makes even the Schlieffen/Moltke plan look a lot less crazy than folks often think it is.

To illustrate the problem today—that of planning a battle when you’d like to meet an opponent’s attack, while she would like to attack around your defenses—we rely on the Colonel Blotto game, which looks something like this:

blotto

The first thing we establish is that, if we’re looking at pure strategies (that is, choosing one with probability one given some action of the other player), there’s no obvious way to play the game: 1 wants to attack the right (left) if 2 defends the left (right), while 2 wants to defend where 1 attacks. As a result, each possible pair of choices has a profitable deviation; one player wants to change her action at any possible equilibrium.

How, then, should players (read: military planners) approach this problem? Technically, we say that players solve the problem by playing mixed strategies—that is, randomizing over their actions at a specific rate—but the essential idea behind it is being unpredictable: by making it difficult to guess where I’ll defend or attack, I can blunt any advantage my opponent would have by knowing the placement of my army, and vice versa. Since one’s opponent isn’t sure of where the attack will come from, she assigns probabilities to each one, which is what gives the “mixing” part of the strategies their substantive bite. This, of course, is why planners try to keep their strategies secret, why states work so hard to uncover one another’s plans, and why successfully learning another side’s battle plan can play such a critical role in the outcome of battles.

So what’s the relevance of the Blotto game for military planning ahead of World War I? I’d say it boils down to a few things:

  • since each side can try to blunt the other’s advantage, no one is going to do as well as possible in expectation
  • in fact, every possible outcome (1 running into 2’s defenses and 1 running successfully around them) occurs with some chance
  • these two facts make it very difficult to judge the wisdom of a military strategy ex post, because being unpredictable, being secretive, etc. opens up a range of possible outcomes
  • the best way to judge a strategy, then, is to look at the strategic environment in which it was formed.

This, I think, is pretty instructive, especially in the complex environment of strategizing before World War I. After walking through the solution to the Blotto game, we took each of the principal belligerents in turn—France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Britain—and assessed the extent to which their plans aimed at (a) blunting potential opponents’ advantages and (b) overcoming opponents’ attempts to blunt their own, and it turned out to be pretty fruitful. When we see battle plans—even the Schlieffen/Moltke plan—as compromises among what are often a lot of bad options…we see them a bit more accurately than we do when judging them only on their outcomes.

Next week, though, we get to see these plans put into action—Germany’s attempted envelopment of Paris, France’s attack into western Germany, the Dual Monarchy’s decision to prioritize Serbia over Russia, and the latter’s attempts to shore up Poland by engaging in both East Prussia and Galicia—as the July Crisis erupts and ultimately turns into the Great War. I, for one, can’t wait.

Europe before the Great War(WWI in Real Time, Lecture 3)

After finishing last week with a discussion of the logic of the Anglo-German Naval Race, we did a more inferentially-minded exercise today, examining the four “big” great power crises of the early 20th Century: First Morocco, Bosnian Annexation, Second Morocco, and the First Balkan War. The reason we talk about them is quite simple: to understand why war happens, we must compare it to instances were war was averted, lest we find ourselves affirming the consequent in some bizarre claim that, say, great power crises (or armies, or uniforms, or maps, or alliances…) cause major war. So today was just as much about the logic of inference as anything else, but we got to do it by building up a narrative about the crises that led up to the war, revealing information over time about the extent of the Russian recovery from defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, both materially and over its willingness to impinge on Austrian interests in the Balkans.

The basic logic went something like this: in each of these crises, we saw great powers willing to match each other’s cooperation (that is, avoiding open conflict) with cooperation, and they were able to signal peaceful intent at key points by limiting their military mobilization—in some cases, foregoing substantial amounts of combat power by releasing conscript classes they could otherwise have held over (a costly signal of peaceful intent, indeed). Information problems arose over one great power or another’s willingness to fight, and they were able to use costly measures to back up statements of intent; interestingly, though, the challenge for the offensively-minded governments of early 20th Century Europe, it wasn’t about credibly signaling resolve but a lack of it—it was more difficult to say, “no, we really won’t fight” than to say “yes, we really will fight,” which might go some way to explaining why costly signals of reassurance, not costly signals of resolve, went a long way to explaining the peaceful resolution of these disputes.

It’s also instructive, I think, with respect to the preventive motives that would ultimately push Germany towards war; from 1905, when Russian weakness made France pessimistic about resolving the First Moroccan Crisis with war, to 1913, with the Russian economy recovering at a good clip and rearmament with French funds proceeding apace, Germany seemed to be watching for one thing: an indicator that Russia was rising fast enough—in arms and willingness to use them—to make a preventive war attractive. By 1914, when Russia tipped its hand over willingness to intervene on Serbia’s behalf, Germany’s information problem, which was a question over whether the time had come for a preventive war, was solved; we moved from a world dominated by informational problems, resolvable by costly signaling, to one dominated by the commitment problem, where uncertainty is beside the point.

Oddly, the July Crisis ultimately revealed information about Russian resolve, but the revelation of information isn’t necessarily a force for peace when what one learns is that preventive war has no become attractive

…but I’m getting ahead of myself. [Slow down, Scott.] Tomorrow, we pick up in 1913-14, as war looks inevitable to some on the Continent and demands that they firm up plans and strategies for how to fight it…

strategy, equilibrium, and tragedy (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 2)

After setting the table in Tuesday’s lecture, today was about practicing one of the key tools we’ll use in trying to make sense of the First World War: game theory (especially the associated concepts of strategy and equilibrium). Each week, we’ll address a puzzling outcome—for example, the outbreak or expansion of the war—by thinking about how political actors doing their best to pursue their goals (however defined) might find themselves making the choices that they do. In politics generally, but in this course in particular, one of they key parts of any story has to be strategic interaction: that is, how actors make choices in anticipation of what others will do, and how those choices add up to something often quite surprising (or, often, something quite tragic). Game theory is designed to do just that, and today we illustrate how we’ll use the tool with a simple pre-war puzzle: the Anglo-German Naval Race. Continue reading

The Puzzle(s) of the Great War (Teaching WWI in Real Time, Lecture 1)

So the day has finally arrived: I’ve just finished the first lecture of the semester in World War I in Real Time (syllabus here). The buildup’s been long, the conversations with friends and loved ones likely one-sided and (for them) tiresome, but now it’s all going to be targeted at my students.* (Sorry, folks.)

Today’s lecture is really about setting the table; we won’t be digging into anything just yet. The first task will be to situate us on 2 September 1914, when

  1. The German armies reach the River Marne after crashing through neutral Belgium, though the right wing has managed to turn ever so slightly too soon….
  2. The French government, sensing the vulnerability of their capital, flees Paris for the relative safety (not the wine) of Bordeaux, while the Army (with a little help from its British friends) effects a grand retreat of its own.
  3. Austro-Hungarian armies fall back in the face of a Russian onslaught in Poland and Galcia, allowing the latter to capture (what is in 1914 called) Lemberg (but will go by Lvov and Liviv at different times in the coming decades).

We’re about a month into the war, with France, Russia, and the UK squaring off against Germany and Austria-Hungary in a war that The Economist on 8 August has already described as “perhaps the greatest tragedy of human history.” Many thousands already lay dead, and many millions will go on to die in the coming years.

The questions we’ll then pose in the course are how we got here—where “here” means a world with all the Great Powers (save one) at war—and why the war looks the way it does, both at the front and behind the lines.  As I’ve noted before, we’ll use the sparest tools of game theory to think about how goals, means, and incentives (where the latter two have something to do with others’ goals, means, and incentives) add up to produce outcomes that are non-obvious, sometimes surprising, and, surely in the context of 1914, very often tragic.

Next up, a class of tool-building, where we talk about our core concepts of strategy, equilibrium, and tragedy.

* Really. I couldn’t help myself, even at APSA: “Hey, you study repression, right? How interesting is it that the German army’s treatment of civilians was so bad in Belgium, but it virtually stopped once they got to France? Right? Right?” And who could forget, “You study roads and counterinsurgency, eh? Did you know that the Russian rail network in 1914 was intentionally bad in places to stem a feared German invasion? Can you guess how that played out when the Russians needed to attack to the west? Can you?” To the targets of these outbursts, I say: you’re welcome.

My Five Songs (Whatever That Means)

I’ve been trying lately to force myself to fill out a playlist that I titled simply “My Five Songs” and left empty, with the goal of creating it…and then seeing what I meant by that title. The songs that most define me? Probably not, no, but close. The songs most often on my running playlist? Perhaps, but that selection process is a bit different. The songs I like most? Maybe. But, limiting myself to one per artist, the Stones and Pearl Jam are grossly underrepresented by that standard; Heartbreaker and Not For You would be unjustifiably missing. So, maybe they’re just the five songs that, when pressed, I’d put on a mix CD as sure-fire representations of me, what I like, and just how rooted in derivatives of 70s AOR rock particular (?) my taste in music is. (I like that one. Let’s go with that.) So, without further ado, here they are:

  1. Corduroy by Pearl Jam (live, with a Pink Floyd intro – stick through it)
  2. Gimme Danger by Iggy & the Stooges
  3. Honky Tonk Women by The Rolling Stones
  4. Lookout Mountain by Drive-By Truckers
  5. Everlong by Foo Fighters

And there you have it. With two honorable mentions, only barely beaten out by Honky Tonk Women, in Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother (I saw Ray Wylie Hubbard at SXSW recently, btw, and he’s still got it—in spades—but I’m partial to Jerry Jeff’s version) and Too Drunk to Dream. (List should’ve been eight, clearly, to include those two and Fooled Around and Fell in Love, but we can’t have it all, can we?)

And, no. Those last three aren’t ironic. They almost made it. (As did Ain’t Goin’ Down Till the Sun Comes Up, but I can’t find an acceptable youtube version.)