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…

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

  1. Pingback: Battle Plans, Strategy, and Equilibrium (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 4) | The Wolf Den

  2. Pingback: German aims in the July Crisis (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 5) | The Wolf Den

  3. Pingback: A look back on exam day (WWI in Real Time, Exam 1) | The Wolf Den

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