Fighting “unwinnable” wars (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 10)

I promised my students at the beginning of the semester that we’d cover lots of ground when it came to theories of politics, and after covering labor movements last Thursday, we swung back today to puzzling over some of the earliest fighting in the war. We finally got onto the battlefield, you might say—looking in particular at Austria’s ill-fated 1914 campaign against Serbia. Two facts were of note in the early-going, because they’ll pop up again: atrocities against civilians and the near impossibility of achieving a breach against well-positioned modern firepower. However, our puzzle today was a simple one: why do some countries, like Serbia in 1914, fight wars that they don’t seem to have any reasonable chance of winning?

We developed two answers, familiar to readers of this blog, based on the idea that war is costly, destructive, wasteful—which gives even strong states incentives to strike bargains that avoid it, to say nothing of weak states that already expect to do poorly on the battlefield. Put differently, after a war, it’s pretty easy for the erstwhile belligerents to consider the treaty that ended their war, then look back and say, “Why didn’t we sign a treaty on these terms back then, before all the bloodletting?” We developed two answers, based on Fearon’s explanations for war.

First, it’s possible that, if states disagree about the likely outcome of a war, they can’t agree on what bargains are mutually preferable to it. In that case, my opponent may propose terms that I find unacceptable, leading me to fight, because I was unable to disabuse her of her belief that she could best me on the battlefield. Even if I’m relatively weak in this case, I’m not expecting a fight to the finish, because—once my relative strength has been demonstrated—my opponent has an incentive to propose terms that reflect her updated beliefs about my relative strength, ending the war and saving further bloodletting. So why fight an “unwinnable” war? One answer is that I might fight to prove I deserve better terms than my opponent deigns to offer me.

Given Austria’s surprise at (a) Serbian fighting prowess and (b) assertive Russian intervention, we could imagine just such an informational component to the fight; Austria thought it could win and win easily, while Germany kept the Russians at bay, leading it to make a pretty outlandish set of demands of its smaller neighbor. However, we also know that some Austrian leaders wanted to make sure that their demands of Serbia were rejected, which means that it wasn’t just an Austrian underestimation of her ally’s strength (though you’ve got to think that made them optimistic enough to aim for “crushing” as opposed to merely punishing Serbia). We’ve mentioned before that Austria’s motives were preventive; it wished to fight Serbia now, averting a future in which a growing Serbia might further undermine the Dual Monarchy’s control over its Slav nationalities. In that sense, Serbia’s decision was made for it, but the reasoning still applies to weak states quite well.

Here’s our second answer. If Serbia accepted everything in the Austrian ultimatum, it would cede parts of its own sovereign authority—judicial and police powers, in particular—and it would have been hard to imagine Austria-Hungary credibly giving those powers back. In other words, peace on Austrian terms would’ve shifted power substantially against Serbia, leading to what its leaders believed would be a further deterioration in its position against its enemies; war, on the other hand, might not have offered great prospects, but the worst outcome wasn’t all that different than what peace would’ve offered with near certainty: the end of rising Serbian power in the Balkans. So why fight an “unwinnable” war? Our second answer is that I might fight today because, whatever my prospects, the costs of future weakness are greater than the costs of war in the present.

Of course, it’s interesting that Serbia’s shifting power fear came as the result of the Dual Monarchy’s; if Austria hadn’t wanted to crush Serbia and dole her territories out to other states in the region, it might never have put such terms in front of Serbia in the first place. But we can still see this playing out when the shift in power doesn’t come about as the result of an opponent’s harsh demands, but armament programs: plenty of Germany’s leaders didn’t think their chances against Russia were great, but, by the same logic, in 1914 those chances were as good as they’d ever be—making an ostensibly “unwinnable” war against the combined industrial power of the Entente, however much a “leap into the dark” it was, an acceptable risk in the face of (what was believed to be) certain decline.


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