Why Did Belgium Resist in 1914?

Another entry in a series of blog posts about World War I, political science, and my textbook: The Politics of the First World War: A Course in Game Theory and International Security. You can read the previous entry here.

On 3 August 1914, Belgium refused the previous day’s “request” that Germany be allowed to pass through its territory on the way to a clash with France in the opening days of the First World War.

Germany’s note made the consequences of refusal pretty clear:

Should Belgium oppose the German troops, and in particular should she throw difficulties in the way of their march by a resistance of the fortresses on the Meuse, or by destroying railways, roads, tunnels, or other similar works, Germany will, to her regret, be compelled to consider Belgium as an enemy.

In this event, Germany can undertake no obligations towards Belgium, but the eventual adjustment of the relations between the two States must be left to the decision of arms.

Its request ultimatum denied, Germany duly invaded Belgium on 4 August, and King Albert’s troops mounted a gallant resistance, slowing down Moltke’s right hook as it tried swung around the main French force in an (ultimately vain) attempt to create a modern-day Cannae.

Yet the question of why Belgium resisted near-inevitable defeat rather than accept Germany’s terms, which included promises of restituted territory and financial compensation, looks puzzling after the fact.1 Why did Belgium send its modest army into the field only to suffer entirely predictable death, destruction, and dislocation, to be pushed back to Antwerp as the Germans did what they pleased? And why forfeit the chance that Germany would follow through on its ostensibly generous promises of restitution and compensation?

Reiter and Stam, defending a unilateral model of war onset, put it down to national honor: better to go down fighting than surrendering (p. 380).2 Vasquez, in his wide-ranging and fascinating book on the spread of the war, also nods to national honor but argues further that Belgium’s resistance is an “anomaly” for bargaining theories of war (pp. 111-114)—that is, for theories that view war as a wasteful alternative to negotiations that can (and often do) produce the same outcomes as war-ending negotiations.

It won’t surprise you that I disagree with the “anomaly” take. Here’s why.

The version of bargaining theory Vasquez addresses makes a couple of basic points. First, since war is costly, states have strong incentives to avoid it by striking deals that reflect the likely outcome of a war. Second, if (a) states don’t know what bargains others will accept in lieu of war or (b) bargains struck today will only get worse in the future, then states might knowingly fight costly wars. (For more, I recommend Phil Arena’s venerable breakdown of the seminal piece in this literature.)

Let’s take a look at Vasquez’s argument. He first notes that Germany’s ability to overwhelm Belgian defenses, including the forts at Liège, wasn’t much in doubt (pp. 111-114). And, in the absence of shifting power that would make that bargain obsolete in the future, we’d expect Belgium to cut a deal; why fight a costly war when the offer on the table reflects the likely outcome minus all the death and destruction? What’s more, Germany’s offer of restitution looked pretty generous; Belgium could hardly hope to achieve that much by fighting. So far, so good. Acceptance would be consistent with bargaining models of war…

…but only if Belgium believed that Germany would’ve honored those promises.

My issue with the anomaly claim is that it takes as credible the German prewar promise to evacuate Belgian territory and provide compensation after the war. But unlike the actors in the drama he recounts, Vasquez treats German talk credulously. He argues that Belgium should’ve expected Germany to honor its pledge, citing as evidence one of Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg’s post-invasion Reichstag speeches (a) apologizing for the violation of international law and (b) reiterating restitution promises. Vasquez’s argument that Belgium should’ve accepted Germany’s terms rests on Germany’s 1914 description of its own war aims…precisely when it had incentives to lie about just how expansive its aims were.

Yet one of, if not the, most important parts of the story in August 1914 is that those on the receiving end of German promises about limited aims didn’t believe them. I argue in The Politics of the First World War that one of the animating strategic problems on the soon-to-be Western Front was the question of whether Germany was, as it claimed, fighting a defensive war or, as its actions indicated, using the opportunity of a general war to unhinge the balance of power (see Chapters 4-6 in particular).3 The problem for Britain and Belgium was that Germany would’ve made these same promises whether or not its aims were truly expansionist. Whether we might be able to say after the fact that Germany’s aims were limited (and I’m not sure we can, tbh), what we see with hindsight doesn’t necessarily offer clues about what the actors in our story were thinking in real time.

Incentives to lie create incentives to disbelieve. And Germany’s opponents did just that: they disbelieved.

Yet Vasquez asserts that Belgium should’ve believed Germany in 1914. And this argument that Germany wouldn’t “go back on its pledge” to restore Belgium hangs on a claim that power wasn’t shifting between Germany and Belgium (p. 112).

As noted above, this requires us to credit Germany’s words when Belgium, to say nothing of Britain and France, didn’t. The question for those watching (and fearing) the approaching German right hook was what Germany would do with a prostrate Belgium if given the chance. And protestations of defensive intent simply weren’t credible as German footfalls echoed through Liège, Namur, and Mons.

The claim that power wasn’t shifting between Germany and Belgium elides the fact that, once in control of some chunk of Belgian territory, Germany would’ve been in prime military position to refuse its return. Merely by holding Belgian territory, Germany’s power over Belgium would’ve increased substantially. “Friendly” language in ultimatums, as Vasquez has it, and ex post apologies (as Bethmann-Hollweg hoped to have it) aren’t evidence that the Belgians believed other than they did, i.e. that a Germany aiming to reorder great power politics wouldn’t have relinquished its gains. (You show me an apologetic speech in the Reichstag, I show you the Septemberprogramm.) If the Kaiser held Belgium, Belgians and French and Britons believed, he’d have every reason to hang onto it. And whether we can say that Britain, France, and Belgium were wrong over a century after the fact doesn’t matter if we want to explain Belgian resistance in 1914; it matters what Belgium and France and Britain believed in 1914.

And Belgian resistance responded to a clear commitment problem: whatever promises Germany made in early August would’ve come due after German troops occupied Belgium. Attractive those terms may have been, but credible they weren’t. Demanding tomorrow the withdrawal of a German army already sitting on Belgian territory looked like a fool’s errand today, making war (with eventual Entente support) more attractive, even with long odds in the short term.

Unilateral control of Belgium would’ve allowed France, Germany, or Britain to menace the others, and that that fact wasn’t lost on France, Germany, Britain, or Belgium.4 And as I argue in Chapter 6 of “The Politics of the First World War” and a forthcoming article at Security Studies, violations of 1839’s Treaty of London guaranteeing Belgian neutrality indicated to observers that the violator had aggressive ambitions—i.e., a desire to overturn the European balance of power—even in the face of likely balancing responses by the other powers.5

So, if we take into account

  1. the fact that occupying Belgian territory would’ve shifted power dramatically in Germany’s favor, making it very easy to refuse to leave; and
  2. the international-legal environment, which framed the German invasion of Belgium against the 1839 Treaty of London,

we can see that Belgian defiance in the face of Germany’s note isn’t an anomaly for bargaining theories of war. An account of why Belgium resisted follows directly from those theories. We just have to remember that Germany’s contemporaries were skeptical of its promises, whatever we might believe today about the credibility of those promises.

If Belgium resisted to preserve the national honor (and would any belligerent government have said otherwise?), it also had good reason to believe that resistance promised the best (if long) odds on preserving independence. Had Belgium welcomed German troops, it would’ve compromised its independence if Germany won the war; and it might’ve fare less well at the eventual peace conference had Germany’s enemies won the war. In the final accounting, a commitment problem explains both Belgium’s resistance and its skepticism of German promises.

Vasquez’s account, on the other hand, requires us to (a) ignore what observers in 1914 saw and believed about German aims and (b) deny that it’s easier to hold on to most of a country’s territory than it is to take it in the first place. I’m unprepared to do either. Plenty of offers, even ultimatums, can look attractive, but they’re only acceptable if commitments to follow through are believed to be credible. And when the pain of a future weakened bargaining position is greater than the costs of war today, states may take the plunge into costly war…just as Belgium did in 1914.

TL;DR Belgian resistance to Germany’s 1914 ultimatum isn’t an anomaly for bargaining theories of war. States sometimes have good reason to fight in the face of unfavorable odds if the peaceful alternative is near-certain disaster, and King Albert’s decision is a compelling case in point.


  1. To call back to an earlier post, hindsight is great for generating puzzles but often shit for solving them. ↩︎
  2. I don’t think they needed to make that argument, though. War occurs because the side that wants war chooses to over-demand, not because the victim views defending “one’s own land as an insubvertible good” (p. 380). Countries can still have wars when they want them; they’ve just got to demand (or try to take) more than the other side will yield. ↩︎
  3. And not just in Europe, but globally. This was a bid for world power, in the sense of competing with other global empires, as Fischer notes; but it was a bid to dominate the pre-World War I world of empires, not the one produced by World War I. ↩︎
  4. Belgium was a valuable buffer state, a source of bargaining power to whoever controlled it. ↩︎
  5. Here’s an older post on the topic from the first time I taught “World War I in Real Time.” ↩︎
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More on the Iran deal: Living with (and without) coalition partners

Two days ago, I posted some thoughts about how to judge this week’s deal between Iran and a coalition of great (and some maybe not so great) powers. One of the important questions I said needed to be answered involved something that virtually none of the popular criticism of the deal has mentioned: the coalition of large economies that had been leading the sanctions regime alongside the United States. Especially for the hawkish end of the critic spectrum, the argument seems to boil down to “well, the US should’ve done more.”—more sanctions, more chest-thumping, more apocalyptic language, more…well, something equated with “tough,” unilateral (I guess) action.[1] Keeping in mind that “more” is pretty ambiguous here (just to be clear, “more tough stuff” isn’t exactly a policy alternative), let’s take these criticisms at face value. Could the US have been tougher on Iran? I’m going to argue that the answer is “maybe not,” and, further, that the current level of “tough” might still be a better option than the US trying to do “more” without the support of the coalition.

The key, as I see it, is the centrality of that great power coalition, the P5+1, in actually applying coercive leverage to Iran. In my forthcoming book, The Politics of Military Coalitions, I build and test some theories about just how countries build coalitions, what it takes to keep them together, and what they mean for coercive diplomacy. I’ll draw on some insights, especially from Chapter 4, to argue that, even when some partners force you to “water down” your threats, you might still be better off that way than doing something on your own would be even less effective.

The short version of the argument the P5+1 coalition goes something like this:

  1. The US can’t pressure Iran effectively unless other big countries impose sanctions, too. Otherwise, Iran can just buy stuff from/sell stuff to the other big economies. So, just like the US couldn’t invade Iran without the cooperation of nearby countries, it can’t cripple Iran economically by itself, either.[2]
  2. So, if Iran is to be made uncomfortable in pursuing nuclear weapons and thus tempted to give up materials and allow inspections, the US has to keep the coalition together.
  3. Keeping the coalition together means adjusting strategies to account for the fact that Russia, China, and the European partners can’t keep with the sanctions for as long as the United States can (economically or politically). In other words, to successfully deal with Iran, the US has to first deal with its own coalition partners, because it can’t achieve the kind of leverage it wants and needs on its own.
  4. So, if a state can’t go it alone at an acceptable price, sometimes it has to sacrifice the pie-in-the-sky really “tough” strategy for a less-tough one in order to keep the source of its leverage (the coalition) in place. Nonetheless, if it’s practically impossible to be as tough as one wants to be when going it alone, then the watered-down threats coming from the coalition are still better than the next best alternative.

All of this, of course, is built around the idea that the P5+1 coalition is central to the strategy of sanctioning Iran for pursuing nuclear weapons—and given the nature of sanctions, trade, and the global economy, I think that’s eminently reasonable. (It also assumes that a full-scale war is unattractive, which—bluster aside—even most hawks acknowledge.) If the US doesn’t keep the coalition together, say by delaying a deal and allowing some partners to reach the breaking point at which they opt out (which may be quite close), then it ends up with no more leverage over Iran and nothing to show for all the work in these last nine or so years since the P5+1 really got going. Keeping the coalition together does sometimes require showing more restraint than coalition leaders like, but if coalition partners are that critical for the leverage in the first place, there really isn’t a “more tough stuff” option out there. Again, it all comes down to choosing the right basis for comparison: an a unilateral sanctions regime is probably not the most effective option out there.

In other words, hopes and wishes aside, sometimes “more tough” just isn’t on the table without being tremendously counterproductive. Even when coalition partners are skittish, difficult, inconsistent, and miserly, they’re oftentimes worth the compromise.

[1] Sure, some of this comes from hawks who want more “tough” because, well, they’re hawks and that’s what they do: talk tough. Those are minds I won’t change. I’m fine with that.

[2] This, of course, sets aside the idea that the best way to make a country want nukes to defend itself is to give it a reason to want to defend itself—like attacking it.

The Laws of Neutrality in War – Redux

I’m currently on the way to UC Merced to present the same paper I gave at Maryland last week, so I won’t belabor this, because I haven’t gotten around to incorporating last week’s (excellent) feedback yet. However, I’m pretty excited at the prospect of getting feedback on such an early project twice in such quick succession. Just to make sure this isn’t just so much airport-terminal-boredom-blogging, I’ll keep it short.

That said, it’s worth noting that, when it comes to my WWI course next fall, the German decision to violate Belgian neutrality will certainly play a large part, not because it’s a notable violation of neutrality but because my theory doesn’t see it as a failure of the laws of neutrality per se (even if it is a failure, so to speak, of legal deterrence). Rather, the law might’ve done a very important job by making British intervention easier than it would’ve been otherwise.

Yep. The laws of neutrality might be successful even when they’re violated, and even when the countries ostensibly “punishing” violations care very little about the principle of neutrality.

For the details, I’ll just point you to the paper (generally updated) on this page.

In the meantime, I’ve got some local Minnesotan beer to sample…

A theory of neutrality rights in war – paper and slides

I’m giving a talk today at Maryland on a topic that’s pretty new to me—the laws of neutrality in war—though I guess I did hint about the genesis of this project several months ago. It’s a project that’s in its early stages, but it’s one I’m sufficiently excited about to publicize a bit, so here are links to a draft of the paper and the slides I’ll be using to confuse the audience today.

As I’m also hesitant to give said talk unshowered and in a *very* rumpled shirt, I’m cutting this short. Hopefully, though, there’ll be more to report in the days ahead.

Showing Restraint, Signaling Resolve (talk slides)

In lieu of lecture musings today, I’m posting the slides (PDF) for my talk this afternoon as part of Rochester’s Watson Seminar Series. I’ve presented this particular paper around quite a bit, and the theoretical model is coming out (soon, I hope) at AJPS, but the empirics are new and part of the effort to integrate this model and a few others into a book manuscript. I’m slowly learning how to fit both theoretical and empirical models into a talk and do it well—we’ll see how close I get to that goal this afternoon.

Chiang Kai-Shek’s Two-Enemy Problem (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 8)

Continuing last week’s focus on the Long Chinese Civil War, today’s lecture spent some time exploring the dilemma facing Chiang Kai-Shek as he tried to manage two simultaneous but very different threats: a civil war against Communists at home and a potential international war against Imperial Japan. Fighting one would leave his Nationalist government exposed to the other, and to make matters worse, each enemy had to be fought in two different ways, given its organization: the Communists still a guerrilla force at this point and Japan a modern army in the field.

Plenty of ink’s been spilled over the consequences of Chiang’s plan to eliminate the Communists first before trying to eject Japanese forces from the Asian mainland—a plan he was pretty much compelled to abandon after the Xi’an Incident—but there’s a more general point to be made here about leaders, political survival, and war. I’ve seen it argued that Chiang made a mistake here, but from whose perspective? If we look at his own interests—which, since he was a politician, we’re going to assume involved staying in power—then his decision, albeit chosen from a menu made up exclusively of bad options, was a sensible one.

How so? Well, Chiang knew that, if he fought the Japanese, domestic power would shift pretty significantly against him and in favor of the Communists, who (a) weren’t a regular military force and therefore wouldn’t be terribly useful against Japan and (b) would undoubtedly use the time to regroup, reconstitute, and refocus their efforts on defeating the Nationalists. He also, frankly, didn’t expect to defeat Japan in the mid 1930s, either. Yet while fighting Japan would’ve been a ticket to losing office, cutting a deal with the international enemy would at least keep domestic power tilted (however precariously) in his favor—which would help him stay in office. As a result, Chiang consistently turned down chances to resist the expansion of Japanese influence into northern China, choosing the path that gave him the best chance of holding on to political power. Is that so strange? I don’t think so.

So while leaders are often eager to fight international opponents when they can use the conflict to shift domestic power in their favor (see this also), they should also be pretty eager to avoid conflict when it would shift domestic power against them—even to the extent of trading territory for political survival (I’ve got a paper on this, but it’s under review, so not linking to it just yet). Chiang’s case is also an interesting one, because when he was denied the choice of trading territory for survival after Xi’an (that is, when an exogenous shock forced the game off its equilibrium path), his fears came true: the war weakened his position relative to the Communists who would ultimately force Chiang and the Nationalists to Taiwan by 1949.

War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 4

Today was the last lecture in Part I of the course, where we set up the historical and theoretical background for actually talking about war and peace in East Asia, delving into the theory of war as a commitment problem: that is, since countries can’t credibly promise not to act powerful before they become powerful, others might choose to fight them before that happens—nipping the problem of shifting power in the bud, as it were.

We also talked a little about how war actually solves commitment problems, and it made me wonder if we spend enough time thinking about how that might be the case. Dan Reiter‘s book considers foreign imposed regime change following total war as one possible solution, Leventoğlu and Slantchev have a story about war destroying a sufficient amount of the surplus, and Harrison Wagner suggests that preemptive wars might be short, since they’re aimed at eliminating opportunities for surprise attack, but that might be just about all I can come up with off the top of my head.

The former and the latter both focus on fighting aimed at destroying the very sources of shifting power—governments or tactical windows of opportunity—but I wonder what additional purchase we might gain by linking specific sources of shifting power (say, long run demographic growth, weapons programs, etc.) to specific war aims, then seeing how prevailing military technology interacts with those aims to produce issue specific variation in war duration…