Strains in the great Allied retreat (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 15)

After following the German army through Belgium and into northern France last Tuesday, today we picked up the story of the great Allied retreat, which Joffre ordered once he realized just how far north the German right wing was swinging. While this maneuver would ultimately set up the pivotal Allied stand at the Battle of the Marne, it wasn’t all sunshine and light for the British and French as they repositioned their forces. General Sir John French, in particular, the commander of the BEF, was—maddeningly, to his French allies—hostile to the idea of keeping his relatively small force in the line, even as he occupied territory to the southeast of Paris, and therefore critical to defending the city and supporting the right flank of the newly formed French Sixth Army northeast of Paris (of which Germany was fatefully unaware).

It’s easy to blame French’s hesitance to engage the BEF on the man himself, but that’s probably too easy; allies face problems like this all the time, where they’d prefer to shift the burden of military effort onto their partners, who also share a common goal in the outcome (in this case, preventing the fall of France). The result, of course, is a potential failure to provide that collective good; partners slack off, under-providing the requisite effort, resulting in a tragedy that could be avoided—if only partners contributed to the common cause. This, of course, is an example of the classic collective action problem, which exists when the benefits of cooperation are diffuse and the costs of cooperation concentrated, leading sometimes to tragic failures to produce a public good; if my partner contributes, I’d rather save the effort, and if my partner won’t contribute, I won’t waste the effort either, leading to collective failures to produce the social optimum. (And, if we’re being honest, lots of disingenuous finger-pointing.)

We’re familiar with this in the context of defense spending in large alliances, failures to balance against rising threats to the balance of power, consumers losing out to producers over free trade, and even the establishment of effective regimes for emissions standards. However, the case of allies facing cooperative difficulties—even at the hour of greatest peril, when Germany was within shouting distance of ending France as a great power and jeopardizing British access to the Continent—brings home just how much collective action problems depend on common interests to be a problem in the first place. In fact, it’s the very commonality of interests that makes free-riding tempting; too often, folks slip into attributing cooperative difficulties to different interests, but that’s not an issue of collective action, which results from everyone (a) wanting the same collective good and (b) wanting to save the costs of providing it.

Of course, Sir John didn’t get his way, allowing us also to talk about how collective action problems often get solved. In this case, it was a particular form of selective incentive—some reward for cooperation that accrues on top of the collective good—which was twofold for the British: (a) gaining experience for the BEF, whose members would help train the New Army that Kitchener was raising back home, and (b), perhaps more important, the promise of a spot at the table when the peace would be hammered out after the war. Such orders came, tellingly, not from Sir John—whose goal was the preservation of the BEF by shifting some of the burden onto France—but from the government, whose priorities were of somewhat broader scope…and who knew that even a small force on the Continent would keep doors down the road.

Ultimately, we made a critical point about collective action problems: they’re not caused by divergent goals, but they’re very often solved by them.

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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.

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.

War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 6

Today we covered the Russo-Japanese War, but I ended up spending most class time on two things: (a) the terms of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance and (b) Japan’s care to respect neutral ships at Inchon—foregoing opportunities to sink some Russian ones—even after nominally violating international law by initiating hostilities before a declaration of war. My thoughts on the latter are evolving, so I’m saving them, but the first point is, I think, fairly interesting.

The Anglo-Japanese treaty stipulated, according to Connaughton, that should one side become embroiled in a war in the region, the other would (a) act to keep the war from expanding but (b), if that failed and another party entered the fray, fight alongside its ally. It’s an interesting combination of a neutrality(ish) agreement and defense pact, and while it arguably helped keep the war limited—not many European powers would want to take on the Royal Navy far from the Continent, I suspect—it might well have emboldened Japan because of the assurance that its war with Russia would remain bilateral.

Entering the realm of speculation, I’m guessing that the British wouldn’t have been too broken up to see the war knock the Russians down a peg or two, so they wouldn’t have been terribly interested in restraining Japan. However, this does serve as a nice table setting for our discussion later of alliances, moral hazard, and strategic ambiguity across the Taiwan Strait later in the semester.

Oh, and I’m totally keeping this neutrality rights thing to myself for now. Totally.