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.