World War I in Real Time: First Edition Problems

I’m teaching out of my World War I game theory textbook for the first time this semester, and as I worked through some early-morning class prep this morning, I noticed a tiny little error in Chapter 2. But worry not: all the equilibria still exist, and for the same reasons. It’s a typo, but one worth clarifying.

What’s the issue?

Section 2.2, “Commitment Problems and War,” motivates a game in which state A has to decide whether to launch a preventive war in light of the possibility that B, who’s rising in strength, might renege on the status quo in the future. And in describing A’s payoffs, I say that its best outcome of a peacefully honored status quo gives it 4, its worst outcome of passing on war only to see the status quo renegotiated is 1, and the middling outcome of launching a preventive war today is 2. That’s true whatever B’s strategy happens to be, because that strategy is preempted by A’s use of war.

That … makes sense.

But for some reason, in Figure 2.5 (rendered below), A gets 2 for the outcome of the (attack; honor) strategy profile and 3 for the (attack; renege) strategy profile. That’s…unnecessary. A should really get 2 for both, unless we want to say that attacking a B that would’ve honored the agreement is regrettable, but that’s not necessary for the story. It’s also not in my initial description of the payoffs.

Screen Shot 2020-01-30 at 5.39.22 AM

Now, as you’ll see, the Nash Equilibrium of the game (marked by the solid gray lines) is the same whether that offending 3 is in there or is replaced by the intended 2:

Screen Shot 2020-01-30 at 5.50.08 AM

But I don’t want to let errors like this pass without some kind of note to adopters and students and whoever else has posts on this blog inflicted on them. So, apologies, dear reader(s). Let’s hope there aren’t too many more posts like this one forthcoming.

My own buffoonery aside, there’s a useful point here: forcing ourselves to “do the math” means we can more easily find, correct, and assess the consequences of mistakes in our premises and/or our reasoning. That’s always and everywhere a good thing for the social scientist.

Exam Day in War and Peace in East Asia

Today is our first exam, so while I’m not lecturing on any new material, it’s worth looking back and seeing just where we’ve been so far in the course. We started with two pretty big questions—what is the international system, and (twice) why does war occur?—designed to put in place some simple analytical tools and ways of understanding the sequence of wars, both international and civil, that we’d encounter in subsequent weeks. We linked the outbreak of the First Sino-Japanese War to information problems, in the form of disagreements about each side’s ability to force the other out of Korea, while commitment problems sat at the core of the stories for the Russo-Japanese War, the Chinese Civil War, the Second-Sino Japanese War, the entry of the United States into the Pacific War, and the end of World War II in Asia. It’s easy, though, to lose one of the main themes of the course, in that breakneck run through 50 years of war: the persistent, sometimes hidden and often overt, hand of great power politics in ostensibly local conflicts.

We’ve seen Japan rise to and fall from great power status over the course of the semester so far, but that narrative was only partially about its displacement of China in Korea and Manchuria, because Japan was also concerned with the eastward creep of Russian (then Soviet Russian) influence in those same areas. A group of European great powers both proved more willing to extend credit to Russia and limited Japanese gains in the Russo-Japanese War, which likely went some way towards convincing Japan that depending on the goodwill of other great powers was less attractive than establishing autarky and setting its own terms for its place in the international system. That gambit ultimately failed, and when we last left the overarching narrative of the course, the regional constellation of power had been radically altered. The European imperial powers are exhausted by the war in their own region. China is victorious but shattered, sliding back into civil war, a nascent great power whose trajectory is stalled by a fight over which faction will guide China back to prominence. The Soviet Union, bloodied and battered, has nonetheless gained a massive buffer zone in Central and Eastern Europe, and its army—as it proved in Manchuria—is a fearsome fighting machine. Finally, the United States, as the only great power to see no sustained combat on (or above) its home territory, has emerged from the war controlling an unprecedented proportion of global wealth and a monopoly on an unprecedented weapon: the nuclear bomb.

Now firmly entrenched in both Europe and East Asia, the United States and the Soviet Union will see their rivalry play out over issues as diverse as the outcome of the Chinese civil war, the bloody end of the French empire in Indochina, and the governance of the Korean peninsula—which, as we’ll see in a few weeks, called up the specter of another world war a bare five years after the Second one ended. However, we’ll see conflicts erupt over the same issues we saw before this radical change in the regional power structure, because the basics of the international system remain in place: territorial units governed by states, which live in a world of de jure anarchy and de facto hierarchy. So, states disagree over the placement of borders, who governs territories within those borders, and their relative places in the hierarchy, and sometimes those disagreements are resolved violently. We’ll pick up Thursday with the end of one such conflict: the Chinese Civil War.

Why did Japan attack Pearl Harbor? (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 9)

Today’s lecture saw us focus pretty narrowly on a specific decision: Japan’s choice in December 1941 to attack the American naval base at Pearl Harbor (as well as numerous other foreign outposts throughout Southeast and Asia, including Hong Kong, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaya, etc.), bringing both the United States and the United Kingdom (the world’s two dominant naval powers) into what heretofore had been a local attempt to conquer China. Contrary to what the average American undergrad encounters on the way to this class, these other elements of Japan’s “Southern Advance” are key to understanding the rationale behind what has to be considered one of the boldest gambits of the Second World War. Yet at first blush they only seem to complicate the story; why, after all, did Japan launch a series of attacks far from its main theater of operations (China), that were virtually certain to create for it the problem of a two-front war when the main front was turning into a big enough problem on its own?

To understand Japan’s choice, we have to do two things. First, and here’s an underlying theme of the course again, we have to widen our view of the specific conflict we’re interested in, considering the ever-present interplay of great power politics. Second, we have to put ourselves as much as possible in the heads of the decision makers on both sides of this issue, which for us involves both the Japanese government and the United States—a new element in the region’s great power constellation. If we can pare the story down this way to isolate the essentials of Japan’s strategic context, we’re better poised to see that, given its predicament in 1941, Japan’s choice was not between the unmolested continuation of the war against China and a war with the United States, but between a series of bargains offered by the United States that would (in principle) both avert war and ensure Japan’s access to American oil, on which it was dependent for both domestic consumption and the working of its war machine. Japan was offered terms that looked a lot better than its ultimate outcome in the war, so why didn’t it take them?

Let’s frame the question even more starkly in terms of the inefficiency puzzle that’s been with us all semester. Looking back from 1945, Japan is defeated, occupied, economically troubled, and stripped of both its colonial possessions and great power status, yet throughout the late 1930s and into 1941, the country that would ultimately join the war and help force Japan’s surrender—the United States—offered it a variety of deals, some of which would ensure access to oil and the avoidance of war if only Japan would evacuate its post-1937 gains in China. That is, by most any standard, a better deal on its face than the realization of the near-certain defeat at the hands of the United States, China, and (eventually) the Soviet Union. Yet rather than accept such a proposal from the United States (backed up with a total oil embargo as negotiations continued to deteriorate), Japan chose to lurch outward from China, seizing the oil fields of Southeast Asia and securing a distant perimeter in the islands of the South Pacific in the face of what it knew was essentially inevitable American retaliation. Why?

Let’s start with the United States. Acting like a fairly normal great power in trying to limit the aggrandizement of other great powers (here, Japan), the US pursued this policy in a somewhat unique way: a grand strategy of ensuring both freedom of the seas (to facilitate global trade, like the British before them) and self-determination (i.e., the dismantling of other great power empires, something new and in the view of other great powers dangerously revolutionary). This nearly guaranteed a clash of interests over Japan’s war in China, aimed at closing off the later from the rest of the world trading system as an exclusive, autarkic market dominated by Japan, but it doesn’t explain why Japan and the United States came to blows in 1941, especially in light of what virtually all parties agreed was the foregone conclusion of an American victory in a protracted war. (Remember: disagreements are everywhere, but only some of them are resolved by war.) However, the combination of this great power rivalry and rapidly growing American naval power did prove sufficient to sour Japan on the possibility that any deal it struck in, say, 1941 with the United States would stick—that the American, and even Soviet and British, commitments to such a deal would be credible.

If we recall that Japan launched the war in China to preserve what it believed to be a great power position that would erode if it couldn’t ensure autarky, then we can see that a return to any kind of status quo ante that limited its position on the Asian mainland wouldn’t be credible; the Americans, for example, were building naval strength at a tremendous clip, approaching a multi-ocean blue water capability the world hadn’t yet seen, and once they reached sufficient capacity could not only muscle their way into the Pacific but also—critically—prevent the fall of China. The United States, rising rapidly in power, could hardly commit credibly to any deal that left Japan’s position on the Asian mainland intact. Put in starker terms, rising powers can’t promise not to act like great powers should they reach that status, their prior protestations—and commitments—to the contrary. The Americans could afford to build a massive fleet, and once built they could hardly afford not to use it. Paine is worth quoting here:

[P]eace on American terms, entailing a withdrawal from China, would lead to the gradual impoverishment of Japan and would undo the efforts of generations of Japanese to transform their country into a modern power. War with the United States, on the other hand, offered a 50-50 chance of success (p. 185)

In other words, cutting a deal would allow US power in the region to grow unchecked, and such increased power could be used, down the road, to force Japan out of China anyway. If the worst outcome of a war would be similar (and it was), then rolling the dice before military prospects got even worse—and Japan calculated that its chances of keeping the US out of the region long enough to consolidate its gains would peak at about 50-50 in December 1941—looked pretty attractive. Faced with a rising global power over the eastern horizon, one that would undoubtedly be able to enter the war and force Japan to yield its hard-won great power status (i.e., its potential imperial dominion in China), Japan rolled the dice and hoped to strike a decisive blow against American and British assets in the region, sending them reeling long enough to present them with a fait accompli. If the war could be kept short, and if the war in Europe would take a large part of American attention anyway, then a 50-50 shot at positioning itself to isolate China and win the war in its main theater was relatively attractive…

…but it was a gamble nonetheless, and one that failed to eliminate the American carrier fleet in Hawaii, which would go on to be the centerpiece of the campaign to approach and menace the Japanese Home Islands later in the war. We’ll talk about the end of this war, which will shatter the post-Qing regional order we’ve dealt with so far, on Thursday.

The Second Sino-Japanese War (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 8)

The last time I gave this lecture, we focused on the dilemma facing Chiang Kai-Shek as he faced a Japanese invasion of China proper in 1937 and a still on-going civil war against Mao’s Communists, and you can find that piece here. This time around, though, I think it’s worth focusing on something different: why, despite China’s vast size, Japan even bothered trying to subdue the whole country at all. Looking back from the costly stalemate of 1941, it certainly looks puzzling: what began in the early 1930s as steady encroachment south of Japan’s puppet state in Manchuria turned after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in 1937 into a full-scale invasion, one that Japan, the strength of its arms notwithstanding, didn’t look terribly well-poised to pull off.

We argued in class that the decision to invade China, and to do it in 1937, had a lot to do not just with China itself but with…the Soviet Union. The sheer enormity of the conflict, which between 1937 and 1945 would turn nearly one quarter of China’s population into refugees, makes it easy to focus directly on Sino-Japanese rivalry, but for a couple of reasons, I’m not sure that’s sufficient to explain (a) Japan’s decision to invade in 1937 and (b) a set of war aims that expanded over time, even as the war stalemated. After all, it might’ve been easier to invade China earlier in the 1930s when the military-political situation was more chaotic, and expanding war aims even as military prospects worsened isn’t quite consistent with the idea that Japan really launched the war because it initially underestimated Chiang’s ability to marshal resistance. Why, then, did it begin to invade China in 1937, then around 1938-1939 really ramp up its attempts to conquer as much of it as possible?

For a clue, I think we need to look at two events usually not part of the story we tell about this war, both of which relate to the bigger picture of great power rivalry in northeast Asia that drove both the First Sino-Japanese and the Russo-Japanese Wars we talked about last week. Japan, increasingly convinced that it needed its own large, captive market to ensure autarky if it was to compete with other great powers, was worried not only about a potentially resurgent China but, in the shorter term, a Soviet Union embarking on rapid industrialization on its way to becoming a greater power than the Tsarist regime that preceded it. In fact, with control over Manchuria established in 1931, (1) Japan appears to have seriously considered a preventive war with the Soviet Union in 1932-1933, but ultimately opted to explore further gains in China instead. Next, following the Great Purge, which created widespread uncertainty about the Soviet military’s short-term prospects, (2) Japan fought an intense border war (called the Nomonhan Incident) against the Soviets in Mongolia, which forced a revision of Japanese beliefs about Soviet strength (the Soviets under Zhukov proved much more capable than expected), convincing its leaders that their hold on northern China might not be enough in the long run to ensure autarky—and survival.

Faced with what it believed to be decline as a great power if it couldn’t secure a massive internal market, Japan embarked on a war with low odds of success because it preserved some chance of breaking out of what it believed to be a geographic-demographic economic straitjacket. Cutting a deal and returning even to Manchuria itself was, to the leadership a non-starter, because the status quo ante was believed to be intolerable in the long-run. Ultimately, this means that Japanese war aims shouldn’t be tied directly to battle outcomes, as they would be if the war really were about uncertainty over relative strength with Chiang’s Nationalist government, but to what its leaders believed they would have to secure in order to arrest their country’s decline as a great power. And when states fight preventive wars of this sort, we know that they can be prone to some pretty big gambles (like unrestricted submarine warfare and massive invasions of Stalinist Russia) that court catastrophe…which will make our story of the stalemated war in China get a lot more interesting once we reach 1941 next week.

The Long Chinese Civil War (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 7)

Today’s lecture starts with S.C.M. Paine’s account of what she calls the Long Chinese Civil War, a nearly unbroken span of large-scale civil conflict that followed the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and lasted virtually uninterrupted through Japan’s invasion of China proper in 1937 and the Second World War until the Communists’ final victory in 1949. Grounding the narrative of the Second World War in China—which was Japan’s main theater through nearly the whole period—challenges many other national narratives of the conflict (American, Soviet, Japanese, and Chinese Communist, in particular). It really is a great book, but as noted in a previous blog post on the topic of the civil war, I think that it misattributes the causes of the war’s length and severity to the extreme aims of the participants (particularly the KMT and the CCP), when something more fundamental—the very nature of civil wars—can actually explain all three phenomena: the extremity of aims, the severity of fighting, and the length of the war.

To see why, it’s actually important to broaden the narrative, to look at other civil wars and other ideological conflicts (both in East Asia and elsewhere) in a broader theoretical perspective, as I did in Fall 2013:

Today we…[used] the logic of commitment problems to understand a few salient things about the Long Chinese Civil War that touched off after the Revolution of 1911: specifically, its length and the extremity of each side’s war aims.

It’s often tempting to explain the former with the latter—the reading for today did just that—but the upshot of lecture was that something more fundamental can drive both: the fact that, to settle a civil war, one side must lay down its arms. Governments, after all, typically need to exercise a monopoly on the use of organized violence; and a settlement that leaves a rival military power intact is hardly a settlement. Given that civil wars end with a reestablishment of that monopoly, laying down arms for power-sharing or reintegration is an invitation for the newly minted government to go back on its promises, because it represents a basic shift in power that, as the now-exclusively armed side, it can’t resist the temptation to use. In other words, saying “C’mon, folks. Just lay down your arms and I’ll give you what you want” isn’t sufficient to secure an agreement.

What’s the result? Well, first, both sides will be driven to seek not settlement (power-sharing, etc.) but the whole of the pie—control of the government—because anything short of that is an agreement that won’t stick. Second, that means both sides fight on until military victory, leading to wars that would be longer if the same two belligerents could credibly commit to sharing power. Note, however, that it’s not a clash of ideologies driving this; it’s canny political actors who are choosing their goals and aims as they see fit (far more realistic, to my mind, than ideological automatons), given the strategic environment and constraints in which they and their opponents find themselves.

Can we tell a story about leaders being hamstrung to follow international or external ideological programs by domestic pressure, leading to extreme demands? Sure. But it’s worth noting that we can explain both extreme aims and long, destructive civil wars without reference to ideological clashes; rather, the commitment problem might explain why extreme political programs become so attractive during civil wars.

Lastly, it’s also hard to disentangle the length of the civil war from China’s increasingly problematic relations with Japan, which after seizing control of Manchuria in 1931, had been steadily expanding its presence and influence ever farther south…prompting calls from the Chinese public to fight Japan as opposed to fellow Chinese (i.e., Mao and the Communists), which forced Chiang into an impossible dilemma: solving the Japanese problem would make him domestically vulnerable, but defeating the Communists (precipitously close to collapse after the Long March and the Northern Expedition) meant yielding more and more of Chinese sovereignty to Japan. No matter his choice, Chiang would have been vilified here—and we’ll talk about the consequences of this dilemma on Thursday.

The Russo-Japanese War Pt1 (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 6)

After exploring the information problems at the root of the First Sino-Japanese War on Tuesday, today’s lecture lets us see the working out of a different story—one based on shifting military potential, or bargaining leverage—even as the war breaks out over (essentially) the same stakes: dominance in Korea and Manchuria, which we might view as the twin keys to dominating the East Asian mainland. By 1904, with Imperial China’s star on the wane and Imperial Japan’s on the rise, another great power enters the regional picture in the form of a Russian Empire aiming to deepen control over its easternmost holdings. At this point, sure, it owns Siberia, and while it’s not clear that it really controls it just yet, the expansion of the Russian rail network eastward to the port of Vladivostok (literally, “Ruler of the East”—which is about as aspirationally bold as you’re gonna get) signals that Japan, the region’s new great power, is about to face some competition.

Of course, it wasn’t inevitable that rising Russian military strength—and it’s hard to read a new railway connecting the (populated) European and the (vast, empty, valuable) Asian ends of the Russian realm as anything but—should’ve led to war with Japan. Plenty of countries grow militarily stronger, better able to concentrate and apply military force, without provoking other countries to attack them. Yet because of the significant increase in military potential that would be signaled by the completion of a solid railway network, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 is one of those cases where things got violent. Japan launched a surprise attack on the Russian Far Eastern Fleet (basically ending it as a combat-capable force) and ultimately knocked the stunned Russian forces back across Manchuria, and it appears to have done so not literally because of the Trans-Siberian Railway but because of what it represented: the imminent ability of Russia to move large numbers of troops into northeast Asia and challenge Japan’s hard-won (and thanks to the Triple Intervention of 1895, only partial) ascendancy in the region. So, the Russo-Japanese War looks a lot like a war driven by commitment problems at its outbreak, but that doesn’t mean that information problems can’t play a role during the war, as I discussed the last time I blogged about this lecture:

Near the end of Connaughton’s account of the war, we see some contemporary puzzlement about why, despite destroying the Tsar’s fleet and driving the Russians from Manchuria, the terms of the Treaty of Portsmouth gave Japan no indemnity (just some interests on the Liaodong peninsula) and dictated a mutual withdrawal from Manchuria. This quote from the New York Times is telling (quoted on p. 344):

The judgment of all observers here…is that the [Russian] victory is as astonishing a thing as ever was seen in diplomatic history. A nation hopelessly beaten in every battle of the war, one army captured and the other overwhelmingly routed, with a navy swept from the seas, dictated her own terms to the victory.

But, really, is it all that puzzling? Just a few pages before, we learn some crucial facts about the military situation at war’s end: Japan totters near bankruptcy, while Russia, despite her dim record on the battlefield, has access to cheaper credit and the ability to continue to pour troops into the region. Both sides, moreover, seemed to know this. Japan couldn’t hold out too much longer in Manchuria itself, and Russian reinforcements likely could’ve taken advantage of the deteriorating Japanese position if the war were to continue (though, to be fair, the Revolution of 1905 was brewing at the time).

Still, it seems that by this time, Japan and Russia has similar expectations over what the rest of the war would look like, which according to informational accounts of war termination (see, inter aliathisthis, and this), can facilitate peaceful settlement, as states will strike a bargain that looks like the ultimate outcome (roughly) but saves the costs of getting all the way there. Granted, this doesn’t mean they’ll strike a bargain that reflects the current military situation—and the Treaty of Portsmouth was manifestly not that—but that reflects their shared assessment of what fighting to the finish would look like.

In the final accounting, did Russia pull off a diplomatic coup that produced a settlement at variance with what “should” have happened, given the course of the war? It depends on your perspective, I suppose, but if the “course of the war” is the story of the information transmitted to each side about (a) Russia’s ability to reinforce and (b) Japan’s ability to fund the war, then the answer would have to be a pretty emphatic “no.” It’s a subtle, but oft-missed point: accounts of war termination can explain why the final settlement might look nothing like the final battlefield dispositions yet still prove stable: a war fought to the finish might look quite a bit different than where the belligerents happen to be when they sue for peace.

Even when information problems aren’t enough to get potential belligerents all the way to war, the latter can still play a role in determining precisely when and how wars driven by commitment problems come to an end (on combining bargaining problems, see this). Still, there’s another puzzle here: why would the Tsar order the construction of a railway that he had to suspect would lead Japan to think about a preventive war to maintain its position in Manchuria and Korea? William Spaniel argues that it might have to do with the very information problem that characterized the fighting—Russia might’ve been uncertain over just how willing Japan would be to accommodate Russia’s growing military potential in the region—prompting it to risk the construction of a railway that might (but might not, if Japan is hesitant to fight) result in a preventive war. This problem, the fact that some instances of shifting military power are choices (and thus need not be chosen) will emerge over and over again throughout the class, so it’s worth thinking about just how countries can choose to embark on armament or development programs that provoke the very wars they hope to deter as a result of growing strong…

Explaining War, Part 2 (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 4)

Two days ago, we developed our first answer to the inefficiency puzzle of war. If war is the costliest way to resolve disputes, while negotiations (which themselves typically follow war) are cheaper (if you can use them first to get to the same outcome), why fight? Our first answer involved disagreements about the likely outcome of the war and communication difficulties that stood in the way of creating agreement (the information problems explanation), but today we focus on a second broad answer to the puzzle: war as a commitment problem (for academic treatments, see this and this.)

(Before we get going on that, though, a quick note is in order: the inefficiency puzzle is a difficult one to grasp. When we say that war is inefficient, we don’t mean that the costs always outweigh the benefits; we only mean that the costs (a) exist and are (b) less than the costs of negotiations that can produce the same result as fighting. In fact, if both sides are fighting over something they didn’t have beforehand, they can both be better off than they were at peace, yet the war would still be inefficient—the belligerents still destroyed stuff to divide this new thing up rather than divide it up without destroying that stuff. I digress, but, students, take note: this is a difficult and subtle point, so don’t assume you’ve internalized it just yet. Keep thinking about it.)

Now, on to the topic of the day. How else might we explain why war occurs if not by information problems? Our second main answer to the problem derives from two facts: (a) nothing stops states from starting or threatening a war if it’s in their interest and (b) their ability and willingness to start or threaten war can change over time. More after the fold. Continue reading

Belgium and British Intervention (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 8)

Today, we tackle the puzzling sequence of events that bring the United Kingdom fully into the war against the Central Powers—something about which even its French allies were “profoundly uncertain” until the 11th hour—and that would help make the war, thanks to the involvement of the Dominions, properly global. Just as the Asquith government was divided over the wisdom of sending an army to the Continent, even as Austria declared war on Serbia and Russia mobilized, so was the British public. However, once Germany sent an ultimatum to neutral Belgium demanding passage for its troops on the way to France, British public opinion—as well as remaining fence-sitters in the cabinet—swiftly turned towards favoring intervention. Why then, when war had been imminent for some time—a war that would involve Britain’s most valuable Entente partner in France—and why over small, non-allied Belgium, in particular?

The answer we develop in class is built around some of my own recent work (an early version of the paper is discussed here), which argues that the international laws of neutrality, which are publicly known, can help third party states (like the British in 1914) identify useful interventions—but only when the laws are violated, as they were when German troops stormed through Belgium in an attempt to wheel around the bulk of the French army. Compliance, on the other hand, might allow expansionist states that it’s worth fighting to mask their intentions and prompt intervention, or balancing, only when it’s too late. In fact, I argue that we shouldn’t judge some laws—in particular neutrality laws—on rates of compliance when their workins are less about compliance and more about identifying profitable interventions.

Waverers in the UK did seem to view intervention as worthwhile once Germany tipped its hand; the violation of Belgian neutrality, which both Britain and Germany expected would provoke British intervention, thus served as a strong signal to the British leaders and public that German war aims were more expansive than a mere desire to support the Dual Monarchy in a punitive campaign against Serbia. Consider a counterfactual: had it only tried to engage and tie down the main French force on their common border, claims that Germany was only aiming to support the Dual Monarchy might’ve been more credible. As it was, going through Belgium led the British to believe that, in victory, Germany couldn’t credibly promise not to dominate the Continent—a belief that would be confirmed in many Allied minds with the publication of Germany’s “September Program,” which stated that “[t]he aim of the war is to provide us with [security] guarantees, from east to west, for the foreseeable future, through the enfeeblement of our adversaries” (quoted in Hastings, p.100). While this might’ve been a wishlist at the time, it was certainly a set of aims that the British expected that Germany would be unable to turn down if it were victorious on the Continent, with Belgium conquered and France prostrate.

In light of this commitment problem, which became acute once the British became more convinced that Germany would attempt to dominate the Continent, we can see

  1. how the violation of Belgian neutrality—as opposed to the imminent invasion of a bigger ally in France—tipped the scales in favor of British intervention, and
  2. how international law can work, helping states identify desirable interventions, not despite but because it is violated.

If you’re interested in the workings of the laws of neutrality model, I’ll post a new version soon. In the meantime, after Tuesday’s exam, we’ll dive straight into the homefront and the battlefield as our protagonists take in “the superb spectacle of the world bursting into flames”…

Public opinion and the outbreak of war (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 7)

After working through the strategic implications of German and Russian goals in the July Crisis over the course of the last week, particularly what it meant for explaining the outbreak of the Great War, we spent time today on another puzzle—one that had never really struck me until prepping for today’s class, in fact.* We noted a few weeks ago that the Continental armies were all focused on the offensive, on striking the first blow and achieving a decision that would keep the war short.** However, two things stand out about the maneuvering in the early days of the war that don’t fit neatly into the idea of the “cult of the offensive“:

  1. Germany delayed mobilization until it could claim that Russia had mobilized first.
  2. France mobilized, but orders its forces to stay 6 km back of the German border.

In each case, a belligerent that knows war to be imminent gives up something valuable—Germany a mobilization lead over the Entente Powers and France the ability to do anything other that mount a defense in the early days of the war—that would seem heretical to the ideal of offensive operations. Why?

The answer, in each case, turns out to be public opinion—specifically, the desire of both governments to ensure that as much of the public as possible would be on board with the war, whether as willing conscripts, temporarily silent dissidents, or factory workers making shells instead of striking. (Merely locking up the leaders of socialist or workers’ parties wasn’t going to cut it in this case.) Making the war a national one of defense or survival (said, surely, with a bit of a wink in the Kaiserreich) would be key to winning a long, drawn-out war, should it come to that—Germany, after all, knew that beating Russia would take a while—but there were also strategic reasons to secure public opinion and achieve a mass mobilization of soldiers and laborers: if any belligerent failed to mobilize the whole of the public, it would be disadvantaged at the outset, and if would certainly want to mobilize the whole public against an opponent that hadn’t done so in order to secure a quick victory. So, oddly, while the desire to capture public opinion resulted in both Germany and France trading off some of the benefits of a first-strike strategy, these intentional disadvantages might’ve canceled to a degree—and thus masked the true effect of mobilizing public opinion on success in war, which requires a disparity to realize. (From a game-theoretic perspective, the effects are both canceled out in equilibrium, in the behavioral prediction, but the reason this is so is the desire to blunt any advantage an opponent might have from securing more public support than oneself.)

So what can we learn from looking at public opinion in the outbreak of war?

First, even in a semi-autocratic state like the Kaiserreich, it drove governments to trade off some of the benefits of a first-strike, offensively-oriented strategy, in order to ensure that their opponents couldn’t secure a unilateral advantage in mobilizing the whole public for war. At a minimum, it confirms for us that governments made tradeoffs in the face of strategic dilemmas—that they weren’t necessarily the outmoded, single-minded wellsprings of outdated ideas that it’s easy to see them as.

Second, and perhaps more disquieting, by enabling the mobilization of the nation qua nation for war, governments maneuvering to secure public opinion might have helped create the very conditions that made the war as long as it was and gave to the war its brutal, extractive, resource-driven, attritional character. Absent some ability to commit not to make it a “people’s war,” one that mobilized nearly everyone in society, governments presiding over a conscious, nationalist mass public found themselves leaping headlong into a drawn-out cataclysm, the alternative to which was losing—and much sooner—to an enemy that did bring the nation along with it.

* Thanks, by the way, are in order to Phil Arena for helping me out with the ideas here:

** Contrary to the conventional wisdom, there weren’t many illusions about what would happen if decision weren’t achieved early; the strict focus on the offensive was designed to avert the long, bloody, total war that ultimately did ensue.

Russian goals in the July Crisis (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 6)

Today’s lecture was very much a companion to Tuesday’s (which laid out for us German preferences in the July Crisis), as we fleshed out the other side of the equation that would take the world from an Austro-Serbian war to a general conflict involving the other Great Powers: specifically, Russia.

We worked out Tuesday that Germany’s most-preferred outcome of the July Crisis appears to have been successful localization of an Austro-Serbian war, which would have led to either Serbia’s forcible realignment with the Central Powers or its dismemberment and distribution of its territories to ostensibly grateful nearby states—handing Germany something close to a preventive outcome against Russia (by more or less permanently shutting the latter out of the Balkans and the Straits while bolstering the Dual Monarchy) at no cost. However, given that Austria couldn’t commit not to crush Serbia, which the delay between assassination and ultimatum made hard to believe—to say nothing of word leaking out all over the Continent about the Dual Monarchy’s extensive aims—Russia, it seems, couldn’t commit not to get involved to save Serbia. However, Russia knew that it would be stronger by 1916, and surely seems to have preferred most of all that war be avoided. As such, we worked out this tough preference ranking over outcomes, from top to bottom:

  1. Austria backs down (or just stops in Belgrade, making it a clear punitive operation)
  2. Austria attacks Serbia, Russia intervenes, Germany stays out
  3. Austria attacks Serbia, Russia intervenes, Germany intervenes
  4. Austria attacks Serbia, Russia doesn’t intervene

Clearly, Russia was able to avoid her worst outcome—losing the Balkans, and the promise of access to the Turkish Straits, to the Central Powers—but nonetheless ended up with her third best: a general war involving the Great Powers. Russia was able to guarantee that Germany didn’t get its best option, but Germany was able to force Russia down to its third, in what looks like a grim series of commitment problems: neither Russia nor Germany could commit not to take advantage of the other’s standing pat (Russia because it couldn’t stand aside and see Serbia crushed, Germany because it now believed that Russia had turned the assertiveness corner and made preventive war necessary), and as a result we saw the beginning of a war that would ultimately drag in France, the UK, Turkey…and a great many others.

Ultimately, we can understand the escalation of the July Crisis as the result of three interlocked decisions for preventive war:

  1. Austria to solve her nationalities problem by ridding itself of growing, nationalist Serbia
  2. Russia to prevent the loss of its position in the Balkans to the Central powers by supporting Austria
  3. Germany to prevent Russia from completing the Great Program of rearmament and strangling the former’s growth as a Great Power

without any one of which the war might’ve looked much, much different than it did.

Still, at this point in the class—with Russia lurching from partial to full mobilization as Germany embarked on a mobilization of its own—the war was still regional. It won’t be until next week, when the French and British dominoes fall, that it starts to become a World War. What was important, pedagogically, was to nail down the logic of commitment problems and how they lead to tragic outcomes, and to force students to spend some time in the heads of decision-makers—which, when you’re trying to understand why a war occurred when and how it did, is no mean task—working out their preferences, available actions, and seeing what we can learn by taking their dilemmas, their choices, and their goals seriously.