behind the lines I: the laws of war (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 14)

While we’ve spent some time talking about international law as it applies to the rights of neutral states, today we tackle a different aspect of the laws of war: limitations on violence during wartime. Where the Treaty of London guaranteeing Belgian neutrality and the Hague Convention spelling out the rights of neutrals more broadly are designed to govern the relationships between belligerents and non-belligerents, we’re concerned today with laws that apply to the states doing the fighting—that is, laws that apply to the actual belligerents.

We’ve spent some time talking about and establishing patterns of variation across theaters, belligerents, and (potential) victims in the treatment of civilians—particularly the Eastern Front and Belgium thus far—but to explain why some belligerents honor the laws of war while others don’t, and even to explain why the same belligerents honor the law in some cases and not others, we need two things: a theory of war-fighting and a theory of the laws of war. (Without either, of course, we’d be more than a little lost in explaining the puzzle.) In that sense, today is about developing a theory largely devoid of the rich historical detail we’ve been immersed in for the last few lectures, in large part because (as you could probably sense from the lecture on bargaining and war) we’re graduating to more sophisticated theoretical constructs as the class goes on.

Using Morrow’s theory of the law of war as our starting point, we build intuition over how ratification serves as a public signal that coordinates expectations over (a) what constitutes and violation and (b) what the likely response is to violations. In the case of civilian and POW treatment, where we’ll focus today, laws are enforced by threats of reciprocity: abuse my soldiers/civilians, and I’ll do the same to yours. Tracking the credibility of threats of reciprocity over time and space—that is, whether on the offensive or defensive, on foreign or home soil, or fighting one belligerent as opposed to another—we can generate some expectations over when and where the battlefield will be more or less restrained…expectations that we can then evaluate against the historical record as we encounter it moving forward.

Giving away too much at this point isn’t pedagogically brilliant (this will go live right before class starts), but I will say this: all the major belligerents had, by the war, ratified the relevant treaties limiting violence in war. However, we do see interesting variation in (a) which belligerents can and can’t threaten reciprocity, (b) which belligerents are viewed as likely to be restrained ex ante, (c) the political institutions of the belligerents, and (d) the outcome variable: the scale of civilian atrocities (worst in the East, not as bad in the West). All of this information should, in a few weeks’ time, lead us to answers to some pressing questions. Why was the Eastern Front so much worse on civilians than the Western Front (especially puzzling with Germany involved on both fronts)? Why did German treatment of civilians improve markedly as the army moved from Belgium into France? And…what kept violations from spiraling as far and as extensively as they ultimately would on the same ground in the Second World War?

Should be fun. (The learning, of course. Not the stories of atrocities.)

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”…

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.