The Russo-Japanese Origins of WWI (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 6)

It’s not often that I write multiple entries on a single lecture, but there’s another point worth returning to in our broader discussion of the Russo-Japanese War. Like any region, East Asia is very often inseparable from the politics of broader international system, both shaping and shaped by events in other parts of the world in a way that makes focusing solely on the region more than a little problematic. Even an ostensibly bilateral war can have its roots in politics in other regions of the globe, and the results of that same, local, bilateral war can impact international politics on the other side of the globe.

The Russo-Japanese War is almost too easy as such a case. The Russian Empire in 1904 was both a European and an Asian power (it remains so today, just as the United States is both an Atlantic and a Pacific power). Bottled up in southeastern Europe, frustrated in its attempts to expand towards the Turkish straits, Russia turned east in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, responding to the imperialist scramble for treaty ports and influence in a declining Qing Empire (just like Japan did)…only to have its nose bloodied by an upstart great power (Japan) with a much better military machine.

Why is Japan’s superior military quality important? As we saw yesterday, its victory was blunted a bit in the political settlement by the other great powers’ relative willingness to lend to the Tsar, but Russia’s response to its (military, if not political) defeat in 1905 would go on to have some, ah, rather serious implications for relations between the great powers in Europe. After surviving a revolution in 1905, the Tsar (a) agreed to the Grand Programme of rearmament designed to make up for the weaknesses in organization, training, and operational arts that hampered it against Japan and (b) decided to orient Russian foreign policy back towards Europe, where it might yet bear fruit in peeling away friendly Slav nations from the slowly-shrinking Ottoman Empire. Why does this matter? As it happens (and as we mentioned in class last week), Russian rearmament after 1905, designed to be completed around 1917, was a serious cause of alarm in Germany…the country that ultimately managed to turn the Austro-Serbian July Crisis into the preventive war against Russia (and, by extension, her ally France) that became what we know today as the First World War. (For a brilliant account of the July Crisis, its background, and its consequences, read this. All of it.)

Russo-German (as well as Anglo-German) antagonism wasn’t rooted in Russo-Japanese relations—this triad has its own problems, over issues ranging from East Asia to Central Asia to the Balkans and Northern Africa—but the Russian decision to rearm and modernize its military and economy was prompted by the realization of its great vulnerability after defeat at the hands of Japan in 1905. Had it not embarked on such a massive rearmament, it’s not like Russia would’ve ended up with a vastly different array of friends and enemies than it had in 1914 (though things were slowly changing), but the twin problems of (a) a new East Asian great power and (b) the same East Asian great power having the capability to contain Russia in the east turned rearmament from a desideratum into a necessity…

…a necessity that we can’t disentangle from the root causes of the First World War. (If you want to see some of my thoughts on the outbreak of the Great War, see this and this.)

Focusing on the international relations of a specific region can be fun, especially as a pedagogical exercise, but it can only rarely be done without some appreciation of larger patterns in global politics. The Russo-Japanese War helped to cement Japan’s place in the East Asian hierarchy of power and prestige, to make Japan wary of economic and financial dependence on other powers (what if the Western powers had chosen to lend to it instead of Russia in 1905? what if it didn’t need credit?), and to throw Russia into a rearmament program that would upset the domestic and international bargains that had kept the European great powers at peace for decades—leading to what would (for a generation, at least) stand as the most destructive war in human history.