International security, week one

This is the first in what I plan to be be a semester-long series of posts about each class session I teach (International Security for grad students, War and Peace in East Asia for the undergrads)—either summing up, adding something extra, or highlighting a useful point that I don’t want to forget.

I’ve never felt satisfied with my choices of first week readings in graduate seminars, but today might be as close as I’ve come to that. I assigned Europe’s Last Summer, giving the students an opportunity to develop some free case knowledge about the object we’ll be studying all semester (war) and using the historiography of the war to make a few big points: challenges to inference, multiple and conjunctural causality, the differences between structural/underlying and proximate causes, and how the sheer costs of war—especially in a war that began as a deliberate act of policy—pose such an obstacle to explaining it. (Yes, this was intentional and probably ham-handed foreshadowing for week 2, but I just ran with it.)

Another important point, though, is a tradeoff we hit upon when talking about underlying and proximate causes of war. First, we did a thought experiment: removing, alternately, Germany’s incentives for preventive war and the Serbian crisis, then thinking about how much longer or shorter the book would’ve been in the absence of either (taking those two factors, for the sake of argument, as the sole underlying and proximate causes). Discussion then went somewhere else. There’s another tradeoff between underlying and proximate causes, particularly when they exist at different levels of aggregation: measurement error. Figuring out just what happened inside Austria and Germany in 1914 has taken a long time, and we may not be all the way there yet, but contrast this with measures of military power, great power status, etc. At the lower level of aggregation, we have finger-grained information, but these lower levels could be more prone to measurement error (via observability in this case) than coarser concepts like military power, measured at the level of the state. (Incidentally, I also think I remember Will Moore talking about something similar with respect to temporal aggregation during a presentation at a past Peace Science meeting…I think.)

Either way, it’s a tradeoff that doesn’t necessarily make one feel better about getting a handle on the interplay of underlying and proximate causes, but it’s surely one that’s worth bearing in mind—especially as we get into the messiness of weighing them against one another in the mind-numbingly overdetermined instance of any one war…

My three favorite books on the First World War

Reading excessively obsessively a lot about World War I almost seems like a rite of passage for us international conflict-types, and while my fascination with the war came late, it did dominate my reading for a good chunk of the last year. Perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve been asked what my favorite book on the war actually is, and after giving a typically academic response (you know the type: endless qualifications and definitional hedging), I gave three.

Now, I’m not going to pretend to have some vast knowledge of the scholarship on the war, which is why I’m saying “favorite” instead of “best,” but my answer is all about what you want out of the book: a discussion of its origins, an in-the-weeds look at military strategy, or a sweeping look at the whole of the conflict. For each of those, here’s what I came up with:

I’m actually having my graduate international security class read Europe’s Last Summer as a kind of warm-up for that class, to get them thinking about the politics of war and decisions over it, and the reason is, frankly, that it’s a well-written synthesis of fairly recent scholarship that draws some strong conclusions worthy of discussion. That said, it’s mostly about the July Crisis, ending before the action really gets going.

Three Armies on the Somme is similarly narrow in focus, taking a close and, I’ve got to admit, utterly spellbinding look at the creation of military strategy on the Western Front, focusing on the titanic Battle of the Somme that began in the summer of 1916. It’s got a fascinating take on attrition and trench warfare; given the other side’s strategy, responding in kind was a best response given the technological constraints of the time—a deeply tragic Nash equilibrium to a vexing, and profoundly high-stakes, problem.

Finally, Stevenson’s Cataclysm is necessarily broader in scope, covering the politics and sociology of the home fronts as well as the fighting and diplomacy itself, but no less interesting, even for a reader like me focused on bargaining and diplomacy, both before and during the war, and the problems of coalitional warfare and consensus-building. It’s a big book; don’t be fooled by the page numbers, because the print is tiny—makes you feel like whatever you read next is a large-print edition.

Still, if you’re looking around for some accessible book-length treatments of the war, I think it’s hard to go wrong with any of these.