World War I: The General Theory of War

World War I: The General Theory of War

World War I became the first global conflict in the world, the result of which was the creation of the new global order and general political image of the 20th century. In turn, this change caused heated discussions in scholarly circles about the reasons and explanations for this military conflict since there were no clear signs of the possibility for it to break out in 1914. Therefore, the most acceptable point of view concerning its beginning considers its explanation by miscalculations of the involved parties. However, in the following years, structuralists provided another argumentation, which suggested that in general, parties bargained for the war and that their choice of the armed confrontation was rational within the framework of the security and prisoner’s dilemmas. In such a manner, in the general theory of war, there developed two explanations for the sources of World War I, which were associated with the misperception of the war and the measured choice of the same as the lesser evil.

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World War I is often called The Least Likely War as at the time of its beginning, it was not obvious that any country or alliance would decide to engage in a military conflict. The tipping point of the war became the murder of Franz-Ferdinand, who was the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. Last blamed Serbia for this act. The Austrians were made to believe that an armed response was the only rational option. In turn, an ultimatum to Serbia and its subsequent rejection led to the mutual mobilization of great powers, after which the war began. Because the war was not localized on the European continent and also engaged the United States and Japan, it became a truly global war. When speaking about the peculiarities of World War I in terms of the general war theory, it should be indicated that it was characterized by the paradox in terms of how it was fought by the parties, namely by the maximum mobilization that was accompanied by the minimum mobility (Fromkin, 2005). It meant that although all countries engaged in the war could mobilize a maximum number of military personnel and resources, they were not able to use them effectively as the mobility of their armies was very low. In such a manner, they could only attack efficiently but could not conduct other types of military operations as they would probably result in the breaking up of their armies. Also, when World War I began, it became clear that the mobility of armies would define the winner. As a matter of fact, for the first time in European history, the front from the North Sea to the Mediterranean Sea was created. In turn, such a situation required the constant support of millions of soldiers, who continuously were on the front line with the railroads being unable to provide the necessary supply of arms and provision in time.

Another important characteristic of World War I was the fact that all involved parties planned their actions for a short conflict because strategically it was the most rational choice. The perception of the war by great powers was incorrect as they thought in the terms of the Industrial War, which was supposed to be short due to the advancement in weapons and develop the infrastructure of railroads. However, when it became clear that the war would not be short, all countries found themselves in a catastrophic situation as they were not ready to wage a defensive war which later became the confrontation of attrition (Fromkin 2005). In such a manner, there were two constraints for the parties, namely the maximum mobilization and the paradox of offensive necessity, which meant considering attacking necessary because of the domestic opinion and perception of the general logic of war.

As was said above, World War I is a perfect illustration of the general theory of war. It is connected with the impossibility to explain the prerequisites of the given conflict in a way, which would satisfy all schools of thought, including realism and idealism, the representatives of which tried to explain them. For a long time in historiography, a commonly accepted view of World War I had existed. It was considered irrational and unreasonable as its participants proved to be not ready to conduct a long war. Nevertheless, Europe’s Last Summer: Why the World Went to War in 1914 by David Fromkin provides a completely different perspective on the causes of World War I, which developed from the deliberate actions of the highest authority of Germany in this regard (2005). Such an activity of the country was primarily connected with the intentions of Germany to become a superpower. Furthermore, von Moltke, who was the Chief of the German General Staff, considered Russia the main threat to Germany. This idea was connected with the rapid reorganization of the army, which also took place in France (Fromkin, 2005). If Russia and France became stronger military states, the Entente could become an almost invincible alliance. It was better for Germany to start a blitzkrieg, which was elaborated long before the military campaign itself. Such a plan known as Schlieffen Plan presupposed an initial concentration of forces on the right flank and conducting a lightning strike on France, then Great Britain in the west, and subsequent defeating Russia in the east. At the same time, Germany did not want to be considered an aggressor. The Balkan crisis became a convenient explanation for its actions as Germany was the ally of the Austria-Hungarian Empire at the time (Fromkin, 2005). However, even after accepting the idea of German’s planning of the pre-emptive war, it could be seen that there was no obvious war stake and the Germans did not express their militaristic nature more than any other country.

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In the light of the above mentioned information, the following possible explanations for the beginning of World War I can be provided. Firstly, the beginning of the war could be a result of miscalculations and misperceptions of the conflict by the contemporary great powers concerning its nature, duration, and consequences. As a result, they developed irrational beliefs and expectations from the war. Secondly, parties to the war did not have complete information; this fact led to their mutual bluffing and inability to understand the intentions of one another fully. Thirdly, the parties had the illusion of a short war. Therefore, after the Balkan crisis of 1914, they chose a military confrontation despite having the possibility to choose peace (Fromkin, 2005). However, concerning the short war illusion, there is also one more viewpoint, which suggests that parties, especially Germany, targeted two wishes. The first such desire was to attack and to win in a decisive battle. At the same time, if such an option was not possible, they had another desire, namely rational attrition. In such a manner, it can be said that the illusion of a short war was limited, and actors understood the possibility of waging a long war. Taking such a position means recognizing that the miscalculation could not be the background of World War I. Hence, modern political science has offered a new explanation for the origins of this conflict.

Such an explanation of World War I is given by representatives of realist, structuralist, and neorealist schools of political sciences. They consider that war is caused by the structure of the system of international relations or the world system. Every such system is created by great powers, which define the ways of its functioning. When the existing system with established rules and principles, which oblige the countries to act in a particular way, does not meet the interests of its main powers, it begins to collapse. In turn, this situation can lead to powers’ meeting with the choice between two options: peace and war. In this regard, their choice depends on the primary national interests. When speaking about the preferences of the great powers for peace or war, it can be indicated that there is some number of such preferences. First, there is a preference for peace, which is perceived by great powers as the best outcome and considerable advantage. In the case of World War I, it could be forcing Austria-Hungary or Russia to back down and accept the propositions of more powerful states. The second preference is made in the situation when parties do not want to maintain the status quo which, in turn, results in the inclination of parties toward the armed conflict. The third option is the war, which can begin even if there is a small preference for the war. The fourth preference considers passive defeat or surprises attack.

Also, the realists suggest explaining the cause of the war by using the prisoner’s dilemma, which shows the situation when two parties would better choose cooperation, however, because of their preferences, they choose defection instead. For example, in the situation when two parties, which can be either countries or alliances, are in crisis, they can choose either cooperation or defection; otherwise, the war between them may break out in the nearest future. The preference for defection by parties can be easily explained when they do not receive any guarantees from another side. It means that they will choose defection as it allows for avoiding the worst outcome for the party, namely the passive defeat. Therefore, if the party chooses to defect, it may gain the advantage and avoid the worst scenario. Meanwhile, if it chooses cooperation, it can get either the best or the worst outcome. Hence, when the party chooses defection, it means for it that it will not have the best outcome, but will not have the worst one, as well. If parties choose mutual defection, they find themselves in a situation of stable equilibrium. However, in the case of World War I, mutual defection meant war. In such a manner, cooperation between parties can be broken down even if they did not intend to. Regarding this idea, representatives of the structural theory argue that the war can start even if no party has a rationale interest in its beginning.

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In the light of the information mentioned above, it can be said that the origins of World War I can be explained by the elementary prisoner’s dilemma, which expresses the true incentives of the decision-makers. Also, in the situation of instability in the balance of power, the two sides have to make a choice, which will depend on their interests and level of mutual trust. By structuralism, states usually do not trust one another as allies may change while the national interest may not. Therefore, defection is always a more rational choice than cooperation. In 1914 in Europe, the choice of cooperation for the party meant exposing itself to passive defeat. Therefore, a better choice was the general mobilization, which was the defection. Realists suggest that states never know the underlying intentions of their counterparts, especially when there is an arms race, which creates a situation of mutual fear and distrust. Under such circumstances, every party seeks to get the advantage, which makes the security dilemma more acute. In turn, it also invites parties, which meet the crises in their relations to choose defection. Also, structuralist theorists suggest that the logic behind the prisoner’s dilemma shows the fragile character of the international collective action because parties are not inclined to pay the price, which is a possible option if they choose to cooperate. When speaking about the consequences of World War I, it also can be indicated that the defeat of Germany and its allies was caused not only by the better strategy of the countries of Entente but also by the lack of trust between Germany and its allies, primarily Italy. Despite its commitments, Italy remained s neutral party after the war started and then entered it on the side of the Entente, which proved the prisoner’s dilemma concerning the issue of trust and true intentions of the parties.

In conclusion, it can be said that World War I is an interesting example in the framework of the general theory of war as the sources of its beginning remain a debatable issue. In this regard, two explanations for World War I are the most popular. While the first explanation of the background of the given war considers the miscalculation and misperception of the war and its possible consequences by the great powers, the second one suggests that the virtual war was the choice of the major states within the context of the general logic of prisoner’s dilemma, in which the defection leads to the situation of the stable equilibrium. In such a manner, as parties do not have guarantees of mutual nonaggression, they cannot fully trust each other. In its turn, this situation results in their choosing to defect and avoid passive defeat, which is the worst outcome in the theory of war. In terms of World War I, all states recognized the possible outcomes of the situation, in which their choice was to cooperate, which could be the best or the worst option. However, the level of trust between them was small; it led to their general mobilization and the growth of military intentions. They became the prerequisites of the first global war in the history of humankind.

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