the Significance of World War i (Wwi) in International Relations
How it works
The occurrence of World War I at the beginning of the 20th century was a central event that fundamentally changed the political structure of Europe. Analysis of World War I via international relations provides a variety of multitudes of theories to describe the conflict and the war itself. These theories include realism, liberalism, constructivism. It is a foundational case for the theories of international relations that address the causes of war in which they address the deterrence, balance of power, power transition theory and rationalist models of decision making. Though the recent historical work on the underlying and immediate causes of World War I raises issues for all these approaches among other things, they highlight the importance of context, how it is understood by leaders, their motives and assumptions, and their tendency to exaggerate the constraints acting on them, the freedom of other actors, and their ability to predict events and control risks.
One of the main questions that surround World War I is whether the war was avoidable, intentional or anomalous lies upon the core of international relations theory. Therefore, it is not unforeseen that the explanations of the war closely correspond to the three leading schools of thought: constructivism, liberalism, and realism. Their respective mechanisms—ideas, domestic politics, and anarchy—representing the three main explanations on the causes of World War I.
How it works
Under a Realist lens, World War I can be described as a conflict between independent, unitary actors in an anarchic international system. A fundamental principle in Realism Theory is that world politics and the laws that go along with it are inherently objective. In a Realist’s perspective, the world is anarchic with no visible system that restrains people from deferring to their baser, animalistic instinct. In such an environment, it’s kill or be killed, and under Realism, rationalism takes precedence over morals or ideals as the way to avoid self-destruction (Morgenthau 1967). Unitary states ultimately seek self-survival in this anarchic world, and in the words of John J. Mearsheimer, “States fear each other regard each other with suspicion. They worry that war might be in the offing there is little room for trust among states.” (Mearchimer 2001). Because of states’ distrust of each other’s intentions, they attempt to ensure their own survival by pursuing more power, which manifests through the buildup of arms, forming alliances, territorial compensations, and turning potential rivals against each other (Morgenthau 1967).
All of the above concepts were present in World War I. The major states: Britain, France, Germany, AustriaHungary, Russia, and to some extent Italy and the Ottoman Empire wanted to preserve their own well-being in the face of each other. In order to do so, all these nations undertook an arms buildup and attempted to overpower one another by entering alliances, creating a balance of power in Europe where no single nation is powerful enough to overpower others, creating a hegemony. According to the realists, the purpose of Balance of Power is “maintaining the stability of the system without destroying the multiplicity of the elements composing it.” (Morgenthau 1967). Hence, the outbreak of war was only a result of the increase in the multi-polar nature of the alliance system, and at its end, no nation, victorious or overpowered, was completely destroyed. Instead, the states quickly reestablished equilibrium in Europe with a new Balance of Power. Due to Realism’s basis on the nature of mankind, it has been an ever-present part of human society.
Under the Liberal lenses, the outbreak of World War I can still be viewed as a conflict between European empires over matters of imperialism but with the participation of the United States in the final stages of the war and its subsequent result of the establishment of League of Nations and the attempt at implementing President Wilson’s Fourteen Points illustrates the growing influence of democratic values. Liberalism takes on a different approach towards its analysis of the War. Unlike Realists, who focus on human nature and nation-states, and instead emphasizes the ideas behind liberal democracy such as trade, human rights, and cooperation through international organizations.
Constructivism, on the other hand, disregards the Realist emphasis on power and the Liberal focus on democratic institutions. Instead, constructivists argue that the most important aspect in decrypting international relations is ideas and how they are interpreted. Thus, World War I can be viewed from a number of perspectives. Under a Marxist view, it can be seen as a conflict preserved by capitalistic tendencies of competition among the bourgeois among Europe and fought by the oppressed proletariat. For a constructivist, the ideas and norms dictate how states behave and are only important when states deem it as important.
As a result, constructivism is based on much more abstract ideas than the other theories. For instance, these include the economics, like Marxism; it could also be based socially, such as the claim that the European powers chose to go to war with each other in order to quell the unrest among the population. As Alexander Wendt states in his article “Anarchy is what States Make of It”, “All theories of international relations are based on social theories of the relationship between agency, process, and social structure. Social theories do not determine the content of our international theorizing, but they do structure the questions we ask about world politics and our approaches to answering those questions.” (Wendt 1992). This approach focuses on the social constructs humans project and how they relate to the way interactions take place.
Though the above theories all adequately explain World War I to some degree, it fails to sufficiently describe the specific events within the war. Realism persuasively comments on the nature of alliances and the Balance of Power prior to and after the war. It doesn’t, however, account for the actual outbreak of war. Realists claimed that Balance of Power should’ve kept the European powers from conflict due to equal distribution of strength and a mutual fear of self-destruction, but conflict nonetheless happened. Liberalism theory makes a solid argument on the increasing viability of democratic ideals in promoting cooperation among states through the introduction of the League of Nations and the Fourteen Points in the war’s aftermath. While Constructivism is much more versatile than the other two, the supporting evidence for its different approaches varies on a case by case basis, which makes it difficult to evaluate a Constructivist interpretation of the war.
In conclusion, World War I is a significant case as almost everything contributes to the carnage: technology suggested victory could come quickly, leaders exercised poor judgment and oversight, the ideological atmosphere was a toxic froth of reckless fantasies, bureaucracies put provincial over national interests, and the alarms of the security dilemma could not be drawn in. Some of these explanations receive more realistic support than others, but when everything goes wrong simultaneously. It leads to the difficulty of separation. Moreover, the world has evolved and changed since 1914 in multiple aspects.