Promoting WWI as a ‘great war’ for liberalism is perverse, and dangerous
WWI has traditionally been seen as a cautionary tale of what comes from arms racing, national rivalries, and “great power competition.” It has loomed large as an example of the futility and stupidity of war as it destroyed the relatively stable order of the previous hundred years and left almost 20 million people dead and tens of millions more injured.
Portrayed by contemporary and later propagandists as a struggle between democracy and autocracy, the Great War was mainly a struggle between colonial empires that the status quo powers barely won at staggering cost. This is the war whose “real lessons” Hal Brands wants to teach us in a recent Bloomberg essay in order to promote a new round of great power rivalry with Russia and China today.
One of the “real lessons” that Brands imparts is hard to take seriously. He writes: “The resulting conflagration was not a pointless slugfest. It was part of a longer-running clash between liberalism and illiberalism.” The war was not only fought entirely by colonial empires, including the United States, but the wartime measures taken to fight the war introduced extensive authoritarian political and economic controls that trampled on liberal principles. This would include wartime nationalization policies and crackdowns on freedom of speech and press — like the arrest of anti-war figures like U.S. presidential candidate and activist Eugene Debs in 1918.
If the war involved a “clash between liberalism and illiberalism,” the clash was taking place inside each belligerent state and in each one illiberalism triumphed. If the war was part of “the contest between liberalism and its enemies,” as Brands says, this was the part where liberalism lost.
Brands needs to make WWI into a clear-cut ideological struggle to use it as a precedent for the ideological struggle he imagines the U.S. to be engaged in now. It is not surprising that people on both sides of a conflict try to present theirs as fighting for important ideals, but that doesn’t mean that the competing propaganda claims were the real stakes of the war. The Allies could say that they were fighting for the rights of small nations, but they had no compunctions about trampling on those rights when it was expedient. The advocates for self-determination at the end of the war had no intention of applying that principle to the nations subject to the rule of Allied empires.
The correct lesson from the war is quite different: WWI was the result of competing aggressive nationalisms and imperialisms that served to bring ruin to almost all of the nations and empires involved, and we run the risk of falling into the same trap by whipping up hostility towards other major powers now. Whether one wants to describe it as an “amoral clash of empires” or not, it was undoubtedly a colossally stupid and unnecessary clash of empires.
Brands is on firmer ground when he says that WWI was not accidental, but then very few people would still maintain that it was. Here he seems to be arguing with a consensus from long ago that no one continues to accept. What the history of the crisis leading up to the war does show, however, is that boxing in rivals can encourage them to lash out aggressively and that giving allies blank checks can encourage reckless behavior that leads to a general war.
The example of Russia is perhaps most telling of all: their government chose to intervene in a conflict when it didn’t have to, and it ended up destroying them. Brands claims that “World War I resulted less from a failure of de-escalation than a failure of deterrence,” which oddly minimizes the role that the Franco-Russian alliance had in encouraging the German government to go on the offensive.
But if the war was not accidental, it was still contingent on the decisions of policymakers that could have gone a different way. If the German government didn’t back their Austrian allies to the hilt, the war would not have started at all. In the diplomatic correspondence from the July crisis, the Kaiser acknowledged that Serbia’s willingness to accept almost all Austrian demands removed the cause for war, but that didn’t lead to the change in policy that it should have. If the Russians had not started mobilizing when they did, there might have been time to avert a wider war. If the British government had taken a clear position earlier on in the crisis, it is possible that Germany might never have invaded Belgium. There is ample blame to spread around to most of the belligerents, as is often the case in major wars.
Perhaps the least persuasive “real” lesson Brands offers is that the postwar peace settlement was not a harsh, vindictive one. It may be possible to imagine even more punishing settlements, but that doesn’t change the reality that the Treaty of Versailles imposed substantial costs on Germany and that those costs undermined Germany’s republican government.
The purpose of the peace settlement was to humiliate and weaken Germany, and that was bound to destabilize Europe. Rather than accept that it was the vindictive nature of the postwar settlement that led to later instability, Brands instead tells a convenient and predictable story about insufficient U.S. involvement in European affairs. As usual, Brands finds a “lack of American commitment” responsible. The United States was still involved to a considerable degree in European affairs and acted constructively in trying to repair some of the harm done by the treaty, and it is unrealistic to suggest that it should have been willing to do more.
Forcing Germany to accept responsibility for a war that had many authors naturally rankled and fueled revanchism. The question is not whether other treaties were harsher, but whether the Treaty of Versailles was a harsh one, and obviously it was. There is good reason why Joslyn Barnhart cites the Treaty of Versailles as one of the principal examples of international humiliation in her book The Consequences of Humiliation: Anger and Status in World Politics.
She writes: “Germany was forced to agree to permanent concessions that not only substantiated Germany’s loss of great power privileges but also permanently robbed Germany of many rights associated with sovereign statehood.” A “lack of American commitment” after the war didn’t do that. That was the bitter fruit of an ill-designed peace.
Brands says that “we must first get the past right,” but in important ways he distorts the past with his “real lessons” from WWI to serve a hawkish agenda in the present. If one assumes that a conflict as devastating as WWI is simply the product of the aggressiveness of another state, that will tend to make hardline and confrontational policies seem more attractive.
Furthermore, if one believes that a war as ruinous and senseless as WWI was really part of a greater struggle for freedom, that will make new great power rivalries framed in similar terms seem more worthwhile. If one buys the idea that the problem with the aftermath of WWI was a “lack of American commitment” rather than an unjust peace settlement, that makes it easier to dismiss other states’ grievances and endorse the current U.S. role in the world.
On the other hand, if we view WWI as a catastrophic failure of statecraft caused by excessive militarism and an obsession with “great power competition,” the prescription for how the U.S. should conduct itself will be radically different.