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1913 Redux


My friend Cheryl Rofer of Whirledview, who has a professional background in nuclear weapons issues, is an advocate of strong diplomatic efforts for nuclear disarmament and, someday, of a world free of nuclear arms ( note to readers: Cheryl is NOT advocating immediate or unilateral nuclear disarmament). While I see room for responsble reductions in nuclear weapons systems, I disagree that this objective – very low or no “legal” nuclear weapons- is a good idea; in fact, I expect that doing so will make great power war possible again, a nightmare we have not seen since 1945.

Cheryl had a very interesting post recently, where she makes an argument that the old world, the one that launched the 20th century’s descent into epic carnage and ideological fury in August 1914, is long gone and that the subsequent changes in political order mitigate the dangers of a revival of great power rivalry and warfare. I am using a sizable excerpt here in order to show the core of Rofer’s argument:

Not 1913

My customary response to this (after batting away their ideas that we are talking about unilateral disarmament or that we might have zero nuclear weapons in the next month or so) has been that the negotiations and concessions necessary to move toward zero nuclear weapons will restructure the world in such a way that it will resemble no world we know or have known.

But Nicholas and Alexandra has given me a new argument: Europe is no longer ruled by a single dysfunctional family.

That’s an exaggeration of the Europe of 1913, which was the problem back then. But no such important grouping of countries is any longer ruled by a single family. And there’s more to it than that: the form of rule is important, and the world has pretty much given up on absolute monarchies. There are still autocracies of various kinds around the world, but they are few.

Many of the rulers of Europe before World War I were related to Queen Victoria. She provided the fateful hemophilia gene that the Tsarevich suffered from. Both Nicholas and Alexandra were related to the British royal family, Alexandra a granddaughter of Victoria. Kaiser Wilhelm was a cousin. King Alfonso of Spain was a cousin by marriage, and there were ties to Greece, Prussia, and Denmark. The members of the family were fabulously wealthy, and, as we have recently seen, the values and interests of the fabulously wealthy are not the same as those of the rest of us.

Nicholas regretted having to go to war against Cousin Willy, but his other duties required it. Russia’s national interest was part of it, but a big part of how he thought of national interest was a pride-duty-upholding-our-sacred-values kind of thing that is more like a family’s sense of who they are than today’s national interests of economic growth or security for citizens.

….Monarchy exacerbated the problems
Most of the countries of Europe were monarchies; now most are democracies. In a monarchy, the monarch is in charge of everything. There may be ministers, but they are advisors who have only as much power as the monarch grants. Britain had been moving away from this model for some time, but Nicholas and Alexandra were hardly alone in believing that only one person can rule. When World War I broke out, Nicholas commanded the troops directly. This left a bit of a vacuum in other spheres, which Alexandra tried to fill, with Rasputin’s help.

Power is that centralized in very few countries today. Heads of government have access to advice from experts in many fields: military, scientific, economic, societal, political. The ballot box and the media remind those heads that accepting advice can be a good idea. None of this implies that decisions will be perfect, but it does mean that big decisions, like going to war, will be thought out and justified in ways that a monarch does not need to.

As I said in the comment section at Whirledview, there are two distinct questions here with Cheryl’s argument:

a) The influence of monarchy in historical period of 1913 in precipitating the civilizational calamity of WWI ( or, if you like a broader view, the 1914-1991 “Long War” between liberal democracy and authoritarian-totalitarian regimes).

b) Emerging strategic parallels with 1913 that could be exacerbated by a nuclear free world.

I will deal with each question in turn.

Europe of 1913 was, I would agree, certainly a much more hierarchical and authoritarian place than it is today. Cheryl is implicitly invoking “Democratic Peace theory” here to explain the warlike tendencies of late imperial Europe that contrast so sharply with the conflict averse, liberal democratic, welfare states that make up the EU. However the historical picture I think is more complicated in that none of the monarchs, not even the nominal autocrat Tsar Nicolas II of Russia, were absolute monarchs in practice.

Nicholas II, on paper, was the most powerful ruler but even so, he was forced to accept the Duma and limits on his previously (theoretically) infinite powers in the Revolution of 1905. Kaiser Wilhelm II was technically the “German Emperor”, sort of a commander-in-chief and presiding officer of a federation of Lander that made up Imperial Germany, and not “Emperor of Germany”. The Kaiser had to deal with an unruly Reichstag filled with socialists, other German monarchs like the King of Bavaria, a Prussian and imperial civil service, a junkers class and a Grossgeneralstab, all of which had various institutional prerogatives that checked the authority of “the All-Highest”. The King of Great Britain retained enough real power to force a pre-war reform of the House of Lords against the will of a majority of parliament, but this was regarded as an extraordinary political event ( George III had regularly exercised powers not far removed from those of President Barack Obama). The government of Austria-Hungary is beyond my expertise, except to say that it’s government was riven by byzantine rules and duplicative bodies. The Young Turks had seized power from Abdul-Hamid II and the new Sultan was a figurehead. France was a republic.

While the monarchs exercised varying degrees of executive power before the Great War, they were a declining legacy component of a modern, evolving, state system, one increasingly animated by an aggressive spirit of brutal nationalism and militarism. The state, not the monarch, is what ran Europe in 1913 and in 1918 nearly all of these crowned rulers were swept away without a trace, like a predatory insect discarding an old shell as it grew larger and stronger. Those monarchs that remained became living flags and tourist attractions. Nationalism is far from dead in 2009 and while the state as a global institution has taken an impressive beating since the end of the Cold War, it retains in most countries impressive powers of coercion and an ability to inflict great harm, even where it cannot make itself be obeyed. Zimbabwe, Iran, Sudan, Burma, to name just a few, have governments that continue to rule barbarically and thumb their noses as the civilized world, despite being loathed by substantial parts of their population or even the vast majority of citizens

The strategic calculus regarding the value of nuclear weapons to a state does not remain unchanged with reductions in nuclear arsenals, the value actually increases in the sense that each nuclear weapon becomes more significant as there are fewer of them. Nuclear weapons become more prestigious and, once the US and Russia move to very low numbers of warheads, have greater military significance to the ayatollahs, military dictators, presidents for life, nationalist demagogues and terrorists who might like to have some. Nuclear weapons are useful as status symbols or as shields to deter intervention while pursuing regional ambitions against non-nuclear neighbors, or even nuclear ones in the case of India and Pakistan.  This strategic value does not disappear with paper agreements to the contrary, and even miserably poor nations like North Korea and Pakistan can build nuclear weapons, if they have the political will to endure the modest inconvenience of becoming a diplomatic outcast.

A world that formally abolishes nuclear weapons, or reduces them to the point where major war appears to be a “survivable” risk even if they are used, creates incentives for states to wage war where previously  the fear of nuclear escalation made statesmen pull back from the brink. Moreover, I do not think we will return to exactly the world of 1913 or 1944. History never repeats itself quite so neatly. No, I think we will see the dystopian worst of both worlds – increasing “bottom-up” chaos of 4GW insurgency ( which is driven by more factors than just the nuclear age) coexisting with a renewed interest of states in pursuing interstate warfare at the top.

Human nature does not change. I agree that democracies are far less inclined, on average to fight one another than are authoritarian states but this average could easily be a product of modern democracy being a rarefied commodity until the last twenty years. We still have many brutal tyrannies on planet Earth and democracies are not incapable of aggression, error or hubris. Athens embarked upon the expedition to Syracuse, Republican Rome was more ferociously expansionistic than its later Emperors and the U.S. went through a Manifest Destiny phase.

These things should give us pause before we become too eager to take nuclear weapons off of the table.

20 Responses to “1913 Redux”

  1. Fabius Maximus Says:

    I have never understood how the west’s brief experience with democracy supports the Demo Peace Theory.  The usual rebuttals seem conclusive. 

    First, until recently most democracies were surrounded by non-democracies, so wars between democracies were inherently less likely.  Second, democracies have often been quite warlike.  From Athens to the UK and USA.  It seems daft, on the available (and limited) evidence.

  2. A.E. Says:

    A close cousin to the democratic peace myth is the idea that democracies always more militarily effective than autocracies.

  3. zen Says:

    Democracies, out of necessity, reflect the cultural values of their people, whatever those may be. Not all cultural values are consistent with liberal democracy, some are antithetical and where they hold sway, advocates of democracy must convince the people that these traditional values must be subordinated to the outcomes of democratic process. Not impossible, case in point, Japan, but difficult.

  4. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    Nice photo, Mark, and argument. Rebuttal to come.
    And I realize that what I wrote could be taken to be a variant on the theory that democracies don’t go to war, but that’s not where I was going. I am working out something a bit different, but perhaps related.
    I find that theory difficult to defend, so I won’t do it. And I don’t want the discussion to get mired there.

  5. zen Says:

    Fair enough Cheryl! I knew it wasn’t an explicit point of yours but it is was a counterpoint to the monarchy as aggressor question. We shall move the debate on with your rebuttal.

  6. Lexington Green Says:

    If I were by some horrendous miracle elected president, I would dress like those guys.  The world is a drearier place these days. 

  7. A.E. Says:

    Re: Lexington

    I have first dibs on the kaiser hat. I’ve also been envious of my California friends’ ability to look good with giant spike hairdoes.

  8. Lexington Green Says:

    I want a plumed czapka.
    I would go for the whole lancer / uhlan look. 
    I had a little love letter to the uniforms of that era here:

  9. zen Says:

    Here’s what I want!


  10. deichmans Says:

    Zen,  You’d look like a young Sergeant Schultz with that Pickelhaube! 🙂

    Good argument, and I look forward to Cheryl’s rebuttal.  You nail it in your penultimate paragraph: human nature doesn’t change, and Kaiser Willy was the provocateur of The Great War.  If he didn’t have such a hard-on for one-upping his cousin Eddie (the Prince of Wales) and fawning for Grandma Vicky’s adoration, claiming far-flung colonies (like Kwajalein) and building a blue water navy, we’d never have had a Hitler….

    Wilhelm II should have listened to Bismarck.

    As for Cheryl’s original argument, I hope she dives deep into the logic of deterrence.  Consider the current events in the 2/3s of the remaining Axis of Evil: axe-wielding Basij disrupting election protests in Iran as the Ayatollah sides with Ahmadinejad while thousands of centrifuges spin U ore into U-235, and Kim Jong-Il preparing for a flurry of medium- and long-range missile launches on the heels of an alleged nuclear test.

    Do you think either of them would care about the U.S.’s capacity for nuclear retaliation?  Would a lone U.S. nuke be threatening enough?  Could we deter with none?  Or is the strength of our deterrence simply a "numbers" game, with thousands of warheads in our strategic offensive "Triad" sufficient to keep the punks at bay?

  11. zen Says:

    Hi Shane,
    Kaiser Wilhelm ‘s decision to go with Tirpitz was a strategic disaster for Germany. The irony was that Russia was already becoming an economic colony of Germany, ten or twenty years of peace and Gemany’s position in Russia would have been akin to that of the US in Canada. War and militaristic impatience upset the applecart. Japanese did the same thing in the 1930’s when the region’s most profitable option was to sell cheap raw materials to Japan

  12. zen Says:

    Re: deterrence
    Numbers play a role – deliverable numbers – in making a first strike a losing game for whomever might initiate it Go below a certain number of warheads relative to another state and a first strike ceases to be a losing game and becomes a gamble. Some statesmen are gamblers by nature.

  13. deichmans Says:

    O.K., I agree that there is certainly a ‘lower limit’ on deterrence – provided your adversary is a rational state.

    Two questions come to mind then: what about an ‘upper limit’? And if said adversary is *irrational* (à la Clausewitz’s Trinity), then would *any* non-zero arsenal give them parity?

  14. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    Hey Shane! You’re making part of my point for me:
    Kaiser Willy was the provocateur of The Great War.  If he didn’t have such a hard-on for one-upping his cousin Eddie (the Prince of Wales) and fawning for Grandma Vicky’s adoration, claiming far-flung colonies (like Kwajalein) and building a blue water navy, we’d never have had a Hitler….
    I’m not going to go into deterrence this time around, have done it before, but not exhaustively.
    I waved as I drove by Colorado Springs this weekend. It was a bit of a hurried trip. I’ll let you know the next time I drive north on I-25.

  15. zen Says:

    Political-diplo historians focus on the "blank check" telegram in blaming the Kaiser but frankly, the alliance structure and elaborate mobilization tables that were foundational for war plans (Schlieffen Plan, Plan XVII) shifted power over war and peace from the monarch (or PM in case of Great Britain and France) into the hands of the General Staff of both sides. Wilhelm’s frantic telegraming to Nicholas indicates that he had never intended a general European war ( though his Grossgeneralstab did and would have been happy to have gone to war with France in 1912). Once war began, the monarchs lost even more power to their generals – Ludendorff was dictator in all but name by 1918, Nicholas had little to do at Mogiliev except make the Russian high command less efficient than it already was

  16. gholamentat Says:

    While I acknowledge that fewer warheads would make each individual warhead more significant, I’m not sure I agree that it would spur less-developed nations to push their own nuclear weapons programs even further. Currently, the main restriction on the nuclear ambitions of these nations is their limited techno-industrial capabilities, rather than a sense that "first world nations have so many, we’ll never catch up." I think that in fact, more developed nuclear weapons industries provide more opportunities for espionage and theft, and at some level make it easier for terrorists, presidents for life, etc to acquire nuclear capability.

  17. josephfouche Says:

    World War I was a conspiracy between the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Count Berchtold and the Austro-Hungarian chief of staff Conrad von Hötzendorf to start a preventive war with Serbia. The younger Moltke then exploited the Austrian conspiracy to launch a preventive war on Russia. Then it cascaded. If there is any moral to be taken from the crisis, it is that powerful bureaucrats overly fixated on their own problem domain can bring an entire world order to its knees. If anyone wishes to believe we have somehow evolved beyond this threat, I give you the names of Ben Bernanke, Hank Paulson, and Tim Geithner.

  18. Strategy and the Race to the Sea « The Committee of Public Safety Says:

    […] posted on an ongoing debate he and Cheryl Rofer of WhirledView are having on the subject of Rofer’s […]

  19. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    I’m a bit slow with the rebuttal, but I’ve just posted more of my thinking inspired by Nicholas and Alexandra that will have some relevance in the rebuttal.

  20. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    Rebuttal now posted.

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