1913 ReduxWednesday, June 24th, 2009
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:
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.