Crisis Escalation and War Prevention. What we can learn from the Events in the First World War

Essay, 2021

8 Pages, Grade: 26/30



Today most of the countries are facing the international crisis, and the ‘PEACE' and ‘WAR' getting more attention between states. For a long time, we strive to understand better: what are the causes which drag countries to a war and why does peace fails? After two world wars still scholars are confounded for finding the answers to this type of question. Undoubtedly we can learn more from previous world wars to develop the path of peacekeeping. During the nuclear age there have been an immense development and change in warfare arms, so certainly the outcome of the next world war can be tragically different from the WWI and WWII.

Why we should learn from first world war?

The first world war was probably the most important political event of the modern global system. For international relations and political sciences, it has had many special impacts, which transformed the way of how we think about war, and created a hatred to war that is still present. WWI is also important because of the way it affected the international relations: it destroyed empires, created numerous new nation-states, and encouraged independence movements in Europe's colonies. All of these outcomes made the first world war to be recognized as one of the great watersheds of 20th-century geopolitical history. In some ways, the WWI is a rich resource of how the political world and international relations work. By analyzing the causes of crisis escalation pre-WWI, countries can hinder themselves from entering into the new world war and particularly from dragging world into to the nuclear holocaust.

John A, Nevin, 1982 “human species (Human Sapiens), now acquired and control the potency to give rise its own extinction through nuclear warfare”. The most significant problem which the states and world try to deal with it, is how to face this issue. In fact, Nevin also indicated “If we fail to solve this problem, there may be no other problems to face, because there may be no humans to solve or profit from their solution”. We can see today the continued growth of nuclear arsenals while United States, Russia, North Korea and other countries endeavor to sustain national security through a policy of mutually assured destruction. In the present era, nuclear warfare can be utilized in the next outbreak of war between countries during a moment of crisis as fundamental national interests are threatened. It is not only sufficient to acknowledge the value of survival; we must also act to prevent self-imposed nuclear extinction. Albert Einstein quoted after WWII “I know not with what weapons world war III will be fought but world war IV will be fought with sticks and stones”.


The first world war was an important learning experience for both the winners and losers. John Mueller, 1991 “the first world war's experience absolutely changed attitudes and policies towards war in the developed world”. The lessons from WWI can be serve now and in the future as the building blocks of both blitzkrieg and modern guerilla warfare tactics, curtailing imperialism or chemical weapons, and most importantly preventing nuclear war. One of the main questions which surrounding the events of WWI is: was it avoidable or it was intentional? And this question lies at the core of international relations theory, so it is not surprising that WWI explanations closely correspond to the three IR leading schools of thought: realism, liberalism and constructivism.

First of all, one of the main reason behind the outbreak of the first world war was the ‘Cult of The Offensive'. Based on this logic, world leaders mistakenly believed in a poorly grounded system which the moral factors could conquest over the material factors and the ‘Offense' was observed as an advantage. ‘Attack Is the Best Defense' was the Schlieffen German plan, which encouraged policy makers towards promoting to the society that superiority is for those who attack first. Stephen Van Evera,1984 described five major dangers relevant to the first world war case that may develop when the offense is strong:

1- States move towards more aggressive foreign policies
2- Offensive path increases the risk of the occurrence of primitive wars
3- More vulnerability and opportunity, forcing faster diplomacy and raising the risk of preventive war.
4- This competitive brinkmanship style of diplomacy put the whole international security in jeopardy as the latter is dynamically connected
5- The political and bellicose policies tended to be more tightened in terms of safety and security of information as war can be won knowing more, then predicting more carefully and precisely.

This idea was increasing the militant attitudes among the state leaders and causing them the incapacitation to control and manage crisis, but also was creating the mutual misperception and misunderstanding among the European great powers. Richard Ned Lebow, 1981, “human's cognitive limitations overshadow our information perception and processing, including favouring what we already believe and imposing assumptions on whom we are agree or disagree to”. Lebow argued “the overvaluation of past success and over confidence can barricade the process of decisions making due to the irrational consistency”. So for decreasing crisis, states should learn from their past behavior and modify their policies rather than masking the effects by pre-existing beliefs as German leaders did in 1914 crisis towards Great Britain.

Secondly, the causes of WWI center on the “Domestic Politics”, especially bureaucratic politics. The war was triggered or hastened by army mobilization and balancing the economic power. Paul M. Kennedy, 1984 indicated, “Between 1900 and 1914, great powers such as Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary spent a huge sum of governmental funds in military expenditures, which it was mistakenly believed that the offensive strategy would prevailed on the defensive one”. How a country does in a war significantly depends on its economic resources, but economic shift and balancing power do not necessarily depend on war, while they can happen even without war, as in WWI the crucial factor for the United States to rise as the global economic hegemon was not solely related to the war. During the cold war US and USSR, as well as still some countries like North Korea spending hundreds of billions of dollars on nuclear weapons system just because of the illusion that it will be possible to prevail over the other side in a nuclear war.

The third type of causes relates to the “Security Dilemma”, which claims that even when no state has any desire to attack others, none can be certain about other's intention: are they peaceful or will they stay peaceful? These are the questions concern the policy makers and leaders. Glen H. Snyder, 1984 “international security may thus be divided into three subgames: The armaments game, The adversary game, and The alliance game”. We can see all these “Supergames” before and during the first world war. The security dilemma is a root cause of war, the essence of arms races, and above all the tragedy of international politics. The security dilemma is also about the moves and countermoves of balance of power politics. According to the Waltz's Theory, which comprehend balance of power in the international system and repetition of war, “there can be a bipolar or multipolar system”. The bipolar system is more moderated and balanced than the multipolar system due to the fact that in a multipolar system two inverse errors can destabilize the equilibrium between states, so the states encounter Chain-ganging and Buck-passing situations for foreign policy.

In Chain-ganging condition, a country prefers creating alliances with other states instead of balancing power in order to feel more secure. The first world war is considered a perfect example of this Chain-ganging strategy, in which all the countries were pulled into the war because of the 1914 alliances between Russia, France and United Kingdom on one hand and Astro-Hungarian empire and Germany on the other.

Thomas J. Christensen and Jack Snyder, 1990 mentioned “the first world war was the result of a spiral process where, the alliances mingled local conflicts resulting into a global interest”. While Buck-passing condition happens where a state tries to get another state to fight or deter an aggressor state while it remains on the sidelines.


Peace is a word of so many meanings that one hesitates to use it for the fear of being misunderstood, although there have been changes over time in the use of terms such as ‘Peace' and ‘War'. May we ask ourselves why peace cannot persist or, in another word, why sometimes ‘War' prevail upon the ‘peace', as happened in 1914 and so many more times in history. Currently the peace between the world great powers is an insincere peace for many reasons: they do not trust one another, in many cases they are in doubt about the other's peaceful intentions. There may be a few morally righteous extremists who would chose a sincere war to an insincere peace, but most of us accept the ambiguity and complexity of an insincere peace. After two world wars we are certain that a sincere war involving the world great powers in the present time is likely to end up in a nuclear holocaust, in which the survivors might well envy the dead. For the better understanding and increasing our awareness of peace we have to look more deeply into the previous world wars. As Sean M. Lynn-Jones, 1986 argued “Anglo-German détente in 1911-1914 was a way to improve the relationship of Germany and Great Britain in order to create a good and healthy atmosphere of cooperation”, however this cause more misperception as Germans were believing the Great Britain would stay neutral in case of a continental war, so this leaded to more misunderstanding each other in 1914 crisis. A bad peace is not only definite recipe for misery, but for more often than not is merely a prelude to further violent conflict, so it is of most importance that states make known and clear their “Red Line(s)”. By understanding this, we can realize one of the cause for peace can be transparency and honesty in the foreign policy and the peace treaty.

Another cause of peace which was empowered after WWI is ‘International legalism' or the ‘International rule of law', which is a system for organizing relations among states. By promoting the international law and reaching the great consensus among most of the countries in the world, we can have more stable, generalized, consensual rules to control and manage dilemmas of interstate interdependence, and more specifically we limit the costs that self-regarding actions by one state can impose on others, or limit the abuses that are protected by state sovereignty.

Finally, an important cause of peace is ‘Democracy'. Today peace and democracy are universal and related values, as one is missing the other one is endangered. Democracy brings more union and healthy relationships among countries, while the different societies and states have different needs so it brings more hostilities. Ido Oren, 1995, believes “Democracies scarcely wage war on one another. Democratization of another countries is seen as the only way to develop the peace in the world, therefore democracies respect each other and use similar rules. Theory that we don't fight our kind seems to be always true”. Oren also concludes “by affirming that, in the present and in the future, the Theory that our kind do not fight each other would be salvaged again if needed by simply changing our subjective point of view”.

This issue is confirmed by thinking that only a century ago Europe was battlefield for the world, while now is the continent of the peace: today is almost impossible to imagine a war between Germany and France!

Thanks to the European Union, one of the greatest result of the lesson that has been learnt from two world wars.


It is more than 75 years, that the world faces an immense threat of Nuclear war. It is a real and fast growing threat, as each day we face more international and geopolitical crisis. Preventing nuclear holocaust or worldwide catastrophic event, is an issue which should not be left to those who believe the benefits of nuclear weapons outweigh their risks. Recipient of the 1985 Nobel peace prize, Ira Helfand “All of these geopolitical competitiveness will worsen as climate change progresses, making the world not to able to sustain its population and provoking mass migrations on a scale which is far way greater than the current refugee crisis”. Imagine that the position of decision making of the world great powers goes to a man lack of the temperament, judgment and adequate knowledge to manage international crisis, as already we have observed the incapacitation of the state leaders for decision making in WWI, just now with the greatly differences that today we live in the world with the most advanced nuclear warfare arms. Based on a study which conducted by Alan Robock, Luke Oman and Georgiy L. Stenchikov in 2007, “a full-scale nuclear war between Russia and United States would put necessary soot into the upper atmosphere to create a worldwide nuclear winter, which decrease the temperature drastically to the levels which has not seen since the last Ice Age” and then you can assume and imagine what comes next. So as this world great danger grow, we have to increase the knowledge about how devastating nuclear war would be and retain the state decision makers far from miscalculation.


1. John A. Nevin, a reviewed of Jonathan Schells' the fate of the earth, 1982

2. John Mueller, changing attitudes toward war: the impact of the first world war, 1991

3. Thomas J. Christensen and Jack Snyder, Changing Gangs and Passed Bucks: predicting alliance patterns in multipolarity, 1990

4. Paul M. Kennedy, international security, volume 9, number 1, 1984

5. Richard Ned Lebow, Between peace and war-The nature of international crisis, 1981

6. Sean M. Lynn-Jones, Détente and Deterrence: Anglo-German Relations 1911­1914, 1986

7. Ido Oren, the subjectivity of the “Democratic” peace: changing U.S. perceptions of Imperial Germany, 1995

8. Glenn H. Snyder, World Politics, Vol.36, No.4, 1984

9. Stephen Van Evera, The cult of the offensive and the origins of the first world war, 1984

10. Alan Robock, Luke Oman, and Georgiy L. Stenchikov, Nuclear winter revisited with a modern climate model and current nuclear arsenals: Still catastrophic consequences, Journal of geophysical research, VOL.112, D13107, doi:10.1029/2006JD008235, 2007


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Crisis Escalation and War Prevention. What we can learn from the Events in the First World War
University of Siena
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crisis, escalation, prevention, what, events, first, world
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Hatam Ansari (Author), 2021, Crisis Escalation and War Prevention. What we can learn from the Events in the First World War, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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