Realism: A Greater Explanation for World War I Realism, by definition, is the study and practice of international relations; focusing on the nation-state, and that all nation-states are motivated by self-interest (Ferraro on Realism). The first two interests a state looks to fulfill are obtaining self-governance and defining borders. After those have been achieved countries will look to increase their power in many different forms (Ferraro on Realism).
The years leading up to World War I were a time where most of Europe, as well as countries in Asia, were rapidly increasing their power. As countries gained power, their citizen’s nationalism, or attitude toward their country, also increased. According to Northedge and Grieve this was because the media was a greater influence then, than it was now. This was due to the fact that there was lack of education and no means of comparing different sources. In that period people believe virtually everything they read (Northedge and Grieve 71). There are many different methods of obtaining power and controlling it within realism; hegemonic stability theory, imperialism, and balance of power theory are three techniques that contributed significantly to the causes of World War I.
The theory of Hegemonic stability reinforces that for the international system to remain stable, it “ requires a single dominant state to articulate and enforce the rules on interaction among the most important members of the system” (Ferraro on Hegemony). “ The system is a collective good which means that it is plagued by a ‘ free rider’ syndrome. Thus, the hegemon must induce or coerce other states to support the system” (Ferraro on Hegemony). To a realist, the international system must be anarchical with no central authority, promoting greater diversity, opposed to a plethora of empires (Ferraro on Realism). This means the hegemon will not rule other nations, but induce a system that will be beneficial for all. To be a hegemon a state needs to develop a system that will benefit major states, as well as having the capability and will to enforce the rules of the system (Ferraro on Hegemony).
Prior to World War I, Great Britain held this position of power1, and they spread the ideas of their system to other countries. The most prevalent to the cause of WWI is the notion of capitalism; when this idea of free trade was developed the world economy rapidly increased (Pigman, Geoffrey 188-192). A result to Britain spreading their ideologies across Europe was it gave great opportunities to increase power if they were looking to. A realist would accept these increases of power as natural. Britain’s system led these power hungry countries looking for new ways to increase their capabilities and a new idea, imperialism, came into play. Britain, being the largest economy at the time, basically revolutionized the idea of imperialism.
‘ Coal power, a key component of Britain’s success, was one reason for this expansion. The power of coal makes it possible to for ships to constantly be running, as long as there was a steady supply of coal. They needed coal everywhere, so Britain started imperializing small coal rich countries (Ferraro Oct. 29 Lecture). Another cause of imperialism was, as major economies expanded, countries turned to overseas expansion to reduce costs and secure new markets (Hobson John). Competition in trade made it difficult for countries to sell all their goods at a profit, so many countries turned to nations with populations capable of a growing economy (Hobson, John).
Following the liberal ideology of imperialism, saying that it’s an inevitable consequence of capitalism, because wealth consolidates leading to under consumption; furthermore, the overseas expansion will reduce costs, and maintain profit levels (Ferraro on Imperialism). However, a realist could agree with this theory because it employs the notion of less costly options and promotes increasing power. The major economies of Europe all used this idea of imperialism, and by 1900 most of Africa had been seized (Northedge and Grieve). Imperialism led to conflicts over land between European countries. An example of this was in the 1890s when France and Britain were conquering parts of Africa.
Britain was trying to conquer Africa from Cairo to South Africa, and France trying to conquer from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. If an imaginary line was drawn from Cairo to South Africa and from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, the intersection is a place called Foshoda. Although the area was of no significance other than that, the two armies marched to Foshoda almost leading to the outbreak of war (Ferraro lecture Oct. 29). The insignificance of Foshoda points out that imperialism was not just a means of expansion to new markets, but countries obtained new territories because other countries were as well. The expansion didn’t only take place in Africa, as one fifth of the world was under British rule (Clare, John).
For countries like Germany, Russia, and France this must be looked at as a disadvantage, making it within their best interest to do the same thing. This idea directly correlates to the realist theory on imperialism, which states, “ imperialism is simply a manifestation of the balance of power and is the process by which nations try to achieve a favorable change in the status quo. The purpose of imperialism is to decrease the strategic and political vulnerability of a nation” (Ferraro Theories Imperialism). Increased tensions over colonies in the years leading to WWI are another major explanation for the causes of the war. A realist expects that states will act to increase their powers, therefore force must be used to preserve the system; the force is regulated by the balance of power (Ferraro; Realism). The theory is better explained by Morton Kaplan’s six rules of balance of power; states will act to increase power but negotiate opposed to fighting, fight rather than pass up opportunity to increase power, stop fighting rather than eliminate essential state, oppose coalition trying to assume predominant position in system, constraint states subscribing to supranational organizing principles, allow defeated states to re-enter the system (Kaplan).
Britain’s system, with the rise of industrialization and capitalism resulted in great European powers becoming significantly stronger (Northedge and Grieve). An increase of power by one state, led to other countries looking for ways to match, or balance, the increase of power. The states self-interest was a key component for the increase of powers, but the towering nationalism within these states also contributed greatly to states increasing power. When the people of a country saw a state had made an advance, they relied upon their own government to match it (Clare, John). Militarism is a way of gaining power, this reflected on how countries built up their military to even the balance of power.
Most countries were militaristic, but key contributors that affected the balance of power most leading up to World War I were Great Britain and Germany. The navy was of great significance in the arms race between Great Britain and Germany. In 1900 Kaiser Wilhelm urged Germans to sail all over the world and take Germany’s “ place in the Sun”. By 1906, Germany started building Dreadnought battle ships, the newest ship of the time (Clare, John). An effect of this was that Britain looked at this as Germany challenging their naval power. Britain proposed a budget to build six of these new ships, but the treasury said they could only afford 4; citizens rioted and protested “ We want Eight! We won’t wait! ” (The Navy League).
Showing how nationalism played such a major effect in countries trying to increase their power; even when Britain tried to balance the power with Germany, its citizens demanded a greater balance. By 1914, out of the six major powers in Europe, and Asia, there were an estimated number of about 7 million troops and about 500 warships2. In accordance to increased military, another way countries looked to balance power was through alliances. In early 1880 a triple alliance was formed between Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary (The Triple Alliance). Until 1902, Britain had held a position against alliances, but in 1902 it formed its first alliance with Japan; it was to “ prevent Russo-Japan rapprochement in China” (Northedge and Grieve V). Two years later a “ friendly relationship” was made between France and Britain (The Entente Cordiale), and in 1907 a Triple Entente was made between Britain, France and Russia (The Triple Entente).
The alliances that were made meant that six of the most powerful nations in the world were tied together into two alliances, implicating if one country went to war, all were obliged to follow. The European countries idea and determination to balance power in Europe, led to over size of militaries and the formation of these major alliances that almost made war seem inevitable. It is impossible to coin one specific cause for the outbreak of the First World War. The collective techniques of increasing power and control within realism are the best explanations for the cause. I believe that it’s also hard to place certain aspects are more important than the others because they are all interconnected in some way.
However, one could say that from least to greatest, hegemonic stability theory, imperialism, and balance of power theory were the main causes of the war. The hegemonic stability theory in my opinion started the turmoil’s in Europe mainly because Britain’s system made it so countries competed against each other by increasing power. The increasing of power is not a bad thing under a realist understanding, and at that point increasing powers did not mean inevitable World War. However, their system ultimately led to the second greatest cause of the war, imperialism. The rapid expansion of European territories fueled great tension between states that were competing over similar territories, and just for the fact they were gaining power.
Tension over imperialism alone did not mean World War was inevitable. Imperialism along with other contributors such as militarism and nationalism, tie into the balance of power theory; the technique that I believe was the greatest cause for WWI. The theory itself states that countries must fight rather than pass up the opportunity to increase power, making the concept of war practically inevitable (Kaplan, Morton). The heightened nationalism of the time made it so countries needed to compete with other countries to increase power, or their citizens would have been outraged. As other militaries grew, citizens insisted theirs grow too.
Finally, the systems of major alliances formed were also created to balance power. The balance of power theory explains the causes of World War I the best because the two alliance systems meant that if one war were to break out, that all the major powers were going to be involved, making a World War inevitable.