From the Thirty Years' War to the Outbreak of World War I (1618-1914)
The modern international system has its roots in seventeenth-century Europe. This continent was the center of the world because it had harnessed new technologies that proved critical to producing goods and crops and to transportation, publishing, and fighting wars. As is often the case, transition was marked by conflict.
The critical event was the Thirty Years' War, a war that began in 1618, contained both political and religious dimensions, and was fought both within and across borders by many of the major European powers of the era. Until then Europe was made up of a patchwork quilt of empires and small kingdoms. Religious and political authorities regularly confronted one another over territory and power. Borders were not respected; wars and lower-level forms of meddling were commonplace.
When the dust settled, countries emerged as an alternative to empires and principalities. Empires were often ruled from afar, which did not engender loyalty in citizens, and their large size made them inefficient to govern. Small principalities, in contrast, lacked the scale needed to compete for foreign markets or pool the resources necessary to wage war effectively. People proved more willing to devote themselves to governments they saw as their own. The emergence of a world composed of independent countries that respected one another's independence turned out to be a major innovation, one that introduced a greater degree of stability and peace but also created a capacity to make war on a level never before seen.
The Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years' War in 1648, codified this new understanding. The treaty in many ways established the modern international system, one dominated by countries and the principle of sovereignty. The concept of sovereignty had three basic dimensions. First, countries should accept the borders of other countries and not use force in an attempt to change them. Second, countries should not interfere in events inside other countries. Third, governments should have a free hand to do as they please within their own borders. These three notions may not seem to amount to all that much, but they represented a major step forward, one that if honored would have dramatically reduced the instability and violence that had become relatively commonplace in the world.
European nations, however, often violated the sovereignty of their neighbors, which explains, in part, why the history of this continent has been so violent and destructive. The Treaty of Westphalia did, however, introduce a period of relative peace. Europe did not descend into another major war or, to be more precise, a series of wars until the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, the brilliant, ambitious French general turned politician turned emperor. He came to power following a revolution in France that-like most revolutions-ended in excess and disorder. After a number of military victories that gave him control of much of Europe, Napoleon became overextended, electing to fight too many foes on too many fronts, and was finally defeated by a coalition that included Austria, Prussia, Russia, and the United Kingdom. The victors and the vanquished (minus Napoleon) came together in Vienna in 1814 and 1815 and created a settlement designed to prevent France from threatening its neighbors and to make it more difficult for revolutionary movements to overthrow the unelected governments of the day. The Congress of Vienna also made the wise choice of integrating a defeated France into the new order rather than penalizing and ostracizing it and potentially sowing the seeds of a France that would one day rise and try to overthrow the order.
The Congress of Vienna produced what became known as the Concert of Europe, a name that suggests the diplomatic equivalent of an orchestra of musicians playing together. This system was centered on Europe, but it nonetheless constituted much of the international order of its day given the dominant position of Europe and Europeans in the world at the start of the nineteenth century. In fact, by the middle of the nineteenth century, Western Europe accounted for roughly one-third of global economic output, eclipsing China and India and maintaining a substantial lead over the United States. The Concert put into practice understandings that were at the core of the Treaty of Westphalia, above all ruling out invasion of another member country or any involvement in the internal affairs of another participant in the Concert without its permission. The Concert had a decidedly conservative bias, meaning that it favored the continued rule of existing dynasties and opposed revolutionary impulses. Beyond the obvious self-interest of rulers, what also allowed the arrangement to hold for as long as it did was the balance of military power in Europe that made it unattractive for any individual country to go against its principles.
The Concert technically lasted until the eve of World War I, but it ceased to play a meaningful role decades before then. It is a matter of judgment as to when it effectively ended, but I would argue for the middle of the nineteenth century, when most of the major powers had a falling-out with Russia over Crimea. This was an early conflict over who would come to control lands then part of the declining Ottoman Empire. It was followed by wars between Prussia (the principal forerunner of modern Germany) and both Austria and France. As will be discussed below, what remained of the Concert could not survive the rise of Germany, which was unified under the Prussian minister president Otto von Bismarck in 1871 and under his successors disrupted European stability.
It would be an error to limit a review of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century history to Europe, even though Europe was the part of the world where the most powerful and influential entities of this era were to be found. A great deal of the world-parts of the Middle East, South Asia, Africa, the Americas, and East Asia-was colonized, mostly by European countries (principally Britain, France, Portugal, and Spain, and to a lesser extent Germany and Italy), but also by Japan and the United States. The principal motive was economic, although matters of national pride and the pursuit of glory were not far behind.
For China, the nineteenth century began well enough; its economy was relatively large, in part because of profitable trading relations with the British and others. But the century proved to be anything but glorious. It was a time that came to be marked by unimaginative imperial rule, internal challenges to central authority, and foreign aggression against China, including the Opium Wars, in which Britain forced China to participate in an opium trade that China wanted no part of given the effect of the drug on its citizens. These conflicts were followed by a series of incursions into China on the part of Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and Russia, which in turn set off a scramble among these powers for economic concessions from China, which had fallen far behind the European powers economically, administratively, and militarily. This reality would not change until well into the second half of the twentieth century.
The period beginning with the Opium Wars and ending with Mao Zedong's proclamation of the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 has become known to the Chinese as the "century of humiliation" and continues to shape how China's citizens view the world. China's current government argues that a China in internal disarray invites aggression from foreign powers and that only a strong central government can hold China together. The Communist Party employs this argument to justify its dominance.
Japan began the nineteenth century the same way it had begun and ended the two previous centuries, largely isolated from the outside world. In 1853, the United States (a Pacific country looking for new markets) led the charge to open Japan to trade with the outside world. When American warships showed up uninvited to demand access to Japanese markets, Japan gave in because there was no way it could hold its own militarily. Like China, it was forced to make humiliating economic and legal concessions to outsiders. These concessions proved to be widely unpopular in Japan and helped trigger a successful political challenge to the ruling shogun (the general who was first among equals among fellow feudal lords). By 1868, the imperial order had been restored under the emperor Meiji.
Meiji (which means "the enlightened ruler") ruled Japan for nearly fifty years, until 1912, a period widely described as the Meiji Restoration in which the modern Japanese state was established. Unlike China, Japan followed a course parallel to what was taking place in Europe and the United States. A modern bureaucratic government and administrative apparatus was established in Tokyo to oversee the entire country. Japan implemented an industrial policy and built a modern military. It also followed the European imperial example in the last two decades of the century. While the British, French, Germans, and others were occupying or controlling large swaths of the Middle East, Africa, and parts of Asia, Japan was establishing control over parts of Korea, Taiwan, and China. Japan handily defeated Russia in their 1904-1905 war, marking the first time during the modern era that an Asian power was victorious over a European one. Japan, like the major European powers of the day, was caught up in a wave of nationalist pride.
In the so-called New World, there were the British colonies in North America, which by the middle of the eighteenth century had grown increasingly frustrated over being forced to pay taxes to the British crown and having little control over their own fate. What is termed the Revolutionary War (or the American War of Independence) was in fact a war of national liberation that began in 1775. It was fought by many who hailed from Britain and elsewhere in Europe against their British overseers. It proved (after more than a few setbacks) successful, and the new country, the United States of America, declared its independence in 1776.
Even a cursory history of the United States-one that tracked the political evolution of this new democracy through the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, and the Progressive Era-would go far beyond the limits of this book. But what is relevant for our purposes is that the country would evolve into a major agricultural, industrial, trading, financial, and military power, one whose decisions and actions (and inaction) would have a major impact on the rest of the world. Indeed, the twentieth century is often dubbed the American Century for good reason, although significant American involvement in the world only became permanent starting with World War II.
The Path to World War
Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century and lasting for more than a century, one of the dominant features of European history was the ascension of Britain to a position of global primacy as a result of its strong economy, trade links, access to raw materials and markets through its colonies, and globe-spanning navy. This primacy arguably lasted until the mid- to late nineteenth century, when the costs of empire and war began to mount and Germany emerged as a serious rival. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Europe was a venue of both the strong and the weak. The strong were the Germans and British and to a lesser extent the French. Germany was by far the most powerful, with a thriving and increasingly industrial economy and a population nearly that of Britain and France combined. France had never quite recovered from its loss to Prussia in their 1870 war and was held back by its own political and social structures. Britain was also increasing in economic strength and in population but could not keep pace with Germany and in any event was more a sea than a land military power. The weak were the fading empires: Russia, the Ottoman Empire (Turkey), and Austria-Hungary. In some ways, the outbreak of World War I can be understood as the result of the interplay between these rising and declining entities and the competition among the former as to who would prevail in the coming era.
Exactly why World War I broke out and who or what was to blame are questions that have kept a good many talented historians occupied for decades. It was a war that did not need to happen. One influential history described Europe as "sleepwalking" its way to war in 1914; I have previously called it a war of choice, but a better description might be a war of carelessness.
There is no simple cause or explanation. Wars tend to break out both for underlying reasons and for immediate ones. World War I was no exception; in the words of Liddell Hart, arguably the preeminent military historian of the war, "Fifty years were spent in the process of making Europe explosive. Five days were enough to detonate it." It is thus not enough to say the war broke out because of the assassination in Sarajevo in June 1914 of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, by a terrorist backed by Serbia, which in turn had ties to Russia. There had been similar killings before that did not trigger a conflict. Near-nonstop skirmishing between Russia and Austria-Hungary in the Balkans did, however, play a role in creating momentum toward war. Military mobilizations also contributed to the momentum toward war because leaders felt pressure to match what other leaders were doing lest they find themselves at a disadvantage. Diplomacy never found a way to keep up.
Poor statecraft also contributed to the alliances (such as those between Germany and Austria-Hungary or France and Russia) that were forged without thinking through their implications. Arguments that countries would not dare to disrupt the mutually enriching trade that had grown up among them proved incorrect. The fact that a rough balance of power existed also proved insufficient. Such rational considerations could not compete successfully with the rising nationalism of the era that produced a cavalier attitude that war was inevitable but not to be feared because it would lead to quick and relatively painless victory. And last but far from least, the rise of Germany must be a principal explanation for the war. The modern country that the great Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck created in the second half of the nineteenth century out of what had been literally hundreds of states and principalities became strong and ambitious, inclined to risk and aggression in the less judicious hands of those who succeeded Bismarck.