After the end of the World Wars, many scholars came together to establish the causes of the war. While many perspectives have been posited, three stand out; realist, neoliberal, and identity perspectives. This paper explores how individual, national, and international forces came to influence the war as explained through these perspectives.
The realist perspective deals with the shifting balance of power in Europe. Realism considers an accumulation of power as a threat to security and hence states deem war as necessary and crucial for maintaining the balance of power. With the reunification of Germany in 1871 as well as its strong economic growth, Germany’s might was beginning to show in Europe. It, however, feared future imbalances especially from the growing power of Russia and this coupled with its unduly aggressive domestic policies, Germany was ready for war. Britain’s hegemony was also declining and it began considering Germany a threat. The Triple Alliance and Triple Entente of 1907 were also an attempt to balance European power by some European states who feared that the growing power of Germany would threaten their nationalism. On an individual level, the citizens of Germany and Austria-Hungary felt the strong need for their nations to engage in aggressive policies.
In the liberal perspective, mutual cooperation between states is desirable but if there are weak institutions and poor diplomacy, war becomes inevitable. Kaiser Wilhelm II, the German Emperor who replaced Bismarck after 1894, proved to be a diplomatic blunderer hence enabling fuel tensions between neighbors. The rising wave of communism was also threatening the social sphere in many states as individuals weighed the benefits of democracy and communism. Germany also expected Britain to remain neutral but on July 30 Britain rejected Germany’s request. Domestic institutions were also too weak to resist the orders for general mobilization, and civilian institutions had broken down especially in Germany and Austria. Additionally, unifying institutions such as international trade, international law, and conflict resolution were not well-developed to evade the temptation of war. It was only after the war that institutions such as the United Nations and the ICC were formed.
In the identity perspective, social themes prevalent in the states during the prewar years are perceived to contribute to war notions. Many forms of nationalism were spreading across Europe at the time including Militarist, socialist, and racist nationalism. This nationalism led to many conservatives conceiving war as a way to stave off social ills and aided by the industrial revolution, supported the arms race. Social Darwinism that supported the notion of survival for the fittest was also gaining strength (Lieber). Throughout history and in Darwinism, strength has been approximated by military power, implying that the nations that could win in awar had the upper hand. These perspectives of military power made many nations possess exclusive and aggressive policies that saw nations resist any efforts at mediation. On an international level, states were polarized against each other, with Austria especially seeing the assassination of the archduke as a threat on its sovereignty.
In conclusion, there are many perspectives that can be used to explain World War I. The realist perspective explores the shifting balances of power in Europe such as the growing might of Germany, the loss of British hegemony, as well as the strategic needs of France and Russia. In the liberal perspective, weak diplomatic institutions coupled with weak international institutions of law, trade, and conflict resolution led to the war. In the identity perspective, a wave of nationalism coupled with social Darwinism led to nations pursuing aggressive policies that called for war. There were many forces both domestic, regional, and international that can be used to explain World War I.
Lieber, Keir. “The New History of World War I and What It Means for International Relations Theory.” International Security 32.2 (2007): 155-191. Document.