The Skeptics

Why America and China Today Are Like Pre–World War I Europe

In November 1912, a war between Serbia and Austria-Hungary nearly broke out over a question of small importance: whether Serbia would own an Adriatic port on the coast of Albania. Had Austria intervened to oppose Serbia’s imperialist objective, Russia would have entered the conflict on the side of her Serbian client. France and Britain would have followed Russia for the sake of their Entente; Germany, likewise, would have entered the arena on Austria’s side, eager to protect its only serious ally. World War One would have begun twenty months earlier than it eventually did, over an issue of no concrete interest to any Great Power save Austria-Hungary, whose position in the Balkans was becoming increasingly threatened by Serbia’s expansion.

In order to deter Austrian intervention in Albania—which Serbia and its ally Montenegro were busy conquering—the czar and his minister of war drew up orders for a partial mobilization on November 22, 1912. Had these orders been issued, Germany almost certainly would have responded according to the dictates of the Schlieffen Plan: with war. Russia’s mobilization was not implemented because one courageous Russian leader, Count Kokovtsov, chairman of the Russian Council of Ministers, opposed them when, on November 23, he learned of the plan for their issuance. “A mobilization remained a mobilization, to be countered by our adversaries with actual war,” he warned the czar. Since Russia was not yet prepared for a general war, such a policy was simply foolish.

Why was Russia willing to push Europe to the brink of war over a question of no intrinsic value? Russia was not affected one way or another by a Serbian acquisition (i.e., conquest/colonization) of an Albanian port. But it was not the port’s intrinsic value that mattered to Russia’s policymakers, but the amour propre, the self-love—or more broadly, the prestige, pride and honor—of Russia and her leaders. Count Izvolsky, Russia’s former foreign minister and then ambassador to Paris, put the matter at the time without equivocation: “if Servia failed to get access to Adriatic owing to opposition of Austria it would mean fresh humiliation of Russia” (Goschen to Grey 7 November 1912 BD 9.2, no. 151). The question had become a “point of honor.” This meant that the dispute had become zero sum—a Serbian port meant diplomatic victory, no such port meant defeat and humiliation.

In the end, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Sazonov, decided to back down: Russia wasn’t prepared for war, and he—guided as he was by fickle feelings—wasn’t in the mood (in the British Foreign Office, he was called “a sad wobbler”). Serbia didn’t get its Albanian port, and the crisis was averted.

Many worthwhile points could be made about the “November Crisis,” but three should be highlighted.

The first is that it’s quite easy to manufacture an international crisis: all a nation has to do is to make some issue—regardless of its intrinsic worth—a question of prestige or honor; if the opposing power actually has a vital interest in the question (as Austria did in November 1912), or if it merely invests its prestige in the issue, then all the ingredients for a clash have been assembled. In the era before the Great War, such conflicts were called “trials of strength.” Today, game theorists call this sort of conflict a game of chicken: a test of resolve in which both sides risk a clash, in the hope the other backs down. Sometimes, as in November 1912, one driver does swerve; other times, as in July 1914, no one is willing to. But the important point here is that had Russia simply not made the port question one of honor, its prestige would never have been engaged. The allure of power is in its exercise, but its habitual exercise over nonessential questions almost guarantees the sort of situation Europe faced in November 1912. The lesson is that states should not engage their prestige in nonessential questions, just as drivers should not play chicken merely to boost their prestige among their peers or followers.

Psychologically, secondly, the way to justify a trial of strength is to not think seriously of the consequences. Indeed, the day after Count Kokovtsov prevented a Russian mobilization, he was noisily opposed by his fellow ministers of state, who contended that Russia should “firmly defend our present-day interests, having no fear of the specter of war.” This is a perfect example of “temporal discounting”: prestige today felt more important than peace tomorrow to Russia’s ministers. In November 1912, Kokovtsov angrily railed against this psychological crutch, and was able to convince the czar and Sazonov, who eventually decided that swerving was less costly than accelerating. Prestige today is worth far less than the cost of world war tomorrow. The lesson is that even if a state foolishly engages its prestige, it is still more rational for it to back down than to risk a catastrophic conflict.