The Lessons of World War I


By Caroline Caywood

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian empire was brutally assassinated, sparking a chain of events that would lead to one of the most bloody and widespread conflicts of modern history. The First World War raged on for four long years and encompassed more than 100 countries, resulting in millions of casualties. With the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Armistice, we have a perfect opportunity to take a step back and revisit some of the most crucial lessons we can take away from the war to end all wars. In today’s increasingly polarized climate, enduring questions must be addressed on key alliances and what the United States’ role should look like to retain our status as a global leader. Since the First World War encompassed issues of military partnerships in a pre-liberal world, its analysis offers particularly useful information on what lessons can be learned about our own alliances and multilateral relations globally.

The killing of Archduke Ferdinand by the Serbian-backed Black Hand undoubtedly acted as the catalyst for the ensuing conflict that claimed 20 million lives. However, the involvement and intervention of neighboring European states exacerbated the tensions and escalated the crisis to a full-scale war. After all, it was Germany that emboldened  Austria Hungary to declare war on Serbia following the attack by pledging its support for Vienna, a decision that led to the subsequent involvement of Russia and France by way of a Franco-Russian alliance and Russian support for Serbia. This provocative behavior by European leaders came about in a more risk-prone landscape that didn’t foresee the outbreak of such a destructive war in Europe.  

In Stephen Walt’s book The Origins of Alliances, he lays out five key reasons states pursue alliances with each other – most notably for the purpose of balancing against external threats. While it seems that pursuing these kinds of alliances should lead to a decreased risk of violent outbreaks, the case of World War I demonstrated just how faulty this reasoning is. With the formation of the Triple Entente (Great Britain, France, and Russia), Germany began to feel increased pressure to assert themselves in pursuit of world power status before it became too late. The subsequent invasion of France can be seen as a direct result of its alliance with Russian and British forces. A key lesson to be learned from the outbreak of violence in 1914 is that alliances must be strategic and well thought out, because otherwise you face the risk of getting entangled in endless conflict pursued by your allies.

First introduced at the Camp David Summit in 1991 between then-president George H.W. Bush and Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, the key tenets of a strategic partnership have gone largely undefined. In a joint declaration, both Yeltsin and President Bush made public their intent to develop cooperation towards mutual goals. This concept is not to be confused with a coalition or an alliance, which encompass short-term partnerships and military cooperation respectively. The pursuit of strategic partnerships as opposed to military partnerships is an important takeaway from the United States’ involvement in the first world war because this change has allowed us to cease hostilities with key players while mitigating the risk of once again dragging ourselves into costly and long-lasting conflict. We now have frameworks in place that facilitate bilateral relations in pursuit of specific goals without necessitating a “blank check” partnership that holds us accountable to defend and involve ourselves in violent conflict.

Realist thought asserts that anarchy is the natural state of the world due to the position of nation-states as the primary players with survival as their main objective. It can be argued that the only way to break out of the pervasive anarchist state of the world is to embrace multilateral relations through organizations like the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Partnerships such as these did not emerge until after the Second World War and truly flourished in the Post-Cold War climate to counter the growing Soviet threat. In the past 70 years since the inception of the UN, the global climate has seen a shift towards an increasingly liberal policy when it comes to the spread of democratic ideals including personal liberties and popularly elected leaders. While these groups are certainly far from perfect in preventing global conflict, they manage to offer conversational platforms for states as well as providing incentives to adhere to international law as set out by joint agreements. This offers a stark contrast to the anarchic climate seen during the years leading up to World War I, a state of affairs that propelled the spread of liberalism and multilateral organizations like the ill-fated League of Nations and more successful United Nations years later.

These organizations also offer a crucial platform for the United States to maintain its position of power on the global stage. When the First World War broke out, the US existed in a multipolar world with two main alliances representing the great powers of the time. Now that the US has effectively secured its role as the world hegemon, it is imperative that this leadership position be preserved despite the current administration’s aversion to global involvement.

As John McCrae expresses in his emotive poem In Flanders Fields, it is the duty of these future generations to honor those who have died by taking to heart the crucial lessons we have learned.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

Let us ensure that the fallen of World War I did not die in vain. Understanding how to engage in strategic partnerships rather than unlimited military alliances and continuing to play a strong role in large-scale global cooperation are two of the most critical takeaways from the War to End All Wars. By pursuing these goals and maintaining healthy relations abroad, the United States can continue to work towards a lasting liberal peace and honor the memory of those lost 100 years ago.

Caroline is a current Program Coordinator with Atlantis Global and recent graduate of Baylor University where she pursued interests in U.S.-Russia relations, French and Russian language, and Model United Nations.






Leave a Reply