Section One:  The System of Alliances and the Outbreak of War

       Though concepts of international law had been in existence for centuries, they were not well developed in practice at the outbreak of war in August 1914.  For example, no law prohibited states from going to war for whatever purpose they wished.  At the Hague, the major powers had codified the Conventions for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes (the first in 1899 and the second in 1907), in which they had agreed to use their best efforts to maintain peace and resolve disputes.  They had established a permanent Court of Arbitration and advocated the use of mediation, both as ways of coming to solutions short of war.  However, these goals were merely recommendations and were not binding upon the states in conflict.  Thus, the Convention had affirmed the ideals of peaceful resolution of disputes but had done little to enforce those ideals in actual situations, and states retained their discretion to respond to international conflicts as they wished.

Bismarck juggling relations with the Great Powers       With this essentially unconstrained state discretion and the great instability in Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s, threats of war dominated continental politics throughout the period.  The five major powers (Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Great Britain, and Russia) were engaged in a constant struggle for national power in what was more or less a zero-sum game.  As spheres of influence collided, resulting from colonialization efforts on other continents as well as overlapping ambitions in Europe itself, each state had to be constantly prepared for war.  Consequently, the major powers considered it advantageous to seek allies to stand behind their aims amidst the tensions, and, in return, agreed to return the favor when their friends needed support.  As Sir Eyre Crowe of the British Foreign Office put it in 1907, The only check on the abuse of political predominance has always consisted in the opposition of an equally formidable rival, or of a combination of several countries forming leagues of defence, which would tend to produce a continental equilibrium.[1]   Yet, as states chose partners for themselves, even this balance of power was inherently unstable, due to the uneven number of major powers.  As Bismarck, the wily German diplomat, had said, All politics reduces itself to this formula:  Try to be à trois as long as the world is governed by the unstable equilibrium of five Great Powers.[2]




1.      James Joll, Origins of the First World War, 2d ed., 1992, p. 47.
2.      Id.