The Extensive Practical Importance of the Treaties 

      Despite the narrow terms of the treaties forming them, the alliances played an even larger role in European affairs at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, extending beyond the original purpose of military defense.  First, the alliance treaties strengthened the political ties between the signatories, which came to implicate diplomatic support from oneís partners for the objectives one was pursuing.  That diplomatic support was a critical element in pre-1914 relations, in that it often emboldened a state to pursue objectives that another state would resent, since the aggressor state could fall back on its partnersí support to dissuade the opposing state from taking hostile steps in response.  However, Bismarck, the consummate politician, used his alliance to do the opposite as well, gaining Austro-Hungarian support for his objectives while at the same time attempting to restrain his allyís policy in the Balkans to avoid being dragged into war there.[1]   Second, public knowledge of the military alliance and the strengthening of diplomatic relations led to increased economic and even emotional ties between allies.  For example, in the 1890s, Russia desperately needed foreign capital for investments in industry and transport, and French bankers saw an opportunity to expand their share of the Russian money market.[2]   Thanks in part to the known military alliance, the French public responded favorably in buying Russian bonds issued by the French bankers, which further reinforced the positive sentiments between the two allies.[3]   And in Germany and Austria-Hungary, the knowledge of the alliance created an emotional feeling that the two countries were bound together to the same fate,[4] a feeling that would be enormously important at the outbreak of war in 1914.  Thus, the military alliances played a much greater role leading up to World War I than the mere terms of the treaties would indicate.[5]

       The only other treaty of significance at the time was the 1904 Entente Cordiale between Britain and France that had seemed rather inconsequential to the balance of power politics in the early 1900s, yet became the basis for fundamental understandings between the two states that extended far beyond the terms of the original treaty.  French and British colonial tensions in North Africa had come to a head, and in a desire to avoid open hostilities, the two sides came to an agreement settling those colonial differences.[6]   But by that time, Britain, who had only a few years earlier maintained its isolationist policy and resisted German appeals to join the Triple Alliance, began to see Germanyís attempt at building a large navy as a threat to its traditional naval superiority.[7]   Thus, in the spring of 1905, during an acute French crisis with Germany in which there was talk of war, the British and French governments (as well as their military staffs) consulted on how to respond to the German threat.[8]   Thus, within two years of the settlement of colonial issues, Britain and France had begun plans for common military action against Germany, and this rapprochement between the two states led some British officials to believe they had created a moral obligation to support France in the event war broke out.[9]

       Thus, in 1914, the relevant treaties imposed clear but narrow legal obligations on the major powers, binding only in defensive situations, outside of which the states remained free to choose the course of action they would pursue.  In fact, there had been several instances in which the alliances seemed tenuous,[10]  and some observers wondered whether a declaration of war between two belligerent powers would necessarily involve the whole continent.  Nonetheless, when the alliances were formally tested, the great powers generally complied with their legal obligations under the treaties, and, more importantly, went far beyond those narrow obligations in supporting their respective alliances, based on the political, economic, and emotional importance the alliances came to embody.




1.     James Joll, Origins of the First World War, 2d ed., 1992, p. 49.
2.     Id. at 51.
3.     Id.
4.     Id. at 49.
5.     Id.
6.     Id. at 55.
7.     Id.
8.     Id. at 57-58.
9.     Id. at 58.
10.   See, for example, the Russian ambitions at Constantinople in 1908 and the unsuccessful German demands on France in 1912, which left both Russia and Germany wondering whether they could count on the support of their allies if they were attacked without their alliesí interests being affected.  Id. at 62-63.  See also Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August, 1962, p. 88, regarding Russiaís fear that the French Parliament would fail to ratify the terms of the military alliance when the time came.