How Diplomacy Fails.

Author:Freeman, Chas W.
Position:Commentary and Analysis - Essay

April 2016

We are here to discuss what we can learn from the failure of diplomacy to prevent, halt, and wrap up World War I. We just heard a masterful review of what happened from Geoffrey Wawro. He has already said most of the things I wanted to say. So he's left me with no alternative but to actually address the topic I was asked to speak about, which is the failings of today's American diplomacy in light of the deficiencies of diplomacy in 1914.

There are in fact some very disquieting similarities between the challenges statecraft faced back then and those it faces today.

The eve of World War I was also a time of rapid globalization, shifting power balances, rising nationalisms, socioeconomic stress, and transformative military technologies. The railroad networks, barbed wire, dynamite, repeating rifles, machine guns, long-range artillery, aircraft and submarines that altered the nature of war then are paralleled by today's cyber and space-based surveillance systems, drones, precision-guided munitions, sub-launched and land-based anti ship missiles, missile defense and penetration aids, anti satellite missiles, cyber assaults, hypersonic gliders, and nuclear weapons. Changes in the European political economy set the stage for World War I. Changes in technology made it different from previous wars.

Armed conflict between major powers today would reveal that warfare has again mutated and developed new horrors for its participants. But some factors driving conflict now would parallel those of a century ago. In 1914, as in 2014, a professional military establishment, estranged from society but glorified by it, drew up war plans using new technologies on the fatal premise that the only effective defense is a preemptive offense. Then, as now, these plans evolved without effective political oversight or diplomatic input. Then, as now, military-to-military interactions within alliances sometimes took place without adequate supervision by civilian authority, leading to unmanageable policy disconnects that were revealed only when war actually broke out.

As the 20th century began, successive crises in the Balkans had the effect of replacing the 19thcentury's careful balancing of interests with competition between military blocs. This conflated military posturing with diplomacy, much as events in the East and South China Seas, the Middle East, and Ukraine seem to be doing today. Then, as now, decisions by the smaller allies of the great powers risked setting off local wars that might rapidly expand and escalate. Then, as now, most people thought that, whatever smaller countries might do, war between the great powers was irrational and therefore would not occur. And then, as now, the chiefs of state and government of the great powers practiced attention deficit diplomacy. They were so engaged at the tactical level that they had little time to give full consideration to the strategic implications of their decisions.

Ironically, in light of what actually happened, few would dispute that the factors inhibiting war in Europe in 1914 were greater than those impeding it today. European leaders were not only personally acquainted but, in many instances, related to each other. They and their diplomatic aides knew each other well. There was a common European culture and a tradition of successful conference diplomacy and crisis management for them to draw upon. European imperialists could and had often solved problems by trading colonies or other peripheral interests to reduce tensions between themselves. None of these factors exist today to reduce the likelihood of wars between...

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