Professor Richard K. Betts reflects on lessons learned since the Great War and its continuing relevance in today’s foreign policy. With the possibility of a new Cold War on the rise, what can we learn from the past?

A century ago the victorious powers in the greatest war in history to that point thought they had come to the end of an epochal catastrophe.  But as Clausewitz wrote, the result in war is never final. Confidence in a new era of peace, after the “war to end war,” did not last long.  November 1918 proved not an end but an intermission, followed by a war much greater than the first.  That Second World War was then followed by a forty-plus year Cold War, a substitute in effect for a Third World War, which, had it occurred with as little restraint as the first two, would have dwarfed both.  After a hiatus of a quarter century, we are entering a new Cold War, a small one not yet as serious as the last, but one that brings the question of hot war among great powers back onto the table.

For most of the past 100 years the world lived in the midst of world war or the shadow of it – most of the past century, but not the recent hiatus of a quarter century in which the generation recently arrived at adulthood grew up. Students today have seen a multitude of little wars among and within small and medium-size countries but until recently have seen little reason to worry about a big and far more destructive war between great powers.  Understanding the past century – not least how the false start on durable peace proceeded from the armistice of November 1918 – will help make sense of the emerging little Cold War.  

More than how World War I ended, how it began has preoccupied analysts.  Historians and political scientists still debate endlessly the explanations for the outbreak of war, not least from fear that the inadvertent aspects of the summer 1914 crisis reveal timeless vulnerabilities of human beings to mistakes of perception, judgment, diplomacy, and decision that statesmen may repeat.  Fixation on the 1914 crisis flows from the conviction that statesmen could not possibly have foreseen and accepted the prospect of the catastrophic four years of indecisive carnage that proved the price of escalation from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  Failure to prevent the collapse of diplomacy in 1914 may be the most consequential strategic failure of modern times.

In the two decades after the armistice 100 years ago the victorious powers resolved not to make the same mistake again. They were more sensitive to the “security dilemma,” John Herz and Robert Jervis’s term for the tragic view of national security policy, the recognition that states attempting to maximize their own security inevitably frighten other states.  Confronted with the rise of German revanchism in the 1930s they compromised and temporized, and did succeed in avoiding the mistake of 1914.  Instead they made the opposite mistake in the 1938 Munich crisis, failing to recognize and resist deliberate aggression.

After the Second World War debate in the West about national security policy revolved around the question of which the prime danger was, with hawks seeing it as purposeful Communist aggression and doves emphasizing the security dilemma and empathizing with Soviet and Chinese concerns. That is, some worried that the priority was avoiding the mistake of Munich, others that it was avoiding the mistake of 1914.  In the years after the Cold War, however, the question more or less went away.  Now it is coming back, and the lessons of World War I, whatever they may be, again look worrisomely relevant.  If there is a crisis with Moscow over Ukraine or the Baltic states, or with Beijing over the South China Sea or Taiwan, should western countries respond forcefully and quickly, risking major war, or should they hold back, offering compromise and understanding for Russian or Chinese motives? Are expectations that a war between either one and the United States or NATO would be limited and short more warranted than similar expectations among the European powers in 1914?

The end of World War I witnessed two changes in international order.  One was an altered distribution of power: the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires destroyed, Russia racked by revolution and civil war, England and France temporarily ascendant, the United States newly arrived at the center of world power but soon to retreat.  The second major change was a new framework of organizations – most notably the League of Nations -- and ideas for making international law enforceable and peace permanent via collective security.  The first proved fleeting, as German grievances and power potential remained, and the second proved disappointing as the League failed to deal with aggression against Manchuria and Ethiopia.  The end of the first Cold War was certainly different in context and character, yet a bit similar: American hegemony proved to be more than a unipolar “moment,” but is now giving way to bipolarity if China’s growth does not derail, while hopes for a powerful regulatory role by the United Nations crumbled soon after the Persian Gulf War of 1991, and NATO expansion has turned out to cause as many problems as it solved.  Parallels with 1918’s aftermath should not be exaggerated, especially by overestimating the aggressive ambitions of the great powers.  To paraphrase Mark Twain, however, history may not repeat itself, but beware the possibility that it may rhyme.

Historians and political scientists never lost the sense of World War I’s watershed importance.  Many statesmen, however, did, after the collapse of communism. For students, the women and men who will become statesmen, the priority of understanding the Great War is back.


Richard K. Betts is is the Arnold A. Saltzman Professor of War and Peace Studies in the political science department, Director of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, and Director of the International Security Policy program in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.