IR Theories and the Two World Wars


By: Gerald F. Witherspoon, Sr.

There remains a wide array of theories surrounding the origin of WWI. However, every action begins with a decision. In an article entitled, The New History of World War 1 and What It Means for International Relations Theory, author Keir Lieber points out several undisputed decisions that were made between July 25 and August 3 that worked operantly to infuse the war:

“July 25: Austria rejects Serbia’s conciliatory reply to its ultimatum, and Russia decides on military measures to support Serbia; July 27: Austria rejects British peace proposals; July 28: Austria declares war on Serbia; July 29: Austria begins bombardment of Belgrade; July 30: Russia secretly orders general mobilization, and Britain rejects German request for British neutrality; July 31: Austria rejects all offers of mediation, and Germany issues ultimatum to Russia to cease all military preparation; August 1: Germany declares war on Russia and orders general mobilization after receiving no response to its ultimatum, and France orders general mobilization; August 3: Germany declares war on France; and August 4: Germany invades Luxemburg and Belgium, and Britain declares war on Germany” (2007).

In essence, Austria did not take kindly to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Furthermore, Austria did not consider or accept Serbia’s reply effective for peace. Then, after rejecting British peace proposals and declaring war on Serbia despite the prospect of Russian interference, Austria continued its commitment to war.  The Russian interference was discouraged by Germany, but ignored all the same. France soon joined Russia in mobilizing and Germany declared war on both. More importantly, as Dr. Gary Sheffield proffers, “Britain went to war because it saw a German victory as a threat to its security” (2011).

It appears that Austria declared war on Serbia because of a security dilemma. Surely the political climate fueled by Serbia posed a risk to Austria. Everything that followed could be argued as a mixture of spiral and crises escalation dynamics and expansionist aspirations (Lieber 2007). Both old and new historiography reveals the potential role of the Schlieffen Plan pointing toward a German plot for expansionism. Likewise, Dr. Sheffield claimed, “By the end of the war, the Germans were even casting covetous eyes on their ally Austria-Hungary” (2007). In this event, Russia and France would need to defend itself from the possible threat and need to balance power. That is, according to the security dilemma, Germany considered France and Russia’s military preparations as hostile while France and Russia considered Germany’s intentions and capabilities as the same. Again, Britain also considered Germany a threat. As Lieber points out, “The spiral model is the action-reaction process of reciprocal arms buildups, diplomatic tensions, and hostility that frequently flows from the security dilemma” and “can trigger a war that no state intended or desired” (2007). From this view, it could be well argued that World War 1 could not have been prevented unless Austria could have considered the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand or Serbia’s failure to meet the following demands less than a threat to national security. Everything that followed could easily be regarded as a reasonable succession of events.

Germany engaged in chain ganging. That is, it showed unconditional and unlimited support to Austria when Austria decided to level or win the score against Serbia.  In the process, it failed to execute effective cost-benefit analysis. That is, it failed to assess the final outcome of its decision to back Austria’s decision to go to war. Only an over-determination can be made regarding whether the failed calculation derived from the Schlieffen Plan or political leaders who simply pointed to the plan as a scapegoat after realizing their failure in order to transfer the blame. In the realist view, power struggles between all states were evident. Nevertheless, whether the motives for balancing the power were rooted in opportunistic pursuits for more power or fear of security failure is contestable and idealistic. Furthermore, France and Russia faced sensitivity or mutual dependence as both of their involvement in the war improved each other’s chance of not being defeated. Finally, Britain’s ideas had changed over time and evolved to consider a German victory a threat to its peace. Therefore, had Britain not considered Germany a threat, it most likely would not have declared war.

Finally, diplomacy does not work when someone is bent toward aggression. Further, we can see a parallel between Austria’s disregard for what might have happened and the individual level where weak individuals decide to attack an offender only when they know they have reinforcement. If reinforcement is lacking, the individual will oft-times reconsider or prove the situation was not as serious as originally claimed. On a different note, it is pertinent to consider what national interests may have produced commonality or heightened alliance cohesion between Austria and Germany prior to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Speculations exist that Germany’s alliance with Serbia appeared, for the most parts, sincere in the beginning, but not so much toward the end of the war. In the constructivist view, ideas and values change over time and interactions can influence state interests. Is it possible, that Austria’s beckoning of Germany for reinforcement was a plot to alter Germany’s position of power? Did Germany’s leaders become enflamed with bitterness and resentment toward Austria after realizing their approaching fate?

Another Glance

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy “Realists consider the principal actors in the international arena to be states, which are concerned with their own security, act in pursuit of their own national interests, and struggle for power” (2013). Realism eschews, for the most parts, concerns with morality focusing on what is rather than what would, could, or should be. That is, realists see morality as trumped by the very real egoistic and self-interested nature of humanity. Moreover, the anarchic nature of the international landscape strengthens the need for self-help as it contains no government or mechanism to ensure peace. Therefore states race for power to ensure survival and minimize fear of external threats. Realism considers any accumulation of power a threat to security and, therefore, waging war is a crucial and justifiable means to balancing power.

Regarding liberalism, Dr Edwin van de Haar (a Lecturer in International Relations at the Ateneo de Manila University in The Phillipines) argues, “Classical liberals often disagree on its definition, but most regard classical liberalism as the political theory characterized by a firm belief in individualism, negative freedom, non-religious natural law, spontaneous order, a limited state, and the rule of law” (2009, 35). Liberalism places significance on the individual, views the human nature as not inherently evil and capable of doing good, and advocates non-interference by states or other individuals on individual freedom. Liberal theory holds that conflicts amongst individuals and states cannot be totally eliminated, but warfare should be justified and regulated by rules. Liberalism advocates cooperation of individuals in groups and free trade, but rejects over-regulation of states or international organizations (Van De Haar 2009).

Anne-Marie Slaughter (current President and CEO of the New America Foundation) posits, “Constructivism is not a theory, but rather an ontology: A set of assumptions about the world and human motivation and agency” (2011). Constructivism is concerned with the history, ideas, norms, and beliefs that shape state behavior. Constructivists consider state action as deriving from rational considerations of ‘consequences’ and ‘appropriateness’ which can be altered over time. These alterations in state beliefs can be significantly influenced by transnational actors such as NGOs and transnational corporations (Slaughter 2011).

The most important theory to develop from the WWI era was defensive realism. The core concepts of defensive realist theory are “the security dilemma, the spiral model, and offensive-defense variables” (Lieber 2007, 189). At the systemic level, The Triple Entente of 1907 was an attempt to balance power or defend against German power because of the anarchic international system (security dilemma). Likewise, Germany considered the alliance a threat to its security which led to war preparations (spiral dynamics). Regarding the offensive-defensive variables, Keir Lieber puts forth, “Each of the continental powers believed that the side that struck first would gain a major military advantage” (2007, 165).

Lieber further points out that “classical realist theory became prominent in the aftermath of World War II, as scholars sought to understand Nazi Germany’s insatiable lust for power and the failure of the international community to check Germany’s aggression until it was almost too late” (2007, 163). “Thucydides, Winston Churchill, Henry Kissinger, George Kennan, and E. H. Carr, stressed the combination of human nature, anarchy, and the ambitions of individual statesmen as the root causes of warfare” (Tufts University 2008, 5). At the individual level of analysis, Hitler definitely embodied the notion of human lust for power and desire to dominate. However, all classical realists do not believe that human nature is the sole cause of conflict. Others point to anarchy and vest no confidence in an international organization such as the United Nations to maintain international peace.


Korab-Karpowicz, W. Julian, “Political Realism in International Relations”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). (accessed February 20, 2013).

Lieber, Keir. “The New History of World War I and What It Means for International Relations Theory.”International Security (The MIT Press) 32, no. 2 (2007): 155-191. (accessed February 12, 2014).

Sheffield, Dr Gary. World Wars. March 08, 2011. (accessed February 12, 2014).

Slaughter, Anne-Marie. “International Relations, Principal Theories.” 2011. February 20, 2014).

Tufts University. “Supplementary Material.” TuftsOpenCourseWare. October 27, 2008. (accessed February 23, 2014).

Van De Haar, Edwin. 2009. “Classical Liberalism and International Relations.” Policy 25, no. 1: 35-38.Business Source Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed February 20, 2014).



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