January 26, 2013

Russian Power

A couple of years ago, I reviewed a book about the first world war by Norman Stone. Stone argued, I think convincingly, that at the root of the causes of the first world war lay a very simple calculation by German statesmen. They looked east and they saw Russia, when they saw Russia, they saw a rising curve of manpower, economic power, military power and cultural might that might be deployed within Europe. Von Moltke for example then argued that Germany had to fight a war soon- in 1912, 1914 or earlier- before it would inevitably lose such a war. Russia must be eliminated. Read this way the first war was in a sense a kind of success- the story of the 20th Century in Europe is largely the story of what didn't happen: Russia never dominated Europe in the way that Bethman Hollweg or Moltke believed it would.

Reading Christopher Clark though places a different emphasis on Russian power- because it was not Germany alone who was worried about Russian power. Both Britain and France saw the same things- British and French generals believed that Russia had the strongest military machine in Europe and that their economy and army was getting stronger. The consequences of this perception in Paris and London, according to Clark, also supported war. Clark argues that the French looked at Russian power and came to a simple conclusion: after 1920 Russia would no longer need France to assist it in the Balkans. France would return to isolation, whereas Russia would be able to make a positive case for Berlin to drop Vienna and do a deal over the Balkans. French hopes to retake Alsaace Lorraine would therefore fall away. France therefore as much as anyone needed a war swiftly, as then it would have Russia as an ally. For the French therefore, as well as the Germans, Russian growth was a reason to have an early war: not so that Russia could be wiped out but so that it might be engaged on French terms.

Britain too saw Russian growth as a threat. From 1815 onwards, the British had seen the greatest threat to their empire as lying in Russian ambition. Russia, not Germany, was the power that Britain had fought in the 19th Century, in the Crimean War. Both Disreali in the 1870s and Salisbury in the 1880s had directed their foreign policy to counter the ambitions of St Petersburg, not of Berlin. Although Britain and Russia had signed an entente in 1907, the British were consumed by agony about Russia right up until the outbreak of war in 1914. Quite simply, the British saw the Russians as their only colonial competitor in a huge swathe of key territory across Asia- from Persia to China- a swathe of territory that protected the jewel in the British crown, India. The British foreign policy elite saw the rise of Russia as a reason to keep the Tsar close and support his desires more emphatically- without that close alliance the British feared they would be taking on a Russian empire which was more powerful than ever before and more threatening to them than ever before. If Russian growth made Germans and the Frenchmen think about war more eagerly, Russian growth made the British abandon their neutrality.

These conclusions of Clark's (and it must be emphasized in all three cases, he identifies individuals rather than the entire foreign policy community as holding these views) support another statement. I always believed that the end of the First World War marked the moment where European politics changed forever: that in 1919 with Wilson's fourteen points, Europe for the first time became subject to an extra European power. Reading Clark suggests to me that picture is not true. Europe's slow decline from a position of complete independence from the rest of the world was a cause not a consequence of World War One.