Commentary Magazine


WWI

To the Editor:

Thank you for Donald Kagan’s powerful and valuable article on the causes of World War I and how it might have been prevented [“Lessons of the Great War,” October 1999].

I would like to call attention to his quotation from the 1914 “September program” of Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, Germany’s “moderate” chancellor, to make a point that was not part of Mr. Kagan’s argument. Bethmann-Hollweg proposed that “France must be so weakened that it cannot rise up again as a great power,” that Holland remain “ostensibly independent, but essentially subject to us,” and that “mutual customs agreements” be established to “guarantee German economic domination of Europe.”

The fact that Bethmann-Hollweg’s ideas now sound somewhat archaic, if not quaint, is a reminder of how different the West is today. No current West European leader would contemplate such national objectives, and certainly not as prizes to be sought in war. Though it is conceivable that this is just a temporary fashion, goals like those of Bethmann-Hollweg could not gain any serious consideration unless there was first a major change in the political character of the region, and there is no sign of that.

Peace in the West no longer depends on arms and allies—not because of world government, a change in human nature, or constant attention to the balance of power but primarily because of the democratic nature of the societies composing it. There is no reason to expect that most of the world will be unable to make the same passage.

Max Singer
Chevy Chase, Maryland

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Donald Kagan writes:

I am grateful to Max Singer for his kind words, and I agree that no Western leader today would think and act as the German leaders did in 1914. I also believe that modern Western democracies are less likely to engage in aggressive wars than other regimes. I do not, however, share the rest of Mr. Singer’s optimism.

Western democracy continues to exist and flourish only because of the military predominance of the democracies that prevailed in two world wars and the cold war. If it is true that peace in the West has emerged from the nature of its democratic societies, it is no less true that the safety of those societies has rested and continues to depend “on arms and allies.” As George F. Kennan once said, “You have no idea how much it contributes to the general politeness and pleasantness of diplomacy when you have a little quiet armed force in the background. . . . [Its existence] is probably the most important instrumentality of U.S. foreign policy.”

The trend toward peaceful democracy made possible by this military power may turn out to be irreversible and permanent—but it may not. In the 1920′s, the Weimar Republic and Japan seemed well on their way to becoming liberal democracies. Any threat from them seemed remote, even fanciful. But the Great Depression put an end to the relatively democratic and liberal regimes in Germany and Japan, and war was not far behind. Because of the mainly uninterrupted prosperity enjoyed by the Western democracies since 1945, they have not been tested by hard times. Can we be sure that all the states that have recently adopted democracy or are struggling to achieve it would survive a severe economic setback and not turn to some more authoritarian and aggressive regime?

Even more worrisome is the fact that billions of people in the world now live under governments that are neither democratic nor satisfied with their place in the world. Is there anything beyond fond wishes to indicate that they will “make the same passage” to democracy and peace as the major Western states? It seems safer for those states that wish to preserve the peace to remain militarily strong and clearly willing to use that strength to deter or crush aggression.

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