World War I was a conflict that claimed over 10 million peoples’ lives, ravaged all of Europe and engineered modern warfare, as it is know today. The Great War has been scrutinized and examined through many complex theories in order to understand how such a conflict escalated to one of the most epic wars in history. This essay, like many works before it, looks to examine WWI and determine its causes through two distinct levels of analysis, individual and systemic. The individual level of analysis locates the cause of conflicts in individual leaders or decision makers within a particular country, focusing on the characteristics of human decision-making. The systemic level of analysis explains the causation of a conflict from a system wide level that includes all states, taking in to account the distribution of power and the interaction of states in the international system.
I am looking to examine WWI from each level of analysis using a theory to explain actors’ decision-making. I argue that through the individual level of analysis WWI was caused primarily through psychological explanations. Decision making actors from each state made errors when processing information and events, this forced leaders to develop biases and beliefs that pointed towards war. While, through the systemic level of analysis WWI was caused by the cult of the offensive. Each state believed that their offensive advantages were so great that a defending force would have no hope of repelling an attack, only opting for offensive military strategies. Through this examination I hope to explain why WWI escalated to the conflict it became and potentially how it could have been avoided.
Lastly, I also seek to analyze this conflict from a modern perspective. Answering the question, What if all sides had possessed nuclear second-strike capabilities in 1914? I believe this process will yield different results than what actually occurred, due to the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction and the implementation of another variable that would deter offense as a primary strategy.
Individual Level of Analysis
In order to effectively understand how each country cognitively decided to go to war instead of diplomacy, we must analyze key actors that made primary decisions for their nations. There are two primary actors that must be examined in order to explain the escalation of the conflict from an individual level of analysis. Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicolas II were the only monarchs of the European great powers that had total control of their governmental processes. Both actors were the primary force behind the July crisis of 1914 and their alliances etched a line in sand that divided the continent. These two actors alone help to agitate and increase the likelihood of war though their individual choices and perceptions.
Kaiser Wilhelm served as emperor and primary decision maker of Germany throughout WWI. Being a grandson of Queen Victoria of England, Wilhelm had family ties...