We have experienced many great wars in our history, but the two most well known and cataclysmic are World War I and World War II. In this essay, I will focus on the First World War, sometimes known as the Great War (Fromkin 1994: 108). As John Keegan briefly explains, this conflict was tragic because “…the consequences of the clash ended the lives of ten million human beings, tortured the emotional lives of millions more, destroyed the benevolent and optimistic culture of the European continent and left a legacy of political rancor and intense racial hatred” (1998: 3). In this paper, I will examine three key explanations for the onset of the First World War, and I will argue that while chain ganging is one of the most prominent theoretical explanations, another more prominent reason exists: the internal political makeup of individual states, as without these individual actors, chain-ganging and the security dilemma could not have existed. In the first section, I will explain the phenomenon of chain ganging and the notion of multipolarity, both of which have been used to explain the outbreak of the Great War, then I will analyze the strengths and weaknesses of this line of thought. In the second section, I will examine the notion of the security dilemma and the misperception of states actions, which also added to the tensions in Europe that led to the outbreak of war. Lastly, I will examine the political and ideological structures of certain key states, including but not limited to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russian Empire, as the individual actions of these key states led to both the phenomenon of chain ganging and the security dilemma, which led to the outbreak of the First World War.
I should stress that all of these theories and explanations are related to the prominent and the most influential international relations theory – Realism, which stands for, as offensive neorealist thinker Mearsheimer (2010: 78) interprets: “…for realists power is the currency of international politics… [and] international politics is synonymous with power politics”. Realism is fundamentally linked with the notions of power and with the structure of international relations. Realists generally believe that the world is in an anarchical state, in which there is no regulatory, overarching authority or institution that regulates individual sovereign nations. This power vacuum forces these states to accumulate more power in order to ensure their security and survival (Elman and Jensen 2013: 18; Waltz 1979: 104-105; Levy 2002).
The phenomenon of chain ganging is linked to the realist idea of the balance of power, which is the “…mechanism that operates to prevent one state from achieving such a preponderance of power that it is in a position to lay down and enforce the law over all others” (Devetak 2012: 487). When examining the outbreak of the First World War, the concept of the balance of power and therefore the theory of chain ganging, is quite prominent, however it is a widely debated topic (Tierney 2011: 285). As Christensen and Snyder (1990: 147) state: “In 1914, the continental states adhered to essentially unconditional alliances [i.e. chain ganging], committing themselves to immediate offensives in full strength to aid their ally with little regard to the circumstances giving rise to the hostilities”. For example, during the war, Russia decided to align unconditionally and aggressively because of the fear that the rising German power can explode any time, thus, it can be prompt and bold (Christensen and Snyder 1990: 155).
The notion of multipolarity also plays a part in the theory of chain ganging. Multipolarity means that there are several great powers, whereas in a bipolar system there are merely two great powers (Waltz 1979: 162; Buzan 2013: 157; Snyder 2002: 167). Because of this, in a multipolar system there is more uncertainty and instability compared to a bipolar system (Waltz 1979: 166; Snyder