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Offensive Realism and Military Doctrine in World War I

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World War I was one of the deadliest wars in human history, and after four years of fighting, left the world’s most powerful countries ruined. Historians and political scientists still study the war today, and examine events leading up to it, initial causes, and actions taken during the conflict. Barry Posen’s theory on military doctrine and John Mearsheimer’s theory on offensive realism can give insight into the causes and events that took place during the First World War.

In Barry Posen’s article, “The Sources of Military Doctrine”, the independent variable in his theory is that the military is a bureaucratic organization. This means that the military has a rational purpose, it is a hierarchical structure, and it is functionally specialized. The control variable is uncertainty, which involves people, and the political environment. The intervening variable in the theory is that the military is trying to minimize uncertainty and maximize their autonomy as much as possible. This leads to the implementation of standard operating procedures (SOPs), increasing their size and wealth, increasing prestige within the state, and having the ability to negotiate their environment. These norms then lead into the dependent variables: that militaries will prefer offensive strategies, there is disintegration from civilian intervention, and they are stagnant.

Military organizations have a purpose that demands planning and supervision; the purpose is pursued with people, even know they are a source of uncertainty; and the environment produces the organization’s purpose, but can also be a source of uncertainty.[1] State’s military organizations will try to reduce uncertainty both internally and externally. They reduce internal uncertainty by developing standard operating procedures (SOPs). These are routines for dealing with standard tasks in the organization and allow easy control and coordination of large numbers of units. It is common for these SOPs to outlive their usefulness because they become institutionalized.[2] Military organizations reduce environmental uncertainty by reducing their dependency on it. They do this by material and political strategies. The material strategy involves stockpiling their possessions and tracking it. Political strategies are used if material strategies are too expensive, and involve maintenance of other suppliers, gaining prestige, gaining power over those they are dependent on, and mystifying their profession from civilians. The political strategies are designed to enhance the organization’s autonomy from political authorities.[3] Military organizations also look to reduce uncertainty in their primary environment, by seeking alliances and treaties with the other organizations; this leads to a negotiated environment.

Military organizations will prefer an offensive strategy vs. a defensive strategy. Offensive strategies help reduce uncertainty in the international environment by creating “standard scenarios”, which are prepared military plans. In order to mitigate uncertainty the organization wants to impose their planned scenarios on opponents, which leads to a preference of offensive planning.[4] Another perceived advantage of offensive doctrine is that you not only are able to use your standard scenario but you also take away the opponent’s ability to use his standard scenario.[5] Additionally, offensive doctrines increase the size and wealth of the organization. As stated earlier, the military organization relies on people, but people are a source of uncertainty, by having more wealth the organizations can increase awards it is gives out to members which would decrease uncertainty within its members. Finally, offensive doctrines will enhance military autonomy, because, as Posen puts it, they are, “likely to be technically more complex, quantitatively more demanding.” This acts as a deterrent from civilian interference because the difficulties of understanding the offensive doctrine are much greater than a defensive doctrine. [6]

Innovation is rare in organizations, although there are several causes for this. First, organizations innovate when they fail, they innovate in order to avoid losses due to the client being unsatisfied, and they innovate because they have goals of expanding. Unless one of three causes spur the organization into innovating, they will remain stagnant and rely on older, possibly outdated, operating procedures. [7]

There are several factors that influence political-military disintegration. One of the most prevalent causes is that separate responsibilities, different skills/information and material create a barrier for the two organizations. These separate responsibilities and expertise can also lead to ignorance of the other organization’s problems. The divide is multiplied by soldiers normally being unconcerned about how the conduct of their operations will reconcile with state policy and soldiers are unwilling to provide information on doctrinal matters to civilians. If civilians do intervene in military affairs this will result in more integration. [8]

In John Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, the independent variable in is that states are trying to survive. The dependent variable in the theory is that states are trying to gain power and ultimately trying to become a hegemony. The intervening variable is that states fear each other, they live in a self-help world, and that they are trying to be the strongest they can be. The control variable is that states live in an anarchic world, they have offensive capabilities, states’ plans are uncertain, and states are rational actors.

Mearsheimer argues that great powers are trying to gain power over rival states with hegemony as their ultimate goal.[9] The explanation for this is based off five assumptions: (1) the international system is anarchic, (2) great powers possesses offensive capabilities, (3) states cannot be certain about other states’ intentions, (4) survival is the primary goal of great powers, and (5) great powers are rational.[10] As a result of these five assumptions, there are three behavioral patterns that are developed: fear, self-help, and power maximization.[11]

Because of fear, states are suspicious of one another and there is minimal trust. Coupled with the fact that other states have offensive capabilities, it is impossible for a state to completely trust another. The possibility war and the consequences associated with it also make states fear each other. [12]

Living in a self-help world means that states are self-interested and do not shift their interests for others. Other states will normally have the same view, resulting in states not being able to trust one another for their own security. Without a “world police” to call, states will view themselves as alone and can only rely on themselves for security. [13]

Due to states not knowing other’s intentions completely and having to rely on themselves for security, the best way to ensure your state’s survivability is to be the strongest state in the system. When states have the goal of becoming the strongest in the system, this ultimately leads to trying to become a hegemony.[14]

The operational goals of a state are to maximize the amount of the world’s wealth they control, become the strongest land power, gain nuclear superiority, and as discussed before, to become the regional hegemony. These goals are accomplished by employing strategies such as: war, blackmail, bait and bleed, and bloodletting. Buck-passing and balancing are used to check aggressors. The goal of checking these aggressors is to prevent their opponents from gaining power at their expense. [15]

If Posen’s theory is correct, we would see military organizations favor an aggressive military policy, the military organization would disintegrate from civilian organizations, and the military organization would be stagnant regarding innovation unless encouraged by incentives or drawbacks. The organizations do this because they trying to minimize uncertainty and maximize autonomy vis-a-vis SOPs, prestige, negotiating their environment, and increasing size and wealth. Military leaders will try and take advantage of opportunities that present themselves that allows uncertainty to diminish or their autonomy to grow. This is a result of the military being a bureaucratic organization with a rational purpose, a hierarchical structure, and that it is functionally specialized.

If Mearsheimer’s theory is correct we should see states trying to gain power in the international system and ultimately become a hegemony. They would do this because this is the only guaranteed way to ensure your state’s survivability. In order to achieve this, states would look to alter the balance of power and gain power at the expense of other states when they are able to. A state trying to survive would be a constant process and gaining power would happen periodically for the state. The state would only reach hegemony when it becomes the most powerful in the system. Statesmen would be concerned with the survivability of their country and want to implement policy that ensures this. This would include actions that allow them to gain power and improves their standing in the balance of power. These actions could be war, blackmail, bait and bleed, or bloodletting. If a state was trying to preserve the balance of power, then it would either use a balancing or buck-passing strategy.

Military organizations ultimately played a big role in events and implementation of strategies in World War I and Posen’s theory holds up relatively well. The military bias towards offensive strategies is the most notable and was able to satisfy the goals of the military organizations. According to Jack Snyder there was, “a penchant for offense (that) helped the military organization to preserve its autonomy, prestige, and traditions, to simplify its institutional routines, or to resolve a dispute within the organization.”[16] This is in line with Posen’s predictions because the offensive strategies allow a military to minimize uncertainty (primary environment and organizational) and maximize their autonomy. An example of this is the French officer corps response to the French government shrinking their size and resources. By adopting, “the extreme doctrine of the offensive a outrance served precisely … to discredit the defensive, reservist-based plans of the politicized “republican” officers who ran the French military under civilian tutelage.”[17] In order to maximize autonomy and minimize uncertainty, the French army was able to grow their size and wealth by means of an offensive doctrine.

The offensive bias was then, usually multiplied “either because the lack of civilian control (that) allowed it to grow unchecked or because an abnormal degree of civil-military conflict heightened the need for a self-protective ideology.”[18] Along with the offensive bias, there was also a disintegration between the civil-military relationship, just as Posen had predicted. As stated before, the offensive strategies were more complex and didn’t allow for much civilian input. This strained the civil-military relationship and left the military to its own devices. With the Schlieffen plan, Germany used an offensive strategy that almost completely disintegrated the military organization from civilian authority. The resulting strategy, “was the complete absence of civilian control over plans and doctrines.”[19]

Leading up to World War I, Germany was a threat to the European balance of power that was originally established at Vienna in 1815. Under strong leadership the former Prussian government was able to expand its empire and, “suddenly the center of Europe was occupied by a new nation that had in swift succession decisively beaten two of the other four charter members of the Concert of Europe.” This new German empire also possessed a large population, large amounts of natural resources that were taken from Alsace-Lorraine, and the most powerful army in Europe.[20] Prior to the war, Germany was gaining power from rival states (France, Austria, Denmark) via war, collecting a large sum of wealth, and had become the greatest land power. Germany was headed toward becoming the hegemony of Europe and as a result would upset the original balance of power.

When Germany started their production of a navy this alarmed Britain whose security was based on a strong Navy. This would provoke, “fear and suspicion in Great Britain … and played a vital part in bringing on the war.”[21] While Germany was trying to expand their naval influence, this scared Britain because German intentions were uncertain. Seeing a shift in the balance of power, Britain would check Germany by using the balancing strategy during WWI and, along with Allied powers, curb Germany’s progression to European hegemony.

Both Posen’s theory and Mearsheimer’s theory have utility when examining WWI. The theories differ where Mearsheimer looks at the larger picture of international relations and states goals, and Posen looks at military organization’s behaviors and actions within the state. Overall it seems Posen’s theory on military organizations is superior in this case and gets more predictions right. This may because Posen’s theory is more specific and military organizations fundamentally played a large part in WWI. Leading up to and during the war, most military organizations followed Posen’s predictions. The states that followed Mearsheimer’s predictions the most were Germany and Britain, and while it is able to explain their motives it is not as encompassing for the other states involved in the conflict.

Barry Posen’s theory on military organizations and John Mearsheimer’s theory offensive realism have an important stake in explaining the lead up to World War I, and the events that took place. Overall Posen’s theory gives a better look at WWI mainly due to its specific focus on an organization that played a significant role in the war. Regardless, when both theories are looked at together, they can give important insight and help us to understand the complexity of the First World War.

[1] Barry Posen, The Sources of Military Doctrine, 42–43

[2] Barry Posen, The Sources of Military Doctrine, 44

[3] Barry Posen, The Sources of Military Doctrine, 45

[4] Barry Posen, The Sources of Military Doctrine, 46

[5] Barry Posen, The Sources of Military Doctrine, 48

[6] Barry Posen, The Sources of Military Doctrine, 49

[7] Barry Posen, The Sources of Military Doctrine, 47

[8] Barry Posen, The Sources of Military Doctrine, 52–53

[9] John Mearsheimer, The Tradegy of Great Power Politics, 29

[10] John Mearsheimer, The Tradegy of Great Power Politics, 30–31

[11] John Mearsheimer, The Tradegy of Great Power Politics, 32

[12] John Mearsheimer, The Tradegy of Great Power Politics, 32

[13] John Mearsheimer, The Tradegy of Great Power Politics, 33

[14] John Mearsheimer, The Tradegy of Great Power Politics, 33–34

[15] John Mearsheimer, The Tradegy of Great Power Politics, 140–158

[16] Jack Snyder, “Civil-Military Relations and the Cult of the Offensive, 1914 and 1984”, 109

[17] Jack Snyder, “Civil-Military Relations and the Cult of the Offensive, 1914 and 1984”, 110–111

[18] Jack Snyder, “Civil-Military Relations and the Cult of the Offensive, 1914 and 1984”, 109–110

[19] Jack Snyder, “Civil-Military Relations and the Cult of the Offensive, 1914 and 1984”, 110

[20] Donald Kagan, The Origins of War and Peace, 84

[21] Donald Kagan, The Origins of War and Peace, 137



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Thanks for sharing this, you are awesome !