Summary: Diplomacy by Kissinger – Chapter 8 – Into the Vortex

Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger. Book cover detail.

In 1994, Henry Kissinger published the book Diplomacy. He was a renowned scholar and diplomat who served as the United States National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. His book provides an extensive sweep of the history of foreign affairs and the art of diplomacy, with a particular focus on the 20th century and the Western World. Kissinger, known for his alignment with the realist school of international relations, inquires into the concepts of the balance of power, raison d’État, and Realpolitik across different eras.

His work has been widely praised for its scope and intricate detail. Yet, it has also faced criticism for its focus on individuals over structural forces, and for presenting a reductive view of history. Also, critics have also pointed out that the book focuses excessively on Kissinger’s individual role in events, potentially overstating his impact. In any case, his ideas are worthy of consideration.

This article presents a summary of Kissinger’s ideas in the eighth chapter of his book, called “Into the Vortex: The Military Doomsday Machine”.

You can find all available summaries of this book, or you can read the summary from the previous chapter of the book, by clicking these links.

The onset of World War I was surprising not because of the complexity of the triggering crisis, but due to the prolonged period before its occurrence. By 1914, tensions between Germany and Austria-Hungary, and the Triple Entente had escalated significantly. The major powers’ diplomats and military leaders had created a precarious situation, with military strategies that reduced decision-making time and diplomatic processes that were slow and unwieldy. This misalignment made crisis management nearly impossible under intense time pressure.

Military planning became increasingly independent, a trend that started with the Franco-Russian alliance negotiations in 1892. Previously, alliances focused on the casus belli — the specific actions that would justify war. However, the advent of modern technology shifted the focus to mobilization. Russian negotiator Nikolai Obruchev argued that mobilization, not the act of firing the first shot, was the true act of war. This viewpoint led to a new approach where simultaneous mobilization among allies was deemed crucial, transforming alliances into mechanisms to ensure immediate and collective response to any adversary’s mobilization.

This shift removed political control from the casus belli, making every crisis a potential trigger for war. Obruchev, rather than fearing this automatic escalation, saw it as advantageous. He believed that localized conflicts were against Russia’s interests, as they could allow Germany to emerge strong and dictate peace terms. He preferred a scenario where any war involved all major powers, ensuring a total war that would redefine Europe’s political landscape.

The Russian military planners, supported by their French counterparts, focused on defining the obligation to mobilize, while German General Alfred von Schlieffen emphasized operational planning. Unlike his predecessor Moltke, who advocated for balanced military and political strategies, Schlieffen, sought a decisive victory through rapid mobilization. He developed a plan to first defeat France by bypassing its fortifications through Belgium, then focus on Russia. This plan ignored the political complexities and consequences, particularly the likelihood of British involvement if Belgium was invaded.

The German military’s focus on a quick victory in the West, despite the higher likelihood of a conflict originating in the East, twisted Bismarck’s fear of a two-front war into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Schlieffen’s plan also relied on an unrealistic standard for French neutrality, demanding France’s surrender of a major fortress, effectively ensuring Germany’s dominance. This approach signified a departure from previous diplomatic and military strategies, setting the stage for a conflict of unprecedented scale and complexity.

The intertwining of political alliances and precipitous military strategies in early 20th-century Europe created a volatile situation, where the flexibility once characteristic of the balance of power was lost. Wars, likely to erupt in the Balkans, were destined to involve countries with little direct interest in the initial conflict, thanks to plans like Germany’s Schlieffen Plan. This scenario meant that foreign policy had effectively surrendered to military strategy, which dangerously gambled on a single decisive conflict. There was a startling lack of consideration for the political aftermath of such a large-scale war, given the devastating military technology of the time. Neither Russia nor Germany could justify the immense scale of the conflict they were preparing for with any specific political demands or objectives.

European diplomats were largely silent on these issues, not fully grasping the political implications of their military strategies and being wary of challenging their nationalistic military establishments. This lack of dialogue and understanding among political leaders prevented the alignment of military plans with political objectives. Despite the looming disaster, there was a surprising lack of serious concern among European leaders, with very few warnings about the potential consequences of their actions.

One notable exception was Peter Durnovo, a former Russian Interior Minister, who warned in early 1914 of the heavy burden Russia would bear in a European war. He argued that the sacrifices Russia would make would be futile, as territorial gains would only exacerbate internal ethnic tensions, possibly reducing Russia to a much smaller state. He also pointed out the strategic futility of conquering the Dardanelles, as control over them would not provide access to open seas due to British naval superiority. Durnovo also highlighted the economic impracticality of the war, predicting ruinous financial consequences for Russia, regardless of the war’s outcome. He further warned that the war could trigger social revolutions, starting in the defeated country and spreading to the victor.

Tragically, there is no evidence that Tsar Nicholas II ever saw Durnovo’s memorandum, and there were no similar analyses in other European capitals. German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, who would lead Germany into the war, had expressed concerns about German foreign policy and the need for a more cautious approach towards Russia and England, but by then, it was too late. Europe was already on a path to war, driven into the vortex by a crisis whose location and cause were almost incidental to the larger forces at play. The recklessness of previous diplomacy set the stage for a conflict that was as inevitable as it was catastrophic.

On June 28, 1914, Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo. This event was both tragic and absurd, highlighting the deteriorating state of Austria-Hungary. The assassin, a young Serbian nationalist, succeeded in his second attempt to kill the Archduke and his wife, setting off a chain of events that would lead to World War I. The assassination was a direct consequence of Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, a move that had created significant regional tensions.

This assassination set the stage for a rapid escalation of the conflict. Interestingly, the European royalty did not attend Franz Ferdinand’s funeral, possibly missing an opportunity for dialogue that might have averted the impending war. Following the assassination, Germany, led by Kaiser Wilhelm II, assured Austria-Hungary of its support against Serbia. This blank check from Germany emboldened Austria-Hungary to take aggressive action against Serbia, further inflaming the situation.

The German leaders misjudged the potential reactions of their adversaries. They believed that their support would enable Austria-Hungary to isolate Serbia and possibly weaken the Triple Entente, consisting of Russia, France, and Great Britain. Russia, however, saw Austria-Hungary’s actions, backed by Germany, as a direct threat to its influence in the Balkans and its alliances with Slavic nations, particularly Serbia.

Germany, under the Kaiser, lacked a long-term strategic plan and was overly focused on fulfilling treaty obligations rather than considering broader, long-term common interests. This approach was in stark contrast to the diplomatic strategies of the past, such as those employed by Metternich or Bismarck. The crisis following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand spiraled out of control due to the rigid mobilization schedules and treaty obligations of the European powers.

Austria-Hungary, meanwhile, delayed its response to the assassination, losing the initial wave of European sympathy. When it finally issued an ultimatum to Serbia, the conditions were so harsh that they were almost guaranteed to be rejected. This ultimatum pushed Russia into a corner, especially given its perception of being undermined in the Balkans by Austria-Hungary and Germany.

Despite initial reluctance, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia eventually leaned towards supporting Serbia, a decision influenced by nationalistic pressures and concerns about Russia’s prestige. The Tsar’s decision was swayed by arguments emphasizing the importance of maintaining Russia’s influence in the Balkans and among Slavic nations.

Simultaneously, Great Britain found itself in a difficult position. It had no direct interest in the Balkan crisis but was committed to preserving the Triple Entente. British leaders were hesitant to fully commit to either side, hoping to maintain a position that would allow them to mediate. However, this indecisiveness failed to prevent the escalation of the crisis.

As the crisis deepened, the rigid mobilization schedules of the major powers overrode diplomatic efforts. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand, rather than being an isolated event, became the trigger for a much larger conflict due to the interconnected web of alliances, obligations, and military strategies that had come to dominate European politics. This complex situation, marked by miscalculations and misjudgments, led inexorably to the outbreak of World War I.

On July 28, Austria declared war on Serbia, marking the beginning of military conflicts that would escalate into general war. Despite this declaration, Austria was not ready for immediate military action. On the same day, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia ordered a partial mobilization against Austria. This decision was complicated by the fact that the Russian military only had plans for a general mobilization against both Germany and Austria. The Russian Foreign Minister attempted to reassure Germany that their military actions were not directed against them, but the situation was rapidly deteriorating.

Russian military leaders, influenced by Nikolai Obruchev’s theories, were eager for general mobilization and war with Germany, even though Germany had not yet taken military steps. The German war plans depended on quickly defeating France and then focusing on Russia. Thus, any Russian mobilization, even partial, posed a threat to Germany’s strategy. Germany demanded that Russia cease its mobilization, warning that German mobilization would mean war.

Tsar Nicholas, under pressure from his generals and unable to implement a limited mobilization, ordered a full mobilization on July 30. Germany, seeing this as a threat, declared war on Russia on July 31. This escalation occurred without any substantial political dialogue between Russia and Germany, highlighting the absence of substantive dispute resolution between the two countries.

Germany then faced the necessity of attacking France, which had remained mostly quiet during the crisis, except for supporting Russia. Kaiser Wilhelm II attempted to redirect Germany’s mobilization from France to Russia, but his efforts were futile against the entrenched plans of the German military. Both the Tsar and the Kaiser, despite their initial intentions to avoid a full-scale war, were unable to control the military machinery they had helped create.

Germany inquired about France’s intentions on August 1, and France responded ambiguously, leading Germany to declare war on August 3 after alleging French border violations. German troops invaded Belgium, executing the Schlieffen Plan. This invasion prompted Great Britain, previously undecided, to declare war on Germany on August 4.

Thus, a regional dispute in the Balkans escalated into a world war, involving major European powers and leading to battles across the continent. Germany’s adherence to the Schlieffen Plan and its quest for a quick victory resulted in a protracted war of attrition, contrary to its intentions. This scenario echoed the warnings of Helmuth von Moltke, who had advocated for a more defensive strategy. Germany, ultimately, had to adopt Moltke’s defensive approach in the West after failing to achieve a quick victory.

The outbreak of World War I demonstrated a significant failure of the Concert of Europe. The political leadership’s inability to engage in effective diplomacy and provide for a cooling-off period led to an unprecedented catastrophe. The war resulted in the deaths of 20 million people, the disintegration of empires, and the overthrow of several dynasties. The aftermath of the war left Europe in need of a new system, but the nature of this system was uncertain amidst the widespread devastation and exhaustion. This catastrophic outcome underscored the folly of the leaders and their failure to heed Bismarck’s warning about the necessity of credible justifications for war.

You can read the summary of the next chapter of the book by clicking this link.




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