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The Beginning(s) and End(s) of the International Order

Courtesy of caratello/Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This article was originally published by E-International Relations on 22 May 2017.

These days, the pulse of the world’s political health is running fast. The general prognosis is terminal, the end of the international world order, as we know it. But determining what order we are on the verge of losing could do with more diagnosis, including tracking the symptoms of the disorder (and order) back to their beginnings. One of the useful roles that historians can play in this regard is to offer a longer view of what we have lost, or, at least, the international order that seems to be disappearing from view.  So bear with me as I offer a “Cook’s tour” of two centuries in search of the point where the end possibly began, in order to understand better the history of the aims—or “ends”—of international order itself.

1814?

European historians have long assumed that the early nineteenth century made “international” politics possible: In 1814, after decades of continental wars against French hegemony, a coalition led by Russia, including Sweden, Prussia, Austria, and Britain (as well as some smaller now non-existent sovereignties) emerged victorious and established what became known as the “Congress system.” At its most basic, this comprised negotiations through discussion—famously identified with the Congress of Vienna—and transnational cooperation in the interests of permanent peace. In the years that followed, ambassadorial conferences in London, and occasional conferences around the smaller towns of the European continent, became a method for managing territorial and ideological flashpoints.  Within a few years, the British foreign minister Lord Castlereagh confidently reported to his Prime Minister the practical value of this transformation of European politics:

how much solid good grows out of these Reunions, which sound so terrible at a distance. It realy [sic] appears to me to be a new discovery in the Science of European Government at once extinguishing the Cobwebs, with which Diplomacy obscures the Horizon – bringing the Whole bearing of the system into its true light, and giving to the Counsels of the great Powers the Efficiency and almost the simplicity of a Single State.[1]

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The Forgotten Year: 1915

Nighttime photo of German barrage of Allied trenches at Ypres, 1915. Image: Col. Nasmith/Wikimedia

This article was originally published by Defence-In-Depth on 28 January 2015.
Republished with permission.

2015 is the hundredth anniversary of one of the most important, yet little remembered, years in the history of Britain and her armed forces. Often overshadowed by the rush to war in 1914 and the momentous offensive on the Somme in 1916, the battles that the British Expeditionary Force fought on the Western Front in 1915 (as well as the tragic Gallipoli campaign in the Mediterranean), were a key stage in the development of modern warfare.

In France and Belgium, the British fought in a variety of offensive and defensive actions throughout the year, most notably at Neuve Chapelle (10-12 March), Aubers Ridge (9 May), Second Ypres (22 April – 25 May), Festubert (15-27 May) and Loos (25 September – 13 October). Of these, the battle of Loos was the biggest. When it was fought it was the largest land battle in British military history, witnessing the first British use of poison chlorine gas (in bulky cylinders placed in the front line), and the debut of elements of Lord Kitchener’s New Army (composed of citizen volunteers), which had been raised after the outbreak of war. It was also the first time the British experienced the huge cost of major continental campaigns, suffering over 60,000 casualties in little over three weeks – with, on average, British divisions suffering a higher number of men killed in action than would be seen on the infamous 1 July 1916, ‘the first day on the Somme’. Yet this remains largely unknown. » More

World War I and the Transformation of the World

British Vickers Machine Gun. Wikimedia Commons/John Warwick Brooke

This article was originally published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in October 2014.

This summer marked the centennial of the outbreak of World War I, perhaps the most transformative war in history. While the wars of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars harnessed national populations in a way not previously seen since the emergence of the modern state system, World War I combined the mobilization of both populations and industrial power, enhanced by technology, to produce a most lethal form of warfare. » More