Was the first world war a preventive war? Concepts, criteria, and evidence

John A. Vasquez

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


The preventive motivation for war has long been a concern among political scientists and numerous scholars who have seen Germany as the key actor in bringing about the First World War. The clearest exponent of this position is Dale Copeland. In this analysis I want to raise the question of how we know when a given war should be characterized as a preventive war, providing evidence in support of a preventive theory of war. When a war is regarded as a preventive war varies by how scholars define that term. For some, the mere presence of a preventive motivation anywhere in the initiating state is sufficient. For others, the preventive motivation must be seen as the main causal factor making for the decision to go to war or for bringing it about. I outline some criteria for making this inference and apply them in detail to specific decision-makers within Germany in the summer of 1914. I argue that only when the preventive motivation is the primary cause of the war and other causes are either not present or clearly subservient can the war be seen as a preventive war. Once Germany is treated, I briefly look at Austria-Hungary and its role as a basis for an alternate explantion of the war. The dynamics of the Austrian-Hungarian-Serbian case raises conceptual issues not present in the German case. Looking at this dyad and the others that enter in 1914 places Germany's role within a larger context.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Outbreak of the First World War
Subtitle of host publicationStructure, Politics, and Decision-Making
EditorsJack S Levy, John A Vasquez
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages26
ISBN (Electronic)9781107336995
ISBN (Print)9781107042452
StatePublished - 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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