Between 1871 and 1914, there were no wars between the acknowledged great powers. At first, this seems like an outrageous run of good fortune. After all, the international system had emerged from a series of wars in the 1850s and 1860s, there had been no general peace conference at which the great powers acknowledged the legitimacy of the system, the great powers embarked on aggressive expansionist policies by the early 1880s, and there were regular crises throughout the period. Yet peace was maintained for more than four decades, the longest period of peace between the great powers until the end of the Cold War. The maintenance of peace owed much to the development of the alliance system, the relative flexibility of great power alignments, the expansion of the great powers around the globe, and their willingness to expand at the expense of weaker states, including the ‘dying nations’, as the British prime minister, Lord Salisbury, called them, the Ottoman, Chinese, and Persian empires, rather than each other. Tensions were leavened by long-standing practices and norms in European politics, including great power congresses and compensation.
The disintegration of the Ottoman and Chinese empires, however, exacerbated great power tensions. Both were managed, just about, without war between the great powers, although Russia and Japan, the latter not being considered a great power, fought in the Far East in 1904–5. The disintegration of Ottoman power, partly the outcome of great power policies, partly due to the internal problems facing the empire, accelerated from 1908, and especially from 1911 onwards. Moreover, in 1912 and 1913, the great powers lost control over the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in Europe, as smaller Balkan states – Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, Romania, and Serbia – carved out their own foreign policy agendas. These wars also upset the already fragile norms that had underpinned great power since 1871. Austria-Hungary was the great power most affected by these developments, and by 1913, the stability of the international system rested on whether its perceived decline could be arrested or managed without a war.
The Development of the Alliance System, 1871–1894
Between 1854 and 1871, all the great powers had fought in a series of wars, which destroyed the remnants of the 1815 Vienna Settlement. The wars of Italian and German unification had forged two nation-states, which took their place alongside the other great powers, Britain, Russia, Austria, and France.