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Why was the triple alliance significant?

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12/03/2011

Before the start of World War One, the European countries formed two great alliances, each hoping to further their own interests. These two great alliances were the Triple Entente (composed of Great Britain, France, and Russia) and the Triple Alliance (composed of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy).

After the Franco-Prussian War in the 1870s, Europe entered a period of peace. However, this period was filled with intense nationalistic competition, mostly centered around trade and empire-building, but also concerned with traditional power diplomacy and national influence. France, Germany, and the UK all were competing in their collection of colonies for empire; Austria-Hungary was concerned with the growing ethnic nationalism of its component sub-states, as well as the influence of neighboring countries on these ethnic groups; Italy had interests in the Balkans conflicting with the UK; the Ottoman Empire worried about UK and Russian influence in the Balkans and Mid-East; and Russia concerned itself with its western borders with Germany and Austria-Hungary.

What all this competition led to was a huge military build up, and intensely dangerous diplomatic moves. Today, we label this kind of diplomacy as "brinksmanship", which is exceedingly risky and war-prone. The two great alliances formed during this period were intended for two purposes:

  • On one hand, they were intended to strengthen the hand of member countries in their diplomacy, as the alliances promised mutual military support; thus, a member country could appear stronger than it actually was, as it (theoretically) could count on support from other alliance countries. So, in this area, alliances were a destabilizing occurrence, influencing their members to gamble and push more.
  • In opposition was the stabilizing influence of the alliances, as most countries recognized the much greater threat that antagonizing an alliance member would result in - as the opposite effect of the first consequence, opponents were less likely to push alliance members due to the potential downside.

Sadly, the negative aggressive impacts of the two alliances far outweighed that of their cautionary influence. European countries of the time were crippled by poor diplomatic communications - that is, diplomacy took a long time to pass messages between capitals. Some of this was due to technology, but much was due to simple ossified diplomatic practices. As a consequence, the ability of political masters to deal with fast-arriving (and even faster-evolving) crisises was almost nill - by the time enough diplomatic information and communication happened between the contesting parties, the situation on the ground would have changed so drastically as to make those communications useless.

Another problem was the general militarism that the alliances promoted - as these alliances were purely military ones (not economic or trade agreements), they were driven by military needs. European military leaders were significantly less controlled by their political "masters" than currently - indeed, looking back at the period, it almost seems that the various countries' militaries are conducting a completely separate foreign policy than their civilian governments. Thus, the alliances were much more oriented to serve aggression than defense.

Overall, the Triple Alliance agreement was a major contributing factor in the outbreak of World War One - rather than ease tensions and reduce conflict, the Triple Alliance and Triple Entente served to fuel the atmosphere of militarism and diplomatic risk-taking that eventually led to the outbreak of continental (then world) -wide war.

Confusingly, as the war broke out, these alliances fractured. WW1 was actually fought between two slightly different alliances of countries: the Allies (Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, and eventually the USA, plus a couple of other smaller countries), and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire). The naming of these pre-war and wartime groupings is unfortunate, as a common mistake is to think that the Allies were derived from the Triple Alliance. The actuality is that the Triple Entente formed the basis of the Allies, and the Triple Alliance formed the core of the Central Powers.