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A Sticky History Lesson

Germany’s experience in World War I shows how "sticky power" — the power of one nation’s economic institutions and policies — can act as a weapon. During the long years of peace before the war, Germany was drawn into the British-led world trading system, and its economy became more and more trade-dependent. Local industries depended ...

Germany’s experience in World War I shows how "sticky power" — the power of one nation’s economic institutions and policies — can act as a weapon. During the long years of peace before the war, Germany was drawn into the British-led world trading system, and its economy became more and more trade-dependent. Local industries depended on imported raw materials. German manufacturers depended on foreign markets. Germany imported wheat and beef from the Americas, where the vast and fertile plains of the United States and the pampas of South America produced food much more cheaply than German agriculture could do at home. By 1910, such economic interdependence was so great that many, including Norman Angell, author of The Great Illusion, thought that wars had become so ruinously expensive that the age of warfare was over.

Not quite. Sticky power failed to keep World War I from breaking out, but it was vital to Britain’s victory. Once the war started, Britain cut off the world trade Germany had grown to depend upon, while, thanks to Britain’s Royal Navy, the British and their allies continued to enjoy access to the rest of the world’s goods. Shortages of basic materials and foods dogged Germany all during the war. By the winter of 1916-17, the Germans were seriously hungry. Meanwhile, hoping to even the odds, Germany tried to cut the Allies off from world markets with the U-boat campaigns in the North Atlantic. That move brought the United States into the war at a time when nothing else could have saved the Allied cause.

Finally, in the fall of 1918, morale in the German armed forces and among civilians collapsed, fueled in part by the shortages. These conditions, not military defeat, forced the German leadership to ask for an armistice. Sticky power was Britain’s greatest weapon in World War I. It may very well be the United States’ greatest weapon in the 21st century.

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