We can not (again) claim that we sleepwalked in the next global war

In the book “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914”, historian Christopher Clark argues that in 1914, we – the decision makers at the time – unknowingly and unintentionally ‘sleepwalked’ into the First World War.

This is observation is not correct.


In this historical analysis Clark focuses on what I name contingent events (the sort of events historians typically focus on), and ignores the underlying highly deterministic dynamics of the System that to a high degree shape these contingent –  and in hindsight – historical events, as I explain in my research.

The First World War (1914-1918) is the third systemic war, the System has produced until now. During the period 1495-1945 – a distinct period in a long-term process of social integration and expansion that started the moment humans grouped in extended families and tribes and a process that is still unfolding – the System produced four accelerating war cycles. The First World War, the third systemic war, followed the collapse of the international order (1815-1914), that was implemented following the second systemic war (the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1792-1815).

As I show in my research, the war dynamics of the System are highly deterministic in nature. Several highly consistent patterns and regularities can be identified.


It is important to make a distinction between non-systemic wars – that take place during relatively stable periods, to maintain the status quo – and systemic wars that typically take place after the collapse of international orders, with the purpose to implement upgraded international orders (that reflect the new balance of power).

Although, non-systemic wars – the types of war the System is currently also producing – are deterministic in nature, they are also intrinsically unpredictable, because of their chaotic characteristics.

On the other hand, systemic wars (contrary to non-systemic wars) – including the First World War (the third systemic war) – are highly predictable: their frequency as well as their respective severities developed remarkably predictably.Table compare systemic and non-systemic warsThe First World War, as Clark and other historians argue, should not have come as a surprise, and was not a ‘mistake’, that coincidentally happened because of a series of unfortunate coincidences: The timing, duration and severity of the First World War follow an exact long-term pattern.

Clark’s observation that we sleepwalked into the First World War is correct, but this observation in fact points to the unawareness of politicians, policy advisors and of historians, of the workings of the System and its highly deterministic (‘underlying’) dynamics that to a high degree shape contingent (including historical) events.

The First World War was not an unfortunate coincidence and should not have come as a surprise if we were at that stage already aware of the underlying deterministic dynamics of the System.

Because of the accumulation of tensions and unsolved issues that could not be released, in 1914 the System reached a critical point. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo, did not cause the First World War, but triggered this massive response (energy/tension release) of the System.


The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo, did not cause the First World War, but ‘only’ triggered the release of accumulated tensions in the System. The incident did shape further events – including the third systemic war –  into the war (the First World War) as we know it.

This war – the third as well as the other systemic wars – was already in the making, at the inception of the System (in 1495): The question was not if the System (given its anarchistic nature, and accelerating population growth, etc.) would produce systemic wars, but what their appearance would be; If Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was not murdered on 28 June 1914, another incident at about the same time would also have triggered a systemic war: The accumulation of tensions and unsolved issues had made such an ‘event’ at about that time unavoidable.

The First World War, as well as all the other three systemic wars, were not avoidable as Clark implies, but were unavoidable systemic-responses, because anarchistic systems lack other mechanisms than (systemic) wars to regulate tensions and to implement upgraded international orders; a shortcoming we have still not resolved at a global level of the System.

‘Sleepwalking’ should refer to our lack of understanding of the dynamics of the System – our ignorance – and not to a set of unfortunate circumstances, as Clark suggests.

We can never argue that we ‘sleepwalked’ into a next – the fifth – systemic war. Such a war could (for example) be triggered by an American attack on North-Korea, by further escalation of rivalries between Iran and Saudi Arabia, or an insignificant incident that sets in motion a chain-reaction (because of the (almost) critical condition of the System, this is just a matter of time).

first ww

The First World War (1914-1918) was a systemic response: In 1914 the System had become critical and was fully charged with tensions (energy). The energy that was released was used to reorganize the System and to implement a new (temporary) order. 

It is the focus of historians – their focus on contingent events and dynamics, instead on the underlying highly deterministic dynamics – that sets us on the wrong footing: The production of tensions is unavoidable in anarchistic systems, and these tensions – which represent energy – will at a certain point be used, as physical laws dictate. How we use these tensions (energy) is up to us; as long as the physical laws are obeyed.


See also a more detailed discussion of Clark’s book (this is chapter 4, of Part V).

4. Evaluating “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914” by Christopher Clark

4.1 Introduction

Because interactive decision-making is at the heart of the System, I now discuss a study by Christopher Clark: “How Europe Went to War in 1914” (18). This study shows how the Realistic school of thought works in practice. Clark’s study shows that war decisions in the end boil down to a simple yes or no binary question. ‘Saturation’ as defined by Mattick et al. (41) can also be observed as an information overload that hinders assessments. Other mechanisms that can be observed are: the growing feeling by decision makers that they are losing control (related to the inability to adequately and timely process incoming signals), and that time is increasingly against them, providing positive argumentation for urging preventive/pre-emptive war activity.

“How Europe Went to War in 1914,” including the options that were taken into consideration by decision makers regarding war decisions belongs to the contingent domain of the System. These events were a reaction to a trigger that activated an underlying percolated network of fully connected vulnerable issue clusters. Because of the criticality of the System and the fractal structures of the globally percolated cluster at that point, the System became critical and produced a systemic war (the third systemic war, the First World War, 1914-1918).

Clark describes the aim of his study as follows: “This book thus strives to understand the July Crisis 1914 as a modern event. Questions of why and how are logically inseparable, but lead us in different directions. The question of how invites us to look closely at the sequences of interactions that produced certain outcomes.” “The focus on ‘how’ aims to identify the decisions that brought war about and to understand the reasoning or emotions behind them.” “By contrast, the question of ‘why’ invites us to go in search of remote and categorical causes: imperialism, nationalism, armaments, alliances, high finance, ideas of national honor, the mechanics of mobilization. The why approach brings a certain analytical clarity, but it also has distorting effect, because it creates the illusion of a steady building causal pressure; the factors pile up on top of each other pushing down on the events; political actors become mere executors of forces long established and beyond their control.”

Clark’s study focuses on ‘how questions’ related to dynamics in the contingent domain of the System. Clark is not aware of the existence of a deterministic domain that determines and shapes contingent dynamics.  The timing, duration and intensity of the First World War (the third systemic war, 1914-1918) were already ‘set’ (dictated by the Second Law of Thermodynamics), and contingent dynamics – shaped by interacting self-fulfilling prophecies between states – would ensure a timely ‘emergence’ of the First World War.

Clark observes, “The key-decision makers – kings, foreign ministers, ambassadors, military commanders and a host of lesser officials – walked towards danger in watchful, calculated steps. The outbreak of war was the culmination of chains of decisions made by political actors with conscious objectives, who were capable of a degree of self-reflection, acknowledged a range of options and formed the best judgments they could on the basis of the best information they had to hand. Nationalism, armaments, alliances and finance were all part of the story, but they can be made to carry real explanatory weight only if they can be seen to have shaped the decisions that – in combination – made war break out.”

Clark’s also observes, “It is a central argument of this book that the events of July 1914 make sense only when we illuminate the journeys travelled by the key decision-makers. To do this, we need to do more than simply revisit the sequence of international ‘crises’ that preceded the outbreak of war – we need to understand how those events were experienced and woven into narratives that structured perceptions and motivated behavior.”  “When decision-makers discoursed on the international situation or on external threats, were they seeing something real, or projecting their own fears and desires on their opponents, or both? The aim has been to reconstruct as vividly as possible the highly dynamic ‘decision positions’ occupied by the key actors before and during the summer of 1914.”

In the introduction to his study, Clark observes, “Some of the most interesting recent writing on the subject has argued that, far from being inevitable, this war was in fact ‘improbable’ – at least until it actually happened. From this it would follow that the conflict was not the consequence of long-run deteriorating, but of short-term shocks to the international system.” This is a fundamental misrepresentation of the nature and dynamics of the System, as this study shows: This war – as were the other (three) systemic wars the finite-time singularity produced during the period (1495-1945) – was unavoidable and forced upon the System by a deterministic underlying dynamic of the network.

Referring to Clark’s observation above, the First World War was inevitable because the deterministic rules that apply to the System and its dynamics (in particular the Second Law of Thermodynamics) ensured that enough tensions were produced, that a vulnerable cluster percolated the System, and that a trigger put the tensions (free energy) in the System to work to implement an upgraded order that allowed for a lower energy state of the System.

In the next paragraphs, I take a closer look at some of Clark’s observations and statements concerning “How Europe Went to War in 1914.” I only comment on his observations if these comments aid in increasing understanding of my framework.


4.2 Observations and comments

Clark observes that, in the decennia preceding the First World War, (what I call) ‘alliance dynamics’ transformed the System from a multipolar System, in which a plurality of forces and interests balance each other in precarious equilibrium, to a bipolar System: “You see a bipolar Europe organized around two alliance systems ….. the profiles of two armed camps are clearly visible. The polarization of Europe’s geopolitical system was a crucial pre-condition for the war that broke out in 1914,” according to Clark.

Clark further observes, “The bifurcation into two alliance blocs did not cause the war; indeed it did as much to mute as to escalate conflict in the pre-war years. Yet without the two blocks, the war could not have broken out in the way that it did. The bipolar system structured the environment in which the crucial decisions were made.”

I consider alliance dynamics and the system configurations that they result in as an integral part of the dynamics in the contingent domain of the System. During its life span (1495-1945), the anarchistic System crystalized into different configurations (I now refer to political alliances, not to the fractal state structures). However, when cycles are used as the unit of analysis for the System’s dynamics, it is not possible to discern certain typical patterns in configurations during successive relatively stable periods. There seems to be no correlation between the type of these configurations and the System’s war dynamics of the System.

Historians, such as Kaplan (35), extensively studied these configurations. My study shows that there is no relationship between these configurations and war dynamics of the System. It is also useful to observe, as this example shows, that bipolarity does not automatically imply that the number of the degrees of freedom of the system are then reduced to two. If this were true, bipolarity and non-chaotic war dynamics would always go hand in hand; however, this study shows, this is not the case.

It is the level of intensity of rivalries between states, not bipolarity as such, that determines the degrees of freedom of the System.

Clark further observes that also in case of a bipolar System, states cannot afford to ignore the interactions and positions of other states: “For Russia, as for Britain this was still a world in which there was more than one potential enemy. Beneath the scaffolding of the alliances lurked older imperial rivalries.” The effect of this is, that despite the bipolarity of the System, a third degree of freedom still impacted on the war decisions of states.

Clark also observes differences in decision-making processes and procedures in governments: “a very cursory look at the governments of early twentieth-century Europe reveals that the executive structures from which policies emerged were far from unified. Policy-making was not the prerogative of single sovereign individuals. Initiatives with a bearing on the course of a country’s policy could and did emanate from quite peripheral locations in the political structure. Factional alignments, functional frictions within government, economic or financial constraints and the volatile chemistry of public opinion all exerted a constantly varying pressure on decision-making processes. As the power to shape decisions shifted from one node in the executive structure to another, there were corresponding oscillations in the tone and orientation of policy. This chaos of competing voices is crucial to understanding the periodic agitation of the European system during the last pre-war years.”

This study shows that these sometimes significant differences in decision-making processes and dynamics of states, in fact do not impact on the fundamental binary nature of war decisions: Ultimately, all of these different processes converge on just a single question: proceed with war or not? At their core, all of these decision-making processes qualify as binary decision-making processes with externalities and thresholds. This study also shows that the organization, the players in these processes, and the arguments they make, do not matter in the grander scheme. The System will produce a war; the war logic contained in considerations by decisions-makers will see to that through interacting self-fulfilling prophecies.

Clarke describes the psychological process in which war becomes unavoidable as follows: “… a kind of temporal claustrophobia that we find at work in the reasoning of many European statesmen of this era – a sense that time was running out, that in an environment where assets were waning and threats were growing, any delay was sure to bring severe penalties.” I describe this process – from a somewhat different perspective – as follows: Decision makers (regarding war decisions) only act as figurants, and must obey a deterministic ‘playbook’; this playbook is provided by the highly deterministic self-organized singularity dynamic which itself is produced through a multitude of interactions between states, that aim to ensure the fulfillment of their basic requirements survival. The ‘logic’ the deterministic dynamics impose on decision-makers constitute a war-trap, decision makers are increasingly confronted with this war trap when the System is about to become critical, and all issues in the System become connected.

Clark made the following observation, shared by other historians, regarding the last two pre-war years, “…. one of the most curious features of the last two pre-war years, namely that even as the stockpiling of arms continued to gain momentum and the attitudes of some military and civilian leaders grew more militant, the European international system as a whole displayed a surprising capacity for crisis management and détente.”

These features are, as this study shows, not as curious as Clark suggests. This is normal behavior for the category systems the System also belongs to, when these systems are about to reach the upper boundary of the cascade (war) window. Watts (72) describes this behavior as follows: “Here (IP: shortly before the System becomes critical and produces a systemic war), the propagation of cascades is limited not by the connectivity of the network, but by the stability of the vertices” (IP: vertices are nodes of a network; states in the context of this study). “A percolating vulnerable cluster, however, still exists, so very rarely a cascade will be triggered in which case the high connectivity of the network ensures that it will be extremely large….” At that stage, Watts explains, “…. the system will in general be indistinguishable from one that is highly stable, exhibiting only tiny cascades for many initial shocks (IP: like the first Balkan Wars, that did not – could not from a network perspective – escalate) before generating a massive, global cascade in response to a shock that is a priori indistinguishable from any other.”

Clark further describes how events tended to become connected, indicative for the percolation of the underlying vulnerable issue clusters in the System: “By the spring of 1914, the Franco-Russian Alliance had constructed a geopolitical trigger along the Austro-Serbian frontier. They had tied the defense policy of three of the world’s greatest powers to the uncertain fortunes of Europe’s most violent and unstable region.” “But since they viewed their own actions as entirely defensive and ascribed aggressive intentions solely to the enemy, the key policy-makers never took seriously the possibility that the measures they were themselves enacting might be narrowing the options available to Berlin. It was a striking example of what international relations theorists call the ‘security dilemma’, in which the steps taken by one state to enhance its security ‘render the others more insecure and compel them to prepare for the worst.’”

This dynamic demonstrates how the security dilemma works in practice, and how issues and states become increasingly connected in the System. This is percolation ‘in progress’, on short notice producing a ‘percolation condition’, implying criticality and systemic war.

Finally, I discuss Clark’s observation that long-term historical transitions did not produce the First World War, which he explains as follows. “Crucial to the complexity of the events of 1914 were rapid changes in the international system (…..). These were not long-term historical transitions, but short-range realignments (…..) it draws our attention to the place of short-range, contingent realignments in shaping the conditions under which the crisis of 1914 unfolded.”

Not surprisingly, I do not support this view. These observations concern only dynamics in the contingent domain of the System. These contingent dynamics did not cause this and other systemic wars the System experienced.

The ‘realignments’ and other events Clark refers to qualify as ‘crystallizations’ of tensions in the contingent domain of the System in response to the deterministic buildup of free energy (tensions) in the System.


4.3 Evaluation

It is evident that Clark, as well as Tilly, Spruyt, and other historians, are not aware of the existence of a deterministic underlying domain that, to a very high degree, determined and shaped the war dynamics and direction of development of the System. Historical analysis cannot be complete and accurate if this deterministic domain is not identified or ignored: deterministic and contingent dynamics interact, coevolve. For a thorough understanding of historical and social processes, it is also necessary that the interface between the deterministic and contingent domain is understood and analyzed.