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Trade Rivalry Was the Cause of World War I

Excerpt from How America Got It Right, by Bevin Alexander, pages 79-80

Until [World War I] occurred, the imperial powers of Europe—notably Britain, France, and Russia—controlled much of the world’s underdeveloped territory and most of the world’s seaborne trade. Britain was incomparably the leader. It had outperformed all other countries industrially until the last few years of the nineteenth century. Moreover, by means of the Royal Navy, it had seized a quarter of the earth’s surface, which made Britain the paramount force in world commerce, commanding trade with the new dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, with its crown jewel, India, and with most of Latin America.

Since its unification in 1871, however, Germany had become a major contender, seeking a large colonial empire of its own and expanding its trade, especially at the expense of Britain. Right-wing political leaders began to claim for Germany status as a world power—Weltmacht. Around the turn of the century Germany passed Britain in industrial development and overall economic power. At the same time it began a fatal program of building a modern fleet to challenge the Royal Navy, which set in motion a fierce naval arms race. By 1909 Britain had won the contest. Its navy was double the size of Germany’s, and the disparity was growing, not shrinking. Nevertheless, the damage had been done. Fearful of Germany’s economic growth, Britain signed a series of agreements with France in 1904 that grew into a secret military alliance, and signed a similar agreement with Russia in 1907. Meanwhile Germany had allied itself with Austria-Hungary. Thus two powerful coalitions arose in Europe, each ready to challenge the other.

In 1907 Arthur Balfour, British prime minister from 1902 to 1905, told an American diplomat, “We are probably fools not to find a reason for declaring war on Germany before she builds too many ships and takes away our trade.”

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