The Case for Norman Angell

The Case for Norman Angell

Mini Teaser: He said that economic interdependence had made war obsolete. Four years later, World War One turned him into a laughingstock. Yet his later career saw him abandon many of his own illusions.

by Author(s): Jacob Heilbrunn

OVER A century ago, a talented British newspaperman sent a manuscript on the irrationality of war to numerous London publishers. It was uniformly rejected on the grounds that the public was uninterested in the topic. After he paid a well-known firm to print his opuscule, it quickly garnered praise, and then, a few months later, an expanded edition became a publishing sensation. It sold several million copies and was almost immediately translated into twenty-five languages. At a moment when a highly nationalistic imperial Germany was arming itself to the teeth and Edwardian England was, in turn, bolstering its naval program, the book’s thesis was as revolutionary as it was sweeping—that growing economic interdependence among nations rendered renewed conflict a thing of the past.

Norman Angell’s triumph was not adventitious. Much of it was owed to the unstinting efforts of Lord Esher, a close friend of King Edward VII and chairman of the war committee, who touted Angell’s The Great Illusion as a profound work. Others agreed. The volume became the subject of a cult following, and study groups and societies in England and Europe were formed to discuss and propagate its views. Reviews in the popular press were seldom less than adulatory. The New York Times declared, “The author is enjoying the almost unlimited praise of his contemporaries, expressed or indicated by many men of eminence and influence, by countless reviewers who have lately hungered for a hero to worship.” The Boston Herald stated, “This is an epoch-making book.” A French economics journal called it “profound,” and it was hailed in Germany as “an invaluable contribution.” Edward VII read the book and an institute called the Garton Foundation was established to disseminate its message. Lord Esher wrote the author, “Your book can be as epoch making as Seeley’s Expansion of England or Mahan’s Sea Power. It is sent forth at the right psychological moment, and wants to be followed up.” Esher himself did just that: he lectured at the Sorbonne as well as to a group of high-ranking military officers, which included Sir John French, the chief of the General Staff, to explain that growing economic ties meant that armed conflict “becomes every day more difficult and improbable.”

Yet only four years after this volume appeared, the improbable occurred, severing the very economic ties that were supposed to render conflict among nations nugatory. In August 1914, Europe plunged into World War I. By war’s end, the Austro-Hungarian, German and Russian monarchies had been toppled. Dictatorships emerged. And so the heady acclaim that Angell had experienced on the eve of the Great War was replaced by withering scorn. Perhaps the most lasting verdict came in 1962 with Barbara Tuchman’s popular history, The Guns of August:

By impressive examples and incontrovertible argument Angell showed that in the present financial and economic interdependence of nations, the victor would suffer equally with the vanquished; therefore war had become unprofitable; therefore no nation would be so foolish as to start one.

Angell enjoyed a career that included writing a total of forty-one books, winning the Nobel Peace Prize and becoming a member of Parliament—“It is the only gate before which I have ever stood filled with envy,” wrote Anthony Trollope in Can You Forgive Her?, “sorrowing to think that my steps might never pass under it”—but his popular reputation never really recovered. Instead, his name became a synonym for naive utopianism. Shakespeare’s description in Julius Caesar of Casca as belonging to the kind of men who “construe things after their fashion, / Clean from the purpose of the things themselves” comes forcibly to mind when considering Angell’s posthumous reputation. As the Canadian writer Dan Gardner sympathetically observed in his study of expert opinion, Future Babble, “No one has ever suffered more for a prediction that failed.”

But as the hundredth anniversary of World War I looms large—and a spate of books arguing about its real origins appears (was Germany the culprit? Russia? England? Austria?)—a fresh look at Angell, too, is surely warranted. Indeed, his remarkable life has attracted fresh scholarly scrutiny. Perhaps no one has done more to rescue Angell from the condescension of the past than Martin Ceadel in his punctilious study, Living the Great Illusion, which this essay draws upon. What emerges is an intriguingly contradictory character with a flair for self-promotion. A canny operator, he steadily sidled toward realist principles, abandoning some of his own illusions, even if he never quite explicitly acknowledged his transformation. He embarked upon a prolonged intellectual journey—from opposition to war to an appreciation of the centrality of power in international relations—that indicates he was a restless and, more often than not, insightful student of world politics.

The school of thought that this intellectual gladiator helped found—liberal internationalism—has demonstrated a remarkable perdurability. All along during the Cold War, the United States attempted to use a web of economic ties to create closer relations with and prosperity for Europe and Asia. But, when the conflict with the Soviet Union ended, the thesis of globalization, harking back to Angell’s heady pre–World War I argument, reemerged. It reached its apex during the 1990s, in the time of the Clinton administration, which emphasized, or tried to emphasize, economic ties with other nations over the exercise of military force. Walter Wriston, who was head of Citicorp, heralded the information age in his 1992 book The Twilight of Sovereignty as marking a new era of global convergence, rendering national borders impotent and obsolete. Wriston saw the fax machine as the “pamphleteer of the late twentieth century.” Today the most prominent globalization cheerleader is New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who announced in 1999 that Angell was “actually right.” In The Lexus and the Olive Tree, he promulgated his “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention,” which held that no two countries that had a McDonald’s would go to war with each other because getting a Golden Arches franchise signified membership in the new, globalized order of international cooperation. But, after war between Serbia and its Balkan neighbors put paid to that theory, Friedman amended it slightly in another best seller, The World Is Flat, by introducing the “Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention.”

Now, with the economic collapse that began in 2008 lingering on in Europe and America, the theory of globalization is under siege. This has led inevitably to dismissive references to Angell as the ultimate progenitor of delusions about international affairs (though it was, of course, Karl Marx who first discussed the phenomenon of the newly emerging global capitalism in The Communist Manifesto: “In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations”). But a look at Angell’s full career indicates that his story is more complicated—and more enlightening—than the caricature of many of his detractors would suggest.

Perhaps Angell’s most outstanding characteristic was his relentless desire to puncture conventional thinking. He went from foe of World War I to friend of Winston Churchill and vigorous opponent of the appeasement of the great dictators. After World War II, he warned about the Soviet threat. He never fully left the Left, but he didn’t hesitate to chastise it for its own naïveté about power politics.

ANGELL’S PENCHANT for upsetting intellectual apple carts began at an early age. Born on December 26, 1872, into a prosperous family that lived in Holbeach, Lincolnshire, he soon rebelled against his mother’s Christian faith. As a lad, he immersed himself in political debates at a time, as he recalled later, “when George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells were just beginning to come into prominence.” These influences, along with the Fabian Society of that era and, as he recounted, “all the fermentation of socialism and what not,” transformed him into a “socialist, an agnostic, a republican.” Politics, he mused, was “entertainment”—there weren’t the distractions of football or movies, let alone video games. Then his father sent him abroad to Saint-Omer to study at a lycée. By age seventeen, he was editing an English-language newspaper while enrolled at the University of Geneva.

A young idealist, Angell came to regard Europe as suffused with parochial, nationalistic feuds and hopelessly backward when it came to power politics. He headed for the New World. He worked as a cowhand and prospector before becoming a homesteader in 1892 in California, where he also began writing essays about economics. He defended free trade and attacked Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge for espousing protectionism. He observed, “One may say without exaggeration that whole States in the West owe their prosperity to the British market.” Later he took a swipe at Theodore Roosevelt’s praise for the strenuous life, which Angell depicted as a reversion to the nasty habits of Europe that the New Eden was supposed to shun: “The superiority of this country to the Old World lay in our freedom from the burden of militarism, from the mischief of the military ideal.” Engaging in foreign quarrels, he said, was a sideshow for America and prompted it to “prefer indulgence in a sentiment of hostility to the furtherance of our interests.” The “our” indicates that Angell had come to see himself as something of an American. But for all his solicitude for his adopted country, he failed to make it financially and ended up accepting a well-paid position in Paris in 1897 as a newspaper editor for the Daily Messenger, where he continued to observe and write about international affairs. He was also deeply influenced by Gustave Le Bon’s new book, The Crowd, which heightened his conviction that the masses were susceptible to being manipulated by crude appeals to nationalism. In 1903, he published his first book, Patriotism Under Three Flags: A Plea for Rationalism in Politics, which drew on his experiences in England, America and France to argue against jingoism. This maiden effort went nowhere.

Image: Pullquote: Angell’s career provides an object lesson, not in the absurdity of liberal internationalism but, rather, in its limitations.Essay Types: Essay