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

Angell was undaunted. The next decade saw what Ceadel terms an “astonishing improvement in Angell’s fortunes.” The newspaper magnate Lord Northcliffe, who was impressed by Angell’s knowledge of Europe, appointed him manager of the Daily Mail’s continental edition. So far, so good. But what really made Angell’s name was the publication in 1909 of a book called Europe’s Optical Illusion. At a moment when Europe seemed headed toward conflict, Angell offered a rosier scenario, suggesting that financial links had made conflict unlikely. This gave hope to England’s peace camp, which warmed to his blasé attitude about warfare. He wrote that “our defeat cannot advantage our enemy nor do us in the long run much harm.” This of course signified a woeful misunderstanding of Kaiser Wilhelm’s aims, particularly his desire to rule over a German-led Mitteleuropa.

Still, Angell was right to debunk the bogus notion that capitalism was responsible for war. This was not an insignificant contribution. Angell was entering the lists at a time when competing liberal and radical theories about imperialism were flourishing. Richard Cobden and John Bright, champions of a “little England” that focused on trade and didn’t intervene abroad, had argued that financiers were essentially interested in peace. But J. A. Hobson, who viewed finance capital as the main motor of imperial expansion and war, would have none of it. He offered a much more radical critique in Imperialism, which Lenin relied upon in composing his own misbegotten tract, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Angell offered a different critique that focused on the irrationality and hubris of various nations: “Vanity and all its concomitants: national pride of place, of mastery; coerciveness, that conception of ‘honour’ which demands vindication by force of arms, the lust of rule and dominion, the pride of territorial possession, and the jealousy of like possessions in others.”

EUROPE’S OPTICAL ILLUSION led a few months later to his breakthrough book, a revised and expanded version titled The Great Illusion.

How does this much-derided study hold up in retrospect? Angell’s primary gift was his journalistic talent—the ability to deliver sweeping statements in clear prose. He explained everything. The explanation for the armaments rivalry in Europe, he said, was not difficult to discern. The states’ motives were all too obvious:

They are based on the universal assumption that a nation, in order to find outlets for expanding population and increasing industry, or simply to ensure the best conditions possible for its people, is necessarily pushed to territorial expansion and the exercise of political force against others. . . . The author challenges this whole doctrine.

Angell warned that the heads of European states risked becoming the caricatures that Hobson and others depicted.

It was a commonplace that military success was the precondition for economic prosperity. “The fact that Germany has of late come to the front as an industrial nation,” he wrote, “making giant strides in general prosperity and well-being, is deemed also to be the result of her military successes and the increasing political power which she is coming to exercise in Continental Europe.” But this was turning things on their head. The belief that material advantage could be derived by conquering another country or by adding fresh territories to an empire was wrong: “It is universally assumed that national power means national wealth, national advantage; that expanding territory means increased opportunity for industry; that the strong nation can guarantee opportunities for its citizens that the weak nation cannot.”

This was the optical illusion of Angell’s initial title. He saw it as a snare and a trap, nothing less than a superstition that threatened to plunge the nations of Europe into a senseless war. In his eyes, a war would have such convulsive effects on international trade that it would render the aggressor prostrate almost immediately. He declared:

Even where territory is not formally annexed, the conqueror is unable to take the wealth of a conquered territory, owing to the delicate interdependence of the financial world (an outcome of our credit and banking systems), which makes the financial and industrial security of the victor dependent upon financial and industrial security in all considerable civilized centres; so that widespread confiscation or destruction of trade and commerce in a conquered territory would react disastrously upon the conqueror.

Angell argued further that the fact that small states—Switzerland, Belgium or Holland—were as well off as larger ones with big militaries showed that armaments were no road to wealth. Even the direct occupation and confiscation of a foreign country’s assets would have no beneficial effect. According to Angell:

If the British could annihilate Germany, they would annihilate such an important section of their debtors as to create hopeless panic in London, and that panic would so react on their own trade that it would be in no sort of condition to take the place which Germany had previously occupied in neutral markets, leaving aside the question that by the act of annihilation a market equal to that of Canada and South Africa combined would be destroyed.

Angell was fascinated by markets. He subordinated everything to capital, and his worship of it led him to advocate a kind of international arrangement in which various countries would maintain financial order by accepting spheres of influence. He wrote, “It is more to the general interest to have an orderly and organized Asia Minor under German tutelage than to have an unorganized and disorderly one which should be independent.”

At the same time, Angell dismissed the idea that politics has to consist of a ceaseless struggle for power. Humans, he said, could change. Religious dogmas had been shed. So could militaristic ones. The notion that human bellicosity was irredeemable was mistaken. As he put it:

Man’s pugnacity, though not disappearing, is very visibly, under the forces of mechanical and social development, being transformed and diverted from ends that are wasteful and destructive to ends that are less wasteful, which render easier that co-operation between men in the struggle with their environment which is the condition of their survival and advance; that changes which, in the historical period, have been extraordinarily rapid are necessarily quickening—quickening in geometrical rather than in arithmetical ratio.

Angell also lobbed some intellectual mortars at the militarists who argued that the West was going soft, succumbing to what in the eighteenth century was known as luxury and effeminacy. Angell’s embrace of luxury contradicts Montesquieu and Edward Gibbon, who feared that citizens would happily exchange the freedoms of the republic for prosperity and indolence. As Gibbon put it in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

In the purer ages of the commonwealth, the use of arms was reserved for those ranks of citizens who had a country to love, a property to defend, and some share in enacting those laws, which it was their interest, as well as duty, to maintain. But in proportion as the public freedom was lost in extent of conquest, war was gradually improved into an art, and degraded into a trade.

Where Angell went astray, however, was in underestimating the profits that could be extracted from colonies. Belgium, for example, profited immensely from the brutal exploitation of its territories in the Congo, as Adam Hochschild has vividly shown in King Leopold’s Ghost. He also was mistaken to suggest that warfare would almost instantly lead to general economic collapse. It did not. Instead, the war ground on for years. But almost no one had anticipated the emergence of trench warfare. Moreover, it certainly was true that Germany, which, together with Austria-Hungary, started World War I, found itself in desperate straits by 1917 as it became unable to feed its population properly. But this was more a function of the naval blockade of the German Reich than it was of financial upheaval. The true turmoil came after the war, when the Allies sought massive indemnities from the fledgling Weimar Republic, a course that Angell, like John Maynard Keynes, whom he knew personally, correctly denounced as a punitive measure that would boomerang upon England and France. Still, Angell was clearly wrong to suggest that aggression was, as he put it, “out of date.” Indeed, several decades later the Nazi empire would be predicated on the notion that aggression could pay, and it did—for a while. The Nazis relentlessly extracted supplies and natural resources from the territories that they conquered in an effort to avoid any shortages on the home front.

During World War I, Angell understandably bridled at the idea that he was “attacking patriotism,” as one of his contemporaries put it. This was a canard. He was assailing what he saw as irrationality. But his opposition to it led him astray. The cold, hard truth is that Angell had wrongly deprecated the centrality of power in international relations. In 1914, for example, he announced to an American journalist, “There will never be another war between European powers.” Once Germany backed Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia, British progressives went into overdrive to avert England’s entry into the war. They failed. By the end of 1914, Angell was performing ambulance service in France. A year later he was traveling in America seeking U.S. support for Britain in the war. Once President Woodrow Wilson sought congressional approval for war against Germany and the Central powers, Angell became a staunch proponent of a league of nations. Collective security was to become his new mantra and the path back to respectability.

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