Marine Corps University Prof. Jim Lacey and I arrive at the same destination with regard to the effects of economic interdependence on geopolitics, but we differ on the route. Last week, he took to National Review Online to criticize a recent RAND Corporation report for overstating the extent to which international trade and commerce discourage the resort to war. The RAND authors deem mutual economic dependence between China and the United States “an immensely powerful deterrent, in effect a form of mutually assured economic destruction.” Their choice of metaphor—nuclear deterrence—can be no accident. The implication: the two sides dare not fight each other lest they suffer irreparable harm that might collapse the global economic system in the bargain. What possible political stakes are worth such a price?
The RAND team stops short of declaring—alongside many Western commentators—that globalization has rendered geopolitics and warfare obsolete. But not by much. Lacey faults the report for an excess of optimism, and for slighting the place of U.S. military power as a backstop for the international order in Asia. So far, so good. Two quibbles, though.
Quibble #1: Norman Angell’s reputation is among the collateral damage from Lacey’s volley of counterarguments. Though it won’t hurt the feelings of this long-dead English intellectual, it draws too straight a line between his writings and present-day globalization proponents. Reviewing his century-old arguments about commerce and geopolitics could shed light on U.S.-China geopolitical competition in the here and now.
In brief, Angell’s landmark treatise The Great Illusion (1910) maintained that peoples could lay down arms and enjoy the blessings of perpetual peace, provided human nature changed—as he insisted it could. Yet a false consciousness held sway. The “great illusion” that gave the book its title was that nations must build up political and military power to flourish economically. Otherwise they would lose out in the Darwinian struggle of the fittest. The popular view was that Great Britain had thrived commercially “because she has been able to make her political and military force felt and to exercise her influence among all the nations of the world.” London bestrode global commerce “because her unconquered navy has dominated, and continues to dominate, all the avenues of commerce.” By this time, however, Imperial Germany was contesting British rule of the oceans. Berlin was assembling a colonial empire of its own and building a navy to match. How the naval arms race would turn out, no one knew.
Angell wanted to put an end to such competition. He pronounced the “currently accepted argument” about the link between prosperity and military force a dangerous fallacy. Warfare and conquest meant destroying the property and wealth of fellow commercial nations, and thus their capacity to carry on trade. Fighting against trading partners constituted self-defeating behavior to the nth degree.
Readers commonly conclude, with Lacey, that Norman Angell predicted an inevitable end to warfare, and that the outbreak of World War I scant years after The Great Illusion appeared discredited his vision of a peaceful, prosperous world. Not so. He’s a figure of fun here at the Naval War College when his name comes up, as it generally does each spring when we study the origins of World War I. But such verdicts do him an injustice. Angell admitted that the great illusion held his contemporaries spellbound. That force underwrote commerce was an “all but universal idea.” This misconception was “so profoundly mischievous as to misdirect an immense part of the energies of mankind, and to misdirect them to such degree that unless we liberate ourselves from this superstition civilization itself will be threatened.”
Angell despaired of breaking the spell. Not “a single authority of note” had defied the logic of power politics, even among those who “occupied prominent positions in the propaganda of peace.” Pacifists were “at one with the veriest fire-eaters on this point.” Nations, he concluded, could never transcend armed strife until they altered their most basic assumptions about international politics. Disarmament advocates could bring them around, but he despaired of doing so easily or quickly. In an important sense, Angell had it right. To escape what contemporary scholars call the “security dilemma”—arming to meet threats that arise when other peoples arm—human nature must change. And he insisted it could change.
The questions raised by the RAND report, then, are really philosophical ones. Is human nature immutable? If not, has it changed enough that economic logic trumps geopolitical interests in theatres like Taiwan and the South China Sea? I doubt it. Thucydides, the “father of history,” claimed that his chronicle of the Peloponnesian War was a timeless bequest, precisely because war was a fixture in human affairs. Fear, honor, and interest drove nations into policies that clashed with one another, sometimes violently. History could bear out Angell’s millennial vision one day, but the world of Greek antiquity remains a better guide for now. International politics can’t be reduced to cost/benefit analysis, removing non-rational factors like chance, uncertainty, and dark passions from the policy mix.
Quibble #2: Lacey compares the United States, today’s predominant sea power, to the Great Britain of Angell’s day. He observes that “the dominant power of the 19th century, Britain, was able to make room for America’s post-Civil War expansion without a major shooting war between the two.” He credits this relatively amicable adjustment to the great-power equilibrium to the “unrivalled military supremacy” Britain supposedly maintained during the fin de siècle age. The lesson is that Washington needs to follow the British example, preserving its own military supremacy to discourage Chinese adventurism.
But the historical analogy only goes so far. True, the United States and Britain fashioned a modus vivendi a century ago that forestalled armed conflict between the rising challenger and the reigning master of the seas. British maritime supremacy, however, was far from unrivalled at the turn of the century. The main reason London and Washington could work out an arrangement was because the British confronted a direct threat to their homeland, namely the battle fleet German shipwrights were bolting together across the North Sea from the British Isles. The Royal Navy could no longer face down a “peer competitor” in European waters while keeping a squadron in the Americas strong enough to vanquish the U.S. Navy. For its part, Washington had resuscitated the Monroe Doctrine and hoped to usher European navies—even friendly ones—out of the Western Hemisphere. The German threat far outweighed any hypothetical American threat, so London brought the fleet home while entrusting its interests to a regional great power. (British leaders cut a similar deal in the Far East, allying with Imperial Japan.)
The situation is radically different today. Unlike Britain, the United States faces no immediate threat to the homeland that compels it to bring forces home. Indeed, Washington has repeatedly proclaimed that it intends to remain Asia’s foremost maritime power, the rise of Chinese sea power notwithstanding. This is rather like London’s announcing a century ago that it meant to perpetuate British supremacy in the United States’ geographic backyard indefinitely, despite the emergence of a great-power U.S. Navy. Would the transition from British to American predominance have taken place without strife under such circumstances? Lacey’s analogy is worth pondering. But the differences between then and now are more instructive than the similarities.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.