James Holmes

In Defense of Norman Angell

It may be best to think of ideals like abolishing war as a journey, not a destination.

James R. Holmes

The Naval Diplomat has long been a closet admirer of English intellectual Norman Angell. Well, not so closeted; I’ve defended him in print more than once. He needs defenders. Even today, four-plus decades after he went to his reward, detractors jeer at Angell for predicting an end to great-power war just before Europe marched off the precipice into World War I.

Au contraire. Rescuing Angell from the catcalls has become something of a personal mission. In his book The Great Illusion, to be sure, he maintained that economic interdependence ought to make armed strife a thing of the past. What right-thinking statesman goes to war against a trading partner, disrupting the markets on which his nation thrives? But Angell prophesied nothing. Quite the opposite; he believed a false consciousness gripped, well, most everyone in world capitals, militarists and pacifists alike. The common assumption that force remained useful prodded nations into acts contravening their joint interest in peaceful trade and commerce. This was the illusion he bemoaned.

Globalization may drive up the costs of armed conflict, but it cannot stop it altogether. Nor does globalization somehow render geography or geopolitics moot. Jacob Heilbrunn documents Angell’s life and times over at The National Interest. Check it out for a nifty snapshot of a big idea that shapes foreign-policy thinking to this day. Heilbrunn mounts only a tepid defense of Angell during his Great Illusion days. But he rightly praises the peace activist for learning from hard experience rather than clinging to his idée fixe come hell or high water. That bespeaks humility.

And indeed, Angell increasingly seemed to accept the tragedy of world politics under the press of two world wars and a Cold War. He faced the same inescapable problem all idealists confront. No matter how lofty most nations’ ideals might be, that is, a single, determined power that rejects those ideals can thwart them.

Pacifism? Fine — unless a rival nation refuses to disarm, and thus inherits a monopoly of force that lets its leadership have its way with pacifist neighbors. Same goes for disarmament. Few, even in the arms-control community, kid themselves that the nuclear-weapon states will dismantle their atomic arsenals — despite the pledge they codified in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Ceding a nuclear monopoly to the likes of Iran would represent a doomsday scenario.

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It may be best to think of ideals like Angell’s as a journey, not a destination. There’s little reason to think history will render moot Thucydides’ observation that fear and honor — not just calculations of interest — impel human actions. Over time, nevertheless, worthy principles may gradually reshape how peoples think about fear and honor. In turn that may moderate hardscrabble competition among nations. International affairs may come to approximate the ideal.

One can hope.