Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Robert Kagan & Norman Angell

Yesterday I heard snatches of a call-in radio show in which Robert Kagan was talking about his new book The World America Made. One caller apparently (I say "apparently" because I missed the question itself) made a point about economic interdependence and its connection to the unlikelihood of war.

In response Kagan trotted out the old, inaccurate Norman Angell story. It goes like this: About five years before WW1 Norman Angell published The Great Illusion (which was a huge best-seller) making the very same case about economic interdependence and war that the caller made. Then WW1 happened. Therefore economic interdependence (actually Kagan said economic "rationality," if I recall correctly) cannot be relied on to prevent war. People are motivated by many things, Kagan went on: hatreds, passions, questions of honor, not just economics.

Well, there are still hatreds and passions around, no doubt about that. But there are two problems with Kagan's reply: (1) Norman Angell did not say that economic interdependence made war impossible; he said it made war futile (a lose-lose proposition); (2) certain things have changed since WW1, and one reason they have changed is precisely the impact of WW1 itself.

In the opening pages of his book Dangerous Times? The International Politics of Great Power Peace [Amazon; Powell's], Christopher Fettweis makes the point about Angell very clearly:

It is hard to believe that anyone who has actually read Angell's work would come away with the impression that he believed the age of major war had come to an end. Angell was hardly a naive, utopian pacifist.... War with Germany was not only possible, he wrote, "but extremely likely." He argued that "as long as there is danger, as I believe there is, from German aggression, we must arm," and that he "would not urge the reduction of our war budget by a single sovereign." In order for war to become obsolete, Angell realized, a revolution in ideas had to occur. His book [The Great Illusion] was an attempt to spark that revolution. It was "not a plea for the impossibility of war...but for its futility."
Kagan is a popular author and a think-tanker but also a historian -- his book Dangerous Nation was his Ph.D. dissertation at American University. Everyone makes mistakes, including credentialed historians, but this one, made on national radio, was unfortunate.
On Angell, a good starting point is:
J.D.B. Miller, "Norman Angell and Rationality in International Relations," in D. Long and P. Wilson, eds., Thinkers of the Twenty Years' Crisis (Oxford U.P., 1995), pp.100-121. There is also now a full-length biography: Martin Ceadel, Living the Great Illusion: Sir Norman Angell, 1872-1967 (Oxford U.P., 2009; here). See also Daniel Pick, War Machine: The Rationalisation of Slaughter in the Modern Age (Yale U.P., 1993), pp.150-51, for several interesting quotes from Angell's 1915 pamphlet The Prussian in our Midst.
P.s. I recently ran across a conference paper which argued that because there is a statistical correlation between growing interdependence (or globalization, to use the paper's word) and growing international tension in the years before WW1, we can infer that the former caused the latter (!). Well, perhaps it was a bit more nuanced than that but not much. I'm not giving the link because I may blog about the paper properly later on.
P.p.s. I just looked at the brief Wikipedia entry on The Great Illusion. The entry claims the 'futility' argument was added in the 1933 edition. I believe this is incorrect and that the argument was in the original edition.
P.p.p.s. I have changed the Wikipedia entry.

No comments: