The Great Illusion

The saddest of the books on my office bookshelf is an old one published nearly a century ago: Norman Angell's The Great Illusion: A Study of the Relation of Military Power in Nations to Their Economic and Social Advantage , which tried to prove that military conquest was obsolete.

Angell's argument was simple: in all prolonged modern industrial wars, everybody loses. Losers lose the most, but winners also are worse off than if peace had been maintained. Many fathers, sons, and husbands are dead, and so are many mothers, wives, and daughters. Much wealth has been blown up. Much architecture has been turned into rubble. Confiscation damages the rule of law on which modern industrial prosperity rests. The most that even the winners can say is that they are little losers rather than big losers. Modern industrial war is, as the computer in the 1982 movie War Games put it, a very peculiar game: "The only way to win is not to play."

At the time that Angell wrote, some people argued that war was an important means to promote national prosperity; that commercial prosperity was the fruit of military power. Angell puzzled over how pre-WWI pan-German politicians could believe that German prosperity required a big battle fleet when the absence of one made no difference to the prosperity of Norway, Denmark, or Holland. He looked forward to the coming of an age of rational statesmanship, when every prime minister and foreign minister would recognize that regardless of the matter in dispute, binding arbitration between nations was a better strategy than war.

He was, of course, right in his judgment that the only way to prevent any modern industrial war from becoming a destructive tragedy for all was to quickly conclude a ceasefire. Governments that view aggressive war as a means to prosperity have been rare since the end of World War I: the Imperial Japanese government that launched World War II in the Pacific and Saddam Hussein's two grabs for oilfields are examples that spring immediately to mind. In one sense, governments have learned the lesson Norman Angell preached.

But what makes The Great Illusion the saddest book on my office bookshelf is that we have found other reasons to fight wars, and the years since Angell wrote his book have seen the most terrible and bloody wars ever. We have fought wars to preserve colonial domination and wars to end it. We have seen civil wars. We have seen ideological wars. We have seen wars of extermination like the one that Hitler and the Nazis waged against not just Jews and Gypsies, but Poles and Russians. We have seen ethnic wars and wars fought to make governments stop killing their citizens. Indeed, we have seen more religious wars than at any time since the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648.

Yet there is cause for hope. From the pro-consulate of Julius Caesar until 1945, there was most likely at least one army crossing or about to cross or thinking of crossing the Rhine in arms. Now there are none. A little more than a century and a half ago the United States appeared willing to go to war with the world's only superpower of the time to try to turn Vancouver, British Columbia, into a city ruled from Washington, D.C. rather than from Ottawa or London.

Vancouver is a lovely city, and I would love to have the voters of British Columbia inside the US, because I think they would add much health to the American electorate. But nobody thinks that idea worth fighting a war over. A century ago, a French politician was no more likely to advocate peace and detente with Germany than a modern Arab politician is likely to advocate peace and detente with Israel.

Academic foreign policy "realists" (who somehow strike me as not a very realistic bunch) attributed the end of Franco-German antagonism to the fact that they had something bigger to be scared of: Russia, which was terrifying under Stalin, frightening under Khrushchev, and worrisome under Brezhnev. Let the Cold War end, they said, and then we will see France and Germany begin to rattle their sabers again, for that is the tragedy of international power politics. Yet the Cold War has been over for fifteen years, and military conflict between France and Germany today seems as unlikely as military conflict between America and Canada.

I hope that it is the fact of European interdependence - an interdependence carefully constructed by Jean Monnet, Robert Schumann, Konrad Adenauer, and those who followed in their footsteps - and not the memory of the horror of World War II that has caused the armies that used to cross the Rhine in arms to vanish. If so, there is a chance that the globalized economic age to which we look forward will be a more peaceful age than the twentieth century was. If not, then Angell may well continue to be as irrelevant as he was right.