TCS Daily

The Great Illusion, Redux

By Gregory Scoblete - April 27, 2005 12:00 AM

In case you've been residing under a rock these past few years, or have just been reading the newspaper and watching the news, you probably didn't notice that peace is at hand. Not just any peace, mind you, but global peace -- the kind of peace VW bumper stickers are made of.

You can thank globalization for our dawning Age of Aquarius. As national economies weave ever deeper into the fabric of international trade, as multi-national corporations source components and manpower from diverse corners of the globe, as cooperation nets more than competition, our glorious dawn sweeps the war-like nations into the dust bin of history.

At least, that's the theory. And it's one that is enjoying a robust hearing of late. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's new book, The World is Flat, is devoted to just such a thesis. If globalization-as-national pacifier sounds familiar, it's because we've heard it before.

In 1913, the British economist Norman Angell published a widely celebrated book arguing that in an age of interconnected international trade and enmeshed national economies, war was quickly becoming an expensive anachronism. Angell reasoned that thanks to deepening economic ties among powers, war would cost the aggressors more than any hoped-for gains. States, appraising this calculus, would conclude that war was not a worthy option. Global peace ensues.

The book's title was grimly ironic, The Great Illusion. Angell wrote in the author's synopsis:

        What are the fundamental motives that explain the present rivalry of 
        armaments in Europe, notably the Anglo-German? Each nation pleads the 
        need for defence; but this implies that someone is likely to attack, and 
        has therefore a presumed interest in so doing. What are the motives 
        which each State thus fears its neighbors may obey?

        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.... 
        It is assumed that a nation's relative prosperity is broadly determined 
        by its political power; that nations being competing units, advantage 
        in the last resort goes to the possessor of preponderant military force, the 
        weaker goes to the wall, as in the other forms of the struggle for life.

        The author challenges this whole doctrine. He attempts to show that it 
        belongs to a stage of development out of which we have passed that the 
        commerce and industry of a people no longer depend upon the expansion 
        of its political frontiers; that a nation's political and economic frontiers do 
        not now necessarily coincide; that military power is socially and economically 
        futile, and can have no relation to the prosperity of the people exercising it...

Two devastating world wars and 50 years of global conflict later, it's easy to laugh at the naïve certitude of Angell's thesis, but at the time such certitude was widely and deeply held.

In The Guns of August Barbara Tuchman described the remarkable impact The Great Illusion had on contemporary European intellectuals and statesmen. The book became, in Tuchman's words, "a cult." It was circulated at universities and inspired study groups "devoted to propagating its dogma."

In a testament to its surreal power, the book's most "earnest disciple" was Viscount Esher, an advisor to the King of England and Chairman of the War Committee charged with rejuvenating the British army after the Boer war. Tuchman recounts that Escher even believed that Germany was "as receptive as Great Britain to the doctrine of Norman Angell." That one of Britain's principle military architects was convinced of the impossibility of war may help explain why so much of Europe was unprepared for the grim years ahead.

The Great Illusion, we know, was just that. Despite growing commercial ties within Europe, Germany invaded Belgium in August 1914, precipitating the First World War and the horrific carnage that followed. Whether the brutal years that swallowed an entire generation of young Europeans could have been avoided is the subject of endless scholarly inquiry, but what is clear today is that those in the thrall of Angellism could not -- or did not want to -- see the writing on the wall. Peace's permanence is so desperately wished for in every age that each calm is seized on as the glorious dawn of a new and everlasting era; and every age must face its brutal reminder that peace -- not war -- is history's exception.

Peace in Our Time, This Time

Angellism may have receded in the wake of mustard gas and trench warfare but its demise was short lived. Today, modern day Angells like Tom Friedman and Robert Wright -- author of the best selling Non Zero -- make the same argument. Only this time, they assert, it will be different.

Wright, in reviewing The World is Flat for Slate, anticipated the criticism:

        Friedman persuasively updates his Lexus-and-the-Olive-Tree argument 
        that economic interdependence makes war costlier for nations and hence 
        less likely. He's heard the counterargument --"That's what they said before 
        World War I!" -- and he concedes that a big war could happen. But he 
        shows that the pre-World War I era didn't have
this kind of
        interdependence -- the fine-grained and far-flung division of labor orchestrated 
        by Toyota, Wal-Mart, et al.

Perhaps a more "finely grained" globalization has rendered thousands of years of blood-soaked human history moot. Certainly Friedman, Wright and other modern-day Angells should not be dismissed out of hand. They do consistently acknowledge that despite globalization's pacific benefits, the world will remain a dangerous place. The problem comes not from the logic of their argument but from the predictive certitude of the claims -- a certitude that leads to an Angell-like faith in the redemption of humanity and ends in disillusioned misery. It is a certitude that led Britain's chief military planner to scoff at hints of German belligerency. It is certitude that leads Wright to argue that simply extending economic benefits to all rogue states is enough to ensure their transition to democracy.

If war costs too much, why would anyone wage it? Because nations, like people, do not always act according to a rational cost/benefit analysis -- especially if those nations are undemocratic. Passions sway polities and alter politics. The Palestinians turned down de facto statehood at Camp David in 2000, choosing instead to wage the Intifada, the effect of which was the complete ruination of the Palestinian economy. Any rational appraisal of the options on offer by Ehud Barak and President Clinton should have led Arafat, at the very least, to continue negotiations, but he choose to spurn those offers in favor of a mythical vision: a Middle East free of Israel. He was, in other words, unmoved by any prospective economic gains and losses.

As Washington Post columnist David Ignatius noted yesterday, nationalism is alive and well. It is inspiring the Iranians to press ahead with a nuclear bomb despite threats of economic sanctions from the U.N. and its European trading partners. It is also inspiring the Chinese government to violently protest and embarrass the Japanese -- their second largest trading partner with an annual trade of $168 billion dollars in 2004. The Chinese, in the Anti-Secession law, have also threatened war with their fifth largest trading partner: Taiwan.

So by all means let's be optimistic about the beneficent power of globalization -- it's certainly warranted. But Angell reminds us that human nature has a way of consistently confounding our predictions and ruthlessly puncturing our great illusions.


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