Disillusioned by the Great Illusion: The Outbreak of Great War


As we approach the centennial of World War I, Norman Angell is likely to receive more than the ritual criticisms that he endures in college and university courses on international relations each semester.  Despite enjoying a sterling career—he served in the British Parliament, received a knighthood for public service at the end of his time in office, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1933—he is remembered primarily for a book that he wrote in 1910, The Great Illusion.  In that text, runs the (or a) standard critique, he argued that economic interdependence between the countries of Western Europe had rendered war between them impossible.  Rather than changing course in the face of widespread criticism, Angell doubled down on that judgment and published an expanded version of The Great Illusion in 1913.  Europe descended into chaos less than a year later, affirming that formal education does not always produce practical enlightenment.

Angell argued that war was futile; history, however, remembers him for arguing that it could not occur.  That this misinterpretation endures is unsurprising; distortions calcify quickly in the absence of correctives (and often persist despite them).  What is surprising, however, is that it emerged in the first instance, considering how fundamentally it misreads The Great Illusion.  “War is not impossible,” Angell explained therein, “and no responsible [p]acifist ever said it was; it is not the likelihood of war which is the illusion, but its benefits.”  Indeed, in a March 8, 1913 letter to the Sunday Review—a copy of which appears in a 1921 sequel to The Great Illusion entitled The Fruits of Victory—Angell asserted that “not only do I regard war [between Britain and Germany] as possible, but extremely likely” (emphasis mine).

Even though he would take the time to issue countless such clarifications throughout his career, Angell had already grown exasperated soon after the first edition of the book appeared: “I find I am shouting myself hoarse in the [p]ress against this monstrous ‘impossibility of war’ foolishness.”  On May 22, 1915, the New York Times asserted that Angell “has written books in the endeavor to prove that war has been made impossible by modern economic conditions….events have shown their fallacy.  Ten nations, more or less closely bound a short time ago by economic ties, are now involved in war.”  He replied two days later:

I have never written any book to prove that war has been made impossible…in every book I have written on the subject, [I have] urged, perhaps with wearisome emphasis, that no such conclusion could be drawn…Indeed, considering that violent wars were raging when the books were written; [and] have been raging very nearly continuously ever since, such books, had they been based on the argument that “wars had become impossible”, must quite obviously have been just silly rubbish.

One could argue that Angell’s overwrought manner of expression made his arguments vulnerable to distortion.  His biographer, Martin Ceadal, observes that because The Great Illusion’s “principal idea” was conveyed in “such loose and alarmist language,” “the misapprehension developed that the ‘illusion’ in question was not the economic rationality of great-power war in the twentieth century but its likelihood or even its possibility.”

But it was not only Angell’s language that proved problematic.  Even his staunch defenders—of whom there are admittedly not many—concede that he made conceptual misjudgments, which yielded concrete mistakes.  Jacob Heilbrunn observed this past September, for example, that “Angell had wrongly deprecated the centrality of power in international relations.  In 1914, for example, he announced…‘There will never be another war between European powers’.”

Considering how much time Angell spent clarifying The Great Illusion’s central thesis—that economic interdependence made war futile—it is unsurprising that the book’s other judgments largely went unaddressed in the press.  At least two of them merit reexamination today: “national honor” should not be invoked to justify war, and “human nature” does not make it inevitable.

The first judgment’s most immediate application is tension between China and Japan.  It is difficult to imagine that the two nations would countenance going to war over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands if they were solely considering those territories’ strategic benefits—which are limited, if not nonexistent.  Each country harbors deeply felt, historically rooted animosity towards the other, and each has a powerful narrative of national humiliation.  But Angell would have little patience for the suggestion that they might be excused for going to war in the name of dignity.  The “vagueness and elasticity” of the term “national honor,” he declared, “make it possible to regard a given incident, at will, as either harmless or a casus belli.  Our sense of proportion in these matters approximates to that of the schoolboy.  The passing jeer of a foreign journalist, a foolish cartoon, is sufficient to start the dogs of war baying up and down the land.”

The second judgment—that human nature does not inexorably cause war—is justified on several grounds, three of which spring to mind.  First, very few phenomena are preordained.  Imprudent provocations and responses may make war more likely, but they do not make it inevitable.  It is leaders who make the choice to go to war (and to lay down arms).  Second, if humans were indeed captive to primal impulses, one would expect all manner of conflict—great-power, civil, and so forth—to occur with at least the same frequency over time.  The preponderance of evidence, however—summarized in books such as Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) and Joshua Goldstein’s Winning the War on War, and in work by organizations such as the Human Security Report Project—suggests that the opposite is occurring.  As Simon Kuper recently observed, “today’s overriding reality is peace—more widespread internationally and domestically than probably ever before.”  It is true, of course, as Frank Hoffman has argued forcefully here at War on the Rocks, that current tranquility—relative to the 1910s and the 1940s—does not guarantee of future order.  Hoffman fears that “the future decade could be more dangerous due to many possible combinations of rising powers, nuclear proliferation, proxy wars, catastrophic terrorism, resource competition, and economic disparity.”  For the time being, however, the trend lines are encouraging.  Third, even if human nature is immutable, human behavior is not; the two should not be conflated.  In his June 12, 1935 Nobel lecture, Angell observed:

Perhaps you cannot “change human nature”—I don’t indeed know what the phrase means.  But you can certainly change human behavior, which is what matters, as the whole panorama of history shows….The more it is true to say that certain impulses, like those of certain forms of nationalism, are destructive, the greater is the obligation to subject them to the direction of conscious intelligence and of social organization.

It is sad that as prolific and wide-ranging a thinker as Angell—he wrote 41 books in as many years—is mainly remembered for expressing a view that he did not hold.  In truth, the insights that he reached in the previous century offer sound coordinates for the policymakers who are entrusted with steering this one.


Ali Wyne is an associate of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a contributing analyst at Wikistrat.  Follow him on Twitter.


Photo credit: nathan17