- The Washington Times - Friday, July 12, 2002

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick likes to use history in his speeches. Unfortunately, his interpretation and choice of inspiration should give pause to those with a conservative-realist approach to world affairs.

Mr. Zoellick has taken to citing Norman Angell's 1910 book, "The Great Illusion," holding it up as an example of the kind of vision that should inform American policy.

Mr. Zoellick is fascinated with the liberal outlook of a century ago, based on the new economy of its time. "That powerful combination of new technologies and new ideas combined with quickening economic openness led to a world of seemingly infinite possibilities" was how he described it to the Society of American Business Editors and Writers on April 30. He then went on to note: "This optimistic worldview was reflected in the literature of the day, such as Nobel winner Norman Angell's best seller, "The Great Illusion." Angell maintained that the new complex financial and commercial interdependence made war useless and unlikely in the modern era."

A few days later, he repeated this argument at St. Joseph's College in Indiana. His talk was titled, "Which World Will You Choose?" In it, he lamented that "it took the second half of the 20th century to recover the degree of economic openness that the world had lost in the first half of that century." But can we simply "choose" to adopt Norman Angell's vision?

"The Great Illusion" was published in reaction to the "naval scare" of 1909, when the expansion of Germany's High Seas Fleet menaced the Royal Navy's command of the sea upon which British survival depended. Angell was opposed to a British naval buildup in response.

Angell believed that free trade was the way to world peace because the economic interests of all people were in general harmony. His guide was Richard Cobden, who had proclaimed in 1848 that commerce was "the grand panacea" and that under its influence "the motive for large and mighty empires, for gigantic armies and great fleets would die away." And like Cobden, Angell got money from business interests who wanted to conduct trade without regard to geopolitics. Sir Richard Garton, a prominent industrialist, set up the Foundation for the Study of International Policy to promote Angell's ideas, and Andrew Carnegie also contributed.

Angell had his critics, however, among them the American naval thinker Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose book, "The Influence of Seapower Upon History" was not without its own influence. Mahan's critique of Angell concluded with the ultimate conservative rebuttal to all liberal moonshine: "It matters little what the arguments are by which such a theory is advocated, when the concrete facts of history are against it."

Let's start with the event that prompted Angell's book: the 1909 "naval panic." In 1908, German Adm. Alfred von Tirpitz set forth a plan to lay down four capital ships each year from 1908 to 1911, which would have given the German fleet a number of dreadnoughts equal to the Royal Navy by 1913. The Tirpitz plan became public just as a frugal Liberal government in London was planning to cut British procurement to only two battleships per year.

Tirpitz was aiming at the heart of Britain's pre-eminence. As the Earl of Selborne warned "To us a defeat in a maritime war … might mean the destruction of our mercantile marine, the stoppage of our manufactures, scarcity of food, invasion, disruption of Empire." The idea was that rather than risk a war with a well-armed Germany, London would be willing to grant Berlin "world political freedom" to expand as it desired.

Here, of course, was the other side of the commercial argument trade rivalry and economic warfare. The concrete history of the world since industry and technology have boosted output and wealth has been one of larger, longer wars fought on unprecedented scales. Greater resources fuel greater ambitions. Germany's rapid industrialization did not bring stability to Europe.

Most people understood this in 1909, and the popular cry "we want eight and we won't wait" got the Royal Navy eight dreadnoughts funded that year. England maintained the superiority that kept the German surface navy bottled up during the war that broke out in 1914.

Despite his predictive failure, there were attempts to revive Angell's thought after the war. But again, concrete matters got in the way. Angell was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1933 the same year Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. In 1938, the prominent British publishing house Penguin put out a special edition of "The Great Illusion," with a dramatic "Now!" added to the title. This was the year of the infamous Munich conference, where Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain sold out Czechoslovakia to Hitler for "peace in our time." A year later, Germany invaded Poland and World War II was under way.

Norman Angell is not the poster boy for enlightenment, but for repeated liberal failures to see the world as it really is.

Robert Zoellick is not the first U.S. trade representative to be gripped with nostalgia for the "promise" of Angell's bygone era. Bill Clinton's trade representative, Charlene Barshefsky, made similar speeches (though without the Angell reference), hoping also to re-create an imagined pre-1914 world.

One could have hoped that a change in administrations would have produced a more realist viewpoint, even without the added proof of a divided and dangerous world provided by September 11. But great illusions seem to go with the USTR job, which is another reason the American public is so skeptical about upcoming trade negotiations.

William R. Hawkins is a senior fellow for national security studies at the U.S. Business and Industry Council.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide