One hundred years ago, men of war were pulverizing the earth from the Marne to the rivers of Babylon.
This came as a surprise to many thoughtful English observers of war and peace in a new century. Indeed, according to the fashionable progressive ethos of the time, conflict among nations had become obsolete, as diplomacy would resolve international disputes and economic integration would render wars of conquests unproductive.
This was the essence of Norman Angell’s book The Great Illusion published in 1909, an instant best-seller and the intellectual foundation of a new liberal cult. Angell’s “greatest disciple,” according to Barbara W. Tuchman, writing in The Guns of August, was Viscount Esher, a close friend of King George V and the chairman of the Imperial War committee on restructuring the British Army after the Boer War. Convinced that a European war was a great illusion, the good lord gave a series of lectures on the subject at both Cambridge and the Sorbonne, strongly arguing that “new economic factors clearly prove the insanity of aggressive wars.”
A 20th century war would be on such a scale that its inevitable consequences of “commercial disaster, financial ruin and individual suffering” would be “so pregnant with restraining influences” as to make war unthinkable. He gave a copy of Angell’s work to the German general Friedrich von Bernhardi, who was writing a book entitled Germany and the Next War. The chapter headings were most illuminating and featured gems like The Right to Make War, The Duty to Make War and World Power or Downfall.
In their clubs, the Angell faithful expressed surprise at German militarist candour but dismissed it, as they were convinced that “historical forces” would eventually steer Berlin into the sanguine realms of reason and common sense. With quintessential English condescension, they argued that continentals being continentals often said things they really did not mean.
While the British and French displayed their geopolitical phlegmatic demeanour and insouciance, – with many notable exceptions like the young Winston Churchill and Lord Fisher – the German General Staff was being drilled in theories of war as biological necessity. These were zero sum game notions of race, power, land and honour misappropriated from Darwin and regurgitated through the ramblings of Treitschke: potent elixirs served in Imperial German seraglios of war. The “Kaiserites” were from Mars; the leaders and liberal intellectuals of the Western Democracies were from the realm of the Roman goddess Pax, residing in a gentler place.
From time immemorial, history has shown that nations, confronted with hegemonic powers have not been able to contain their expansionist foes with reason and diplomacy alone. The history of war is the history of the failure of diplomacy. True, there are examples where diplomacy can delay the inevitable for a while. But, this the exception and not the rule. Edward N. Luttwak’s monumental The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire is about the history of that exception. How many historical examples can we provide where a weak power relies less on military strength and more on persuasion and gets away with it for 1,058 years? Sooner or later, the vacuum created by the weak is filled by the strong and, finally, even dexterous Constantinople falls before the Ottoman surge.
Currently, we are subjected to a veritable barrage of commentary extolling the virtues of the Iran Deal with particular emphasis on how alleged Iranian economic self-interest would moderate its behaviour, and that the more Tehran is integrated into the global economic order, with billions pouring into its coffers, the more vested the Persian theocracy would become in the maintenance of regional peace, order and stability. One author went so far as to remind us “It’s The Economy Stupid,” arguing that the issue is not self-monitoring Iran collecting air and soil samples at suspected nuclear weaponisation sites, but how the promised economic nirvana would help both “Israel and Iran.” Happy times are here again!
In a celebrated letter to Frederic the Great, Voltaire wrote “History does not repeat itself, men do.” Pursuing the same old failed policies of appeasement with annihilationist foes and expecting to wake up in Elysium instead of drowning in blood-soaked trenches is the only Great Illusion.