Norman Angell was a British Labour politician who wrote The Great Illusion in 1909. It was eerily prescient. Angell wrote that the then common belief that increased trade would end war was simply not the case. Human will always want to fight wars, either due to the mistaken belief that it will be profitable or because a nation will feel the need to fight for pride and honor. And not only was war not less likely, it was more dangerous than ever. The economies of the great powers were so intertwined that, no matter what the outcome of any war, both sides would lose. Big time.
This was correct a century ago and it is correct today. No developed nation today would gain anything by starting a war with another great power. China, Russia, Japan, India, America, the nations of Europe, and many other countries would be foolish to fight a war with another great power in the sense that it would not be profitable. Does that mean war won’t happen? Nonsense.
Yet everywhere I see people who seem to believe that human nature has been defeated, that human society is now so developed and rational that war is extinct. These people are everywhere, on all political fronts: from idealistic liberals to optimistic analysts. Some, particularly those in the libertarian crowd (who should know human nature), overestimate the importance of economics. Regarding the current row between Japan and China over territorial sovereignty, one libertarian commentator had this to say:
There’s no way Japan or China will risk the relationship they have with each other… It is inconceivable that either nation would allow this trade relationship to sour over some small islands (China calls them “rocks”) or over Taiwan ““ regardless of any agreements the United States may have with the government of Taiwan… The economic relationship between Japan and China will continue to grow. Japan needs Chinese goods; China needs Japanese technology, investment, and know-how. The histories of these two neighbors are so intertwined that they cannot be separated. Sure, as with all families, the siblings will sometimes fight and argue, but eventually they will stand together.
Statements such as these are buying into what Angell called The Great Illusion. Wars may not be profitable, but humans are hot-headed. We fight for honor and pride. The First and Second World Wars were all based on tragic miscalculation. And that risk exists today. And the scary realization that wars are not worth it, but states fight them anyway, should give us all pause to think.