The Great Illusion Has Been Punctured

August 24, 1994|By JONATHAN SCHELL

Around the turn of the century, a bitter debate took shape between imperialists and anti-imperialists. J.A. Hobson argued in his seminal work, ''Imperialism,'' that the great powers were impelled to seek colonies in a search of homes for the superfluity of their capital.

Lenin, borrowing from Hobson and amplifying his argument, asserted that the process was an inevitable and final stage in the unfolding series of crises that would send capitalism to its doom. The imperialists -- more or less in charge of every foreign office -- saw the defense or acquisition of empire as a glorious pursuit necessary to the power and prestige of a great nation.

Though one side in the debate abhorred imperialism while the other celebrated it, both agreed on one point: The conquered territories were a great benefit to those who acquired them.

However, one voice dissented from this point of fundamental agreement among otherwise implacable adversaries. It belonged to Norman Angell, author of ''The Great Illusion,'' published in 1910.

Angell wrote that the international rivalries of the day (which in four years were to drag the nations into World War I), were ''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.''

Angell rejected all this as the Great Illusion. It belonged, he said, to ''a stage of development that has passed.''

He used the British Empire, which in many respects he admired, as a case in point. The English had recently fought and won the Boer war in what is now South Africa at terrible cost, he noted, yet the Boers were more defiant than before.

In earlier times, he argued, wealth could be seized as booty. In modern times, plundering a country would only help destroy the delicate fabric of the budding international economy, on which true prosperity depended.

Angell's hope was that nations, understanding that pursuit of conquest was profitless, would agree to give up both it and the arms races it engendered, and agree to live in peace.

His voice, though widely heard (his book was a best-seller), was of course ignored by the great powers of Angell's day, who continued to scramble for imperial possessions around the world, and to jockey for influence and advantage in Europe's more obscure corners, including the Balkans, where a collision of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires brought on the First World War, which in turn led in unbroken continuity to the rise of the two great totalitarian regimes, in Berlin and Moscow, and to ++ the Second World War.

Today, as the dust settles from the collapse of the Soviet regime, there is no evidence that anyone in power is reading the writings of Norman Angell. What is strange, though, is that in many respects they are acting as if they had.

The great powers (if that is what they are) of our day, far from scrambling to get into other countries and take them over, are, if anything, scrambling to get out. Consider the French military expedition to Rwanda -- an enterprise that at first smacked of neo-colonial ambition.

Now, however, the French are withdrawing from the country, much to the consternation not only of hundreds of thousands of people in that piteous land but also of the other great powers, including the United States, which has requested that France remain.

But the French in fact are only following the example set by the precipitate American withdrawal from Somalia after its forces there suffered a few casualties.

Do today's great powers perhaps find richer prizes to compete for in Europe? Not, certainly, in the Balkans, once thought a prize worth fighting a world war over.

The great powers today rival one another only in finding excuses to stay out. They see nothing they want there. No material advantage, military position or national prestige seems to them to be at stake. On the contrary, they see only interminable, pointless losses -- ''another Vietnam.''

Governments and populations alike shrink from any involvement. More, they all but passively endure outrages committed against the few blue-helmeted U.N. troops they have jointly mustered to send in to deliver humanitarian aid.

Just a decade or so ago, every small country in the world had to guard itself jealously against intervention by either of the two great powers of the Cold War. Today -- in Rwanda, in Somalia, in the Balkans and elsewhere -- the appeals go out for intervention but no one answers.

For better or worse, the Great Illusion has been punctured.

Jonathan Schell is a columnist for Newsday.

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