I was pretty surprised to see Daniel Drezner list Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion as one of the ten worst international relations books ever, and even more surprised when it became clear that Drezner knows perfectly well what the book says:
This book has been widely misinterpreted, so let’s be clear about what Angell got right and got wrong. He argued that the benefits from international trade vastly exceeded the economic benefits of empire, and therefore the economic motive for empire no longer existed. He was mostly right about that. He then argued that an enlightened citizenry would glom onto this fact and render war obsolete. Writing this in 1908, he was historically, spectacularly wrong.
Let’s think this through. In pre-WWI intellectual circles you had Angell arguing that imperial competition and war would be self-destructive and therefore war wouldn’t happen. He was right about the analysis but mistaken about the prediction. But at the time, other main schools of thought included a nationalist approach which held that imperial competition and war would be awesome and therefore war should be welcomed and a Leninist approach which held that imperial competition and war were inevitable under capitalism and therefore Soviet-style revolution and Communism would be a good answer.
Put alongside the architects of the disasters of 1914-45, I think Angell comes out looking pretty good. Was there an important mistake in his analysis? Yes. But to this day, one can learn a lot of important things from Angell’s argument, and unlike the other ideas in the air at the time Angell’s didn’t cause any catastrophes. His book is an important one, and certainly not one of the ten worst ever.