The Colonial Armed Peace: Was the Great War a Failure of Imperialism?

LukeThis is a guest post from Lucian M. Ashworth, and the first in our series on The Global Colonial 1914-18. Lucian is Professor and Head of the Department of Political Science at Memorial University of Newfoundland. His current research focuses on the history of international Relations (IR) theory, and on the disciplinary history of IR. This builds on a number of previous interventions on the politics and history of the inter-war period (including on the absent idealists, the early feminist IR of Helen Swanwick, and Halford MacKinder as League supporter). He is the author most recently of A History of International Thought. From the Origins of the Modern State to Academic International Relations, published by Routledge in 2014.

Entente Cordiale

A common response from many opponents of Michael Gove’s ill-informed presentation of the First World War as a just cause has been to write the war off as one that was caused by the imperialism of the great powers. In this view those who died were victims of an imperial system.[1] By seeing the war as primarily an imperialist conflict it is possible to simultaneously denounce the pre-1914 imperial order and also to oppose the war. It is, therefore, a handy position that avoids any moral dilemmas.

At the same time, it is interesting that amongst all these debates about the causes and nature of the war few scholars have seen fit to examine one form of evidence: the writings of international experts before the war. This gap is even more surprising in International Relations (IR), as these pre-war writers are IR’s forebears. What is interesting about studying these pre-war international writers is that they were well aware of the imperialist nature of their global society (and of the role played by colonial control), but it was not this imperialism that was seen as the source of instability. Rather, a more complex story emerges of a two-tier global system, and the coming of the war is seen as a threat to, not a result of, imperialism.


The first point about the pre-1914 world is that this was a thoroughly recent system, and that for many of those writing on international affairs it was novel because for the first time in history there was a truly global order. Whether it was W. T. Stead writing about the movement away from states to a Europe united by transnational links, Paul Reinsch’s examination of the new ‘public international unions’, or Norman Angell’s wonder at the development of the global economy in trade and finance, the common feature was the recognition that the world from the late nineteenth century was global in a way that was thoroughly unprecedented.[2]

Much of this new politico-economic order was built on one product: coal. Timothy Mitchell has outlined how the growing dependence on coal as a concentrated source of energy radically changed society into an industrial ‘hydrocarbon civilisation’. The combination of coal, steel and steam powered railways allowed for the easy extraction, transportation and use of coal in industry.[3] This rapid industrialisation made the new industrialising societies vulnerable in a way they had never been before. The loss of self-sufficiency in food and the requirements of industry for a growing list of raw materials not often available in north-western Europe or eastern North America meant that these societies were dependent on trade with often distant societies. Yet, trade alone was not sufficient to extract these raw materials, so European powers increasingly turned to direct control and the deliberate imperial restructuring of the non-European economies.[4] This creation of a two-tier fully global economy was well-known to the political economists of the time.[5]

Two very different writers who captured the nature of this new global order were the American admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, and the British journalist and political activist Henry Noel Brailsford. Mahan was an advocate of a higher level of armaments and a notorious racist. Brailsford, by contrast advocated stronger representative international organisations. Despite the wide divergence in their political opinions, both came to not incompatible conclusions about the nature of the global order before the First World War, and both understood the two-tier nature of the global political economy. The major difference in approach was that Mahan supported the imperial status-quo, while Brailsford opposed it.

Alfred T. Mahan

Alfred T. Mahan

Mahan’s starting point for an understanding of the global political economy was military security, especially control of the seas.[6] For Mahan the sea remained a ‘great highway’, and industrious nations had always used it as a means to build an imperial order. Industry led to trade, which produced shipping, and finally produced a colonial empire – and a colonial empire based on trade needed a strong navy to defend it.[7] Thus, Mahan recognised that colonial expansion was a direct result (in his terms, a must) for any modern industrial society.

It was upon the basis of this view of strategy that Mahan built his model of the international system. Competition between states and societies was a natural part of human life for Mahan, but in the world he saw around him in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century this competition took two very different forms. The first involved the relations between what Mahan called the European great powers (including the United States). The great powers formed a global balance of power in which war and armaments played an important role in maintaining the health of the society. For Mahan each of the great powers could be seen as analogous to a living organism with its own sense of morality.[8] Wars were fought between the great powers over matters of honour and vital interest, so war and the balance of power should be seen, he argued, as moral conflicts over matters of justice.[9] For Mahan this military balance acted as a European constitution in which the smaller states were protected by the balance between the great powers, and the competition between the great powers became analogous to the competition between companies vying for market share, but in the act of following their self-interest they benefit the well-being of all. It was, therefore, a system for maintaining the health of the European body politic.[10]

The balance of power, though, served another important function for Mahan: through competition in armaments and over colonies the European great powers were able to refine their skills and technology so that they could defend themselves against their common enemy: the non-western world. It is in his analysis of this second form of competition – between the European and non-European worlds – that Mahan’s analysis descends into a crude racism. For Mahan civilised societies have a natural tendency to expand and the easiest form of expansion remained that into the territories of ‘incompetent’ and ‘inferior’ races. This imperial use of force was morally justified, since it brought superior European organisation to parts of the world.[11] Yet, while the Europeans possessed superior organisation, technology and morality (all of which had been honed and perfected through the balance of power), the non-western world had its own strengths through which it could threaten European civilisation. As Mahan saw it, European civilisation’s power came from its armaments (‘velocity’) and its superior self-assertion (‘spirit’), the non-Europeans relied on their greater population (‘mass’). Armaments were, therefore, needed to preserve European civilisation in order to counteract the superior numbers of the non-white races.[12]

While Mahan’s ideas are primarily the product of a bigot displaying a common-for-the-time ‘racist siege mentality’,[13] it is how his thought is organised and justified that shows Mahan’s underlying understanding of the structure of the pre-1914 global political economy. The system is a two-tier one, in which global security is maintained by a European balance of power. This balance of power exists alongside an economic system in which industrialised powers reduce the non-industrialised to a dependent colonial status intended to provide the industrialised with raw materials, markets and financial opportunities. Mahan’s notion of the importance of a colonial empire for great power status is also echoed in the work of Friedrich Ratzel, where a world vision coupled with control of territories around the world (and protected by a blue-water navy) is the mark of a first class power.[14]

Mahan’s perception of a two-tier world reappears in the writing of H. N. Brailsford. The crucial difference, however, is that while Mahan supported the system he explained, Brailsford opposed it. Similar to Mahan, Brailsford saw the global political economy as split between a politico-military balance of power between states, and a politico-economic order run upon the principles of a capitalist mode of production. These were not hermetically sealed systems, however, and the nature of the balance of power, according to Brailsford, was directly affected by the nature of wealth accumulation in the wider political economy. Thus, in the agrarian eighteenth century wealth was based on land, and therefore the balance of power manifest itself as a conflict over the control of territory. In the industrial era, however, wealth came from the acquisition of capital, and as a result the balance of power was now a struggle over investment opportunities and market share.[15] Thus, for Brailsford power within a balance of power system was not an end in itself, but rather a means towards the end of the acquisition of wealth. As the form of wealth changed so would the balance of power.

Henry Noel Brailsford

Henry Noel Brailsford

Yet, for Brailsford it was also the smaller states that were the victims of colonial exploitation. Although in formal political terms the smaller state remained independent, in informal and economic terms it was now turned into ‘a human cattle farm’, where wealth was extracted for the benefit of capitalist elites in the great powers.[16] Thus, the form of the global political economy was not wholly reducible, as it was in Mahan, to a racialized north-south division, although that was also part of the explanation. Rather, the international system was changing from one obsessed with the sovereign control of territory, to a less formal set of imperial ties where even formally independent states were caught in a system of domination. The crucial point about the international system as Brailsford saw it was that the balance of power between the great powers was a means by which those great powers competed over capital, and armaments were used as a means of putting pressure on rivals to concede market share or financial control over specific territories or states. This, Brailsford argued, was a system of ‘armed peace’, where ideally the great powers achieved their ends through military threats and bluff, while avoiding a single great military conflagration that would threaten to destroy the system as a whole.[17] What Brailsford had laid out was what half a century later analysts of the global political economy would call neo-colonialism.

Both Mahan and Brailsford portray a world order based on two very different relationships: a balance of power among great powers that manages the security of the system, and a global political economy that makes one part of the world subservient to the economic needs of another. These two aspects of the global order were reflected in the concerns of other writers on international thought before 1914, such as Paul Reinsch, [18] J. A. Hobson,[19] and Norman Angell.[20] Although Mahan supported this system and Brailsford opposed it, both could agree that this was generally a stable system that was in some sort of equilibrium. In this sense, the outbreak of war in 1914 was a surprise to both authors.

Yet, it was the very fact that the July crisis of 1914 was a surprise to Mahan and Brailsford – as it was for much of the rest of the world too – that points us in the direction of a key piece of evidence that the First World War was less the culmination of an imperialist international system, as it was an ultimately fatal shock to that system. This idea of the outbreak of war as a threat to the system comes out most clearly in the works of Norman Angell. Angell also saw the interdependent world economy as a stable and successful system, but that system was threatened by an ‘optical illusion’ among the broader public and policy communities in the great powers: the fallacy that wealth could be captured by war between the great powers. This, for Angell, was an idea inherited from an agrarian past when wealth could be conquered.[21] Now, in a global and industrial world, where wealth was in intangible things like finance, war had the opposite effect: it threatened to ruin the very processes that created wealth in an industrial society.

Mahan and Brailsford’s views of the strength of the global system were premised on both the stability of the imperial economic system (which seemed valid), and on the self-restraint of the great powers (which, in hindsight, was not). Angell provides the missing piece here. It was the failure of the great powers to maintain a secure armed peace that stands out, so rather than the war being the result of the imperialism of the great powers, it is probably fairer to say that the evidence from international experts at the time was that it was the failure of the great powers to maintain the restrained armed peace that undermined their imperial projects. The weakness of the system proved not to be its imperial nature, but rather its Europe-focused balance of power. The net result of the war was to bring down the whole system, including its imperialist political economy. The next five decades would see a concerted effort to rebuild a stable global order, but by then the European imperial order of direct control had been superseded by other less formal imperial structures.

In the decades after the war the consensus amongst international writers was that the old liberal imperial order had committed suicide. Many, like Angell, John Maynard Keynes and Karl Polanyi, were content to write the system’s obituary.[22] Alongside the legacy of violence, the war also had positive results, including the establishment of the precedent that colonial territories were owned by their populations, not by the colonial power (the end of a liberal notion of property at the global level). The processes of decolonisation and the end of the system of formal western imperial control began with the shock of the war.

This, though, does leave us with a moral dilemma. The advantage of the imperialism-caused-the-war trope is that we can condemn the pre-war imperial system and the war itself as two parts of the same problem. If the war is just an imperial bloodbath then no moral dilemma is confronted. If, however, we take on-board the evidence of the writings of experts on international affairs from the time – expert eye-witnesses, if you will – then a different story emerges. The war becomes a politico-military bolt from the blue that undermines the imperial order. If, like me, you are repulsed by the pre-1914 colonial armed peace, then the war comes with positive side-effects that have to be balanced against the violent loss of life (something, incidentally, that also repulses me). The war becomes an awful event with positive outcomes. Thus, we are left with a painful moral dilemma.

[1] See, for example, Seumas Milne, ‘First World War: an Imperial Bloodbath that’s a Warning, not a Noble Cause’ The Guardian, 8 January 2014. For Gove’s piece see Michael Gove, ‘Why Does the Left Insist on Belittling True British Heroes?, Daily Mail, 2 January 2014.

[2] W. T. Stead, United States of Europe (London: Review of Reviews, 1899); Paul Reinsch, Public International Unions. A Study of International Administrative Law (Bodton and London: Ginn, 1911); and Norman Angell, The Great Illusion. A Study of the Relation of Military Power in Nations to their Economic and Social Advantage (Toronto: McClelland and Goodchild, 1911).

[3] Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy. Political Power in the Age of Oil (London: Verso, 2011), 13-15.

[4] Mitchell, Carbon Democracy, 16ff.

[5] Friedrich List, The National System of Political Economy (New York: Augustus Kelly, 1966), 161-2, 419; and Friedrich List, The Natural System of Political Economy 1837 (London: Frank Cass, 1983), 69-70, 125, 366. For a summary of List’s international thought see Lucian M. Ashworth, A History of International Thought. From the Origins of the Modern State to Academic International Relations (London and New York: Routledge, 2014), 79-84.

[6] Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783 (Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 1890).

[7]  Mahan, Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 25-8; Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Interests of America in International Conditions (Boston: Little, Brown & co, 1918), 87.

[8] Armaments and Arbitration, 142.

[9] Some Neglected Aspects of War, xvii, 38-9; and Armaments and Arbitration, 12.

[10] Armaments and Arbitration, 10, 13-4, 86-7, 107-9, 145.

[11] Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Interest of America in Sea Power. Present and Future (Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 1898), 165-6; Alfred Thayer Mahan, Armaments and Arbitration or the Place of Force in the International Relations of States (NY: Harper, 1912), 113-7.

[12] Armaments and Arbitration, 9.

[13] John M. Hobson, The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics. Western International Theory 1760-2010 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 129.

[14] See Friedrich Ratzel, ‘Flottenfrage und Weltlage’ Münchner Neuste Nachrichtung, 1898, 51, 1-2.

[15] H. N. Brailsford, The War of Steel and Gold. A Study of the Armed Peace 9th edition (London: Bell, 1917), 29-32.

[16] Brailsford, War of Steel and Gold 72.

[17] War of Steel and Gold.

[18] Paul S. Reinsch, Public International Unions. A Study of International Administrative Law (Boston & London: Ginn, 1911); Paul S. Reinsch, Colonial Government an Introduction to the Study of Colonial Institutions (New York & London: Macmillan, 1902); and Paul S. Reinsch, Colonial Administration (New York & London: Macmillan, 1905).

[19] J. A. Hobson, Imperialism. A Study (London: Nisbet, 1902).

[20] Norman Angell, The Great Illusion. A Study of the Relation of Military Power in Nations to their Economic and Social Advantage. (Toronto: McClelland and Goodchild, 1911).

[21] Angell, Great Illusion, 27-8, 54, 46-7; Norman Angell Foundations of International Polity (London: William Heinemann, 1914), 89, 95-8; Norman Angell, War and the Essential Realities (London: Watts, 1913), 24-5.

[22] Norman Angell, The Fruits of Victory (New York: Garland, 1972 [1921]), especially 61-70, 300-1; John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (London: Macmillan, 1920), chapter II; Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation. The Political and Economic Origins of our Time (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001 [1944]), especially ch. 2.

7 thoughts on “The Colonial Armed Peace: Was the Great War a Failure of Imperialism?

  1. Pingback: The Colonial Armed Peace: Was the Great War a Failure of Imperialism? | Lucian M. Ashworth | GlobalFaultlines

  2. A good post, but I would like to question this passage:
    Alongside the legacy of violence, the war also had positive results, including the establishment of the precedent that colonial territories were owned by their populations, not by the colonial power…. The processes of decolonisation and the end of the system of formal western imperial control began with the shock of the war.

    I’m not sure WW1 established the precedent that colonial territories were owned by their populations, except in a highly attenuated sense of “own.” The trusteeship or mandate system (I think they were rough synonyms, but could be wrong about that), assumed that the mandatory powers (e.g. France in what are now Lebanon and Syria; Britain in other parts of the Middle East) would eventually grant independence to the mandated territories, but, if I recall correctly, that was not envisioned to be anytime soon. And of course decolonization as a global process doesn’t really pick up steam in a serious way until after WW2, with the height c.1960. Yes, WW1 broke up several old multinational empires, and the 1919 settlement established some principles about self-determination of minorities mainly within Europe (something that didn’t work out very smoothly under the League’s auspices, btw), but to say that WW1 “established the precedent that colonial territories were owned by their populations” seems to me a bit of an overstatement. (But I’m open to being persuaded that I’m wrong.)


  3. Thanks so much for your comment. In a short blog I wasn’t able to go into much detail on the mandate system and its effects on changing attitudes to empire and colonial possessions. Basically, this is an area where there are many conflicting interpretations, and your comment is not wrong. The devil is in the historical detail here, and the record is contradictory. I would actually largely agree with your position. Certainly it is not until after WW2 that we see large-scale decolonization, and the only major exception to this was Iraq (and even this example is not clear cut). That said, the influence of the First World War and the Mandate system on the growing nationalist movements and on the anti-imperialists in the major colonial powers cannot be ignored. For example, the people who set the colonial policies for the Labour and Conservative governments in the UK during the key years between 1945 and 1960 came out of an earlier anti-imperial tradition influenced by the War and the Mandate provisions. Also, many nationalist leaders were influenced by the effects of the War and the new role of the League. In the longer paper that this blog is based on I try to trace this link more clearly, especially the legal ownership issue and the reporting mechanisms that were seen at the time as a major change… but, I suppose the bottom line is that, like much debate on recent history, there is no definitive position, and it is quite possible to write well-informed histories that would take two very opposing views on the effects of the War and the League on decolonization. From the point of view of the history of international thought, however, it is clear the War did have a major effect on attitudes towards colonialism and colonial government (even while this did not translate into proper decolonization until after the world had had to go through another war). I would argue that this change in attitude was a necessary (if insufficient) condition for the ending of the formal colonial empires. Like you, though, I am willing to be persuaded that I am wrong.


    • Thank you for the reply. I take your point about WW1’s effect on attitudes toward colonialism, and I’ll try to take a look at the longer paper.


  4. Pingback: Industrialisation, Imperialism, and Raw Materials. – The Dregs of Romulus

  5. Pingback: The Trouble with Textbooks – The Dregs of Romulus

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