Certain fears are clearly irrational and some are totally justified. More often, though, they are under- or overestimations of threat. In the field of international relations, the consequences of such a miscalculation can be catastrophic. The LGBT community don’t have their own army, access to nuclear weapons or even a history of violence. Indeed, they are much more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it. The terms homophobia and transphobia are therefore appropriate. Attaching the suffix –phobia to major world powers, on the other hand, is more fraught. Recent events in Ukraine have once again demonstrated problems with the term Russophobia and there have been similar attempts to dismiss concerns about the territorial ambitions of China as Sinophobic. Without due regard to context, such pathologizing assumes that the judgments about the appropriate scariness of foreign armies have already been made—the terms are loaded, designed to close down debate. Unfortunately, some commentaries on international relations have suffered from the perceived imperative to keep to the left—the idea that, in order to be valid, all takes must be further to the left politically than those preceding them. This phenomenon has led well-meaning individuals to entertain notions of the perpetual victimhood of some scary governments with potentially frightening geopolitical ambitions. We have been here before. Perhaps the most important theorist of British imperialism, John A. Hobson (1858–1940), was completely blindsided by the Great War, at least in part due to his fateful diagnosis of Teutophobia (literally: the irrational fear of the German race). For Hobson, the German panic was just one in a long sequence of scares manufactured by class government. We might call this the perpetual scare theory of international relations. How could one of the most celebrated minds of his generation fall into such an obvious conceptual trap, only a year before the Great War?
Underpinning Hobson’s assessment that Germany posed no significant threat to international peace in 1913 was his economic theory. Hobson strongly believed that the cooperation of international finance capital between advanced capitalist states meant that no single country would take on the extraordinary gamble of a full-scale war. On the other hand, minor imperialist wars, such as the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902), in which the stakes were lower, could be explained by the greed of investors. This argument originated in Imperialism: A Study (1902), the classic anti-imperialist statement for the socialist movement, which was later to exert a considerable influence on Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917). Hobson argues that a small clique of international financiers benefit from imperialism and so mislead the government and general population—through their control of the media—into the economically dubious business of political expansion. If you suspect that this theory has a whiff of anti-Semitism about it, you are right.
In The War in South Africa (1900), Hobson makes sweeping accusations against the upper echelons of the Jewish community in Johannesburg, as having engineered the war. (He acknowledges the importance of Cecil Rhodes (1853–1902) and Charles Rudd (1844–1916) as non-Jewish Englishmen with considerable mining interests, but it was a collection of Jews of German origin who most aroused his suspicion). Although Imperialism is less blatant about the fact that Hobson’s critique is primarily directed against Jews, the anti-Semitism is still evident, albeit expressed in more muted terms. The pernicious investors “situated in the very heart of the business capital of every state” are men “chiefly of a single and peculiar race, who have behind them many centuries of financial experience, they are in a unique position to control the policy of nations.” The necessity of curbing these pernicious investors stalked much of Hobson’s theorizing, including his belief in a peaceful future for Europe. This perceived existence of class government in Britain made Hobson suspicious of any claims made about the potential threat of Germany to international peace. Financial interests use these scares, he argues, to increase government spending on armaments and dissipate pressure for social reforms. (We see similar arguments today in relation to multinational companies).
Indeed it was class government, Hobson argues in The German Panic (1913), that made fear of a rival empire a near constant in Britain’s history and so nothing to genuinely worry about. The scare of 1847—concocted largely by the Duke of Wellington—was an early example of how the government could be excessively fearful of French invasion. The isolationist Richard Cobden (1804–65), Hobson’s great hero, wrote a pamphlet called The Three Panics, critical of the authorities for stoking up this and two other invasion scares. In 1853, Palmerston had predicted that as many as 50,000 soldiers could be transported from France to Britain in a single night. The third scare occurred in 1858, when the French were assumed to have temporary naval superiority. By the 1870s, Russia was the main focus of attention, as the enemy most to be feared. The term jingoism was subsequently coined to describe some of the propaganda directed at Russia. By the mid-1880s, the focus of concern had shifted back to France and Germany. This was precipitated by the partition of Africa at the Berlin Conference of 1885 and culminated in the Fashoda Incident of 1895, when Britain and France narrowly avoided confrontation over their African colonies. For Hobson, Germany increasingly occupied the position of bogeyman, as France and Russia’s power dwindled. The acceptance of the perpetual scare theory relies on the idea that class governments will always misdirect their populations’ attention towards some external threat.
The danger, for Hobson, was that Germany would misread Britain’s defensive intentions as deliberately aggressive foreign policy. The obsession with the Navy’s size compared with that of Germany, the Entente with France and the Triple Entente with Russia were all examples of policies that could be misinterpreted. The alliance with autocratic Russia was particularly problematic, since it undermined the liberal foundations of Britain’s foreign policy. On these points, Hobson might have been right. It is impossible to know whether Germany was provoked by these measures, or if they would have invaded Belgium anyway. Nevertheless, Hobson clearly seriously misread the situation and the threat that Germany posed in 1913. Had Hobson identified militarism as a European (and not a primarily British) malaise, he might have directed more of his efforts towards combatting militarism on a European scale.
Not that Britain had a blameless foreign policy in 1914. They did not acquire the Empire in “a fit of absence of mind”—to use Seeley’s oft quoted phrase. Violence was a persistent feature of empire. There was also an undeniably strong culture of militarism in British society at the time (although there was no national service, as in France or Germany). Perhaps Hobson intended The German Panic as a corrective to that militaristic culture. But, while it is admirable to examine our own mistakes, we should not allow that process of self-reflection to be cynically exploited by those seeking to excuse unjust behavior. In particular, we should never again allow the perpetual scare theory to blind us to the fact that some threats are real.
There are further problems with assuming all fears on the international stage are reducible to phobias. These neologisms are conceptual dead ends. They radically simplify complex, ongoing arguments about the real threat levels we face, by assuming the outcomes of those arguments have already been decided. They lead to the silencing of concerned citizens on matters about which they should be voicing concerns. Finally, they place the blame for any international incidents and flare-ups squarely on the liberal democracies that call them out. That is why the Kremlin promotes the term Russophobia. And why the term should be resisted.