Looking Beyond Conquest
Harold James, professor of history and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, is author of The Roman Predicament to be published in May by Princeton University Press.This piece was originally published in the Financial Times and appears with permission from the author.
Before September 11, 2001 , it was widely assumed that globalization bred peace and stability. But over the past five years, there has been increased nervousness about this concept in many parts of the world. It is not worry about the state of the world economy, which has proved amazingly robust, but about the framework for world governance. In particular, there is widespread mistrust of the world’s only superpower and increased doubt about the sort of politics that America tries to impose on the rest of the world.
As the Bush presidency gets bogged down in the quagmire of Iraq, there is still a widespread assumption that there might be a quick and easy fix. Critics of the administration think that the world’s view of America would be transformed if only the U.S. president sounded kinder. Many officials in Washington believe that if the world understood all they really wanted was peace, prosperity and democracy, the criticism would subside. Such optimistic beliefs are mistaken but are characteristic of an ever-recurring dilemma of an interconnected world. Consider some historical parallels: in 1776, the year of the Declaration of Independence, Adam Smith and Edward Gibbon published the first volumes of two works that both used history to illuminate Britain’s own problems with the globalization of that age: The Wealth of Nations and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
In these monumental and parallel works, Smith and Gibbon explored what could be called the “Roman dilemma.” In essence, how peaceful commerce is frequently seen as a way of building a stable, prosperous and integrated international society. At the same time, however, the peaceful liberal economic order leads to domestic clashes and also to international rivalry and even wars. The conflicts disturb and eventually destroy the commercial system and the bases of prosperity and integration. These interactions seem to be a vicious spiral or a trap from which it seems almost impossible to escape. The liberal commercial world order subverts and destroys itself, and Smith’s gloomy–but surprisingly little known–concluding chapters are a long way from the apparently optimistic beginning, with its focus on the immense productivity gains possible as a result of the division of labor.
The central problem identified by Gibbon and Smith is that complex societies need rules to function, whether on a national (state) level or in international relations. But we do not always comply voluntarily with rules and rules require some enforcement. In addition, they need to be formulated. The enforcement and the promulgation of rules are both consequences of power, and power is always concentrated and unequally distributed.
Even when we think of voluntarily negotiated rules, there is the memory of some act of power, the long shadow of a hegemonic strength–the shadow of Rome–falling on the negotiators.
The propensity for subversion and destruction of a rule-based order comes about because–and whenever–there is a perception that rules are arbitrary, unjust and reflect the imposition of particular interests in a high-handed imperial display of power.
Power protects commerce and peace but power is clearly not necessarily a good in itself. It offers a basis on which greater power constantly accumulates, as power is used to affect the outcome of social processes. One way of putting this is the frequently made observation that the exercise of power has an addictive quality. The adage that power tends to corrupt itself affects the way in which the holders of power behave. Even if the wielder of power resists the addiction, other people suspect the addiction is there.
People who believe in universal rules and people who see power behind the rules can scarcely talk to each other. They each have an overall interpretation of such power that the other perspective simply disappears. The alternative is rejected as naive or ideological, as in Robert Kagan’s famous juxtaposition of the Mars and Venus views of American and Europeans. As approaches, they are like the optical illusions made famous by Maurits Cornelius Escher, where squares either pop out of a page or recede, but where the observer cannot be brought to see both phenomena at the same time. There is one perspective–or the other.
Both politicians and their critics find this hard to understand as they try to respond to global challenges, such as the threat of terrorism or the proliferation of nuclear weapons. They are about to be as baffled by Iran as they were by Iraq.
If the threat lies in discontent about modernity, and if poverty and marginalisation are the breeding grounds for violence and terrorism, then growth and a better distribution of wealth can hold a more effective cure. If, on the other hand, cultural differences are really so profound, then imperial conflict and conquest is the only adequate answer. Much contemporary debate, especially after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, fluctuates between these poles. Should the industrial world buy off or fight the barbarians at the gate?
Yet both options look like different aspects of the old but unsatisfactory Roman solution: conquer and provide prosperity. There is only a difference in emphasis. The first is arrogantly belligerent and the second arrogantly patronising. Both recommend more power and more modernisation.
There exists an alternative to the “challenge and response” model that has as its outcome the clash of civilizations. The other path depends on dialogue within a shared natural law framework.
Instead of thinking that technical development will automatically produce prosperity and thus solve, as it were by a kind of magic, the problem of values, policymakers in the industrialized world need to think and talk explicitly about values and traditions.
What does Islamic tradition have in common with western traditions that respects human dignity; and how can modern America show that it respects these values too?
Resolving the issue of the Guantánamo Bay detentions would be an obvious first step to showing how America can accept as well as invent universal values.