Don’t Know Much About History: A national shame. (Thomas F. Madden, 9/12/08, National Review)
[I]f history is such a good teacher, why do we teach so little of it to our young?
If only we did teach and learn from history, Harold James's outstanding, though oddly unfinished, book would be at the center of our current political campaign, because we are faced with the Roman Predicament of which he writes. Drawing mainly upon the musings of Edward Gibbon and Adam Smith upon the Roman and British Empires, he considers what they can tell us about the current American moment (which many refer to as imperial). In particular, he draws our attention to that "predicament" that may undermine this instance of unprecedented peace and prosperity:
This book is about what I term the "Roman dilemma": the way in which peaceful commerce is frequently seen as a way of building a stable, prosperous, and integrated international society. At the same time, 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.If we boil it down to its essence, the problem is this: the globalized economy that has done so much to alleviate world poverty and to end interstate warfare over the past thirty years has been a function of Anglo-Americanizing the planet. The process has been mostly peaceful, though not always, owing much to the communications and information revolution. But maintenance and extension of this integrated world economy requires that everyone follow certain rules and the fact that one country is so closely identified with the creation of the new order -- and one political faction within even that one country (the Republican Party) -- means that, both here and abroad, some will inevitably distrust the fairness of the system. Historically, it has been impossible to maintain a liberal economic order in the face of such distrust. Resentment of the order basically breeds the disorder that brings it down.
Mr. James makes this case compellingly and hardly a reader will be left doubting that the dilemma he outlines is real. Even if you don't think ancient Roman history and the collapse of the Pax Romana has any bearing today, you need only consider the way te recent round of trade talks collapsed when Third World nations, quite correctly, pointed to the agriculture subsidies of the developed world as inherently unfair or think back to just 80 years ago, when even America responded to an early period of globalization by passing Smoot-Hawley and immigration restrictions. It is easy for us to see how Nazism and Communism prevented WWI from being the War to End all Wars, but harder to accept that the colonialism we sanctioned at Versailles and our own protectionism and nativism contributed to Depression and the ensuing World War. When we further realize that we were an economically and culturally advanced society rebelling against our own ideals, the possibility or even likelihood of more backwards nations doing likewise now must be more real to us.
The author, however, is far more tentative in explaining the ways we can deal with the predicament, even though he does hint at the answer. Some of the solutions are obvious just from the way that he frames his "principal argument":
[T]here is a continual contest between two ways of seeing the world--as a system of rules, or as a series of exercises or applications of power. Globalization fundamentally depends on the acceptance of the legitimacy of rules...There are, of course, many in the West who either believe in the latter view or at least use it as a means to obtain power for themselves. And it is here that the book has application for our own political situation. When Barack Obama sent his advisor, Austan Goolsbee, to Canada to assure the government there that his anti-NAFTA rhetoric was just for domestic political purposes there was little reason to disbelieve him but much cause to resent his duplicity. After all, the case for free trade is too obvious at this point for any reasonably well-informed person to oppose it, as witness the fact that the last Democratic President, Bill Clinton, signed GATT and NAFTA into law. But that makes it all the more contemptible for Mr. Obama, specifically, and Democrats and the far Right, more generally, to exploit the issue for cheap partisan gain. Similarly, when they portray the United States as acting lawlessly in the War on Terror they tap into the worldview that tends to undermine the "stable, prosperous, and integrated international society" that we enjoy today and hand ammunition to those who would happily destroy this order. They are playing with fire.
Meanwhile, if those are cases where only rhetorical aid is offered to the enemy, both parties contribute to genuine unfairness when they do things like continue agriculture subsidies and other entrenched forms of protectionism. We would make much better evangalists for open markets and freer trade if we took unilateral steps to make ourselves more open and free. If Caesar's wife must be above suspicion, all the more crucial that we, as Caesar, be seen to live up to our own ideals.
But there is one bigger step hinted at here that is more sweeping and controversial than just toning down partisan opportunism and liberating our own economic system. Mr. James notes that "the most successful examples of benign hegemony involved the elaboration of vales that drew other and different societies into a peaceful order." And just as we ought be honest with ourselves in recognizing the globalization consists of a benign Anglo-American hegemony, so too ought we be honest about what the values in question are:
[I]n the process of civilization, law (or, in other words, a system of rules) is needed to restrain violence. Ancient Rome actually found it almost impossible to engage in a systematic elaboration of the fundaments of rule and law. The basic model is given in the Abrahamic faiths by the Ten Commandments. But the Commandments are derived from God, not from an argument about pragmatic necessity, or a case derived from the functional logic of increased interaction and communication.The connections between our religious backgrounds and our political and economic freedom are too well-documented to deny. But we seldom pause to consider that those freedoms are made possible because we are so bound by the shared values that precede the political/law-making realm. It is only when values breakdown and cease to be universal that rules must govern and freedom recede. The awkward reality then is that, contrary to multiculturalist cant, a liberal economic order will at least benefit from, if it does not require, a monolithic value system. Which is to say, "Our debate must avoid the non-value based escapism of simply technocratic solutions, and it needs to concern itself with fundamental values." And since it is our culture that provides those values (Abrahamic or possibly just Judeo-Christian), we need more hegemonic convergence. We look forward to the sequel, in which Mr. James will have to explain how we effect that sort of cultural imperialism without stirring up those who already resent our power and, more precisely, hate the faith that power depends on.
-AUTHOR PAGE: Harold James (Professor of History, Princeton University)
-WIKIPEDIA: Harold James
-GOOGLE BOOKS: The Roman Predicament
-BOOK SITE: The Roman Predicament (Princeton University Press)
-ESSAY: Our Roman Predicament (Harold James, 5/08/06, History News Network)
[T]oday there are no grounds for thinking that the United States – or the global economic system – has reached any kind of inherent limit to growth. The pace of technical innovation even seems to be increasing, and the U.S. is one of the world's most dynamic and innovative societies.
-EXCERPT: Introduction to The Roman Predicament: How the Rules of International Order Create the Politics of Empire
-ESSAY: Modern America's Roman predicament (Harold James, Feb 20 2006, Financial Times)
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.
-ESSAY: The Future of Globalization: A Transatlantic Perspective (Harold James, June 2008, Orbis)
-ESSAY: Capitalism Now and Then (Harold James, Project Syndicate)
-ESSAY: The Scoundrels of Economic Patriotism (Harold James, March 2006, Project Syndicate)
-ESSAY: Google's new technology spurs new 'Browser Wars' (Harold James, 9/10/08, Gulf Times)
-ESSAY: Religion: prop or antidote to capitalism? (HAROLD JAMES, 6/03/07, Japan Times)
But there are two crucial aspects of the debate on religious values that should not be overlooked:
-ESSAY: A new IMF role: global stabilizer: The IMF could act as a force for global economic stability if it secures the trust and participation of skeptical members (Harold James, Jan 04, 2008, Taipei Times)
-INTERVIEW: with Harold James (Princeton University)
-INTERVIEW: What went wrong with globalisation? (William Wright, 11 Dec 2006, Financial News)
-REVIEW: of Joseph Stiglitz, MAKING GLOBALIZATION WORK and Frederic S. Mishkin, THE NEXT GREAT GLOBALIZATION (Harold James, Times Literary Supplement)
-ARCHIVES: Harold James (Project Syndicate)
-ARCHIVES: "harold james" princeton (Find Articles)
-REVIEW: of The Roman Predicament: How the Rules of International Order Create the Politics of Empire by Harold James (William Anthony Hay, The National Interest)
-REVIEW: of The Roman Predicament (Jakub J. Grygiel, Claremont Review of Books)
-REVIEW: of The Roman Predicament (G. John Ikenberry, Foreign Affairs)
-REVIEW: of The Roman Predicament (American History Co-operative)
-REVIEW: of The Roman Predicament (George Modelski, International History Review)
-REVIEW: of The Roman Predicament (Michael C. Desch, Independent Institute)
-REVIEW: of The Roman Predicament (Jakub J. Grygiel, Declaration Foundation)
Book-related and General Links:
-ESSAY: The Democrats' Dangerous Rhetoric (Fareed Zakaria, 3/03/08, Newsweek)
-ESSAY: The Emperor's New Poem: The latest translation of Virgil's 'Aeneid,' the epic poem of Rome's founding commissioned by Augustus Caesar, has a timely resonance at this moment of American imperial angst (David Barber, November 12, 2006, Boston Globe)
-ESSAY: Empire Falls: They called it "the American Century," but the past hundred years actually saw a shift away from Western dominance. Through the long lens of Edward Gibbon's history, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Rome 331 and America and Europe 2006 appear to have more than a few problems in common. (Niall Ferguson, October 2006, Vanity Fair)
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd