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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?

Take, for example, history’s place in America’s higher education. Many institutions that are training tomorrow’s leaders don’t seem to think that history is just what they need. At Princeton, for example, those who receive A.B. degrees need take only one course in history — any history. Bachelor of Science students at Princeton can skip history altogether. So can those at Yale. At least Harvard requires its undergraduates to take a pre-modern history course. But that is rare. It’s increasingly difficult today to find a college or university that requires students to study Antiquity, or the Middle Ages, or the Renaissance, or anything at all that occurred before the students’ own short lives.


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.

The central problem is that we need rules for the functioning of complex societies, whether on a national (state) level or in international relations. We do not, however, always comply voluntarily with rules, and rules require some enforcement. In addition, rules need to be formulated. The enforcement and the promulgation of rules are both consequences of power, and power is 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 whenever there is a perception that rules are arbitrary and unjust, and that they 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 there occurs a constant accumulation of greater power, 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.
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.


(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A)

  

Websites:

See also:

Geopolitics
Harold James Links:

    -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.

The possibility of an unraveling of the U.S. position comes rather from political developments that respond to the uncertainties of the new economy as well as the new security situation. Some of the backlash stems from fears of immigration, even though it is precisely the openness to immigration that has made the U.S. so dynamic. Our political and social psychology responds to globalization by imagining an idealized safe and closed off world. The more we think of the military and security challenge, the more likely we are to try to close ourselves off.

Yet another part of the psychology that develops in response to globalization stems from resentments brought by changes in relative income and wealth. Periods of globalization and high levels of economic growth also tend to be periods when inequalities increase. This was true of ancient Rome, as it was true of eighteenth century Britain where the big corporations of the day, such as the East India Company, generated enormous personal wealth for a handful of directors. Gibbon concluded that: "Such is the constitution of civil society, that, whilst a few persons are distinguished by riches, by honours, and by knowledge, the body of the people is condemned to obscurity, ignorance, and poverty." Inequality was the social problem that provoked the rise of what he saw as the egalitarian ideology (namely Christianity) that would undermine the Roman empire.

The domestic discontents have a powerful international dimension, and that is likely to produce an erosion of preeminence even faster than any domestic disintegration. In particular, there is widespread mistrust of the power of the world's only superpower, and increased doubt about the sort of politics that the United States tries to impose on the rest of the world.

The central problem is that we need rules for the functioning of complex societies, 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 rules need to be formulated. The enforcement and the promulgation of rules are both consequences of power, and power is 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 hegemomic 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.

    -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.

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.

    -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:

First, the core of Weber's argument was that religious values that emphasize restraint and a sense of duty may support dependability and reliability in business relations, which is especially vital in societies that are just opening up market relations. Where there is a legacy of violence and suspicion, it is hard for people to feel secure enough to enter into long-term contracts. They tend to look for short-term gains at the expense of others, reinforcing a generalized skepticism about the market.

Second, religious values that emphasize social solidarity are an important corrective to the tendency of markets to polarize society by rewarding success. Periods of globalization have been eras of considerable economic advance; but they have also increased inequality within particular countries, as markets rewarded scarce factors of production, thus fueling powerful political backlashes that endangered the continuation of trade and financial integration.

The debate about the contribution of religious values parallels the debate over the relationship of freedom to economic development — a central issue in the work of Nobel laureate economists Friedrich Hayek and Amartya Sen. It is clearly tempting for critics of authoritarian regimes to argue that freedom is good because it promotes economic growth. But a deeper view of freedom regards it as having intrinsic value.

So, too, with religious values. Backed by evidence from large empirical studies, some claim that belief in religion is good because it boosts economic performance.

    -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:
GENERAL:
    -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)

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