Monday, July 21, 2008

Empire and Liberty

So I'm reading a book called "The Pentagon's New Map" by a guy that's worked in the Center for Naval Analysis and the Office of the Secretary of Defense... it's a very poorly written book but it has an interesting thesis that both intrigues and infuriates me. Basically, the author argues that the world is divided between "the Core" and "the Gap" - and that the primary difference between these two worlds is that acceptance of a certain "rule set". Most of the rule sets he talks about are security rule sets - rules of war and peace, etc. - but economic rule sets ultimately play a role as well. "The Gap" includes all the usual suspects - the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia excluding India and China, South America excluding Mexico, Argentina, Chile, and Brazil, etc. The author advocates an active and preemptive military policy in "the Gap" with the explicit goal of bringing them into the Core's rule set on security, the economy, good governance, etc. At times, he seems to advocate a loosely confederated global empire operating on the same basic principles. He makes this very explicit in one point, where he suggests that the U.N. operates very much like the world's legislative branch, and the United States federal government operates like it's executive branch. We use our military to execute the law of the land (in this case, the law of the planet), and put bad guys away.

At first glance, that's obviously scary - and it seems like a blank check for the military. But at some point, we will have a global polity - I'm convinced of that as well. We've seen tribes and city states organize from bands of hunters. These far flung groups have organized into clans and then nations, and now we're starting to see national confederacies emerge. I don't think its unreasonable to assume that we will have a single, sovereign, planetary government in fifty years or so. It may not happen - but its certainly conceivable. And if it did - how would that work? Probably in a way that's very similar to how "The Pentagon's New Map" is laying it out - with international bodies like the WTO, the ICC, and the UN laying out the rules of the game and the U.S. bringing belligerents into the fold.

With that in mind I'm going to offer two quotes from a Founding Father:

In 1780: "We shall divert through our own Country a branch of commerce which the European States have thought worthy of the most important struggles and sacrifices, and in the event of peace on terms which have been contemplated by some powers we shall form to the American union a barrier against the dangerous extension of the British Province of Canada and add to the Empire of liberty an extensive and fertile Country thereby converting dangerous Enemies into valuable friends."

And lest you think that was a slip of the tongue, in 1809 the same founding father repeated: "We should then have only to include the north [Canada] in our Confederacy, which would be of course in the first war, and we should have such an empire for liberty as she has never surveyed since the creation"... this was after his excitement about the prospect of obtaining Cuba for the United States.

Who was it? None other than the libertine Thomas Jefferson! The first was in a letter to George Rogers Clark, and the second in a letter to President Madison. This sounds pretty close to Hamilton (Jefferson's political rival) who advocated taking Spanish posessions in Mexico.
It seems so counterintuitive, but now that we're really forced to deal with the idea of empire we should think hard about what it means to be an "empire of liberty" and whether that even makes sense conceptually. Certainly we didn't have an issue with it throughout hour history, but since the closing of the frontier we've pretended that empire and America are antithetical. Are they? I don't know. Our founders consistently compared us to Rome, and at some point Rome made the leap from Republic to Empire. Interestingly enough, Rome's acquisiton of territory was not what made it an "empire" in the eyes of historians - I think we should take note of this. Rome became and empire when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon - when he entered the captiol and took power from the Senate.
These are dangerous times and we have an obligation to use our strength for the good. But we need to think hard about what we're doing. Where is our Rubicon? Who is our Caesar? What does the "American Empire" mean. Can we polinate the world with our "rule sets" and set the stage for a lasting, unified, powerful planet - or would this very act rob us of what makes us so unique? I don't know - and I don't think these choices will be made in the near future. But make no mistake - with the Soviets gone our generation is the first in American history to be confronted with Empire - and we're going to need to think about it and deal with it. Moreover - our generation is the first in the history of the species that is confronted with a Planetary Empire. What in the world do we do with that?


Evan said...

Fascinating post. Perhaps a charter post for your blog, in some ways. I don't know if I'd agree that a global polity is inevitable- this sort of assumption has been going on for a while, and if anything the "gap" this author seems to speak of has since 9/11 demonstrated its entrenched opposition to such a polity, and its astonishing ability to drain the resources of any democracy with imperial ambitions in their backyard. Add to these rogue groups the more socially acceptable anti-globalist voices and I think we won't see a global polity anytime soon. I don't think ever.

Your quotes from Jefferson are interesting, but I also get the impression that his Empire of Liberty wasn't exactly what you're talking about here. I seem to remember Jefferson also saying something like "so what if the western territories don't want to be a part of the union... federal principles can thrive apart from this particular union's expansion"... something like that. He didn't seem to lose sleep over making an "empire of liberty" happen, but rather thought that liberty would assert itself from within the people, however that manifested itself on an institutional level.

I think the idea of an empire of liberty is troublesome, and it's really the heart of the paradox of modernity. What I think is a more helpful model is the "republic of letters" idea that can still be cosmopolitan, but is more of a transpolitical idea... communicatory bonds across state borders. I think this is also why the place of religious groups in the global future you muse about here is also so interesting, the way it transgresses boundaries and yet gives meaning to them. Anyway, good thoughts.

dkuehn said...

All good points. The author talks about a lot of ways in which we can respond that would be bad, because it would further entrench "the Gap" - but I think he does make a good point that bin Laden and al Qaeda and other interested parties are fighting to hold sway over a population that really could go either way. If we should these places what the rule of law and human rights can do to a society, they may easily embrace "the Core" - if we just bomb, they probably won't.

I'm not convinced a global policy will emerge, but I think it's likely - likely within our lifetime. And it will probably be something like a NATO or a UN taking on greater responsibility over time. It will also probably be a hodgepodge of sovereignties and jurisdictions. But I think we'll probably move that direction... but I could see it going either way. If we're talking about over the next five hundred years, I'd guess that its a dead certainty.

Joseph Ellis wrote an interesting looking biography of Jefferson called "American Sphynx" - where he basically argues that Jefferson more than any other founding father is all things to all people. He has that rare ability to be an absolutely commited demagogue and extremely ambivalent and contradictory at the same time. And I don't necessarily mean that as a bad thing. So ya - I have no doubt about what you recall - but its also worth noting that many prominent founding fathers saw territorial expansion and a "new world order" as entirely consistant with the "spirit of 76".

I tend to agree with you on the contradictions of an "empire of liberty". You know I don't call for one-world-governments very often! In addition, a major focus of this blog is American competitiveness, so clearly I put a lot of faith in the idea of the nation! But our Constitution is also very flexible in its incorporation of new territory - it was designed that way. And if you read Madison, bigger is definitely better when it comes to the stability of a republic! I personally muse a lot about the "future of humanity" as well, and I do think that's heading to a more unified planet (it's already happening... this isn't something we have to sit back and wait for - just look at the 1990s!). So I think we have to ask ourselves:

1. What is the role of the United States - the lone superpower - in that unified planet. Do we just pretend that we don't de facto completely dominate the world already?
2. How do we make sure a unified planet is a free planet?

They're tough questions but they ultimately lead to one more question: Does it make sense for a republic to play an active role in the political consolidation of human society? If we don't - who will, and what values will they stamp on that "new world order"?

dkuehn said...

*should = showed
*policy = polity

I don't know what's up with me today... there are lots of typos in that original post too

JSN said...

I found your review of "The PNM" from Barnett's website. It's nice he is so broadminded as to assist in bringing those who differ with him together.

I read the book some years ago, so forgive me if I don't recall some portion. In addition, I refused to finish it.

I, like you, was struck by the open-ended military role.

I remember being struck strongly by the assumption that America needs to export capitalism, and that free markets are a requirement to enter "The Core."

Using close consideration, it is clear that people, if free to elect any government they want, may well choose to elect one that regulates most, or even all, of the economy.

If you want to get past the pro-free market hype of people like Barnett, and more specifically Thomas Friedman, I can not recommend enough "Bad Samaritans" by Ha-Joon Chang. He's a Cambridge economics professor, and although he's not the world's best writer, his command of the facts is stunning.

But the idea that you can bomb people into freedom?

This is not a great intellectual age, congratulations for being a citizen who questions it.

dkuehn said...

Thanks JSN - I hadn't realized it was on Barnett's website! I'll have to check that out.

I think there's a pretty good case that the free-market is a must for the modern world order - but that doesn't mean that the market can't coexist without a substantial welfare state, trade protection, subsidies, and regulation if that's what citizens want. I do think outright socialism is antithetical to human dignity and progress, but I would definitely give some latitude into how democratic societies want to shape their versions of capitalism. Economic freedom is essential in the same way that political freedom is - the world doesn't have to have an American style democracy, but we can't deny that some form of democracy and political freedom must undergird human dignity and progress.

Should free elections and free markets be adopted at gunpoint? I'm with you on that one - no way. But Barnett does raise good questions about what an appropriate use of our military may be - and perhaps we have to be more open minded about that - I don't know. I'm still digesting him - don't have a fully formed opinion yet.

I'll definitely check out Ha-Joon Chang. I haven't heard of him before. It's ok that he's not the best writer - Barett was pretty bad stylistically himself!