The Long View 2003-01-09: The Imperial Gazette Speaks

While criticism of the Iraq war is now commonplace, still only cranks seriously contest the way the United States conducts its global business in any systematic way. Everyone simply assumes this is the way it has to be, and most of the arguing is about who is going to be in charge and what goals they should be pursuing. I think this speaks to John's vision of the world as being largely correct: we really are approaching the point where some kind of universal state will again emerge, and right now the United States is acting as the executive of that embryonic state.

The Imperial Gazette Speaks
 
No doubt The New York Times thought that it was being very provocative when it ran that cover story, American Empire (Get Used to It), in its Sunday magazine on January 5. Written by Michael Ignatieff of the Kennedy School of Government, the article (which is actually titled "The Burden") makes the argument that the United States is already running a global empire, and that this is not necessarily a bad thing. There are two points about the piece that bear mentioning.
The first is how little fundamental criticism it occasioned. Although some people did take issue stridently with Ignatieff's ideas about the Israeli-Palestinian issue (which are in fact a little flaky), I have yet to see much comment to the effect that the US lacks the capacities Ignatieff claims. There has also, so far, been a dearth of serious moral arguments against global empire. Indeed, such discussion as there has been simply presents shades of opinion in favor of it. The extreme wings of apologetics for empire are represented by Robert Kaplan, a Realpolitiker, and Peter Singer, a liberal the bleeding from whose heart could not be staunched by Senator Frist himself. (Singer might deny that what he is advocating is an empire. Hah.)
The most interesting thing about The New York Times piece, however, was Ignatieff's ignorance of the typology of empires. What is happening to the world now is not like the imperialist rivalries of the 18th and 19th centuries. To the extent there is an American Empire, it is not of the same type as the British Empire. The American Empire (and the tag "American" may not stay with it permanently) is the early stage of what Toynbee called a "Universal State." Put briefly, a Universal State is the final condition of an international system. Universal states are assembled by hegemons, but are made possible by exhaustion. Essentially, sovereignty becomes too much trouble, so the members of the system cede most of it to an imperial center, which soon loses its national character.
Samuel Huntington made use of the concept in The Clash of Civilizations, though he was inclined to think that the Universal State of the West would not be global. I also ran across the use of the concept in a planning paper for the Canadian military. On the whole, though, there seems to be little appreciation, even among the advocates of global empire, for just how different a Universal State is from the empires in the earlier stages of a civilization's history. They are, for instance, much longer lived: generally about 500 years. Why? Because they are legitimate. Alexander's empire rested solely on force, so it shattered at his death. The Roman Empire, in contrast, lasted through crisis after crisis. It lasted because it represented universal justice, however imperfectly. This is the one valuable point in Empire, the otherwise execrable book by Hardt & Negri.
 
* * *
Two minor points:
The comparison between the United States and Rome has always been overdone. In some ways, the West today looks less like the late Hellenistic world than it looks like the late Era of Contending States in Chinese history. The faceoff between the US and the EU bears comparison to the conflict between the states of Qin and Qi: the argument is about legitimacy. Of course, in other ways the present situation is unique, and for the better. The West is actually more adept than other societies at substituting veiled threats and peaceful competition for actual war.
Finally, if the concept of a Universal State does regain the currency it had in the 1950s, this time there will be some confusion with this quite different usuage:
 
Definition: A state in an alternating Turing machine from which the machine accepts only if all possible moves lead to acceptance.
You read it first here.
 
* * *
Unlike some bloggers whose URLs I will not mention, I try not to flack reflexively for the Bush Administration. Nonetheless, I must register a protest against the made-for-television movie, The Crooked E, which appeared on CBS on Sunday. The screenwriters' attempt to identify the Bush Administration with the shady practices of the spectacularly failed Enron Corporation is a new low in media partisanship for the Democrats.
The book on which the program was supposed to be based suggested that Enron had had too much influence over both the Clinton and Bush II Administrations. In the movie, all the references to the Clintons were deleted. In fact, the whole decade of the 1990s was deleted. The movie starts with the founders of Enron at a barbecue in Texas, clacking their mandibles in glee over the deregulation of the energy market by the Reagan Administration. The story then jumps to 2001. A junior executive, who had been present at that barbecue as a boy, is starting work at Enron. We are never actually told just what business Enron was in. The exposition gives the impression that Enron mostly sold insurance to manufacturers of poisoned food. There is a reference to some member of the Bush Administration every five minutes
This is not to say that the producers were incapable of subtlety. The actor who played the junior executive (Christian Kane, I think) is a graduate of the WB network's camp-supernatural industry. In the series Angel, he played a junior attorney at a law firm that catered to the well-to-do damned. He had pretty much the same job at Enron.
 
* * *
Speaking of the damned, reports of uncanny events continue to surface, despite the efforts of well-meaning authorities to suppress them. First it was raining fish. Then it was spider webs. Now it's dragon's breath. Where will it all end?

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site