2003-02-21: Imperial Catechism

A good man, and good at being a man

A good man, and good at being a man

While John was a fan of TR, he did admit that the colonies Teddy Roosevelt so enthusiastically helped to acquire were useless, both geostrategically and in domestic politics. However, when John talks about empire, the acquisition of Puerto Rico and the Philippines isn't what he means.

The empire [as opposed to an empire] is the ground state of a political and economic system when the will to maintain a more vigorous state is no longer available. This is what John is referring to when he says: "The basis of the Empire is not dominance, but acquiescence." The extent of an empire may be founded on the conquests of a vigorous leader, but its continued existence cannot be. Julius Caesar conquered Gaul, and then went on to create a template of political leadership that would directly continue for 1500 years [and indirectly until today]. Whereas Alexander the Great conquered an even greater extent of territory than Caesar, but it fell into strife and dissolution upon his death. On the gripping hand, the Roman Empire did about as well with Marcus Aurelius as Commodius. The empire does not depend on the charisma or skill of the Emperor to exist. Rather, the fact that the Emperor exists is what sustains the Empire. He is the still center about which everything else revolves.

The formation of universal states is something that seems likely, given human nature. I think it would be too bold to say it is a Law of Nature, but it certain seems to be a stable tendency. Going by past experience, we can expect the formation of a universal state that will encompass most of the world by the end of the Twenty-first century. I will be an old man, if I live at all, before I have the opportunity to see whether this prediction comes true. I am curious to see how it all turns out.

An Imperial Catechism
There is a relationship between American policy toward Iraq and the prospect of empire, but it's not the one you might think. Any American government, at any stage in the history of the United States, would have had to end the sort of threat that the Baathist regime in Iraq poses. In fact, America's first international war was a long, moderately successful campaign to suppress the Barbary Pirates. (You know the bit in the Marine Anthem about the "shores of Tripoli"?) Now, however, the international system is older, more constricted: you have to get a license to use force, even for self-defense. The problem is that the licensing authorities are both incompetent and autonomous. All the empire will mean is that the agencies will be answerable to an executive. There: that's the 21st century for you.
America has a great deal to do with this process, but again, not in the way you might think. America once had an empire, of the same variety as the British and French and Dutch empires. We acquired it late and let it go early. The old colonial empires were just extensions of the nations that controlled them. They were never worth much, frankly, and they had nothing to do with what America was or wanted.
What is happening now is different. We are seeing the beginning, not of an American Empire, but of the Empire. It seems at this point that it will be chiefly organized by the United States, but even that could change. The Empire is the terminal episode in the evolution of an international system. The Roman Empire, Han and Ming China, the Ottoman Empire: all were "universal states" of this class. The basis of the Empire is not dominance, but acquiescence. States may continue under the Empire, but the Empire is the ultimate source of legitimacy. In principle, it is the ultimate earthly guarantor of the minimum of order and justice without which civilization could not function.
Although the universal state of the West is still two or three generations from final formation, we are already seeing debate about it. A useful polemic against the Empire is available on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation, in the form of an essay by Richard Ebeling of Hillsdale College. The essay is entitled An American Empire! If You Want It instead of Freedom. Let me take in turn the points it raises.
* * *
Mr. Ebeling cites the arguments of a book published in 1953, Garet Garret's The People's Pottage. Conveniently, Mr. Ebeling numbers them:
First, the executive power of the government becomes increasingly dominant.
That trend has been exaggerated, and of course it was reversed after the Watergate scandal. Now it is probably being reversed again: not because of presidential hubris, but because Congress is terrified to be seen making a decision in public. For what it's worth, the executives of mature universal-states keep their jobs by doing as little as possible. Roman and Chinese emperors spent most of their time answering their mail.
Second, domestic-policy issues become increasingly subordinate to foreign-policy matters.
Twice in the 20th century, during the 1920s and the 1990s, the United States tried to reverse those priorities. The result in both cases was kaboom.
Third, Empire threatens to result in the ascendancy of the military mind over the civilian mind.
That is what happened, to some extent, under the colonial empires. Under the Empire, the trend is exactly the opposite. The characteristic feature of universal states is debellicization. The whole world becomes the European Union.
Fourth, Empire creates a system of satellite nations.
The Empire makes all politics domestic politics.
Fifth, Empire brings with it both arrogance and fear among the imperial people.
Even the colonial empires moved away from ethnic chauvinism in their last stage. As for the Empire, under it there are no foreigners.
And, finally, Empire creates the illusion that a nation is a prisoner of history..."Destiny" has marked us for duty and greatness.
The way that universal states form is contingent. The fact that they do form probably is not. Get over it.
* * *
America's old colonial empire in the Philippines and the Caribbean really did contradict America's essential nature. The Empire, in contrast, was implicit in the American Founding. The Declaration of Independence famously says: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights." Rights are imaginary unless a social order exists in which they can be exercised. By declaring the rights universal, the Continental Congress implied the ideal of a universal order. Indeed, the Congress appealed to that order: the Declaration is addressed, not to the American people, or to God, or to specific sovereigns. It is addressed to "the decent opinion of mankind," to the consensus of civilization. The Empire is simply that consensus in institutional form.
Regular visitors to my site will know that I have dozens of items online that deal with these matters in one way or another. As a convenience to readers, I am planning a paperback anthology on the subject: The Perfection of the West. It will not include Spengler's Future, unless I can fix the rights problem with the old publisher in a week or two. However, it should make clear some of the things I have been getting at these many years. Look for it this spring.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site