The Long View: Bounding Power: Republican Theory from the Polis to the Global Village By Daniel H. Deudney

It is fascinating to return to this book review, written in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. At the time, it seemed more plausible that non-state entities might permanently destabilize the security environment, but in 2020 this has just become the new normal.

And while I do find some value in geographic determinism as a factor in state formation, John J. Reilly brings up some nice counter-examples. Also this point of constitutional law:

More bewildering than the exaggerated importance accorded to geography is the strange indifference to culture. Perhaps, when the author says that modern republics no longer need virtue, he means that they no longer need the military virtues. That may or may not be true. However, though the author is often leery of Kantian ideas, he adopts without question Kant’s dictum that even a nation of demons could maintain a liberal republic, provided they had understanding. The author explains that, instead of virtue, the integrity of the modern republic is maintained by procedures. This is almost certainly a grave error. The negarchic structures that constitute a republic are culturally conditioned institutions. They assume honesty and objectivity, even public spirit, among the people who man the state machinery. The world is full of failed states with splendid constitutions.

Bounding Power: Republican Theory from the Polis to the Global Village
By Daniel H. Deudney
Princeton University Press, 2006
391 Pages, US$35.00
ISBN 978-0-691-11901-4

The logic that produced the International Criminal Court is precisely the logic that produced the Old Republic of the United States at the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia in 1787. The logic is sound; applied to the current decay in international security, it implies that a world government lies at no distant date in the future. Indeed, the tragedy of American diplomacy is that the American political class lost interest after 1990 in continuing to transform the international system in a republican direction, a loss that occurred at the very moment when the United States had acquired an unprecedented capacity to facilitate the transformation.

These are just a few of the propositions that Daniel H. Deudney of Johns Hopkins University offers in this provocative, and in part persuasive, reimagination of the political science of international affairs [Amazon link]. In large part the book is a critique of Realism, but he also has quite a lot to say about the tendency of foreign-policy Liberalism to define as a security imperative just about any policy that seems like a good idea at the time. Moreover, the book reevaluates the history of international political theory from ancient times, disparaging the Greeks while praising the Romans, condescending to Machiavelli but highlighting the importance of obscure Venetian authors; most shockingly, he attributes the intellectual basis of the late 20th-century debellicization of the developed world not to Immanuel Kant and his ill-thought-out program of “Perpetual Peace,” but to the federal republican security theory developed by “Publius,” the collective name for the authors of The Federalist Papers. The book has some consideration of all the major world-system writers, from MacKinder to Haushofer to Jonathan Schell. Best of all, for readers who care at all for speculative macrohistory, the author takes H.G. Wells and his fin-de-siecle intimations of a coming world state very seriously.

The author has gone back to the early modern social-contract theorists and discovered that their ideas, while universally valid, have different implications for different eras. In the state of nature, which the author calls “The First Anarchy,” everyone is vulnerable to everyone else to an intolerable degree. Republics, like other political forms, are a response to this “violence interdependence.” All states organize to protect their subjects from violent death inflicted by their fellows and by outsiders. These states may then be again in a state of nature with regard to each other, a condition the author calls “The Second Anarchy.” This Second Anarchy, at least in earlier times, was rarely acute; it was not intolerable. The peculiarity of a republic is that it is also designed to limit the danger to its citizens from their own government. Thus, in republics, there are not only hierarchical structures of command, but also “negarchy,” institutions and procedures that counterbalance the organs of administration, the most important counterbalance being popular sovereignty.

In the ancient world and in the early modern period, there were two Iron Laws of Classical Republicanism. Commercial luxury sapped the martial virtues, so republics that survived had to be small and poor. To the extent they endured at all, they did so in isolated valleys or on islands. Republics that elected to expand required strong executives that turned into monarchies and then into despotisms. The early modern “Maritime Whiggery” of states like the Republic of Venice, the Netherlands, and 16th-century England (a liberal state, if not formally a republic) were exceptions that proved the rule: without endangering their liberal institutions, they could pursue wealth because their defense and prosperity depended on sea power, which did not require large standing armies or other instruments of the security state.

Happily, the contextual-material situation has moved on, particularly because of three inventions. One invention, or class of inventions, were mechanisms of transport and communication. Of course, these could, and did, enable the erection of tyrannies of unexampled size and oppressiveness, but the more important effect may have been that they allowed all the citizens of a state to participate in public life without the need to be within shouting distance of the same rostrum. This was possible because of another, earlier invention: the political concept of representation and the various methods of constructing it. The third invention, also from early modern times, was the balance of power, an institution that Realists mistakenly believe to be universal and primordial. At least until the development of the industrial economy, the balance of power made the Second Anarchy tolerable in a way it had not been before.

This inclusion of “the balance of power” among the inventions of republicanism may seem a confusion of foreign affairs with domestic policy, like confusing the army with the police. The author’s thesis is precisely that there is no confusion. He tells us repeatedly that there is a difference in kind between a republican state, with its internal mechanisms of negarchy, and a mere hierarchy, moderated by nothing but the prudence of the hierarchs. This is, actually, a conventional Kantian point. However, we are told, the difference is analytical as well as practical. In this view, the “Philadelphian system,” created by the American Founding Fathers, was not a state, but an anti-state. The Founders created a government federal in form, to be sure, but one with powers over its citizens that did not quite amount to statehood. Only after the Civil War and the Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution did the US become a true federation, though still a weak one. The Philadelphian system was a system-level negarchy, the system in this case being the system of states constituted by the original 13 colonies. The Constitution of 1787 made it a system with an embedded balance-of-power. Thus, though we are not told this explicitly, the early federal union was different in degree rather in kind from the Europe of the Congress of Vienna.

In this materialist but non-Marxist model of history, the social superstructure is not defined by the relationship to the means of production, but to the means of securing defense against violence. Governments achieve the breadth needed to reduce violence interdependence to tolerable levels. By the middle of the 19th century, the scope of violence interdependence was expanding because of the new abilities given to the military by the industrial system. For the first time since the invention of the balance of power, the Second Anarchy threatened to become intolerable. Various schemes were devised to alleviate the situation, from the imposition of universal hierarchy by conquest to a workers’ anarchy. The republican response, in the author’s view, was Wilsonianism. We are reminded that Wilsonian Liberalism is supposed to be conservative of American institutions. Its goal was to transform the global political environment so that the United States would not have to become a garrison state among hostile powers.

So, the author tells us, Publius and federal republican security theory rather than Kant and the democratic peace should be the basis of Liberal international theory. This is not simply a matter of the influence of American ideas, but of the existence of America itself: If the American experiment had not succeeded, there probably would have been no major republics in the world by the end of the 20th century.

The author taxes foreign policy Realists for characterizing the international system as “hierarchies in anarchy.” He finds that view historically myopic. In particular, Realists blink the fact that balance-of-power systems are republics. Europe has been a republic in this sense since the 17th century. In fact, both Realism and Liberalism are the forgetful children of republicanism: “Thus emerges the situation in which one school of international politics focuses on violence, the other on interdependence, and neither on violence interdependence.” The author also provides us with a list of other political theories he finds insufficient. Curiously, his objections have less to do with foreign policy than they do with the nature of the state.

For instance, from antiquity there has been a version of republicanism in natural-law theory, but its emphasis on freedom in the sense of “the individual’s freedom from passion” conduces to the plans for the oligarchy of the wise, for which we here find the term “sophocracy.” The attempt to use the state for anything but security, the author gives us to understand, leads to hierarchical models that must incorporate utopian elements of leadership perfection. In reality, since modern republics no longer require a citizenry in arms for their defense, virtue is no longer needed by a republic. The security-restraint republicanism that the author advocates is also different from natural law republicanism and from civic humanist republicanism (which views the state primarily as a way to create a virtuous community) in that both the latter two offer analysis and proscription ahistorically, regardless of context. Other modern prescriptions for “republics of virtue” include Constructivism and Communitarianism They form one pole of modern theory of which the other is rights-centered atomistic liberalism. That kind of liberalism, in turn, fades off into anarcho-syndicalist antiglobalism.

Before moving on to the author’s analysis of the current state of violence interdependence and what to do about it, let us pause to assess some of these arguments. One of the characteristics of Marxist analyses is that, when we see the writer announce that he is about to depart from questions of theory to deal with the concrete reality of the situation, we can be pretty sure that the text is about to vaporize into a great cloud of abstraction. The historical materialism of Bounding Power is not so frivolous, but it is oddly credulous.

For instance, the author soberly recounts opinions of ancient and early modern authors about the natural sizes of different types of regime (small republics, middling kingdoms, really big “universal monarchies”). We are told several times that pre-modern Europe was not a single state because its geography made unification impossible without modern transportation. May I point out that those conjectures are wrong? At any rate, geography does not predict regime type. Historically there was nothing like republics among the islands and isolated valleys of East Asia, though small republics did occur in pre-Columbian North America (a continent that we are elsewhere told has a geography that invites unification). Conversely, by the 16th century, the mountain-valley world of the Andes, a region as riven by geography as Greece is, had one of the most centralized universal states of history. And as for universal states, it is not obvious from a survey of the topographies of China and Europe that one favors this regime while the other does not (and indeed, China has experienced state-systems in the past). In contrast, the topography of India does favor universal monarchy, but the state-history of India is in some ways more like that of Europe than that of China.

More bewildering than the exaggerated importance accorded to geography is the strange indifference to culture. Perhaps, when the author says that modern republics no longer need virtue, he means that they no longer need the military virtues. That may or may not be true. However, though the author is often leery of Kantian ideas, he adopts without question Kant’s dictum that even a nation of demons could maintain a liberal republic, provided they had understanding. The author explains that, instead of virtue, the integrity of the modern republic is maintained by procedures. This is almost certainly a grave error. The negarchic structures that constitute a republic are culturally conditioned institutions. They assume honesty and objectivity, even public spirit, among the people who man the state machinery. The world is full of failed states with splendid constitutions.

Strangest of all is the indifference of this historical survey of political science to time. The term “universal monarchy” is applied, fairly enough, as a regime type: a state that controls what had formerly been an entire international system. But surely it is important that states like this come in two flavors? One is the ephemeral empires of the Napoleons and the Hitlers, polities that never achieve legitimacy. The other is the “Universal States” that Toynbee wrote about (Toynbee is mentioned in passing). The Han and Roman empires fall into that class. They are durable and they are legitimate, if not invariably popular. They occur only in state systems that are old. Most interesting, they are relaxed. They are not armed to the teeth against their enemies, either foreign or domestic, but they are states nonetheless. What this implies about the future of our own international system we will consider in a moment.

Two forces in our world threaten to make the Second Anarchy unendurable again. One of these is nuclear weapons, which put civilian populations in immediate danger of destruction. The other is the attack of the killer MANGOs (Malign Non-Governmental Organizations). We will deal with the nukes first, if only because the author has little new to say.

We should note, as the author does not, that the intolerable feature of the nuclear Second Anarchy is not so much the nuclear bombs as the delivery systems. Nuclear missiles in the absence of defense are unnerving if the actions of their possessors are incalcuable. Be that as it may, the author assumes the continuation of the technological environment of the late Cold War, and even seems to endorse Jonathan Schell’s “unconquerable world” theory. That model has it that we have in fact already achieved the basis of universal peace. Nuclear weapons make war between the great powers unimaginable. Meanwhile, the progress of the techniques of guerrilla war, and even more, of the ideology of passive resistance, has made conquest by conventional means impossible. Some sort of world government is still needed, to finalize the nuclear settlement and to help negotiate ends to the wars of peoples-in-conflict that make failed states what they are. In such a situation, the mere threat to build nuclear weapons will serve as well as an actual arsenal, while the military arm of the world community would exist as a force for civil relief, and need not be overwhelming. Thus, the world needs a government. Like the Philadelphian system, however, it need not be a state, or even very state-like:

Not needing to centralize and monopolize violence capacity in order to address either outside or inside threats, and centripetally anchored by recessed deterrence and unconquerability, a federal-republican image of world government looks fundamentally different from either the starkly hierarchical or the federal state model.

Fans of the science-fiction writer Jerry Pournelle may be reminded of his dictum about environmentally friendly electricity generation: you can’t run a power grid on moonbeams and fairy wheels. Schell’s unconquerability thesis is easily disproven historically, but the author of this book has done a service, perhaps, by inadvertently disproving it analytically. Any region that was “unconquerable” in Schell’s sense would also be ungovernable. In other words, an unconquerable world would be one to which the First Anarchy had returned.

Maybe this is the author’s point. He seems fairly sanguine about nukes deployed by recognized governments, but he has trouble imagining a way to deal with the MANGOs. Republican security theory says that a republic is created, not simply when there are obvious benefits that would flow from a higher level of integration, but when that integration is essential to mitigate an intolerable level of violence interdependence. It is not hard to imagine that terrorist networks could provide the impetus to create a world government. But again: need that government be a state?

International Liberalism may be comfortable with that outcome. In the Liberal model, perhaps, world government means that types of administration that historically have been managed by municipalities would hereafter be exercised at the national level, while formerly national administrative functions must now be exercised in large part by transnational bodies. However, as H.G. Wells, among others, has pointed out, a world government would be unlike previous governments because it would have no “outside” and so no need for foreign policy or defense. It would need no strong executive, or indeed any unified executive at all. There would be all the time in the world for consensus.

This is very much the final state of things in H. G. Well’s rather appalling novel (appalling in its ideas; it’s fun to read), Things to Come [Amazon link]. In that book, the executive body of an originally rather Stalinist world state mellows into a supreme court whose function is to straighten out administrative conflicts. The problem for the author of this book is that Wells’s World State was proudly post-democratic; in this Wells’s World State is only in partial contrast to today’s transnational authorities, and indeed the European Union government, which are sneakily post-democratic. The popular sovereignty that underlies all republics is “recessed” in modern republics, because of the institutions of representation. Nonetheless, this sovereignty has a real restraining power in national states. It is the key to all negarchy. It is also almost wholly lacking at the transnational level. It is hard to see why the democratic deficit bodes better for transnational institutions than it did for the states of antiquity that slid into oligarchy or tyranny.

Maybe it would be the case that a world government need not be a state by some definitions: one is reminded of Friedrich Heer’s dictum about the Holy Roman Empire: "The Empire was not a state, but a system of dispensing justice." However, it is wrong to say that a world government would not have an outside, and therefore need not be a state. The state is where society meets the outside. That outside can be human; both living and dead, if you believe the theory of the mortuary state. The outside can also be natural. The theory of “hydraulic despotism” says that the earliest civilizations, in the great river valleys of Eurasia, were organized not so much for defense as to manage the water. More than a few people with an interest in global warming seem to have had thoughts for the whole planet along very similar lines.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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