In a world that remains in political “anarchy,” 6,000 years later, one might think that a truly global organization might arise to supervise the lurid activities of the membership. Not so. After thousands of years with incessant warfare, alliances that come and go eternally, spying, rivalry, sustained suspicion, “sovereignty,” “territoriality,” we might, at last, find common bond for something new. Not so again.
As the great baseball manager Casey Stengel once said of his new team, “doesn’t anybody around here know how to play this game?”
Isn’t anyone tired of this “same old, same old”? So A invades B, C spies on D, E allies against F, G expands against H, and I “meddles” inside J. Who needs names, but the alphabet is only so long. Even after an hour, all games grow tired.
It’s not as though nobody has tried. The “nation-state” system formally began in 1648 with the end of the Holy Roman Empire, making the present “system” about 350 years old. Count the number of wars since (but stop at 100).
Within the widest perspective (6,000 years of recorded history), almost all of political history has consisted of organizational units we call “empires.” This makes nation-states about five percent of history. Empires can be counted as well: Chinese, Mongol, Persian, Roman, Byzantine, Indian, Russian, Austrian, Ottoman, Islamic (and most religions), British, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Japanese, Belgian, Inca, Aztec, Zulu, to name the most prominent.
Politicians often refer to an American Empire, yet ironically the U.S. may be the only great power that rarely pursued empire and spent most of its diplomatic history railing against the empires of others. This may sound disingenuous to Mexico, which lost nearly half of its land to the U.S. (1848) or to Indian tribes, who lost their own to the federal government. Still, much of America’s territorial advances were real estate deals (Louisiana Purchase, Alaska), while the very objects of “Manifest Destiny” clamored against each other to join the union as “states.”
(Should politicians still rage against American “imperialism,” we can always give it back, just don’t tell anyone living west of Maryland).
Yet the word “empire” itself connotes the very opposite of what we know as the values of “western” society: liberty, democracy, equality, rule of law. Without exception, empire means rule by a few, arbitrarily and at the very top. In effect, all citizens become “slaves” minus the term and remain indefinitely conditioned to the whims of the inherited rulers.
In democratic terminology, the differences between “subject” and “citizen,” with all the rights and privileges contained therein, defines the differences between empires and free societies. There is no word for “majesty” in a democratic dictionary.
But even within the definitions of political governance, empires still lacked the capacity to influence more than a relative few. Without exception, again, they all had severe territorial limits to their rule.
Probably the largest land-mass was the Mongol Empire of Genghis Kahn, which covered most of China and the Far East plus south Asia and southern Europe. This was big but still remote and small compared to empires based on the seven seas. The largest maritime empire was the British which, together, once covered large portions of North America, Africa, the Middle East, south and southeast Asia, and the Far East.
To discover the impact of the British Empire alone, reflect on the geopolitical vocabulary used in the United States today. Standing on the Atlantic coast, looking at the ocean, which direction are you facing? East. Then why is NATO our “western” allies? On the Pacific coast, you’re looking west, but China is the “Far East.” Why, because that’s the geopolitical perspective from London.
Yet, as in most things, empires were “short-lived.” But only if centuries can be defined as “short.” It depends on one’s perspective but is largely irrelevant. They are now long-gone, which brings up the question, what next?
Over time, there have many efforts in the “west” to create new and better organizations to forge at least some semblance of “world order.” Many have been American-inspired, from Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations to Franklin Roosevelt’s United Nations. They have had many successes in many quarters (the League not so much), but in essentially changing the global political system, they haven’t even come close. Try counting the wars since 1945 (and stop at 100 again).
Is failure final? No more than “success.” Many in the U.S. (myself included) have argued for long-range efforts to fundamentally alter the global political system toward a more-ordered arrangement based upon the political values of the American Founding. The book World Peace Through World Law (Clark/Sohn, 1958) represents perhaps the best-known single volume toward that effort, but still remains only representative.
While it is fair to label such images as “utopian,” the label should in no way discount, nor stop, the effort.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” “a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step” are more than empty slogans if they inspire effort. Effort, in turn, requires commitment, persistence, patience, determination, and dedication. These are all virtues, and it behooves today’s America to use some of these in advancing the interests of a world better than the one we have inherited.
There’s still another slogan that has relevance: “Keep your feet on the ground, your eyes on the horizon.”
As criteria for U.S. foreign policies over time, especially since the Cold War, we can use a number of indicators, ranging from geopolitics and national interests to diplomacy and warfare itself. These all belong in the first part of the above quote and are in the “realist” category.
The second part belongs in the “utopian” category and should have relevance, maybe even dominance, as a priority.
The first is relatively “easy” and easy also to judge. Just have an opinion, pick up a newspaper, watch TV.
On the other hand, how is the “better world” coming along?