Thursday, February 06, 2003

If anyone has a better idea than American empire, I'd certainly like to hear it. Part III

The celestial empire, the humanitarian empire


Today, we desire a more pure empire, like the UN or the EU, though because we associate domination with the imperial form, we prefer not to use this word. However, as I pointed out, the Roman Empire brought peace only because it defended, through military force, a given territory. Oddly enough, this pure empire we desire today isn’t new. Rather it is nothing other than the reaffirmation of the exact same political configuration that has existed in Europe since the fall of Rome. To see this, we need only read a thinker as perceptive as Dante who described a world in which the overweening power of the celestial empire, meaning Christianity, claimed all values for itself, while the political powers were left with nothing but self-interest. Political factions, especially those of the Italian city-states and the German princes, aligned themselves with the Church in order to advance, through a corrosive reciprocal relationship, their vital interests. Caught in between was the Holy Roman Empire which could neither unify its populace around shared political values, as these were monopolized by the Church, nor rule its territory, as this was divided among the various factions. Throw in the French crown which took advantage of the situation at every opportunity, and the result was endless hypocrisy and political deviltry.

The UN and the EU place us in precisely the same situation. They assume all values of humanity without any of the risks of military action. As such they cast the world into an endless circle of inaction and cynicism. Witness events today: on the one hand, we hear about European values, Europe’s preference for multilateralism and its desire to find a peaceful solution to the Iraqi crisis. At the same time, this position is really nothing other than the expression of the German Chancellor’s manipulation of the issue to gain re-election, coupled with a self-serving manipulation of the history of Franco-German relations by the French President to advance his own role in Europe. The outcome is little more than inaction, infighting and perfidy on the European stage. Unfortunately, this carries over to the international stage where it results in double-dealing on the part of European powers and an insistence on such outlandish foolishness as peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis when it should be clear to the dimmest bulb that in the current political context, peace is impossible. The banality of irresolution is compounded by the vanity of self-interest and the illusion of moral superiority. Watching discussions of international problems on French television, it is this pattern that presents itself again and again.

Now, this situation described by Dante was ultimately addressed in Europe by the nation-state. The nation was meant to act as a mediator between the abstract imperialism of the Church and the particular self-interest of the various factions. In this regard it was a creation of modern thought related to historical progressivism rather than a spontaneous or natural political form as was the empire. Still, the nation did resemble the empire in that it encompassed a large group of people though not all civilization. On the other hand, it also resembled the other most natural political form, the city. While the empire responds to the expression of universal humanity, the city satisfies our desire for immediate humanity, to speak with and therefore know by name our fellow citizens. The model for the city-state was, of course, the Greek city. Unlike the empire, the hallmark of the city was its exclusive character which allowed citizens to take a direct part in governing, ruling and being ruled in turn as Aristotle put it. The other aspect of the city, however, was its propensity for war. Cities tended to make war against each other, though it should be noted that such wars were naturally limited by the simple fact that each city had only a small number of inhabitants and therefore could not engage in endless wars without extinguishing itself. By contrast, an empire, with its virtually limitless human and material resources, could pursue an endless war in its pursuit to bring peace to all humanity.

And yet, the Greek city-states eventually went too far and engaged in a war, the Peloponnesian, which brought about the end of their independence. It also made the Greeks easy prey for the Macedonians, who, under their leader Philip, united the region under his rule. There are certain parallels here between the Greek cities and the European nations who themselves fell into disarray with World War I. Though the nation as a political form was not precisely to blame for the conflict, since that time, Europe has tended to move away from the nation, looking first to fascism, then to communism, and now to European values in order to heal its wounds. At the same time, Europe also found itself, in a sense, invaded by the United States, just as the Greeks were invaded by Philip of Macedon. It was the United States, perhaps the most successful nation-state, that imposed peace on Europe, at least after World War II. Granted, this was an uncertain peace since the communist threat continued to lurk to the east.

That threat is now gone and Europe seeks to take its future into its own hands, but the means for doing so is a European Union that simply resurrects the situation so criticized by Dante. And, as recent events have shown, the European nations are largely ineffective in dealing with crises such as that found in the Ivory Coast, while the European Union as a whole is equally pointless as a worthwhile military force since it seeks imperial power without actually undertaking imperial military force.

In this situation, it is most certainly only the United States, the nation with the imperial role thrust upon it, that can ensure order in the world. Wishing to replace this order is foolish, as not a single credible replacement exists – not the European Union and not the United Nations. Only the United States can unblock the political deadlock of the Middle East, just as only the United States could stop the ethnic killings in the Balkans. The solutions proposed by the European Union and the United Nations, not to mention the recent attitude of the Vatican to the Iraqi situation, will serve only to import the problem outlined by Dante to the rest of the world. In other words, they’ll be complete disasters. On the other hand, we might find Dante useful in this context. He argued for a more powerful political empire in Europe, one that would banish the Church from the political realm, but one that also would leave room for smaller political forms within the empire, forms such as the Italian cities. Perhaps this is really what the world needs today: an American empire that more or less keeps the peace, sometimes from a distance, sometimes with immediate action.cover Within this framework, individual nations continue to carry out their roles, which can include war assuming the war is limited to the region. Regional powers, powers the US could work with in order to help ensure some degree of stability in key areas, would be central here; and this is exactly what Iraq may become. While I have a preference for smaller political units, the current state of the world suggests that only the United States can offer the stability of a relatively benign empire that will also safeguard the national form. It is clear that absolutely no one else can do this. Those who think otherwise should go read Dante's Inferno, for that work, so often seen as a merely religious text, is rather a precise description of the kind of world we’d all live in if the United States should pass from the scene.

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