Sunday, April 20, 2008

Translatio Imperii

Chalmers Johnson, echoing an old theme of political philosophy, points out that a nation clings to empire at the cost of eroding the domestic liberties of its own people. He praises the British for giving up their empire and thereby preserving a liberal form of government. As a general proposition, I agree with Johnson; but I think he gives the British rather too much credit because their renunciation was made entirely more palatable because they ceded dominion to a kindred people who spoke their language and shared many of their values and institutions. The translation of empire was a family affair. If the United States ever brings itself to forgo hegemony, this consolation will not be available.

The really alarming thing is not that the next imperial power will not be Anglo-Saxon or even Western, but that there is no obvious heir to the throne of any kind. India and China are obviously rising powers, but it is rather hard to imagine them attaining anything like the pre-eminence the British enjoyed in the 19th Century and we’ve had since World War II. It will be a tremendous accomplishment for them to maintain their own unity and prosperity in the face of exhausted resources and environmental degradation. Projecting power globally is probably beyond their capabilities and, aside from attaining specific purposes such as securing oil, wouldn’t be in their national interests. In any case, the Chinese and the Indians simply don’t have the Messianic ideologies necessary to aspire to universal domination. Marxism is out of gas, and Indian cultural nationalism is intrinsically parochial. We’re willing to blow foreigners to smithereens in the name of Democracy. What would the Indians kill for? Ahimsa?

Imagining a world without a master requires more imagination than most of us can muster, and it is far from clear whether international commissions and regional condominiums can keep maintain order for very long. Chalmers Johnson is famously unhappy about the hundreds of bases that the United States maintains throughout the world, but what would actually happen if we gave up all those imperial outposts? I take it that’s anything but a rhetorical question, and it’s not a question for Americans only.

Old and decaying empires last as long as they do because the surrounding powers find it safer to preserve them than to deal with the chaos that would follow their destruction. The U.S. is not yet the sick old man of North America, but it is remarkable how willing the other countries have been to indulge our national vanity while underwriting our national debt. Apparently the legacy hunters want the geezer to survive, at least until they get to sneak a look at the will and assure themselves that they’ll inherit something valuable and not just a bunch of bills.

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