First a warning: This is yet another of my infrequent, extravagantly speculative appraisals, guaranteed to poke-in-the-eye assumptions that are held dear by partisans along the entire length of the hoary old Left Right political axis. That axis, inherited from the French Assembly of 1789, is unworthy of 21st Century minds. It is an impediment to clear thinking... and especially about the current topic at hand.
THE NEXT IMPERIUM:
Or How World Governance May Come About by Surprise
by David Brin
Part 1. AMERICAN AMBIVALENCE TOWARD HISTORY
Americans tend to feel uncomfortable when they are asked to look at the vast sweep of world history.
Part of this discomfort may arise from a sense -- nurtured ever since the Revolution -- that everything was supposed to change with the establishment of our "city on a hill." All those tedious cycles of imperial conquest and oppression... of civilizations rising only to collapse, a sullen litany stretching from Gilgamesh to Napoleon... had been rendered obsolete. Right?
No wonder most branches of American idealism share a common distaste for history's primary lesson -- that human nature is inherently a tough and resisting nut to crack. Obdurate tendencies toward dogmatism, cheating, and rationalization-of-force are not only features of Western Civilization, but of every people and era.
Persistent and relentless patterns of imperial, feudal or tribal abuse has worked against individual freedom everywhere, in a trend that spanned all continents and centuries. This inconvenient historical fact frustrates and confuses the central liberal -- and libertarian -- notion, that society can be quickly reformed, by following a simple road map. (If it were that simple, would not somebody have done it, by now?)
Hence, the past must either be romanticized or ignored. Interestingly, history gets no friendlier a reception on the other, grouchier side of the personality aisle.
American cynics generally ascribe to Rousseau's competitor, Hobbes, who maintained that traditional values and hierarchy-imposed order are essential, in order to prevent inherent human nastiness from running riot. In other words, devilish human nature does not need to be unleached. Civilized life depends utterly upon proper supervision and control.
Traditionally, America's homegrown variety of conservative cynics have tended to push isolationism, disengagement, and distrust of foreigners. This central theme was most recently expressed in the nineties by critics of the Clinton Administration who decried the "...naive, discredited and utopian fantasy of so-called nation building."
(A position that soon became bitterly ironic, as the Bush Administration suddenly veered into its own set of quasi-utopian rationalizations, pouring more time, blood and treasure into "nation building"... attempting to plant democracy, in Iraq's rocky soil... than all previous efforts combined. A flip into almost transcendentalist, missionary zeal that seems to have much more in common with Trotsky than Taft.)
And still, history gets ignored, except as a source of isolated anecdotes. Because, if you take in its vast sweep, there is plenty of evidence to support both cynical and idealistic interpretations of America's role in the world, during the last 200 years.
Can the monumental national sacrifice of the Civil War -- when tens of thousands died to make others free -- help to balance sins committed against Native Americans? Was the Monroe Doctrine a utopian endeavor to keep European powers from dominating the Western Hemisphere, or a realpolitik grab, to preserve a US sphere of influence? After the Spanish American War, public hand-wringing kept Cuba and the Philippines from becoming "colonies," though the practical difference in outcome was hardly black-and-white.
History may be murky, but it is not ambivalent about the basic lesson.
What it boils down to is not a disagreement between cynicism and idealism, at all. Both the far right and far-left are rife with dour and grouchy folks who -- at the same time -- lay claim to the purest mores and scruples. Indeed, that very purity of goal and spirit is their common, underlying theme.
Both extremes share an especially bitter spite toward their true opposite -- a pragmatic temperament that found its greatest incubator in the American experience.
The pragmatic wing of the Enlightenment was originally inspired by John Locke, who (in effect) told both Hobbes and Rousseau that they were romantic, oversimplifying fools! Human nature is not inherently devilish or angelic, but a complex mixture of the two.
Any reasonable person, who has not become a slave of ideology, will tell you this. Just have a look at your neighbors. Or in a mirror. Some traits we inherit from dismal caves or rapacious kings. Others aim for what would be the most noble aspirations. Both themes come woven together, in such a complex way that no simplistic dogma can adequately describe or separate the threads. At least, not without killing all the good parts.
According to Locke, it does not matter if you are a follower of Karl Marx or Ayn Rand, or any other would-be social programmer. No purist dogma can ever chart a course through the morass of human nature. Rather, dealing with this muddle requires a step-by-step process of incremental discovery. Learning -- by hard experience -- what methods work and which ones do not. These methods include everything from higher levels of education to institutional compromises that blend market regulation with citizen empowerment. Moreover, because would-be cheaters will adapt to any environment, only constant innovation will continue to thwart our inner devils -- the parts that eagerly find any excuse to exploit others -- while leaving our creative angels free to thrive, in both cooperative efforts and zestful competition.
This process -- experimenting and gradually finding out what works -- has involved thinkers and doers, as diverse as Adam Smith and James Madison, Roosevelt and Hayek, Marshall and King. A melange, as diverse as their methodologies. But all of them displaying the same trait that makes for successful science. A willingness to doubt and test your own theories.
Does history support the incrementalist approach of Locke and the pragmatic modernists? One that takes a little truth from idealists, and some from cynics?
The notion that human betterment is achievable…
...but the road will not be simple or easy.
Despite the murkiness of history, the distilled pattern seems to support Locke and the pragmatists. Indeed, when you focus close to home, measuring the American Experiment against the dour litany of four millennia, the glass appears to be at least half-full. Especially comparing it to Rome or Babylon, or any other empire of the bloody human past.
It is also half-empty, when you contrast the progress so-far against our vague dreams of how-things-ought-to be.
Of course, all of this relates to the over-arching topic of how best to defend the pragmatic-modernist enlightenment, at a time when it is under attack from every end of the so-called- political "spectrum"... from every style of dogmatic romanticism. But it has to do with much more than the study (or ignoring) of history.
It also has great bearing on where we go next. Specifically, how will this current cycle of history come to an end?
All eras, cycles and historical epochs do end, after all. Even if the United States manages to cling to its position of world leadership -- bringing about a second "American Century" -- is there even a remote possibility that this will happen using old methods and old ways? Can Pax Americana (or the "American Peace") truly do a better job of error avoidance than the great powers that came before?
After all, Pax Brittanica and Pax Romana seemed all-enduring and most brilliant just before they fell.
In the next section, we will talk about the new mania for an "American Empire" and the psychological trap this represents. And yet, I am not totally opposed to all versions of "Pax Americana." Unlike all others, this imperium has earned substantial credits, on the plus side of its historical ledger. Not enough to merit endless world domination... but perhaps enough to deserve some residual leadership and respect during the coming age of transition.
As transition to Whatever Comes Next.