A Multipolar World
In December 2007 I had the honor of teaching a short course in a foreign country. With our primary elections so imminent, the subject of politics naturally arose. The country is a close ally, and my colleagues on the foreign faculty were intensely concerned with America’s apparent decline.
I gave them sobering advice. The age of American intellectual and cultural leadership, I said, may be coming to a close. The rest of the world can no longer rely on us, as a nation, to be the sole or even the primary guardian of democracy, science, free markets, free speech, reason or justice. Sometimes it can’t even rely on us for common sense. So it’s up to all nations worldwide—including my hosts—to support those values on their own, each in its own way.
After giving that advice spontaneously, I’ve thought much more on the same theme. The last time a great empire like ours (Rome’s) decayed, the Western world languished in darkness for 1,500 years. Waste disposal is a good measure of civilization, and that many years elapsed before the Western World had flush toilets again.
But America’s present slump need not be so disastrous. In Roman times, information spread at the speed of a horse or camel. Often leaders hoarded it for political or military reasons. Each society was culturally isolated. There were no universities as such: universities as we know them today were an invention of the Renaissance.
Today good ideas spread worldwide at the speed of light, over the Internet. Universities on separate continents regularly exchange scholars, students and ideas, so the elite of almost every nation know what the elites of most other nations think. While each nation and ethnic group has its own unique culture and history, the best ideas of all are available for everyone to see and absorb. Never in human history have good (and bad!) ideas been so universally available to anyone with the curiosity to seek them out.
This universal information exchange is a good thing. Its consequences are just beginning to be felt. After all, the Internet’s use as a global communication tool is only about twelve years old—a nanosecond in history.
The result, I think, will be a multipolar world. Never again will any single nation enjoy the cultural and intellectual hegemony that the Chinese, Roman and the Mongol Empires enjoyed in their respective golden ages, or that England enjoyed in the nineteenth century and America in the twentieth. The ideas that make societies strong—decentralization, inclusiveness, social justice (and consequent social cohesion), free markets, human rights, and democratic institutions—are there for anyone to copy and use. Even China and Russia are beginning to copy them, each in its slow, unique way.
The first of these values—decentralization—is one that few have yet appreciated. What is coming, I hope, is orderly, institutionalized decentralization, not anarchy.
By “decentralization” I mean the broad dispersal of political power and economic activity under rational, widely accepted principles of social and economic conduct, i.e., the rule of law. Decentralization in that sense, I would argue, is not only the chief measure of advancing civilization, but the best measure of a strong society and (by extrapolation) a strong human species.
Let’s take some examples from world history. The Roman Empire succeeded in large measure because of decentralization. Only seldom did Rome impose direct rule on its provinces and conquered territories. Instead, it ruled through local governors, who resided in the governed localities and knew the peoples and their cultures. The most effective of them preserved local customs and religions and encouraged free trade, imposing military discipline only to the extent necessary to maintain social stability and meet outside threats.
As for inclusiveness, any member of a conquered people, including freed slaves, could become a Roman citizen by serving in the Roman army. The social cohesion that this opportunity provided was the chief thing that held the far-flung, multiethnic Roman Empire together for the better part of several hundred years.
Ancient Jerusalem was one of these success stories. The Roman Empire allowed the Jews, including Jesus Christ, to practice their religions freely, as long as they (as Jesus put it) “rendered unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” Only when Jesus and his new religious movement became strong enough to threaten political stability and Roman hegemony did the Romans crucify him, making one of the biggest political mistakes in human history.
The Mongol Empire was similar. Although known in the West for its brutality, that empire had a softer side. Societies that did not resist its hegemony were richly rewarded. They paid only relatively light tribute (i.e., taxes) for the times. They were allowed to keep their religion, native language(s), local governance and social structure. Yet they became loosely allied with a highly organized society whose general level of civilization the world did not see again until the industrial age. Among other things, the Mongol Empire had religious tolerance, indigenous governors, multilingual government, paper money, protected highways, diplomatic immunity, multi-ethnic scientific and astronomical research, a “pony-express-like” postal system, and rudimentary forms of protection of women and children and criminal law. What dissolved the Mongols’ empire—the largest geographically in world history—was no external enemy or mistake on their part, but the Black Plague.
The success of Anglo-American society over the last four centuries relied on similar principles of decentralization and inclusiveness. Chief among them was the business corporation.
Uncharacteristically for a progressive, I have argued that the corporation is one of the greatest social inventions in human history. Why? Because it took economic activity out of the state and away from governmental politics, thereby decentralizing it. Just as Jesus first enunciated the principle of separation of church and state (in his comments about Caesar), so the corporation separated business and economic activity from the state, and hence from government and its political intrigue.
Before the corporation’s advent, most economic activity depended on royal patronage or blessing. In the age of monarchy, it ultimately depended on the foresight—and often the whim—of a single man or woman. Columbus’ path-breaking voyage to America, for example, relied on Queen Isabella’s patronage.
After the corporation’s advent, anyone with resources or the ability to attract them could start a corporate business and run it as he saw fit, subject only to general laws. The immediate result was English, Dutch and later American corporations exploiting the “New World,” colonizing it, and preparing much of the globe for modern economies.
It is hard to overemphasize how much the corporation’s centrifugal effect advanced civilization. It impact was not only economic, but political as well. British trading companies got used to dealing with each other (and with government) on a contractual basis, in voluntary negotiated deals. When they dealt with native peoples, the result was often a treaty.
Although often induced by the colonizers’ military supremacy—and unfairly slanted by colonists’ superior knowledge and skill—the treaties were nevertheless more decentralizing and inclusive than others’ raw conquest or the Spaniards converting natives to Christianity at the point of a sword. The results we still see today, in New Zealand’s recent award of substantial land and monetary compensation to the Maori under the 169-year-old Treaty of Waitangi. Nothing similar has happened in former Spanish or Portuguese colonies, where agents of the crown, not corporations, were instruments of colonization.
Every principle has a counterexample. Those of decentralization and inclusiveness are no exceptions. In the last century, both Russia and China tried to control all political and economic activity from the center. Both failed miserably, and both abandoned the attempt, at least insofar as economic activity is concerned. China is now experimenting with local democracy and accountability, as its recent response to the big earthquake in Sichuan revealed.
Inclusiveness is also weak in present-day Russia and China. After Stalin’s deportation, starvation, enslavement of and genocide against ethnic minorities, almost any policy would be an improvement. The laws have changed for the better, but only after most Jews left Russia, depriving it of scientific, engineering and artistic talent. Private racism is still rampant, making it hard for ethnically non-Russian people to succeed and contribute to Russian society. As for China, its approach to ethnic minorities, as in the recent unrest in Tibet, is basically enlightened conquest (and sometimes not so enlightened!). Both countries have a long way to go to replicate the inclusiveness and decentralization of the Roman or Mongol Empire.
For us, Dubya’s eight-year reign of simplistic ideology and incompetence has been our own counterexample. He and his Svengali Cheney tried to recentralize in every way. Through overbearing, unilateral foreign policy, they tried to bend the world to their will, with disastrous results. Their refusal to negotiate directly with Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas ignored the healthy (albeit nascent) trend toward decentralization in the Islamic world and missed enormous opportunities for constructive dialogue. They also ignored our own half-century of constructive dialogue with enemies (without preconditions!).
Dubya’s and Cheney’s attempts to recentralize at home have been even more disastrous. Their contempt for Congress, evasion of checks and balances, unconstitutional “signing statements,” and theory of the “unitary” executive were blatant attempts to restore the type of one-man rule that our Founders thought and worked so hard to avoid. Their energy and health-care policies had the effect of increasing the power and wealth of big fossil-fuel, insurance and drug corporations, leaving small business and even our car companies to suffer drastically increased expenses for energy and health care.
In every way, their policies have worked to recentralize political and economic power. Their rule has been retrograde to human history.
Cheney in particular is the most openly and virulently authoritarian American political figure in my lifetime, perhaps ever. His every laconic pronouncement breathes mindless central control, power for power’s sake. He is Vladimir Putin without the brains. If his views had prevailed, only our strong business community would have kept our system from resembling Putin’s Russia.
Inclusiveness is a close cousin to decentralization, and Bush and Cheney did their best to destroy that, too. They wondered why their sensible immigration policy never gained traction. The reason is obvious: their own demagoguery doomed it by creating a virulent social climate hostile to inclusiveness. After working so hard to make Americans afraid of the “Axis of Evil,” “Islamofascists,” nameless terrorists allegedly hiding in our midst, illegal immigrants, and gays, they were surprised at what they had wrought.
Judith Warner summed it up brilliantly: “the reframing of bigotry as small-town decency.” That sort of demagoguery, plus Dubya’s and Cheney’s lack of imagination and inability to predict the consequences of their actions and propaganda, doomed their single attempt at sensible policy.
Thanks to Providence and the good sense of the American people, the Reagan-Gingrich-Gramm-DeLay-Dubya -Cheney-Rumsfeld era will end in less than three weeks. It has been as decentralized and inclusive as a men’s club in 1950s Peoria or Detroit. It ignored our Founders’ wisdom. It ignored the lessons of centuries of Anglo-American and two millennia of world history. It ignored the open secrets of the Roman and Mongol Empire. It consistently bucked the trend toward a more decentralized and more inclusive multipolar world.
Barack Obama’s presidency will change all that. He personifies inclusiveness. His domestic and foreign policies are all about decentralization. Even his proposed stimulus package, which relies on central government for funding, seeks to create a new, decentralized social and economic infrastructure for a more inclusive future.
If we give him the support that his talent and strategic vision deserve, we will find ourselves in a very different world in eight years. We will have to give up the illusion that we can (or do!) control everything. In exchange, we will no longer have to bear Rudyard Kipling’s “white man’s burden”—the dangerous notion that everything depends on us, and on only one race among us.
We will be one nation in a multipolar world, in which others share the burdens of advancing civilization, and in which we learn from them as much as they from us. If we can humble ourselves enough to consult others seriously, we might even remain the intellectual and moral leader.
We could then focus on perfecting our own union and our relationships with others. A truly global golden age might arise from the ashes of the twisted era now nearly spent.
P.S. Comic Relief and Confirmation
I originally wrote this piece last July. That was before the worst of the current economic crisis hit, but while our nation’s direction was still uncertain. President-elect Obama’s stunning victory—even more stunning if gauged by national productivity—gave me optimism and caused me to rewrite the ending.
Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal provided some comic relief and confirmation of the thrust of my piece. An ex-KGB man, now a respected Russian professor, predicted [subscription required] a civil war in and dismemberment of these United States. The map he foresaw after the split-up has the industrial Midwest and some mountain states becoming part of Canada, while South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia join New York and New England, and Texas and New Mexico join the Deep South.
The idea of Canada taking over Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, let alone Montana and Colorado, gave me a good laugh. Canadians wouldn’t even want them. Ditto the notion of South Carolina and West Virginia joining wicked Sodom. Apparently Americans are not the only people making predictions and pronouncements about cultures of which they know nothing.
But the ex-KGB professor’s unintentionally hilarious prediction also (by misdirection) confirmed the point of my piece above. Apparently he saw the abject failure of the Dubya-Cheney Administration as weakening our central government and therefore conducing to a breakup. Like many Russians and still some Chinese, he failed to appreciate the paradox of large, multiethnic societies: decentralization strengthens the whole, making a breakup less probable, not more. That’s why “our federalism” is still the world’s best bulwark against centrifugal forces.
Throughout Russia’s thousand-year history, its leaders and intellectuals never understood this basic truth. That’s one reason why Russia, despite its considerable achievements in fields as diverse as music, literature and physics, still lags the three other developed regions of the globe (East Asia, Europe, and North America) in economic and social development. The Soviet Union once styled itself as the “Third Rome” (after Rome and Constantinople) but didn’t even understand what made the first one tick. It will be interesting to see whether Russia can correct its historical misconception before we recover from our disastrous attempt, under Dubya and Cheney, to emulate Russia and China.
Footnote 1: The Romans had latrines with stone toilet seats, much like ours, with water flowing below to flush away the waste. Some of them had little channels of water flowing in the seats, used as we now use toilet paper. The only difference was the lack of individual booths, which only the wealthy had.
Footnote 2: See Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World 67-70, 200-206 (2004). As this book reveals, the traditional Western understanding of the Mongols as barbaric monsters is deficient to the point of absurdity. Relying on recent discoveries, as well as texts and scholarship long suppressed by the Soviets, this excellent book tells the fascinating tale of the Mongol Empire, in prose that reads like a novel. The facts it reveals suggest that, had the Mongol Empire survived, the scientific revolution might have occurred first in the East, and we Westerners might be going to Alma Ata or Ulan Bator for our education. Everyone interested in human history should read it.
Footnote 3: Readers of this blog may wonder why I consistently refer to George W. Bush, who is still president, by his nickname “Dubya.” There are two reasons. The first is to distinguish him from his father, who was a far better president and is a better man in every way.
The second is to recognize Dubya’s well-reported habit of assigning nicknames to everyone with whom he comes in contact. That habit is a crude and obvious means of establishing social dominance despite self-evident defects in intellect and character. It is more appropriate to a fraternity president than the leader of a great nation.
In our golden age, general and statesman George Marshall insisted that FDR, although president, call him “Mr. Marshall” as a sign of respect. Marshall was right. Mutual respect among leaders reflects our deepest beliefs and traditions. We have a society without a monarch and without hereditary nobility. We are all equal. Our president is but the first among equals and subject to our laws and customs.
With the possible exception of Dick Cheney, Dubya appears to have little respect for anyone else. He has trampled our traditions of equality and mutual respect, not to mention checks and balances . He has demeaned the office of president and dishonored everyone who previously occupied it. Therefore I think it proper to turn his puerile tool of social dominance against him.
Like everyone else in our egalitarian society, a president must earn respect. He or she does that in part by good judgment and wise action and in part by showing others respect when due. Dubya has failed utterly on both counts.