Thursday, February 23, 2006

Universal peace Requires Universal Acceptance of the Staus Quo

Harold James writes a perceptive essay on peace, commercial society and the ‘Roman Dilemma’ (‘Looking Beyond Conquest’, 23 February). It’s worth reading closely:

As the Bush presidency gets bogged down in the quagmire of Iraq, there is still a widespread assumption that there might be a quick and easy fix. Critics of the administration think that the world’s view of America would be transformed if only the U.S. president sounded kinder. Many officials in Washington believe that if the world understood all they really wanted was peace, prosperity and democracy, the criticism would subside. Such optimistic beliefs are mistaken but are characteristic of an ever-recurring dilemma of an interconnected world. Consider some historical parallels: in 1776, the year of the Declaration of Independence, Adam Smith and Edward Gibbon published the first volumes of two works that both used history to illuminate Britain’s own problems with the globalization of that age: The Wealth of Nations and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In these monumental and parallel works, Smith and Gibbon explored what could be called the “Roman dilemma.” In essence, how peaceful commerce is frequently seen as a way of building a stable, prosperous and integrated international society. At the same time, however, the peaceful liberal economic order leads to domestic clashes and also to international rivalry and even wars. The conflicts disturb and eventually destroy the commercial system and the bases of prosperity and integration. These interactions seem to be a vicious spiral or a trap from which it seems almost impossible to escape. The liberal commercial world order subverts and destroys itself, and Smith’s gloomy–but surprisingly little known–concluding chapters are a long way from the apparently optimistic beginning, with its focus on the immense productivity gains possible as a result of the division of labor.”

The problem with running a tight connection between ‘peace, prosperity and democracy’ is that all of the social interactions between the participants in the closed system that is the world are not included in the snappy slogans posing as objectives, not processes.

There have always been the problem that bands, tribes, nations may seek power over their neighbours, for protection or conquest, independent of the Smithian stage they are at. In Smith’s time, the political-economy of nation state was dominated by power seeking, not prosperity for all. Smith criticised the mercantile system for these errors that led to long wars and cold peace, plus trade bans, tariffs and preparation for the next war. He suggested a different political economy in which the growing division of labour would lead to opulence and peace. He was familiar with Gibbons ‘Decline and Fall’ and was familiar with the primary sources of the history of the fall of Rome and the millennium of the ‘dark ages’ that followed.

In this century the same issues are present. Mercantile politics and economics still dominate the world in contest with the alternative of free trade. The US and the rest of the West are protectionist (Mercantile politics and economics), as well as claiming to be advocates of free trade. New powers are rising (India and China) and America hesitates to accept them as full trading partners because powerful political constituencies are stirring and shedding their skin-deep free-trade stances (China’s attempt to buy a minor oil company; Dubai’s attempt to buy six US ports).

Also, the desire for peace is compromised by the fact that at root peace is the acceptance of the status quo. Hardly any part of the Earth can be said to be wiling to accept the status quo; indeed, war is about changing the status quo for half the world or preserving it b y the rest. And there are many versions of what the status quo ante should be, with precious few willing to endorse the existing status quo. Indeed, question closely all those in favour of ‘peace’ and you will soon find long agendas that favour changes in the status quo – then they will accept peace, which means wars will continue.

Harold James’ ‘Roman dilemma’ is a neat way of putting it; it could not be resolved (that’s the nature of a dilemma) therefore unresolved it led to the post-Fall millennia of Europe’s dark ages. ‘Smith’s gloomy–but surprisingly little known–concluding chapters’ is a strange way of putting it. Book V is about the duties of government, the first being the protection by means of a military force of the people from the depredations of barbarous neighbours. I didn’t realise they were ‘little known’ and I shall have to ponder over this.

Commercial society, based on voluntary trade, in which the outcomes are non-zero sum, is not strong enough to sweep all before it into a peaceful, prosperous society, based on low flat taxes, justice and security. Smith did not expect free trade to be restored in Britain this side of utopia. This looks strange in Wealth of Nations, but when you think about it, perhaps Smith was more realistic than he has been credited so far.

Harold James is professor of history and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, and the author of The Roman Predicament to be published in May by Princeton University Press.

Read his article in Tom Paine common sense: ‘the best progressive insight and action.’ At:


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