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Monday, February 20, 2006

Assuaging the Barbarians at the Gate: Our "Roman Dilemma"

International trade is often viewed as a means to a stable, prosperous and integrated international society, but according to Harold James, an historian at Princeton University's Woodrow School, it can also result in the "Roman dilemma” where the outcome of liberalizing economic ties is one of conflict or even war. Can this dilemma be avoided?:

Modern America’s Roman predicament, by Harold James, Financial Times: Before September 11 2001, it was widely assumed that globalisation bred peace and stability. But over the past five years, there has been increased nervousness about this concept ... In particular, there is widespread mistrust of the world’s only superpower and increased doubt about the sort of politics that America tries to impose on the rest of the world.

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. ... 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 US 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 globalisation 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 central problem identified by Gibbon and Smith is that complex societies need rules to function, whether on a national (state) level or in international relations. But we do not always comply voluntarily with rules and rules require some enforcement. In addition, they need to be formulated. The enforcement and the promulgation of rules are both consequences of power, and power is always concentrated and unequally distributed. ...

The propensity for subversion and destruction of a rule-based order comes about because – and whenever – there is a perception that rules are arbitrary, unjust and reflect the imposition of particular interests in a high-handed imperial display of power. ... The adage that power tends to corrupt itself affects the way in which the holders of power behave. Even if the wielder of power resists the addiction, other people suspect the addiction is there. ...

Both politicians and their critics find this hard to understand as they try to respond to global challenges, such as the threat of terrorism or the proliferation of nuclear weapons. They are about to be as baffled by Iran as they were by Iraq.

If the threat lies in discontent about modernity, and if poverty and marginalisation are the breeding grounds for violence and terrorism, then growth and a better distribution of wealth can hold a more effective cure. If, on the other hand, cultural differences are really so profound, then imperial conflict and conquest is the only adequate answer. Much contemporary debate, especially after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, fluctuates between these poles. Should the industrial world buy off or fight the barbarians at the gate?

Yet both options look like different aspects of the old but unsatisfactory Roman solution: conquer and provide prosperity. There is only a difference in emphasis. ... There exists an alternative to the “challenge and response” model that has as its outcome the clash of civilisations. The other path depends on dialogue within a shared natural law framework.

Instead of thinking that technical development will automatically produce prosperity and thus solve, as it were by a kind of magic, the problem of values, policymakers in the industrialised world need to think and talk explicitly about values and traditions. What does Islamic tradition have in common with western traditions that respects human dignity; and how can modern America show that it respects these values too? ...

To me, this is a big part of our problem:

The propensity for subversion and destruction of a rule-based order comes about ... whenever ... there is a perception that rules are arbitrary, unjust and reflect the imposition of particular interests in a high-handed imperial display of power.

We have not convinced the global community that our actions are in the world rather than our own narrow interest, and the world has yet to be convinced that the invisible international hand directs our self-interest to their benefit.

    Posted by on Monday, February 20, 2006 at 02:27 PM in Economics, International Trade | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (9)

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