Pax aeterna – empire reconsidered

The problem of what constitutes imperial power is an ancient one - how have empires behaved throughout history?
WEISHAN, CHINA: A display of terracotta warriors unearthed from a site in Weishan, 02 December 2002, in Shandong Province, Northern China. Two villagers were planting trees in the area on 23 November when they found the ruins and reported it to local officials. It has been determined that the terracotta warriors date from the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD), a later period than China's most famed terracotta warriors found in the ancient capital of Xian from the Qin Dynasty (221 BC - 207 BC). AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP via Getty Images)
WEISHAN, CHINA: A display of terracotta warriors unearthed from a site in Weishan, 02 December 2002, in Shandong Province, Northern China. Two villagers were planting trees in the area on 23 November when they found the ruins and reported it to local officials. It has been determined that the terracotta warriors date from the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD), a later period than China's most famed terracotta warriors found in the ancient capital of Xian from the Qin Dynasty (221 BC - 207 BC). AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP via Getty Images)
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Between 1989 and 1991 the Soviet Union and its Eastern European empire collapsed under its own weight while the rest of the world looked on newly awoken. Was this, then, the last empire to fall? Or did these events prepare for the real empire, for a new unipolar world order, for pax americana?

As long as there has been war there has also been a dream of peace. Empires have been built in order to secure peace. Wars have been started to establish but also to crush empires. Empires have had pretensions of ensuring peace, but also justice. They have been accused of constituting a danger to both. But what is an empire? How have these things, these ‘mortal gods’ looked and acted through history?

Prehistory was the time before writing. We could also say – before empires. The age of written culture and high civilisation is also the age of empires. ‘History’ seems to have started with it.

Imperium romanum

The Chinese empire was very ancient. The Chinese thought that it had always existed. It could be traced back to prehistoric times, to myth. The first emperor was Huang Di, ‘the yellow emperor’, who ruled between 2697 and 2598BCE and who thereupon flew up to heaven on the back of a dragon with all his ministers and his entire harem. This was a fitting end, as the emperor always ruled on Heaven’s authority. Emperors, even in those days, could be toppled if they lost the authority of heaven. But the empire would always remain. In this way the emperor ruled not over China but over the entire civilised world. For the Chinese there was no ‘China’, merely a ‘Middle Kingdom’. The notion was quite natural in a part of the world where there was only one great power and only one real civilisation. But the emperors clung on to it even after it had lost all validity.

When the King of England, George III, sent an envoy (Lord Macartney) to the emperor Ch’ien-lung in 1793 with a proposal for trading relations, he received an arrogant reply:

I […] have no use for your country’s manufactures. […] It behoves you, O King, to respect my sentiments and to display even greater devotion and loyalty in future, so that, by perpetual submission to our Throne, you may secure peace and prosperity for your country hereafter.

Only as a result of the so-called Opium Wars in the 1840s did China awaken from its slumbers to be instilled with a more realistic understanding of its position in the world.

In Japan, adjacent, but from the point of view of Chinese conquest, remote, they imitated China. When, in the 8th century CE, Japan constructed its imperial capital and established a court, it was Tang dynasty China that provided the model. For a very long time the Japanese kept to their islands. It was not until towards the end of the nineteenth century that the Japanese were roused to extensive imperialist ambitions.

Only in the areas of the West around the Mediterranean were there empires even older than the Chinese empire. The pharaohs of Egypt claimed dominion over not merely the core area on the lower Nile, but also surrounding countries. In the case of a ruler such as the Babylonian Sargon (2360–2305BCE) the claim of world dominance was even clearer. Sargon called himself ‘King of the four corners of the Earth’, in other words of the known world. His successors in Mesopotamia made similar claims as kings of the Assyrians or the Persians.

The Greeks regarded all these monarchs as representatives of an oriental despotism. They contrasted their own freedom with the despotism of the barbarians. In Euripides’s Iphigenia at Aulis the king’s daughter, who is prepared to sacrifice herself for the sake of her country, expresses it thus:

And it is but right, mother, that Hellenes should rule barbarians, but not barbarians Hellenes, those being slaves, while these are free.

The argument did not apparently exclude the Greeks ruling over other peoples: even democratic Athens would eventually act as an imperial power.

In The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides has the great statesman of the Athenians, Pericles, formulate this democratic imperialism in his famous speech on those who fell in the war:

Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. […] Such is the Athens for which these men, in the assertion of their resolve not to lose her, nobly fought and died; and well may every one of their survivors be ready to suffer in her cause. […] These take as your model and, judging happiness to be the fruit of freedom and freedom of valour, never decline the dangers of war.

The Athenian empire did not last very long. In the Peloponnesian War that Thucydides wrote about it was Sparta that was victorious. Shortly afterwards Philip of Macedonia conquered the whole of Greece. As we know, Philip’s son Alexander – by defeating the Persian king – then became the founder of one of the greatest empires of the ancient world. This, too, was short-lived and fell not long after the death of its founder. But Alexander managed nevertheless to become the symbol of an imperial idea of great and long-lasting effect. He took on the heritage of the Persians’ multinational and multicultural empire, and he himself wished to found something of the kind. At the same time he was influenced by Greek philosophy with its idea of a cosmopolis, a cosmopolitan order in which law rather than the nation would be decisive. At least this was how his admirers presented Alexander’s ambitions. Plutarch wrote about the conqueror of the world:

He instructed all men to consider the inhabited world to be their native land, and his camp to be their acropolis and their defence, while they should regard as kinsmen all good men, and the wicked as strangers.

The idea of a global empire in which virtue and justice would be crucial did not die out with Alexander. In time, among the Greeks too there would be those who saw in the rise of Rome a new opportunity in terms of practical realpolitik to realise a cosmopolis. Among these was Polybius, who in the first century BCE wrote the first history of the Roman Empire. Polybius chose as the starting point for his history the year 220 BCE when, in his view, Rome’s path to hegemony began:

Previously the doings of the world had been, so to say, dispersed, as they were held together by no unity of initiative, results, or locality; but ever since this date history has been an organic whole, and the affairs of Italy and Libya have been interlinked with those of Greece and Asia, all leading up to one end.

This development was decisive for Polybius’s task as an historian. No one had previously attempted to write a universal history. But, when Providence so clearly began to link events in the direction of the realization of a Roman Empire, the prerequisite had been found for a history of this kind:

As it is, I observe that while several modern writers deal with particular wars and certain matters connected with them, no one, as far as I am aware, has even attempted to inquire critically when and whence the general and comprehensive scheme of events originated and how it led up to the end. I therefore thought it quite necessary not to leave unnoticed or allow to pass into oblivion this the finest and most beneficent of the performances of Fortune.

Polybius belonged to a circle of writers and philosophers that formed around the Roman magnate and general Scipio Africanus (the younger). This circle appears a century later in Cicero’s dialogue De re publica, one of the most influential political tracts of all time. Cicero allows the individuals of the Scipian circle to propound views that were theirs but which are also his own. At the centre stands the whole issue of the Roman Empire, the nature of the pax romana that this empire could realize, the relationship between power and justice. The Stoic philosophers’ cosmopolis had, like Plato’s ideal state, been a state in the clouds (or in words), and a dream of a just order rather than that order itself. Polybius had hoped for a pax romana which would also be able to comprise a tolerable international legal system, meaning peace and also a measure of justice. In Cicero’s De re publica it is precisely the question of the relationship between power and justice which is taken up for discussion.

Philus, one of Scipio’s friends, is given the role of devil’s advocate in Cicero’s dialogue. Rome has won its victories through injustice rather than through justice, he asserts. Has not Rome attacked its neighbours, appropriated their lands, deprived them of their riches? And has not Rome been right in doing this? Is it not quite simply better to be an unjust master than a just slave? An unrighteous man in a shipwreck may save himself by forcibly taking a plank from a just man. But is it not better to live as unrighteous than to drown as righteous?

Philus receives an answer from Laelius, who praises the law and justice. In doing so he uses phrases that have become classic and normative for the whole tradition of natural law:

There is a true law, a right reason, conformable to nature, universal, unchangeable, eternal; […] This law cannot be contradicted by any other law, and is not liable either to derogation or abrogation. Neither the senate nor the people can give us any dispensation for not obeying this universal law of justice. It needs no other expositor and interpreter than our own conscience.

Laelius at the same time makes an effort to refute the notion that Rome’s power is derived from injustice. It is true that Rome has gained its mastery through war. But, according to natural law, there are just and unjust wars. Wars waged with a defensive purpose or as retribution for wrongs are just, and this is what Rome’s wars have been. Laelius also tries to prove that Rome’s mastery is just and must be exerted in a just way. If, for example, Rome were to betray or deceive its allies, this would undermine its own power. Justice and power are not the opposite of each other, but presuppose each other. Rome can retain its power only by acting justly.

The empire that Polybius and Cicero praised was still the empire of the Roman Republic. Cicero devoted his life’s work to saving this republic, and was convinced that only republican and ancient Roman virtues – love of country, love of freedom, civic pride, self-sacrifice – would be able to keep Roman power upright. But Cicero was himself forced to witness the fall of the Roman Republic at the hands of Caesar. In the next generation Caesar’s adopted son Augustus founded the Roman Empire. Empire and Caesardom came to be regarded as synonyms, and the word empire thus acquired a completely new meaning.

The Roman term imperium initially meant quite simply the highest power in the state. It was subsequently extended to become a proconsular power over the provinces. This imperial power then came to be transferred through the senate to the emperor (Caesar). The term imperator initially denoted the holder of a specific and limited military command. Caesar and Augustus adopted the title on a more permanent basis. Augustus also had himself elected as pontifex maximus, an earlier, entirely priestly position, and called himself princeps in order to emphasise his rank as the first, for example in the senate. In this way Roman imperial power became a multifaceted phenomenon in which a number of different powers and positions were carried by its holder. The emperor inherited the power of the senate, that of the consuls and proconsuls, supreme military power, the highest legal power, the highest priestly power and, finally, a position as a divinity. The inheritance of the oriental rulers, of the Alexandrine Empire, of the Roman Kingdom and of the Roman Republic, as well as the aura which had originally surrounded the name ‘Caesar’, resided in him. The idea that the empire stood for a pax romana, a world peace under Roman aegis was something to which Augustus liked to call attention. He had the doors of the temple of Janus in the forum closed as a sign that peace prevailed, and he had an altar erected, ara pacis, in honour of the goddess of peace. Rome’s task of creating peace was at the same time celebrated in verse by Virgil in some famous lines from The Aeneid:

But, Rome, ’t is thine alone, with awful sway, To rule mankind, and make the world obey,

Disposing peace and war by thy own majestic way; To tame the proud, the fetter’d slave to free:

These are imperial arts, and worthy thee.

The Romans felt pride and triumph in their empire. But they also understood the risk of hubris. ‘Remember that you are mortal!’ whispered the slave to the general on his triumphal procession. Nor was the feeling lacking that something similar could be said about the Roman Empire. Polybius tells how Scipio turned to him at the moment of triumph when the destruction of Carthage was assured: ‘This is a glorious day, Polybius, but I feel worried, I do not know why, that the moment will come when someone is able to tell me something like this about our own country.’ Polybius points out as the sign of a great man that he is able to perceive the transience of happiness and even at the moment of victory anticipate the reversal of roles. Nor were the Romans unaware that the defeated and the subdued peoples did not necessarily always share the same view of the blessings of the empire as they did themselves. In his Agricola Tacitus quotes a British freedom-fighter as saying:

To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace.

As it then was no one could deny that the Roman empire had created a measure of peace throughout large parts of the world. In time it also became an increasingly multinational empire in which Roman citizenship was extended outside its old centre in the city of Rome. It was also obvious that the Roman Empire afforded protection to a significant cultural development. If Greek intellectuals like Polybius and others could see the Roman Empire as a product of Providence, it was not merely because it created peace but also because it allowed the Hellenistic, originally Greek, culture to continue to flourish. The Roman Empire became the prerequisite for the culture of the modern West by fusing together the Greek and the Roman. In addition came a third, initially Jewish element, the Christians.

Imperium sacrum

The attitude of Christianity to the Roman Empire contained a certain ambivalence. We are reminded even in the introductory words of the Christmas Gospel that it had this empire as its basis: ‘And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.’ (Luke 2:1). ‘All the world’ indicates the known civilised world which could be assumed to belong in its entirety to the Roman Empire. The original Greek text has the word ekumene which precisely indicates the inhabited world. Christ, and with him Christianity, is in other words born in a situation where the whole world belongs to the Roman Empire. Its relationship with the power of the emperor is not in this way resolved, of course. The matter is often discussed in the gospel texts. A famous passage is about whether the Jews should pay tax to the emperor, something Jesus answers with the Salomonic: ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s.’ (Luke 20:25). The question remained nevertheless. Jesus was executed by Roman soldiers in the service of the Roman governor. His disciples were subjected to persecution on various occasions by the emperors.

The Jewish tradition contained a reflection on empires, of course. It spoke of evil empires such as that of Nebuchadnezzar who persecuted the Jews. It spoke of good empires such as that of Cyrus, who allowed them to rebuild the Temple. It spoke of Daniel at Nebuchadnezzar’s court who interpreted the king’s dream of the great golden statue with feet of clay, which he interpreted as a dream about the four world empires, represented in the most common interpretation as the New Babylonian, the Median, the Persian and the Greek empires (Daniel 2). The advent of the future kingdom of God is predicted when these empires have foundered one after the other. The Book of Daniel left a heritage of the apocalyptic which was taken up among others in the New Testament Book of Revelation. The Roman emperor can be glimpsed there as a wild beast and his rule as an evil empire. But, if the Christians’ view of Caesar’s authority was dark at the time of Nero and other persecutions, it changed when this authority itself was converted to Christianity. Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity brought with it a change that can be inferred in, for example, Eusebius: ‘It is from the Lord of the universe that the emperor receives and clothes himself in the image of ultimate royal authority.’ In a speech made on the thirtieth anniversary of Constantine’s reign (335–336 CE) Eusebius stressed that just as there is only one God, there can only be one emperor. All imperial power derives from God. The emperor is God’s friend and the person who can best interpret his words.

Christianity and Roman imperial power are reconciled through Constantine; the imperial power is Christianised and provided with all those religious attributes that have traditionally devolved on oriental and Hellenist rulers, but now in a Christian form. The emperor is still pontifex maximus, both emperor and pope. In time the Eastern Roman emperor, who for more than a thousand years resided in the city founded by Constantine, Constantinople, acquired many of these attributes. (Something similar can be said of the Russian tsars and their ‘third Rome’.)

In western Europe the development was, as we know, different. The Roman Empire fell. The papacy appeared in its place as (according to Hobbes’s malicious characterisation) a ‘spectre of the Roman Empire’. But the idea of an earthly empire would not die. During the Middle Ages several attempts were made to bring it back to life. Charlemagne had himself crowned by the Pope in Rome (in 800CE) and called himself ‘Most exalted Augustus, crowned by God, mighty and peace-loving emperor, ruler of the Roman Empire.’ A little later ‘the Roman Empire of the German nation’ was founded. Under Fredrik Barbarossa in the twelfth century it begins to be called ‘Holy’ (sacrum imperium). A translatio imperii romani, a transfer of the Roman Empire, was considered to have taken place on both these occasions. The Holy Roman Empire of the German nation survived in some form until 1806 when it was abolished by Napoleon. Even if it was more semblance than reality, it played an important role as a semblance. The idea of Roman imperial authority as the only legitimate form of political power (at least for Christianity) was preserved.

There is an additional factor. The Roman Empire left another legacy – Roman law. In the sixth century under Emperor Justinian it was codified into the Corpus iuris civilis. As the law, strictly speaking, presupposed the authority of the emperor – much went back to imperial edicts and regulations – Roman authority preserved a kind of ideal Roman Empire throughout the Middle Ages, indeed even longer. The Renaissance meant among other things an upsurge in the study of Roman law, and Roman law has continued to form the basis for Western legislation up to the present.16

Nevertheless it was inescapable that the Roman Empire had been toppled. The phantom pains were as real as the attempts at resuscitation. When papal authority to some extent began to weaken during the late Middle Ages these resuscitation attempts actually grew stronger. The dream of a restoration of the Roman Empire was given classical expression in Dante’s Monarchia (c 1312).

Dante’s defence of the monarchy – or ‘the empire’ – is based on the idea that peace (pax) is the most important goal of politics and what people long for above all else. This peace can be achieved only through a world monarchy, through a Roman Empire whose only natural boundary is the world ocean. Dante regards as clear from Roman history that God has appointed the Romans to world domination – invoking Livy, Tacitus and other historians, as Virgil. The Roman people have had the special mission of uniting the world in peace and justice. After all, God allowed his son to be born in order to save humankind precisely under Augustus’s rule. For Dante it is also obvious that the Pope’s claims to earthly power should be rejected as unlikely to lead to peace. The emperor alone should hold political power in the world in its entirety. In this regard Dante has no difficulty in conceding that Roman power has now passed to the Germans. He praises Emperor Henry VII and his energetic attempts to abrogate to himself an extensive imperial power. It is clear that this is a question of, in some sense, indirect power. The emperor rules through kings and princes as the ultimate arbiter and upholder of the peace. This idea of the emperor with its roots in the old Roman Empire and earlier forms the basis for the ‘Roman Empire of the German nation’. After Dante’s time it would – like the whole notion of a universal empire – come into clear conflict with the idea of nation states with absolute sovereignty over their territory as the only legitimate form of political power. In Machiavelli 200 years later the dream is not of imperial power but of a national united Italian principality.

The political thinking of the Reformation favoured the nation state. Initially Martin Luther had conflicts with both the papacy and the empire. Theoretical thinking about the state in Protestant Europe followed the same direction. Through his De iure belli et pacis (1625) Hugo Grotius became the great modern thinker of international law. But because, at the same time, he started from the idea of the sovereignty of the nation state, the idea of international law was left hanging in the air. Thomas Hobbes realised in his Leviathan (1651) the meaninglessness of talking about a law without sanctions. But he was also rooted in the notion of absolute national sovereignty. He denotes the relationship between nations as a state of nature, an anarchy, a state of war:

But though there had never been any time wherein particular men were in a condition of war one against another, yet in all times kings and persons of sovereign authority, because of their independency, are in continual jealousies, and in the state and posture of gladiators, having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another; that is, their forts, garrisons, and guns upon the frontiers of their kingdoms, and continually spies upon their neighbours, which is a posture of war.

You might expect Hobbes to conclude that achieving his most important political goal, ‘peace’, would presuppose the abolition of the anarchistic state of nature, not only within every nation, through the establishment of a sovereignty, but also between nations through the establishment of some form of supranational power. But Hobbes never draws that conclusion.

What has been said does not imply that the concept of empire disappeared from the political vocabulary. New aspirants for world power emerged. Spain founded an empire in the New World, and Spanish spokesmen claimed that the discovery of America had made Spain into the ‘universal and only monarchy in the world’ in place of the obsolete Roman Empire of the German nation. It was, however, a claim that few people in the world outside took seriously. On the contrary, other nations founded their own empires. The Dutch, the French and not least the English were successful and empire became a word that could be used in the plural. If, for Dante, empire had been a universal monarchy, it now meant power over a certain widespread and, in general, multinational area. The Eastern Roman Empire fell in 1453. But the Ottoman Empire took over its geographical space, and the Russian tsardom its ideological heritage. The Roman Empire of the German nation survived until 1806, when Napoleon enviously abolished it. But he made its leader Austrian emperor in compensation and proclaimed his own empire, complete with eagles and triumphal arches and, to be on the safe side, a pope at his coronation. His empire fell, but his nephew, Napoleon III, considered it worth the effort to establish a ‘Second Empire’ in 1852. When this, in its turn, collapsed after the defeat by Germany, the Germans marked their triumph by themselves proclaiming an empire in 1871.

At the time of writing only the Japanese Empire survives of the world’s ancient empires. But the concept of ’empire’ has gained a new meaning that is still topical, has even adopted a central position in the political debate. This meaning derives most immediately from the British Empire and the debate on its role and significance.

Imperium britannicum

The designation ‘the British Empire’ for British possessions became common only at the end of the eighteenth century. But as early as the sixteenth century the realm of the English king was referred to as an ’empire’. In Elizabethan times we encounter the first substantial reflection on British world power and its significance. Francis Bacon therefore often touches on the problems in his essays. In the essay ‘Of the True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates’ he stresses, for example, the decisive significance of sea power for the British Empire: ‘But thus much is certain, that he that commands the sea is at great liberty, and may take as much and as little of the war as he will.’

The British Empire was, like the earlier Spanish and Portuguese empires, a seaborne empire. It differed, therefore, from the empires of antiquity (including the Roman Empire), which generally consisted of a connected landmass, and from such contemporary empires as the Ottoman, the Austrian or the Russian. Then and in the future the British imperial will to power would be closely associated with the mastery of the seas. Its refrain became, in the words of James Thomson in 1740:

Rule, Britannia, Britannia rule the waves; Britons never will be slaves.

A distinction was often made between the two parts of the British Empire – the ‘white’ and the ‘coloured’. There were those colonies that had been created by colonists from the home country – Australia, New Zealand, Cape Colony, Canada and the North American colonies which in 1783 liberated themselves as the United States of America. And there were those colonies where ‘coloureds’ comprised the majority of the subjects. The most important of these was India, which admittedly was not directly subject to the crown until 1858. At the end of the nineteenth century a considerable African empire was created.

The British were very aware that they had created the mightiest empire since the fall of the Roman Empire. What was lost through the liberation of North America had been won back in Africa and in other places. At the beginning of the twentieth century Queen Victoria reigned over an empire on which the sun never set, comprising one quarter of all humanity and a good fifth of the Earth’s surface (distributed across the five continents). The comparison with the Romans lay close to hand and was always present in the rhetoric of the empire. The representatives of the British crown such as Lord Curzon in India, Lord Milner in South Africa and Lord Cromer in Egypt, were often called ‘proconsuls’ on the Roman pattern. They had – like the politicians in London – been educated at Oxford or Cambridge where classical languages formed a large part of the syllabus. Great Britain was a kingdom, but in 1877 the Queen had adopted the title Empress of India. The initials R I (Regina Imperatrix) could be added to her name, which in itself had a satisfyingly Roman ring.

The empire was, however, in no way undisputed. Economists and orthodox Liberals regarded it merely as a burden and the source of unnecessary expense. Adam Smith emphasised that it was the colonial power which alone suffered all the disadvantages that colonies bring, while other countries shared the advantages (trade etc). Another economist, N. W. Senior, declared that ‘one of the circumstances, which primarily saps the strength of a great, energetic sea power and reduces its prosperity is the risk of being tied down and weighed down and exhausted by the formation of parasitical possessions.’ In the opposing camp were the enthusiasts for the empire. During the last part of the nineteenth century writers such as Charles Dilke, John Seeley, J.A. Froude and others produced a number of influential works which praised the empire. Lord Curzon expressed an important argument when he said in 1901 : ‘As long as we rule India, we are the greatest power in the world. If we lose it we shall drop straightway to a third rate power.’

On the whole the British governors would have preferred what has been called an ‘informal empire’ or ‘free trade imperialism’, that is to say they would have preferred the world open to trade and communications without the costs and worry that formal dominion brings. But a world of this kind was quite simply not on offer. Diplomatic and other complications were constantly arising which were solved by military means. The English were used to winning. ‘Queen Victoria’s small wars’, which occurred every year throughout her long reign (1837– 1901), led to constant expansion. Nevertheless, there were doubts. Could this last forever? Was the British Empire, like all previous empires, not doomed to crumble into dust? Even Rudyard Kipling, usually regarded as the most faithful poet of empire, adopted this tone when he wrote his famous ‘Recessional’ for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897:

Far-called, our navies melt away;

On dune and headland sinks the fire: Lo, all our pomp of yesterday

Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

Imperium americanum?

British imperialism had short-term survival strategies – for example the entente cordiale with France in 1904 – but also long-term ones. In the long-term many people dreamt of a future alliance between the English-speaking peoples. The US and Great Britain would secure a future Anglo-Saxon joint rule over the world. The British journalist W. T. Stead envisaged something of the kind in his book The Americanization of the World (1902):

The advent of the United States of America as the greatest of world-Powers is the greatest political, social, and commercial phenomenon of our times. […] unless we can succeed in merging the British Empire in the English-speaking United States of the World, the disintegration of our Empire, and our definite displacement from the position of commercial and financial primacy is only a matter of time, and probably a very short time.

No wonder that Kipling in 1899, when the US made its first (and, it would prove, only) attempt to exercise classical colonialism by annexing the Philippines, was very pleased and wrote encouragingly:

Take up the White Man’s burden – The savage wars of peace –

Fill full the mouth of Famine And bid the sickness cease

Kipling, it appears, regarded colonial wars as a kind of humanitarian intervention, as a means of creating a better world. The US, admittedly, refused to become a colonial power in imitation of the British. But the idea that in the case of the US too there might exist a ‘manifest destiny’, a providential appointment to empire, struck a chord with the Americans. It found an eloquent and powerful advocate in Theodore Roosevelt. In 1900, at the beginning of what would come to be an ‘American century’, Roosevelt wrote :

Is America a weakling, to shrink from the work of the great world powers? No! The young giant of the West stands on a continent and clasps the crest of an ocean in either hand. Our nation, glorious in youth and strength, looks into the future with eager eyes and rejoices as a strong man to run a race.

The US was not as eager to seize world power as Teddy Roosevelt believed or hoped. To the very last the country would decline the task. When World War I broke out, President Wilson explained that the US was ‘too proud to fight’. But just a few years later it had thrown itself into the fray. Its motives were, of course, grandiose and elevated. It was a question of making the world ‘safe for democracy’. It was a question of guaranteeing peace for all future time.

Wilson failed, as we know. The US retreated from the affairs of the rest of the world, to resign from imperialism and determined to observe eternal neutrality. Only a new world war forced the Americans to rethink. This time they did not succeed in declining the task. After the end of World War II they were forced by Stalin’s expansionism and Great Britain’s weakness to shoulder new burdens. Later, when the Soviet empire as the last old-style empire fell apart, the US remained as the only world power. There appeared to be no Hercules in sight who even for a short while would be able to relieve this new Atlas of the task of supporting the vault of heaven.

What kind of empire is the American empire during the most recent age? Clearly it is a question of a universal empire in Polybius’s and Dante’s sense. Nowhere is there a power which might be able to compete or offer equal resistance. After the fall of the Soviet Union the US finds itself in the same position as Rome after the second Punic War. Its leaders show a great determination that this state of affairs will continue. In a speech in June 2000 President Bush declared:

America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge – thereby, making the destabilising arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.

The new pax americana will therefore be a guarantee of peace and security. Wars between states – this ancient scourge of humanity – will be relegated to history. This means that national sovereignty to a certain extent has been sidelined. The US has since 1991 intervened (militarily or diplomatically) both with a humanitarian/policing aim (Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq) and in order to prevent weapons of mass destruction from falling into the wrong hands (Iraq, Iran, North Korea).

Through Cicero and other interpreters the pax romana laid claim to safeguarding justice. The pax americana has the same aspirations. A security policy document from 2002 expresses it thus:

In accordance with our heritage and our principles we do not employ our strength in order to acquire unilateral advantages. Instead we attempt to create a power balance promoting human freedom […] By making the world safer we provide the peoples of the world with the opportunity of making their lives better.

Pax americana appears in this way to be the solution to a problem. What could be said of the American empire is what was once said about the Austrian Empire: ‘If this Empire did not exist it would be necessary to invent it.’

The new American empire shuns this name. It is an informal empire. A country that was created out of an anti-colonial revolt can never be imagined as acquiring colonies. This does not prevent a kind of Roman heritage existing in the US from the outset. Did they not build a capitol? Did they not set up a senate? Did the US not have its eagles? Did the idea of the citizen not preserve the heritage of Pericles and Cincinnatus? Did Hans Morgenthau not write with some justification as early as 1951 in his book Politics Among Nations:

When the citizen of the United States thinks of the power of his country, he experiences the same kind of exhilaration the citizen of Rome must have felt when, identifying himself with Rome and its powers […] he would say: ‘civis Romanus sum’.

Political imagination through the ages works with surprisingly similar symbols and mental pictures. An important explanation is that political problems through the ages are remarkably similar in certain abstract features. The problems of peace can, as Hobbes pointed out, be solved within each territory only through the establishment of some form of sovereignty. The problems of peace between states can be solved only through the establishment of some form of more extensive sovereignty, an empire. In both cases the question arises of how ‘peace’ on the one hand relates to ‘justice’ and ‘freedom’ on the other. Peace is the prerequisite for both justice and freedom, but the ’empire’ which upholds peace can come into conflict with these. The resistance to imperial power always invokes justice and freedom. But if this resistance succeeds in putting an end to peace, then justice thereafter will grow out of the barrel of a gun.

The problem of imperial power seems ancient; we can follow it as far back in history as sources lead us. When King Narmer, sometime in a twilight zone between legend and reality, added the white bowling pinshaped crown of upper Egypt to the red cylindrical crown of the recently conquered lower Egypt, thus creating the pharaohs’ strange double crown, he gave rise to what – perhaps – was the first empire and therefore to the issues that haunt us still.

Translated from Swedish by Phil Holmes

This piece originally appeared under the title Empires: a Neo-Polybian Meditation in Empire and the Future World Order: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, Axess Publishing, 2005.

Svante Nordin

Svante Nordin is Professor of the History of Ideas at the University of Lund. He has written among other books: Filosofins historia (1995, 2003, 'History of Philosophy'), Ingemar Hedenius – en filosof och hans tid (2004, 'Ingemar Hedenius, a Philosopher and his Time') and Nitton-hundratalet. En biografi (2005, 'The Twentieth Century: A Biography').

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