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A Sigh for Empire. “No” means “Yes”

David Brooks is in tip-top form [1] today. Ah, remember those days when we ran the world? Is it all over?

… in the late 1940s, global power was concentrated. The victory over fascism meant the mantle of global leadership rested firmly on the Atlantic alliance. The United States accounted for roughly half of world economic output. Within the U.S., power was wielded by a small, bipartisan, permanent governing class — men like Acheson, W. Averell Harriman, John McCloy and Robert Lovett.

Today power is dispersed. There is no permanent bipartisan governing class in Washington. Globally, power has gone multipolar, with the rise of China, India, Brazil and the rest.

This dispersion should, in theory, be a good thing, but in practice, multipolarity means that more groups have effective veto power over collective action. In practice, this new pluralistic world has given rise to globosclerosis, an inability to solve problem after problem.

America’s struggles in Iraq are both a symptom and a cause of “globosclerosis.” By this term, Brooks does not mean the aches and pains caused with junking national sovereignty, embracing global trade, and the democracy mission, but instead the enfeebling of global institutions. The age of light – of Truman and Acheson– has given away to a dark age: genocide in Darfur, populists in Latin America, China vetoing the efforts of Western democracies. The unipolar moment after the Cold War ended before it began.

But there are problems with this account. Brooks’ golden age of American leadership also saw America choosing not to intervene dramatically in the Soviet sphere, despite much worse genocides than we see today in Africa. There was a sense that even after an economic expansion unlike any in history and the collapse of the British empire, there were limits to American power.

Here comes the part where Brooks becomes, how else to say it, creepy:

But globally, people have no sense of shared citizenship. Everybody feels they have the right to say no, and in a multipolar world, many people have the power to do so. There is no mechanism to wield authority. There are few shared values on which to base a mechanism.


Oh no! You mean people feel like members of their own countries and not citizens of the world? Who are these people who feel they have a “right to say no” and worse, have the power to do so? What exactly does Brooks want? A mechanism of global authority that would impart a sense of shared citizenship and crush any competing value-systems?

Frankly, the categories Brooks uses are confusing. At the beginning of the column he cherishes a “small bipartisan class” of American statesman who essentially told the world what time dinner starts. But later he laments that “the world” hasn’t learned to accede to the wishes of global majorities. I think he just means he wants the world to accede to his bi-partisan class of enlightened rulers. And, just as expected he comes roaring to the conclusion: a League of Democracies!

“If democracies could concentrate authority in such a league, at least part of the world would have a mechanism for wielding authority.” In other words, a small bi-partisan elite will create a new global institution, apart from uppity- third worlders who keep asserting their rights. The institution will speak for “Democracies” i.e. nations given to neo-liberal managerialism, but will arrogate to itself the right to intervene against the enclosing chaos.

I don’t think Brooks really wants to know what the majority of the world would think of this proposed ideology. They call it imperialism. Brooks may recognize that the age of European imperialism is over, and the one of America’s benevolent management is discredited and impractical (see, War in Iraq). But old dreams die hard. With all of these people asserting their rights, governing (and misgoverning) themselves apart from Yankee say-so, Brooks calls on the the old imperial powers to band together for one last stand.

It’s over.