The Great Experiment: the story of ancient empires, modern states, and the quest for a global nation.

Author:Abrahamson, James L.
Position:Book review

Reviewed by James L. Abrahamson, contributing editor

The Great Experiment: The Story of Ancient Empires, Modern States, and the Quest for a Global Nation. By Strobe Talbott (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008. Pp. viii, 479, $30.00).

Political scientist, journalist, diplomat, and currently president of the Brookings Institution, Strobe Talbott first took his readers back four millennia to the Battle of Kadesh (1274 BC), Moses (b. 1393 BC), and even the Garden of Eden as he traced the evolution of global governance. In Part One, The Imperial Millennia, readers needed to hang on tight while Talbott raced them through the growth of human associations from families and kinship groups through nations and regional powers to the emergence of the large empires with universal pretensions, such as those assembled by Alexander the Great, Rome, Mohammed, the Ottomans, Ashoka, Qin Shihuangdi, Genghis Kahn, Akbar, and Charlemagne--each suggesting it may be possible to govern great numbers of diverse peoples spread over large areas.

Though some of the ancients, for example Socrates, considered themselves citizens of a larger world yet to achieve political expression, Talbott delayed until Europe's Middle Ages to give careful attention to those who thought deeply about a humanistic rather than imposed union of at least the European governments. Efforts to maintain the Continent's Holy Roman Empire ended with the Thirty Years War, when at Westphalia all the rulers agreed to respect each other's sovereignty. Within that new order, the balance of power rather than the growth of international institutions helped keep the peace within Europe's community of nations. Even so, Immanuel Kant and others put forth the notion of a federation of nations under a single central government as a superior way to keep the peace. The later French Revolution and Napoleon's conquests soon demonstrated that hopes of liberty and equality could quickly yield to imperial tyranny. With the latter's defeat, however, the Concert of Europe's great powers kept the peace by dominating lesser states and relying on the balance of power to restrain each other in Europe even as they extended their overseas empires to most of the globe.

In the second part of Talbott's study, entitled The American Centuries, he began by acknowledging that his education had prompted him to favor a single, global political authority, a belief he revealed in his Time columns in 1992. Joining the new Clinton...

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