The Roman Predicament: How the Rules of International Order Create the Politics of Empire.

Author:Desch, Michael C.
Position::Critical essay

The Roman Predicament: How the Rules of International Order Create the Politics of Empire By Harold James Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006. Pp. vii, 166. $24.95.

The United States is the most powerful state in the world today. Our "hard" power and "soft" power are unequaled. Our reach is truly global. Given this historically rare situation, it is not surprising that we would look to the handful of previous world powers of comparable stature to help us understand the promise and peril of our unique stature. Princeton historian Harold James's new book The Roman Predicament lays out an argument about how a decidedly nonimperial power such as the United States may be setting itself up to become the new Rome, with all that entails for us and the rest of the world.

James argues that our commitment to commercial liberalism--free trade and free markets--may not, despite our best intentions, lead to "a stable, prosperous, and integrated international society" (p.1). Rather, such efforts will cause a "vicious spiral" through which the liberal international order undermines itself by causing domestic conflict and international war. Domestic conflict comes from increasing demands here at home to tame the untrammeled actions of the free market. International conflict arises from states and other actors who fear globalization's inequities and uncertainties. In a classic illustration of the old adage that the "road to hell is paved with good intentions," James fears that the United States will respond to these threats to the liberal world order in a very illiberal, imperial fashion, as the Roman republic did two millennia ago.

The Roman Empire is more a literary foil than James's real comparative case. Indeed, the rise and fall of another commercial empire--Great Britain--represent the heart of this cautionary tale. James commends to us two of eighteenth-century Britain's most influential thinkers, Adam Smith and Edward Gibbon, who shared his concern that commercial great powers generate serious internal and external resistance to their efforts to maintain the liberal international order. This resistance produces greater domestic and international challenges to the liberal order, which in turn tempt great powers to behave in a self-defeating imperial fashion. Of course, in 1776 the key manifestation of this behavior was Britain's increasingly onerous efforts to combat the restiveness of its North American colonies, which weighed heavily on both Smith's...

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