Guest Post: Expanding The Polity

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Submitted by Daniel Cloud

Expanding the Polity

American foreign policy theory divides into two main schools. Both have been useful in the past, but neither fits the world we have to deal with now.

On one side are realists, who believe that nations try to ‘balance’, try to make sure that no one of their potential rivals becomes powerful enough to dominate them. Wars, in realist theories, occur when the relative capabilities of nations change, and serve to ratify such changes. In such a dangerous world, national security is a concern that trumps everything else, and weakness only encourages aggression.

The problem with this model, at the moment, is the utter and complete lack of any sort of balance between the military capabilities of the United States and the capabilities of its potential adversaries. It’s possible to imagine future contingencies in which the concept of a balance of power would once again become relevant, but right now we might be better served by a theory that involves some sort of snowball effect.

On the other side are Wilsonians, who are impressed by the historical evidence that democracies don’t fight democracies. They essentially agree with Immanuel Kant, who argued, in Perpetual Peace, that a world of liberal states would be a world free of war. Kant, however, went one step further, suggesting that such a world would eventually become a sort of global federation, as the long habit of peaceful collaboration caused mutual trust to harden into mutual obligation. Once this occurred, of course, the Wilsonian foreign policy model would no longer apply, because international war would cease to be the issue – the security problem would then revolve around the potential for civil wars within the federation.

That’s a theory that seems to involve a snowball, or ‘bandwagoning’ effect. Does it fit our world? Has this happened yet? Are our various current wars international conflicts, or civil conflicts within a global polity, or something else? Political realities are often papered over with polite fictions. How could we tell?

It’s worth pausing for a moment to think about how a confederation like that might actually coalesce. If some plausible mechanism bears a close resemblance to the pattern of recent history, we’ll have more reason for trying to look at world politics through this Kantian lens.

We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking in terms of an American empire. (Americans, especially, should resist the temptations of this simplistic image, because actually acting as if we thought we had a genuine empire would destroy the whole system we’ve already spent so much good blood to build.) The confederation sometimes presents that appearance, but appearances can be deceiving, and the voters out in Iowa are actually no more in charge of the whole thing than anyone else is.

The United States does now seem to effectively claim a monopoly on the legitimate use of force in interstate relations, a role it began to take on after the Second World War, and assumed more decisively after the collapse of the Soviet Union with the first Gulf War. It occupies the role of guarantor of international borders as a result of its historic role as leader of the Western alliance against the Soviet threat, and because it can, and because the costs of not doing so are unthinkable.

What advantages does it actually derive from this rather costly and difficult role? What makes its enormous military expenditures politically possible? Maintaining a powerful military force is a drag on the American economy in the short run, but probably beneficial in the long run, because of the technological prowess it creates. As George Soros suggests, the safety provided by being the world’s preeminent military power also goes along with the advantages associated with issuing the world’s reserve currency. These basically amount to being able to print money when you’d like to, rather than when you’re forced to. When America needs low interest rates, it can lower them, and when it needs high ones, it can raise them.

Everyone else has to first worry about what the Americans are doing. If they raise rates when American rates are low, their currency will appreciate against the world’s reserve currency. If they lower their rates when American rates are high, their currency will depreciate against the reserve currency. Stable exchange rates are better if you want to take advantage of the global marketplace that lies at the heart of the whole arrangement. So, over the last few decades, monetary policies and business cycles around the world have tended to get synchronized with the monetary policy and the business cycle of the manager of the reserve currency. Amplitude still varies from country to country, but the relative phases have increasingly tended towards coherence. One global business cycle produces, in the world’s democracies, one global pattern of voter behavior. As electoral cycles become synchronized as well, conservative or liberal waves can sweep through the whole system.

While the security created by American military preeminence makes the Fed the de facto world central bank (run entirely by Americans, at least in theory for avowedly American purposes) it is global civil society that has the real power in this system, and American military action is restrained by world public opinion, not in a position to restrain it. In the short term, an American president can ignore the preferences of non-Americans, but over the long run, the costs to his political party will be high, because what outsiders think of us powerfully influences the way we see ourselves. Most of the time, it’s easier to just do what’s expected of you.

(The ever-increasing volume of complaints about American policies by the rest of the world doesn’t actually reflect increasing American disregard for world opinion, instead it reflects a stronger and stronger expectation by the rest of the Polity that we will consider their preferences before making decisions. The constant criticism just tells you that criticism gets listened to…)

The federated democratic states are each still legally sovereign, and of course will remain so, all through the process of coalescence into a single polity, just as a feudal lord can retain notional autonomy even as his domain is subsumed into a centralized state. (This makes the UN seem rather like Versailles…)

Within each liberal state, the people are sovereign, exercising their sovereignty, through their elected officials, to preserve their own rights. A trans-national civil society with synchronized business and electoral cycles erodes the imaginary boundaries between these sovereign peoples, with business deals and marriages and cable news services and medical journals and all manner of human social entanglements creating a densely interconnected web with relatively few degrees of separation between physically and socially distant individuals. More and more, world public opinion becomes just that, world public opinion. Where there is one public, there is one sovereign, a ‘people’ not in the sense of sharing some exclusive story about ethnic or national identity, but in some other, modern sense that perhaps has something to do with the fact that we all have access to the same Internet and the same airplanes. You know, us.

Where there is only one sovereign, there is one de facto polity, which wears its associated ‘sovereign’ nation-states as the antiquated federal apparatus through which it exercises power. It’s a disorganized, decentralized state, with no written constitution, and a confusing tangle of institutions and customs, rather like the United Provinces in the 17th century, or perhaps the Holy Roman Empire. Not a very well-institutionalized polity, really a bit of a mess, but workable and, on the whole, fairly democratic.

It’s tempting to call this system ‘the global failed state’, but this would suggest a process of deterioration rather than one of coalescence. Perhaps ‘the nascent global state’ is better. But let’s give it a name from science fiction instead, let’s just call it the Polity.  It increasingly seems that such an entity exists, whether we like it or not. Not an American empire, but a confederation of liberal states in which certain American institutions (the Fed, the military, the imperial presidency) play a special role, one that often conflicts with their formal constitutional obligations to American voters.

The real world is more complicated than Kant’s theory, though. A new polity doesn’t spring into existence in a second, it slowly crystallizes. The process is deceptive, because political order is a critical-mass phenomenon. Many social institutions have a hard time existing in the absence of other social institutions. Starting from Hobbesian anarchy, civil peace is reached by a process of bandwagoning, of people choosing to back the winning side once they see that others have chosen it. Both the evolution of civil society and the establishment of the rule of law are processes that tend to accelerate towards the end, often in concert. For a long time, it seems like nothing is happening, and then suddenly it’s all going very quickly.

Not everyone joins up for the same reason. Kant’s voluntary federation of liberal states, in the real world, becomes a heterogeneous agglomeration of states of various stripes. In states that already were liberal to start with, no real decision to join was ever made, it just happened, as the result of a large number of obvious-seeming choices about apparently unrelated things. States that now become liberal join the Polity almost automatically. But there are also some illiberal regimes that have made themselves parts of the coalescing polity to some limited degree. Egypt, until recently, was one such place.

Places like that, places where one party or one person or one ethnic minority or other exclusive group has a permanent monopoly on power, can be in the global polity to some limited degree, but they’re not really of it. I’ll call those countries foederati.

Becoming a foederatus is a strategic choice by the rulers of an illiberal regime. The intent is seldom to actually be subsumed by the Polity, though that is what tends to happen in the end. Instead, faced with the multi-pronged challenge of the confederation of democracies and its associated civil society, the cohesive minorities that govern these places try to cope with that challenge by allying themselves with the challenger, to preserve their own regime by attaching it to an antithetical one.

This is basically impossible in the long run, because in gaining the good things an alliance with the Polity has to offer, people in places like Egypt also acquire the skills and attitudes needed to assert their natural rights. As we’ve recently seen, military cooperation with the Polity leads to greater military competence and an enhanced sense of professional pride among officers, which tends to evince itself in a reluctance to fire on civilian demonstrators. Modern communications bring modern kinds of social complexity. Economic development and better education are deeply subversive of repressive regimes. Most of all, the rule of law, so essential to integration with the world economy, brings with it values and attitudes that are not at all consistent with the maintenance of an illiberal government.

The Polity, no matter what its constituent states want, just can’t stop itself from subverting illiberal regimes, simply by so visibly being what it is, an attainable utopia. When the crisis finally comes, it has no choice but to try to restrain its ally from using excessive force, but only egregiously excessive force can preserve a repressive regime when its citizens rise up against it. Because the Polity is otherwise a good, loyal, and safe ally, it will probably be influential when it does this, so attempts to change a foederatus into a full member of the Polity by means of people power can often succeed.

The only alternative to foederatus status, for an illiberal regime in the modern world, is the status of outsider or pariah state. States like Burma and North Korea are not part of the Polity, and are somewhat immune from its revolutionary influence. Libya under Qaddafi was such a place, and Iran is an outsider as well. In that sort of place, excessive force will be used against protesting citizens, and it is harder for people power to succeed. War by the Polity is likely to be required for the regime to change.

Since the Polity is understandably reluctant to undertake such wars – there is little for it to gain, and much for it to lose – this is a policy choice that is usually relatively stable in the short term. The price of this immediate stability is being denied the many benefits association with the Polity brings, from freedom from famine to foreign direct investment. The pariah state has to freeze its society in some particular awkward shape to keep it from morphing into a variant of the Polity’s, but this static society is confronted by a constantly changing and developing challenge from the outside world. In the end, some new technology or idea will overturn it, and the outsider will join the Polity anyway, late, and with little leverage.

All of this has interesting implications for the question of what will eventually happen to the two most important foederati, China and Saudi Arabia. Both regimes have lost the ability to censor effectively, to keep information from their citizens. It’s not clear that either system is stable under these circumstances. (If there is no genuine political need to keep their citizens in the dark, why would they ever have devoted so much energy to it?) Both have recently shown signs of worrying about the possibility of political disturbances. China’s expenditures on internal security are enormous. Last week’s announcement of a freeze in its nuclear power program seems to reflect considerable anxiety about domestic public opinion. The recent downward revision of projected GDP growth rates – from ten percent per annum down to seven percent, a very sharp self-downgrade – is indicative of a decision to shift to prioritizing political stability over economic development, because what worries the Party most (we can see why from the Egyptian case) is the political effect of inflation.

We’re used to the diplomatic assumption that these two can do what they want, in terms of repressing their own populations, because their power will make the sovereign states of the Polity reluctant to antagonize them. This is still true, but it really doesn’t matter any more. Civil society is in charge in the Polity, not the states. Diplomats can’t commit world civil society to accepting state terror, or the repeated, highly visible violation of basic human rights. No matter what they promise, it won’t, it can’t. So the Saudi and Chinese regimes can easily earn its enmity.

In the full glare of modern communication technology, egregious acts of excessive violence against unarmed civilians in the context of a people-power event will eventually evoke a very hostile response from world civil society. In both of these cases the illiberal regimes involved have tried to walk a very fine line, fully availing themselves of the advantages of association with the Polity while attempting to sterilize all of its subversive effects. The decision to revert to full pariah status would be a politically difficult one, extremely costly in economic terms. But that is what the maintenance of their present repressive regimes in the face of some future Jasmine Revolution in their own countries would require, because the repeated use of excessive force on unarmed Saudi or Chinese civilians would make those regimes pariahs in the end, whether the Polity’s diplomats and politicians wanted it to or not.

Will the Chinese, or the Saudis, really prefer that dead-end path to the perils of genuine political reform? The problem with reform is that it’s risky, that nothing is more likely to produce a revolution than reforms that are timid, or poorly executed, or ill-conceived, or that simply started too late. It should be clear now, though, that the risk is not one that can be permanently avoided, and if you have to do it, it’s better to begin before events force your hand. Certainly the risks associated with political reform are preferable to the risks associated with pariah-hood, and in the long run the reformer’s country will be the more influential within the Polity once it joins.

The calculation isn’t all that hard to make, given the now-obvious risks of delay. It’s just too late, in either case, for the elite to back out; the only way out of the trap they’ve put themselves in is by going forward, and breaking through to full Polity membership. So expect to see one or both of these two countries voluntarily lead a new wave of genuine political reform among the foederati sometime fairly soon. Joining the Polity as a full member may not be a concept that appeals to their aging elites, but it’s much, much better than the alternative, than abandoning development as a policy goal, than international isolation and an eventual civil war. Even by Saudi or Chinese standards, Turkey and South Korea aren’t really such awful places, not when you compare them to Iran and North Korea; and there’s just so little reason to do things the hard way, when you’re obviously eventually going to end up joining the Polity one way or the other, unless some clever dictator quickly figures out a way to somehow dis-invent the Internet...

Daniel Cloud

(Readers who enjoyed this post might also enjoy The Lily, available here)