TCS Daily

The Meaning of the Unipolar Moment

By Lee Harris - March 5, 2004 12:00 AM

I have often wished that some Hollywood mogul would put me in charge of the philosophical genre known as reality TV -- not that I mean to imply any criticism of their current level of excellence, at least not after the profound Hegelian meditations known as The Simple Life. But still I have a program or two up my sleeve, guaranteed not only to draw curious viewers week after week, but also to pique the interest of the political philosopher in all of us.

Here's my first suggestion.

The setting is the typical topical island so beloved of the survivor genre -- long white beaches and swaying palm trees, playful primates swinging from frond to frond, a coconut under each arm. And into this halcyon paradise we transport twenty absolutely normal American men, all young and hearty, and of fairly equal physical strength and stamina. Ten we provide with guns and with as much ammunition as they could possibly need, and ten we do not provide with guns. Now the challenge we present our ten men without guns is simple: Figure out some way to get the ten men with the guns to follow your orders, and to follow them not just occasionally, but always and in every case.

Week after week the TV audience would go to the island and discover how the ten men without guns were faring in their quest to get command and authority over the ten men with guns. Each week, no doubt, we would hear long speeches given by the men without guns to the men with guns, explaining to them all the reasons it would be prudent and wise to take their orders from the men without guns, and each week, no doubt, we would hear the ten men with the guns laughing loudly at the suggestions offered to them by the ten men without the guns.

Or, as a possible way to up the ratings, we could transport to the island a guest intellectual of the week, for the sole purpose of persuading the men with the guns to share them. For example, a utilitarian could explain how sharing the guns would be productive of the greatest good for the greatest number, while a Rawlsian would try to lure the men with the guns to join the men without the guns under the Veil of Ignorance, in order to determine a fair and rational way of distributing the guns among them. One week it might be Martha Nussbaum inspiring the men with the guns to pledge their allegiance to the community of all the men and women of island; another it might be Noam Chomsky denouncing the hegemony of the men with the guns, and how it endangered the survival of the island. And, of course, we would have to invite a major libertarian thinker in order to explain how the liberty of the men with the guns was encroaching on the liberty of the men without the guns, and how this really had to stop.

True, viewer interest might wane as the men with the guns continued to laugh and mock at the major intellectuals just as they had laughed and mocked at the men without the guns in the first place, but it would not be before most of the TV audience had all come to an extremely important philosophical insight, namely, that it is far easier to give commands when you have the guns than to give them when you don't.

Now if this strikes you as a rather trivial truth, I must confess that I sometimes feel the same way myself. And yet, how can it be a trivial truth, when so many extremely well educated men and women so clearly fail to grasp it?

But, if we suddenly turn our attention from our desert island back to the world at large, we may more easily sympathize with their failure to grasp this truth, for in the world around us nothing seems easier than for those without guns to give commands to those who do. This, after all, is the essence of something we are all familiar with, namely, the civil control of the military. And in our world it seems perfectly natural. Because in our world it is.

Yet, the moment we turn back to our desert isle, we see that there must be some trick to it, for on the island such an arrangement is not only unnatural; it frankly seems impossible -- or else, of an unlikelihood that would require not only several seasons, but several centuries of seasons, in order to come about in reality. Yet, if there is a trick, what could it be?

The trick has been called by several names. The American Senator and political thinker, John C. Calhoun, in his Disquisition on Government, called it the Constitution; Gaetano Mosca, an Italian Senator and a political thinker, called it "the juridical defense." In either case, it meant not a written document of the land, but rather a cultural system that yielded a large number of men capable of defending their community from external attack, but unwilling to use their considerable brute force in order to gain power over that community. For if the soldiers of a society wish to seize power for themselves, what sheets of paper will prevent them, if the habits of their heart do not?

But here is the problem. To be a soldier is to get familiar with the power wielded by brute force, and this familiarity can all too easily grow into a temptation to use this brute force for one's own personal ends, or for the collective ends of the military community -- a fatal sequence that has happened over and over again, from the discovery by the Roman Praetorian guards of their powers of imperial appointment, to the Turkish Janissaries' uprisings against the Sultan -- again and again, despite the protestation of illegality by the civil authority, the military has seized power for itself.

Yet never once has this happened in the United States, although the career of most Hispanic countries in our Hemisphere amply demonstrates that it is nothing about the New World that guarantees respect for civilian authority. So what is it about America that makes us immune to a disease endemic to rest of mankind?

The answer requires a glance at our history. Unlike other nations, our state did not evolve out of military rule; it did not begin as an administrative system by which a warrior elite expropriated the property of a docile peasantry. Here there never was a warrior elite. And, indeed, looking over the history of the American Revolution, it is easy to see that we were simply not the stuff of which a warrior elite is made.

The Jeffersonian's dream of a militia, and its rather forlorn reality, are a far cry from the well-disciplined Spartans, the highly organized Romans, the medieval warlords and their retainers, or the professional soldier of the Napoleonic epoch. They were volunteers who came together to do what little fighting it pleased them to do, then went back home; and God forbid if you tried to tell them what to do when they were not in a mood to listen.

George Washington worked valiantly to change this. He begged the Continental Congress to press the individual states to provide the funding for his continental army, but the recalcitrant states always seemed to find a way of shirking their fiscal responsibility, after which the only remedy the Continental Congress had left was to beg them a bit more pathetically. Hence the bloodied footprints of Washington's half-naked soldiers during the terrible winter at Valley Forge; few of our ancestors cared enough to cough up the money even to clothe those who were fighting for our independence. (No greatest generation there!)

Besides, what cause did our ancestors have to worry about money? There was always Louis the XVI to turn to. And turn to him again and again the Continental Congress did, begging colossal loan after loan -- which good-hearted Louis, with an astonishing promptitude, was invariably willing to grant, each outgoing franc of France's exhausted finances drawing him ineluctably closer to his squalid rendezvous with the guillotine.

Nor was it just his money that Louis the XVI was willing to provide for our ancestors. He sent his general, admirals, and professional soldiers to fight the English for us, and to win us our independence in a way that no other people had ever won theirs -- without requiring the rise of a military warlord, such as Cromwell and Napoleon.

It was Louis the XVI, in short, who made it possible for us to get by with a leader as decent and humane as Washington.

Washington was the one thing that Americans had to do for themselves; and this we did superbly. The Virginian ethos of the planter gentleman created a leader unlike any the world had known before.

Compare Washington's superb manners with Napoleon's utter lack of the same. Napoleon knew only how to command; Washington knew how to obey as well as command, just as he also knew how to plead, how to beg, how to control his anger, how to pretend that he was not furious, how to exercise that enormous range of self-command for which he was so universally admired, and that made him the greatest good man who ever lived.

Washington's personality was one in which the civil government that he laboriously learned to exercise over his mind enabled him to exercise firm control over the unruly elements of his passions as well as the unruly elements of his own army -- he set the pattern for civilian rule because he himself knew how to rule civilly, and with the absolute minimum of violence.

Yet what could Washington have done had he faced off against a Napoleon? Could Washington have stared him down with his nobility; or would he have been unceremoniously dragged off and shot in the middle of the night like the Duc d'Enghien?

We were lucky enough never to discover who would have come out on top in such a contest. Washington's exceedingly modest level of ruthlessness -- if it can even be called such -- was all that we needed. Between French money and arms, and the English's strange lack of resolution, we managed to escape a terrible peril scot-free: we never needed to resort to a military dictatorship in order to keep us from murdering each other wholesale.

And even when we did start murdering each other wholesale, in our Civil War, we continued to resist the temptation toward military dictatorship, both in the Confederacy and in the Union, so that here, nearly a hundred and fifty years later, it is virtually unthinkable to imagine the American civil government falling under military control.

The United State became the supreme military power on the planet quite by accident. Nothing in our tradition indicated that such a development was even possible. Whereas in other societies it has been the military that has historically called into existence the civilian government, with us it was the other way around: our military was called into existence by our civilian government -- as FDR called into existence the huge American army that would go on to liberate so much of Western Europe.

Step back and take a long view of history, and ask yourself, If it had not happened in this way, how else could a single nation achieve overwhelming military dominance? That is to say, if America had not acquired military supremacy, who else might have?

Certainly we can leave out Switzerland and Norway, Thailand and Australia, Peru and Algeria. England -- our only competitor for stability of civilian rule -- lacked the tradition of a huge standing army; but there were several European countries, and one Asian one, that had displayed conspicuous genius, at one time or another, in the historical assertion of military manpower on the geopolitical stage -- and these are Spain, France, Japan, Germany, and Russia, with only the last three having demonstrated such qualities in the last hundred years.

Which leads to my second idea for a Reality TV show -- a kind of American Idol competition in which various historical nation states vie with each other for the title of "The World's Safest and Most Reliable Source of Military Might." Germany, for example, could demonstrate its truly excellent track record for civilian control over its military -- after all, look how well their armies obeyed Hitler. The Japanese would naturally be represented too, and they could point to several occasions in their history when the army did not overrule or dismiss the civil authorities -- surely it must have happened once or twice. Spain might have been quite a serious contender had the competition between held in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. Russia could point to its army's splendid behavior as it rolled toward Berlin in 1945 -- imagine the Russians letting the Germans loot their own museums! And the French...the mere mention of Napoleon's sacred name might well make them the sentimental favorite, though Bonaparte's liquidation of the civil government on the Eighteenth of Brumaire would need a little explaining.

So who would you cast your vote for? America, or its historical rivals? Or perhaps a dark horse of the future, such as China?

The world needs to ponder this question well -- and if it takes a reality TV show to help it reach the right decision, then Fox should know that I will be delighted not only to share my thoughts on the subjects, but I would even be willing to give them advice about what needs to be done to Ryan Seacrest's hair.

Lee Harris is the author of Civilization and Its Enemies.


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