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I finally clicked on and opened this little treasure trove of wonders on The Economist website (http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/), and discovered (at the top of a string of interesting posts) a post which suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that foreign participation in American democracy (ala foreign money financing political speech) is only just and right, since American hegemony means that American decisions increasingly directly and indirectly affect the lives of foreign nationals.

As I’ve argued before (http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=243&cpage=1#comment-12), there isn’t really such a vast difference between “empire” and “federalism” as we sometimes pretend. The Tea Partiers, as sometimes happens, are actually right to conflate the two, though wrong in the oversimplistic moral-political judgment they impose on that similarity: Such political consolidation generally yields both aggregate and broadly (if not equitably) distributed benefits that shouldn’t be disregarded. It also involves the institutionalization of uneven distributions of power and influence.

As many people around the world viscerally realize, American hegemony is not really that far removed from American empire, just as Roman hegemony during the late Republic was not all that different from the Roman Empire that followed. And the Southern states that rebelled in defense of slavery were far more accurate than the Northern zeitgeist acknowledges when they (the Confederates) claimed to be heirs to the revolutionaries, fighting against a centralized federal/imperial government telling them what to do.

Of course, the American Revolutionaries themselves weren’t all that anti-imperialistic a mere 13 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, when they were still proud and loyal British citizens. It was their disappointment in the wake of the French and Indian War over a set of British policies that was less favorable to them than they would have liked that quickly eroded their love of empire (the policies in question included the abandonment of the long-standing British policy of “salutary neglect,” sparing the colonies the taxes levied on everyone else in order to give them an opportunity to grow prosperous, which they did; the protection of the Indian tribes in the newly acquired Ohio Valley from colonial expansion; and tolerance of the French language and Catholic religion in the newly acquired Canadian territory).

Our attitudes (like those of our founding fathers) toward political consolidation and centralization are generally situational, less indignant when it is serving our interests, and more indignant when it isn’t. Two ideological cross-currents have entered that stream, one which views any exercise of power over those who are not constituents of that power (i.e., members of the electorate of those who exercise it) as unjust and unacceptable; and one which, bizarrely, sees any consolidation of democratic agency within the nation (over those who elect their representatives) as an affront to liberty, but at least a significant faction of which is not particularly concerned about exercises of power abroad (over those who have no democratic say in the matter), except to the extent that it inconveniences them. (To their credit, another faction of this latter group are true isolationists, but, as I hope I make clear below, though that may be more consistent, it isn’t at all functional).

Both of these ideological cross-currents to some extent confuse the issue, the first by positing that humanity is best served by the eradication of all injustice (something that, if successfully prosecuted, leads to universal destitution), and the second by thinking that humanity is best served by the eradication of all power (other than, for some, that which the nation projects abroad), something that, if successfully prosecuted, leads to social disintegration and a very dramatic contraction of wealth and well-being (whether at the national or global level).

While I am not unaware of the beneficial, if not necessary, role of hegemony in the world, simply because the preferable path of global confederation is too obstructed by a tangled and brutal mess of vested interests to keep pace with the overwhelming need for some degree of global governance, I certainly recognize the injustice of it, and even more so when hegemony is exercised particularly irresponsibly (as it was throughout the first eight years of the new millennium). I’ve written about that demand for global governance (Problems Without Borders ), and about the aristocratic arrogance with which that demand has been met, when it’s been met at all (Lords and Serfs on the Global Manor: Foreign Aid as Noblesse Oblige ). But social organization, perhaps in all forms, involves some distribution and exercise of power (even decentralized normative control does). That’s just a reality we have to deal with, and far preferable to the alternative (a Hobbesian “war of all against all”).

The issue isn’t that the power exists, but rather how it is distributed, how it’s checked and balanced, how it’s contextualized to best serve the interests of those under its umbrella and to protect the vulnerable from abuses. We should want to live in a world capable of organizing across national boundaries to face international challenges and take advantage of international opportunities. But we should also want it to be done, to whatever extent possible, in a way which does not, systemically and consistently, serve the interests of some at the expense of the interests of others. We should want it to be done democratically.

America no longer trusts the world enough to be in the vanguard of its democratization as a world. We have, for some time, exercised our hegemony with disdain for the voice and will of those over whom we are exercising it. This is neither just, nor, in the long run, functional. Maybe it’s time we returned to the dream of Wilson and FDR that we usher in a new age of international organization, and sought ways to give those over whom we reign some small voice in how they are ruled.

I am not, of course, suggesting that we extend rights of direct or equitable participation in American democracy to the world’s population, but rather that we continue what had been evolving for two centuries or more; the gradual forging of a weak but functioning overlay of global governance. From the Concert of Europe in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, through the League of Nations, to the United Nations, the modern developed world (repeatedly abandoned by the United States in the effort) has haltingly and imperfectly tried to forge workable institutions comprising a weak overlay of participatory global governance, each incarnation a little stronger and more functional than the last.

The United Nations is hopelessly flawed, it is true, but so was The United States under the Articles of Confederation. Hopeless flaws invite hopeful reforms, not an abandonment of the challenge the flawed institutions arose to meet. We probably need a new incarnation of this necessary part of the global institutional landscape, one which has more direct subnational representation and less deference to often parasitic national governments that don’t necessarily represent their people’s interests, and more participation of transnational, extranational, and supranational organizations that are key players on the world stage. But America has to continue to aspire to be more than a mere hegemon pursuing its own interests in the global arena; we must aspire to be the “leaders of the free world” we have so long claimed to be, and, as leaders committed to democratic ideals, continue to seek and find ways to include those who are led in the decision-making processes which affect them.

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