Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Philosophical Understanding of Pax Britannica and Pax Americana

“A History of Western Philosophy” by Bertrand Russell


Frankly speaking, I am a complete layman in philosophy. However, I found it necessary to understand philosophical background of British and American hegemony, which has been the anchor of liberal world order since the 19th century. For philosophical understanding of Pax Britannica and Pax Americana, I recommend “A History of Western Philosophy” by Bertrand Russell. Why? Let me explain it to readers, and comment briefly about this book.

As a master’s student at the London School of Economics, my primary focus was on the theory of hegemonic stability. In this theory, American political economists Charles Kinleberger and Robert Gilpin explore why liberal world order collapsed during the interwar period, and they conclude that the decline of Britain and reluctance of America to assume hegemonic role lead to the Great Depression and the World War Ⅱ.

Currently, I am reading very insightful books: “Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power” and “Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire” by Niall Ferguson, and “Dangerous Nation” by Robert Kagan. Reading these books, I am beginning to realize that moral leadership is more important in British and American hegemony than I thought of before. “A History of Western Philosophy” is a source of basic and in depth understanding of philosophical foundation of both hegemonies.

Professor Niall Ferguson at Harvard University describes British leadership in abolition of slavery. Based on Lockean enlightenmentalism, Prime Minister Lord Palmerston advocated Britain’s special role to lead moral, social, and political civilization. Palmerston sent gunboats to intercept slave trade, and supported liberal movements in Belgium, Greece, Italy, Poland, and the Iberian Peninsula. Robert Kagan, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, illustrates how liberal ideals bolstered expansionist foreign policy of the United States. In “A History of Western Philosophy”, you can refer to modern British philosophers to understand ideological foundation of “benevolent imperialism” of the British Empire and the United States of America.

Throughout the history, numerous superpowers have emerged. However, few of them had universal ideals for progress and well being of human beings. The British Empire and the United States of America are completely exceptional from other empires in history. Let me mention a couple of super powers in history, in order to illustrate stark difference between their world order and liberal world order under the British and the American Empires.

First, I would like to talk about the Spanish Empire, which is the first truly global empire in world history. But it was far from precursor of the British Empire and American predominance today. The national foundation of Spain was “reconquista”, which driven by religious passion of Christians in the Iberian Peninsula to restore their homeland from Muslims. It was a kind of Crusade. Kings of Spain were so religiously passionate that they pursued intolerant Catholicism policies. At home, they repressed Muslims, Jewish, and Protestants with notorious Inquisition. As a Hapsburg king Carlos Ⅰ came to the throne, Spain had begun to assume itself the guardian of the Catholic, and became harsher against the Protestant. There is no wonder that Francisco Pizarro and Hernan Cortes terminated native civilizations in the Americas.

Another super power is China. Throughout the history, the Chinese Empire had been enjoying overwhelming economic and military strength over Asian neighbors and nations from the India to Europe. Using Confucianism theory of respect to the master, Chinese Emperors imposed an authoritarian hierarchy at home and abroad. Assuming themselves agents of the heaven to rule the earth, Emperors had been looking down on foreign “barbarian” kings until defeated by the British in the Opium War. Britain succeeded in incorporating the Oriental Dragon into new world order of Lockean, Smithian, and Ricardian ideals. The Chinese world order was far from liberal nor universal.

Unlike Britain and America, both Spain and China had no intellectual basis for global moral leadership. Nor did other great powers in history. “A History of Western Philosophy” narrates the evolution of Western philosophy from early days of Greek civilization. Bertrand Russell describes how philosophy began in Greece. Russell presents historical analysis to understand the background of the evolution in Western philosophy. Regarding modern day liberalism, Russell talks about the role of middle class citizens engaged in commerce and industry. Also, Russell points out that early liberalism was optimistic, energetic, and philosophic, because it represented growing bourgeoisies. This is an important point to understand British and American expansionism, because this confident liberalism has strong influences on their foreign policies as global super powers. Considering sheer volume of this book, it is hard to read the whole text of it. Moreover, it is tremendously energy consuming for a layman to get used to thinking processes and technical terms of philosophy. If you use this book for an encyclopedia of greatest ideas, it will be helpful for you to understand current global affairs further in depth.

I would like to mention furthermore about books in this post on another occasion. As I mention here, I am a complete layman in philosophy, and I shall appreciate comments from those who have good backgrounds. Moral leadership is a key to critical agendas in US foreign policy, particularly, the war on terror and promotion of democracy. When necessary, you can refer to “A History of Western Philosophy” to understand fundamental thoughts of shaping the world for the future.