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The Story of Ancient Empires, Modern States, and the Quest for a Global Nation

Reviewed by James L. Abrahamson, contributing editor

The Great Experiment: The Story of Ancient Empires, Modern States, and the Quest for a Global Nation. By Strobe Talbott (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008. Pp. viii, 479, $30.00).

Political scientist, journalist, diplomat, and currently president of the Brookings Institution, Strobe Talbott first took his readers back four millennia to the Battle of Kadesh (1274 BC), Moses (b. 1393 BC), and even the Garden of Eden as he traced the evolution of global governance. In Part One, The Imperial Millennia, readers needed to hang on tight while Talbott raced them through the growth of human associations from families and kinship groups through nations and regional powers to the emergence of the large empires with universal pretensions, such as those assembled by Alexander the Great, Rome, Mohammed, the Ottomans, Ashoka, Qin Shihuangdi, Genghis Kahn, Akbar, and Charlemagne — each suggesting it may be possible to govern great numbers of diverse peoples spread over large areas.

Though some of the ancients, for example Socrates, considered themselves citizens of a larger world yet to achieve political expression, Talbott delayed until Europe’s Middle Ages to give careful attention to those who thought deeply about a humanistic rather than imposed union of at least the European governments. Efforts to maintain the Continent’s Holy Roman Empire ended with the Thirty Years War, when at Westphalia all the rulers agreed to respect each other’s sovereignty. Within that new order, the balance of power rather than the growth of international institutions helped keep the peace within Europe’s community of nations. Even so, Immanuel Kant and others put forth the notion of a federation of nations under a single central government as a superior way to keep the peace. The later French Revolution and Napoleon’s conquests soon demonstrated that hopes of liberty and equality could quickly yield to imperial tyranny. With the latter’s defeat, however, the Concert of Europe’s great powers kept the peace by dominating lesser states and relying on the balance of power to restrain each other in Europe even as they extended their overseas empires to most of the globe.

In the second part of Talbott’s study, entitled The American Centuries, he began by acknowledging that his education had prompted him to favor a single, global political authority, a belief he revealed in his Time columns in 1992. Joining the new Clinton administration the next year, he gradually came to accept the sturdy nature of nationalism and the inadequacies of internationalism. Nations might cooperate in multilateral acts of “global governance” but would create no world federation in his lifetime. Acknowledging that, Talbott drew the reader’s attention to early American notions of good government, especially promotion of global democracy, the rights of man, and an empire of liberty. Describing the United States as an “idea-state,” he turned his attention to the two world wars, the League of Nations, the world-conquering aspects of fascism and communism, the United Nations, the collapse of European colonialism, and the global political implications of the atomic bomb. Though the postwar world’s host of “equal” nations often surrendered small parts of their sovereignty to the many useful international organizations of the period, they created no supranational body. Talbott therefore reduced his hopes for global governance to “management,” “cooperation,” and developing good “habits” concerning peacekeeping, even as the Soviet Union collapsed, freeing many nations, and the European Union joined its once warring nations in a body with limited supranational powers.

The Unipolar Decades, the title of Talbott’s third section, commenced with attention to President George H. W. Bush and the possibility of a “new world order” following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the success of the Gulf War coalition. Despite the coalition’s success, problems in Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and Iraq (again) soon revealed the incapacity of the United Nations and troubled the peace of the world as well as the Clinton administration, in which Talbott served. Before returning to the UN, however, he launched an all-out assault on the George W. Bush administration, about which he had almost nothing good to say regarding its early willingness to act unilaterally, lack of respect for international law as Talbott interprets it, and inattention to allies and international organizations whose reluctance to act stood in the way of its foreign policies. The second President Bush, he claimed, set back progress toward the cooperative management of international affairs. Worse yet, the Bush presidency did nothing worthwhile to limit the threat of nuclear proliferation and global climate change.

In conclusion, Talbott praised the UN for acknowledging that respect for sovereignty should not serve as a barrier to the organization’s “responsibility to protect” citizens being brutally oppressed or murdered by a tyrannical government. Saddam Hussein? Making light of scandals like the one over the “Oil for Food” program, Talbott nevertheless admits that the current United Nations has too many functions and too many members and cannot function as the world’s policeman until it has is own armed forces or the authority to call on the regional ready-reaction forces yet to be established. The UN, he argues, must become “incorporated into an increasingly variegated network of structures and arrangements” — functional, intergovernmental, nongovernmental, and private. That network must supplement the UN, compensate for its shortcomings, and provide needed capabilities. Such is the hopeful future of what Talbott calls the Great Experiment.

In many respects, this is a strange book. For all its research, Talbott’s work reveals the superficiality of journalism written to a tight schedule rather than scholarship probing an impotant subject in depth. Racing through history and thought, Talbott had little time for considering the fullness and complexity of people and events. He made his assessments clear enough but did not admit the possibility of other points of view or equally thoughtful interpretations. Attempting to cover so many centuries, so many states, and so many individuals and events — often in a single sentence, a paragraph, or a few pages — did little to strengthen his argument or inspire confidence in his judgments.

There are other subjects that needed a good bit less attention: Talbott’s family, his friends, his education, his contacts with the powerful, and his travels. That Talbott can find nothing good to say about the foreign policy of George W. Bush — a subject treated at chapter length — also provides reason to question the balance of his many judgments.

Certain subjects Talbott mistakenly slighted, except as they related to specific events. Beyond mentioning a couple of the leaders in the creation of international law, Talbott gave little attention to the sources and evolution of the law of nations and its potential contribution to the effective, predictable, and just conduct of international governance. Perhaps that subject never formed part of his studies at Yale and Oxford. In light of the fact that the United States and the West have been under attack from violent political Islamism for the past three decades, this reviewer wonders why countering Islamist terror did not take at least subordinate rank along with nuclear proliferation and climate change on Talbott’s list of problems with which the international order must grapple.

Oddly, nowhere in his text does Talbott analytically consider the wisdom of global government. What are its advantages? Who will bear its burdens? What dangers might attend it? Will it indeed keep the peace? If achieved, what kind of “peace” might it impose? Who will select its rulers — and oversee their use of an immense power for good or harm? Will such a government respect human rights as understood in the West? Rather, Talbott seemed to assume that all right thinking people favor world government, in some form and as soon as possible. How many of his interpretations of people, institutions, and events did that assumption drive?


James L. Abrahamson
James L. Abrahamson

Colonel Abrahamson, a graduate of West Point and the holder of a doctorate from Stanford University, served 27 years in the Army. He is a member of the board of directors of American Diplomacy Publishers and a contributing editor of American Diplomacy, and has authored four books on military history.

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