The Outline of History

by Dave Schuler on April 26, 2014

If the history that you learned in grammar school and high school was anything like the history that I was taught (but failed to learn for reasons I’ll explain some other time), it was a history in which Rome was the heir of Athens, England was the heir of Rome, the United States was the heir of England, and every event since about 1920 took place as a response to an American action or because America failed to act. I might have thought that after all these years no American believed that any more but in reading Lawrence Summers’s op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor, I realized that the view is alive, well, and influential.

In that op-ed Dr. Summers sketches history from 1914 to the present, attributing World War I, World War II, the Viet Nam War, and the collapse of the Soviet Union primarily to American calculations or miscalculations. He culminates this highly America-centric view of history with what is, essentially, a pitch for world government:

I would suggest last that history teaches that no individual nation can be a guarantor of the stability of the system. It is only through the cooperation of nations, through the establishment of institutions, through the legitimacy that comes from convocation and dialogue, that firm and clear lines can be drawn and that others can be enticed in.

I can only surmise that Dr. Summers is now campaigning for the post of Minister of Finance of this hypothetical world government. If you don’t believe that’s what he’s getting at, allow me a question. Why does the world need a “guarantor of the stability of the system”. Stable systems don’t require guarantors. Only inherently unstable systems do.

Not only would I suggest a different interpretation of history, I’d suggest a different interpretation of the forces that underpin history, the forces that give history its impetus:

  • States have interests and act to further those interests.
  • The interests of states are often determined by the personal interests of their most powerful people.
  • Consequently, the interests of states will inevitably be understood very imperfectly and may not further states’ actual interests at all.
  • Also as a consequence of this, the people of most states don’t have a great deal of interest in the welfare of the people of any country other than their own (and only the welfare of their own people to the extent that it furthers their own welfare).

I would also add that government is only possible under one of two conditions:

  1. Shared values
  2. Overwhelming, crushing force

The world is barely ready for city government let alone world government.

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