Harold James:   The Roman Predicament:   How the Rules of Internatioanal order Create the Politics of Empire.   Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 2006, Pp.166



Reviewed for The International History Review.



“This is not a book about globalization …nor is it a book about empire and whether the United States is or should be considered as an empire   This book tries to place recent debates [on these themes] in a deeper historical and economic perspective…” (p.5) writes Harold James, of Princeton University, an economic historian of Europe.   He sees the United States “trapped in the predicaments of being a superpower, in other words, the Roman predicament” (p.4)   The book’s title, and its eye-catching jacket, that shows George W. Bush in Roman imperial garb, do in fact convey a strong temptation to use the Roman Empire as a model for the dilemmas of our times.  Chapter One “The Model of Decline and Fall” makes extensive use of the writings of Edward Gibbon, and Adam Smith both of whom (Gibbon obviously more so than Smith) drew on the Roman experience, both appearing in 1776, at a critical juncture for the “first” British empire (and what students of long cycles of global politics call the Britain I cycle).


But the book’s substance is a debate between two ways of perceiving the world.   One of these is “globalization  seen here as essentially  a ‘process of economic convergence’ that is much older than is suggested by the history of the term (that dates  only to the 1970s), and is basically characterized by a system of fair rules for building a peaceful and prosperous world:  “any vision of the world as an interconnected whole…requires a system of rules” (p.28).   In the author’s account, the alternative way is conveniently labeled as “imperialism”, generally used in a critical manner intended to convey a world view in which connectivity is unfair because it produces inequalities leading to exploitation.   Imperialism connotes the use of force, and creates grave problems of legitimacy.   In particular, “the existence of national states that redistribute income and wealth … is incompatible with universal rules of fairness (p.37).   In consequence, globalization – that requires a system of rules – experiences “a constant tendency to a self-subversion” (p.38).   A rule-based world order, as the book’s subtitle claims, eventually subverts and destroys itself because unfair rules cannot (in the long run) be maintained.


A review of some dimensions of that debate suggests the instability of the contemporary system.   In international political economy, tensions between rules and power are rife in trade, corporate governance, and in monetary issues.   The overall economic position of the United States is in doubt in the long-term because of the deficits that lead to volatility.   Episodes of globalization tend to end in wars, and wars are costly and disruptive.   Empires are liable to overstretch, and particularly fragile at their frontiers that are now less clear.   The common view, that “processes create order” (p.145) is found wanting.   An alternative global model of non-imperial political and economic experiment is “Europe” because “the European project is based on a fundamentally superior set of values” (p.118) that has deep historical roots in the Holy Roman Empire.   The European Union “represents … the alternative to cycles of empire-building, overstretch, reactions against imperialism, and the long story of imperial decline and disintegration” (p.140).   The true alternative to more globalization, and a way out of the predicament, is “talking explicitly about values” in a “dialogue within a shared natural law framework” (pp.148, 149).


This is a thoughtful exploration of problems of world order, well-grounded if, for a social scientist, less than systematic.   The Roman analogy, nowadays frequently invoked, as it was one hundred years ago, for “Pax Britannica”, and two centuries ago as well, is not really compelling, especially so in its Gibbonesqe version that James invokes.   Rome’s predicament lay not just in unfair rules but in the basic fact of empire – an inherently unstable construction – and it is also well to bear in mind that superpower status is not to be equated with imperial rank.   More interesting is the tension between empire and globalization that the author elaborates upon, even if it needs to be seen both in a narrower, and a broader, context.   Globalization is, first and foremost, a phenomenon of the modern world, hardly discernible in Rome’s regional tribulations.   More broadly however, global system-building that is a characteristic of modernity is a contest between globalization (innovative, and rule-adjusting, evolutionary) , and imperial (and retarding) tendencies.   But as globalization in fact comprises a whole array of evolutionary processes – hence of universal forces of nature – forms of natural law – then they cannot be dismissed as merely mechanistic drives bereft of values.   That is, the values that the author seeks outside globalization might in fact be generated by those very same processes.   That makes self-subversion a less likely prospect for the future of world order.


                                                                                                George Modelski