Almost all ages have had their hegemons. It appears that humanity could not do without one. Since international law is a myth, a big bully is needed to run things at the global level. The habit of the hegemon is called empire from which we have the much dishonoured word ‘imperialism’ in English and ‘samraj’ in Urdu.
Can we do without a global bully? Economists are pragmatic people and would rather have a hegemon guarding the trade routes. My favourite author is Deepak Lal, who, in his tract In Defence of Empires (The AEI Press 2004), says: “Empires, through their pax, provide the most basic of public of goods — order — maintaining order in social life. There are three basic values of all social life which any international order should seek to protect: first, that life is secured against violence leading to death or bodily harm; second, that promises once made are kept; and third, that the possession of things will remain stable to some degree and will not be subject to challenges that are constant and without limit”.
America today is the hegemon but it was its president, Woodrow Wilson, who led the widespread American assault against empires. The thing about hegemons is that they are hated by those who live under their tutelage. But those who hate them are inferior in civilisation and, if they succeed in pulling down the empire, end up giving us a worse world to live in.
The Roman Empire flourished for 2,000 years and regulated the world. It was remarkably tolerant of the people it ruled. It was destroyed by the savage tribes of Germany and by Christianity. The caesar in Byzantium who turned Christian made it a religious state, a clear sign of decline and fall. The people who suffered were Christians — Monophysites, Nestorians, etc— and the empire was scattered.
The Ottomans had their empire for nearly 600 years. Lesser Slav people like the Serbs hated them. In 1999, the Serbs were punished by hegemon America for the genocide of Muslims. Old empires lasted long because humanity evolved slowly, but when it came to the British Empire, it lasted only 200 years. America shared a bipolar world with the Soviet Union for 70 years. It is falling apart in the year 2011, the hegemon with the shortest span of life.
Empires give intellectual lead and bestow civilisation. The Romans bequeathed political concepts that work for us even today. The American empire will take a long time fading because of its leadership in technology and knowledge. Those who hate it include even some European states, a natural hatred of coercion. The Visigoth equivalent, however, is the Islamic world where education is the lowest in the world; and blind rage ends up making Muslims kill fellow-Muslims.
Amy Chua in her book Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance and Why They Fall (Anchor Books, 2007) says: “Tolerance was indispensable to the achievement of hegemony. Just as strikingly, the decline of empire has repeatedly coincided with intolerance, xenophobia, and calls for racial, religious, or ethnic purity. But here’s the catch: it was also tolerance that sowed the seeds of decline”.
Hegemon dies of tolerance but leaves behind its imprint. The British Empire has forever differentiated the Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians from Muslims in the rest of the Islamic world. In Egypt, when you ask a pro-democracy ‘revolutionary’ if he will allow three fundamental elements in his democracy: 1) separation of religion from state, 2) equal rights of women and 3) protection of the minorities, he unhesitatingly says no. In Pakistan, at least a British-influenced Jinnah favoured all three conditions.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 7th, 2011.