Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Noblesse Oblige?

The Romans didn't start off seeking an empire. They fought three vicious wars with Carthage merely to continue their own interests in peace, or so they saw it. They nearly lost it all. When they finally won they swore "never again" and razed Carthage to the ground, sewing its fields with salt so that no one could ever live there again. When all was said and done, Rome found itself in possession of a set of territories which had formerly been Carthaginian and were now under the rule of the Legions. What should they do with them?

They made them into what they called "provinces" and allowed favorite senators to earn extra cash on the side by serving as governors for a few years. The governors could earn a pretty penny because all the provinces were corrupt; corruption wasn't considered corrupt in those days (and still isn't in France for that matter). The provinces were war spoils and the position of the inhabitants of the provinces vis a vis the Roman government was problematic. Largely they were left to work out their own affairs as long as they paid their taxes and obeyed Roman law when it applied. This was part of the genius of the Roman system: a sort of live-and-let-live attitude which made it face-savingly possible for the inhabitants of the provinces to live their lives under distant Roman rule.

Still, there were problems with this system. Notably it was government without representation, which only enjoys a certain limited amount of legitimacy, even in ancient times. The problem lay, as a matter of fact, closer to home with the Italian allies, the groups of cities and peoples on the Italian peninsula itself who had come under Roman rule during the course of the Punic Wars with Carthage. Like the provincials, the allies lacked representation within the Roman government. The Legions were strong and military revolt was out of the question. The allies, and the provicials for that matter, were relatively well-treated and felt no overwhelming need to revolt in any case. Nonetheless, there is something that chafes at military control without representation. Eventually the Romans solved the problem: they granted Roman citizenship to the Italians, then to some of the nearby provincials, and eventually to everyone in the Empire.

After World War II, the United States found itself in military control of much of Europe and Asia. Some of that control has been relinquished, but to this day we have major military bases in Germany and Japan. Germany remains an occupied country. As Britain allows its naval fleet to drop to the lowest level in centuries and the continental Europeans allow their armed forces to deteriorate to skeleton crews, it's clear that these countries no longer see the need for having a military of their own. This is for two reasons: they believe themselves protected by the United States armed forces, and they do not fear the United States militarily. If they did, they would make at least some effort toward protecting themselves.

Europe is now effectively under the military control of the United States. The military fate of the Europeans rests largely upon the decisions made by the American government, not the decisions the Europeans make. If, with George Washington, you agree that what government is ultimately about is force, then it follows that the government, at least in some sense, of Europe is in the control of the United States. Yet the Europeans have no vote in the United States. Their fate lies inextricably tied up with the whims of the American president, but they do not get a chance to select him or influence the selection. We have inadvertently created, in reverse, the very situation we rebelled against in the first place: government without representation.

Is it time to grant American citizenship to the Europeans? The time will come. Maybe.

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