January 06, 2007

The Future Past of Republicanism in the World


Here is the opening chapter of a book focusing on the ways that democracies and republics deal with problems of foreign policy. The author Daniel Deudney attempts to argue that all our strands of foreign policy- whether Liberal internationalism (a varient of which armed with weapons might be termed neo-conservatism) or realist pragmatism- date back to particular arguments and concepts used by a series of thinkers he identifies as republicans. Such thinkers he argues came largely from Republican societies and dealt with the question of how Republican societies endured and prospered within the world- the concerns they discussed were military, material and institutional. Republics in this theory are defined as governments which are not absolute, which are sensitive to the problems of power and which beleive in some sort in a constitution and have an element of election. Obviously as a definition that doesn't work in all circumstances- Plato's Republic was not in this sense a republic and it does not meet many other definitions of a republic- Ciceronian, Harringtonian or other.

To take some examples, Deudney argues that Hobbes, a theorist interested in the preservation of law, was fascinated by the spectacle of military collapse- the state of nature lay at the heart of Hobbes's fear. Adam Smith working with economic tools argued that through free trade and the expansion of sympathy peace was more likely than war. Alexander Hamilton showed how Republics had to survive be large and confederate- the first would preserve them from fear, the second would mean they retained their quality as Republics.

There is much to commend in Deudney's work- its worth remembering firstly how precarious democracy and republicanism are. Ancient Athenian democracy lasted generations, the Roman Republic was consumed by its own success and historically Republics have existed within city states. Early Modern theorists were preoccupied with this weakness of Republicanism- Machiavelli's Discorsi was preoccupied with the question of what made Rome rise and what made her fall. Thucydides (and his later transalator Hobbes) were interested in the fall of Athens. Neither Venice nor the Dutch Republic with their histories of on the one hand stasis and the other hand domestic instability performed the role of a model for Republican theorists of the state. Looking say out from eighteenth century America, Republics looked as if to survive they had to be small and it looked difficult to maintain their durability. Consequently Deudney is right to argue that Republican theorists were interested in what made states survive- in the person of Machiavelli and the conception of virtu they developed insights beyond those developed by most others.

Let's be careful though because Republicanism as Deudney defines it is a very wide category. Hobbes afterall reccomended a despotism whose theoretical power was unlimited. The Oakeshottian interpretation of Hobbes as an endorser of limited government might be right- but even then there is a strong division between him and contemporaries like Edward Coke who saw law as a limit on the power of the executive. There is also another qualification- that all of this activity took place in the Christian west under the eye of God. Its no accident that its the 17th Century which sees through the work of Grotius the first development of international law- the concept which dominated the middle Ages was that of the Republic of Christianity and the issue between the imperial and papal theorists, between say Marsilius, Dante and the Pope was the question of who headed that Commonwealth. The Reformation as much as the Republic struck through the whole idea of a Commonwealth of Christianity. Machiavelli was unusual as a fifteenth century theorist in putting his weight behind secular not religious ideas. Republicanism was not the whole of European thinking.

The way that that is reflected in our modern ideas is fascinating. The discourse of natural rights goes back to ideas of natural law expressed by the theologians of the twelfth century. The very idea of law as argued by Coke, a form which grew in conjunction with its people, was a development of Natural Law theory and owes its origins in England to men like Sir John Fortescue. Republicanism does have Roman origins but it also has medieval origins and so does much of our thought.

There is little reference either to the different strands within Republican philosophy- no mention of Grotius is positively criminal in this kind of discussion. No mention of John Selden, Grotius's great opponent is also criminal. Montesquieu gets mentioned as does Rousseau and both were interested in Republics- but very different kinds of Republic. That's not to mention the change through time that we can see- if John Pocock's suggestion that a North American farmer was thinking of Machiavelli as he rose in revolt challenged many historians- then the assertion that Thucydides, Machiavelli, Jefferson and Kant all shared the same ideas would stun historians. We should be careful about reading too carefully vertically down time, as opposed to historically. Locke and Filmer have more in common ultimately than either with Paul Wolfowitz.

These flaws are really both flaws of ahistoricity. I can't speak about the alternative that Deudney wishes to propose but it is definitely a chapter worth reading- if only to recall that there is an aspect of political philosophy addressing this subject- security. And that the current proliferation of democracies is a very recent phenomena- democracy was once assumed to be the most unstable and weak of states. Thinking about how that changed is definitely a worthy enterprise and asking those earlier theorists some questions will help us understand the future as well as the past of democracy.

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