One of American's foremost strategists says the era of liberal democracy is in jeopardy, and the historical norm of dominance by great powers will return if the U.S. fails to lead.
Yale Prof. Charles Hill is often called a "conservative." But he is one of the foremost students and advocates of what he calls the "liberal" ("in the finest sense of the word") world order. And he is worried that Americans increasingly don't understand how special the modern era has been or their own crucial role in developing and securing it.
To some, the Obama's administration's desire to "lead from behind" and seek United Nations approval for actions abroad represents an appropriate retreat to a more humble American posture. Mr. Hill, by contrast, sees the possible end of a great era of human rights and democracy promotion the likes of which the planet has never seen.
Our world has "been increasingly tolerant and increasingly trying to eradicate racism and increasingly trying to expand freedom. And it can come to an end," he says.
What might replace it? "Spheres of influence." Or to use a more archaic term, "empire."
Mr. Hill is the all-too-rare professor with an extensive background outside of academia. He made his career in the U.S. foreign service working on China and the Middle East, among other issues. He has advised secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz and served as a policy consultant to U.N. Secretary-General Boutros-Boutros Ghali. His ability to combine real-world experience with appreciation of the intellectual currents animating history—Dickens comes up during our discussion of the anti-slavery movement in 19th-century Britain—has made his courses some of the most popular at Yale.
So what makes our era unique and valuable? And how did we get here? To understand the road we've travelled, we have to go back—a long way.
"The way the world through almost all of history has been ordered is through empires. The empire was the normal unit of rule. So it was the Chinese empire, the Mughal empire, the Persian empire, and the Roman empire, the Mayan empire."
What changed this was the Thirty Years War in Europe in the 17th century. "That was a war between the Holy Roman Empire and states, and states were new. They had come forward in northern Italy in the Renaissance and now they were taking hold in what we think of as a state-sized entity. The Netherlands and Sweden and France were among these. . . . France was both an empire and a state—and the key was when [Cardinal] Richelieu took France to the side of the states, which was shocking because France was Catholic and the empire was Catholic and the states were Protestant."
Our modern concept that war should be governed by law dates from the era. "It was so awful that it produced Grotius," the Dutch philosopher of international law.
It also produced the Treaty of Westphalia. "What they did in creating something to prevent another Thirty Years War, they put in place what would develop into the international state system. . . . This is a work of genius, probably inadvertent in some sense," Mr. Hill says. "To be a good member of the international club you had to follow minimal procedures. . . . You could be Catholic or Protestant, but you had to be a state. So the state then replaces the empire as the fundamental unit of world affairs."
The next major event is the Congress of Vienna in 1814, when the powers that defeated Napoleon Bonaparte put their own stamp on the system. Meanwhile, the procedural norms for membership in the international club—such as hosting and protecting ambassadors—are being supplemented by more substantive and moral-sounding requirements.
"The Ottomans are an empire and there's kind of a back and forth across the 19th century—it's kind of a precursor to the Turkish thing of the 20th century—of European statesmen saying, well, yeah, you can come in to it but you have polygamy, you have slavery, so you can't be all the way in," the 76-year-old Mr. Hill says.
"My view is that every major modern war has been waged against this international system. That is, the empire strikes back. World War I is a war of empires which comes to its culmination point when a state gets into it. That's the United States." And then we get something very interesting added: "That's Woodrow Wilson and [the promotion of] democracy."
"World War II, and I think this is uncomprehended although it's perfectly clear, . . . World War II is a war of empires against the state system. It's Hitler's Third Reich. It's Imperial Japan." The Axis goal "is to establish an empire. The Nazi empire would be Europe going eastward into the Slavic lands. The Japanese empire in the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, as they called it."
Is the story uncomplicated? Of course not. One of the most important developments was the rise of the British navy—the "empire" on which "the sun never set"—in the mid-19th century. But that so-called empire arguably was the global rules-based system, committed to abolishing slavery and to free trade and free movement on the seas.
So too for the United States, as it assumed responsibility for protecting the air and sea lanes while the British pulled back after World War II. "The grand strategy of the U.S. since Harry Truman," says Mr. Hill, has been the establishment of a rules-based system built on institutions like the U.N. and NATO. It's a system designed to protect the rights of states to Wilsonian "self determination," not to subject them to the will of the strongest.