Alfred W. McCoy on the Difference Between Empires and World Orders

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Video via

Empires are based on power, world orders on principles. This video discusses the Iberian, British and American world orders.


"Andrew Bacevich and Alfred W. McCoy discuss McCoy's latest book, To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change.

In a sweep through seven centuries from 1350 to 2050, the work explains how catastrophes-- pandemics, wars, and climate crisis--have shaped the destiny of empires and world orders. By rendering often-opaque environmental science in lucid prose, the book explains how climate change and changing world orders will shape the life opportunities for younger generations, born at the start of this century, during the coming decades that will serve as the signposts of their lives—2030, 2050, 2070, and beyond."


From the book:

1. Alfred McCoy on the nature of world orders:

"Despite their aura of awe-inspiring power, empires tend to be ephemeral creations of an individual conqueror like Alexander the Great or Napoleon Bonaparte that fade quickly after their death or defeat. By contrast, world orders are much more deeply rooted, resilient global systems created by a convergence of economic, ideological, and geopolitical forces... Lacking the sovereignty of nations and the raw power of empires, world orders are essentially broad agreements about relations among nation-states and their peoples, lending them an amorphous, even elusive quality. At a deeper level, however, world orders entwine themselves in the cultures, commerce, and values of countless societies...They are woven into the fabric of an entire civilization, with a consequent capacity to far outlive the empires that formed them... World orders have much less visible power than empires, but they are more pervasive and persistent. To uproot such a deeply embedded global system takes an extraordinary event, even a catastrophe..."

(Alfred McCoy, To Govern the Globe, p. 9)

2. Alfred McCoy on the state of the current world order and what he sees coming next:

"Clearly, the current international system, with 193 sovereign states meeting as equals at the UN, represents enormous progress beyond the imperial age, when a dozen empires ruled a third of humanity. Yet, in its pursuit of global power, Washington soon began to defy the international conventions that defined its own world order - contravening national sovereignty through covert CIA interventions and brutal wars around the globe, while violating human rights through the propagation of torture. Although the US embrace of human rights at first lent legitimacy to its international system, a succession of sanguinary conflicts and torture scandals in South Vietnam, Central America, and Iraq, among other places, would slowly corrode its international leadership...

Now, as US global power starts to fade, an emerging Chinese world system is challenging that universal standard by subordinating human rights to a competing principle of unchecked national sovereignty...

Beneath such broad organizing principles of sovereignty and human rights, the economy of each world order has been driven by a distinctive form of energy: first, massed human muscle power; then mastery of the winds; and, most recently, fossil fuels in the form of coal, oil and natural gas. Empires are inherently predatory, plundering the planet for the raw resources needed to sustain their power, while leaving behind a trail of human suffering and environmental devastation...

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, as the globe began to suffocate from coal and oil emissions, rival hegemons in Beijing and Washington found themselves in a quandry....

With both the ascendant and the established hegemon mired in their carbon-fueled past, the future of the planet and its world orders was very much an open question.

In brief, each successive world order has been organized around not two but three defining attributes - the principle of sovereignty that delineated each state's territorial boundaries, the concept of human rights that governed all peoples within those boundaries, and a distinctive form of energy that drove the economy sustaining it all. And note that these factors do not simply lie alongside each other like drowsy sunbathers on a summer beach; rather, they interact dynamically, like acrobats linking arms, pyramiding upward and pulling apart.

...Each one of these world orders has also exhibited a distinctive duality: an underlying tension between power and principle, between the ruthless, realpolitik that empires have exercised and the lofty principles of human rights they have espoused...

Lacking the boundaries of a nation-state or the powerful, visible presence of an empire, world orders might seem intangible or even imagined. But they do in fact intrude, often quite profoundly into the way most of humanity live their lives. And they usually prove much more resilient than the great empires that gave them birth."

(To Govern the Globe, pp. 12-15)