Foreign Policy

America's messiness is its energy

In the run-up to the US presidential election, The Weekly News magazine released a statement from Ryan Cooper arguing not only that the United States was "the Holy Roman Empire of the 21st century," but that it was a bad thing. It's not a new or unusual comparison. In the book The Great Strategy of the Habsburg Empire, A. Wess Mitchell argues that the United States could take a geopolitical position analogous to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and learn from its successes and failures. As an analogy, however, he manages to be unfair to both the United States and the Holy Roman Empire. The desire for centralization and control misses exactly what allowed both powers to survive and thrive.

Cooper is more dismissive than Mitchell. He calls the legal institutions of the original empire "complicated and illogical". He claims that the empire was "bypassed by history" and "doomed to failure". Similarly, America's basic governance mechanisms are "malfunctions." He writes: "Countries that do not assert themselves to this extent often do not survive." Cooper believes that like the great collection of political entities that occupied central Europe in the early modern period, the United States is "ripe for the harvest by an opportunist tyrant".

In the case of the empire, that tyrant was Napoleon Bonaparte, commander-in-chief of the first modern national army and author of a code that influenced the current modern German legal system – having swept away "the feudal vigor" of the previous German legal heritage. Naturally. Cooper admits the narrative is a bit broad, but is serious about his point: "Political systems need to be maintained and regularly updated to keep up with developments in history."

Cooper argues that the US electoral system is as unrealistic as he believes the Holy Roman Empire was in his later years. He judges the empire as not a contiguous nation-state and also marks the United States.

Ironically, for a narrative calling for reform, this image of empire is old. It draws on the nationalist Prussian historiography of the 19th century, in which centralized nation-states like Prussia were identified as destined to stand up against these immense and arbitrary assemblies of voters, kingdoms, counties, duchies, margraves and landgraves, imperial free cities, imperial ones Free abbeys and imperial ones to enforce free nunneries, imperial knights and at least one district, Sayn-Wittgenstein-Hachenburg, who descended solely through the female line.

The implication is that there is a timetable for states' development: progress, this vaporware idea. Cooper's article begins by saying that the Holy Roman Empire was an "anachronistic political fossil". States that update (their laws, their armies) at the right time are successful. States that preserve archaic elements – like the U.S. Constitution (one of the oldest still in operation) and the Electoral College – are doomed and have been surpassed by history.

But the story has no goal. There is no historical end point for states where Napoleon's France was more advanced and the empire was less advanced. There are logical arguments that a centralized state or code like that of Napoleon or modern Germany is preferable to a polity with multiple centers of power like the Holy Roman Empire or legal systems based on precedents like the United States or the United Kingdom. That they are newer is not part of it.

I'm not sure why Cooper believes that Federal Cruft should be scrapped in favor of a centralized and efficient system, given who is currently at the helm of the US executive. In an influential redesign of the Holy Roman Empire, Mack Walker argues that its highly decentralized structure protected Germany's smaller political entities. The Reich was an "incubator" for the local communities: "German hometowns".

America's governors, mayors, senators and representatives were focal points of resistance against the unbranded autocracy of US President Donald Trump, such as the "protected areas". With National Guard units under dual control by the state and federal government, it has been difficult for Trump to control them to counter protests. The armed forces hate him and the U.S. Capitol Police are responding to Congress. Trump used the border patrol as riot police this summer because he was forced to do so by the decentralization of the United States.

Regional officials like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo have also provided the necessary leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic – or they have failed like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Different responses from governors had profoundly different effects. Back in April, when the US states were coordinating their hypothetical COVID-19 reopening plans in several overlapping groups, at least one Joker looked at the card on Twitter and said, “Congratulations, everyone. We invented the Holy Roman Empire. "

Cooper praises the deliberately introduced "efficient" governance. He calls the US system flawed because it "is not designed to enable efficient, humane government". But what a system is supposed to do is not necessarily what it is ultimately capable of. The American system, like that of the Holy Roman Empire before it, was largely not designed but grew. The empire had a constitution, but with the exception of texts like the Golden Bull of 1356, it was unwritten: a mixture of local laws, territorial statutes and the old European ius community, a medieval combination of canon law and Roman law. Yes, that's a kludge. Complex systems are full of them.

The Holy Roman Empire lasted a long time, but it wasn't immutable. Its laws and governance evolved throughout its existence. The historical interpretation of the empire has recently seen a renaissance: historians are now pointing out that the maintenance and periodic updating that Cooper desires has indeed been repeated. The Reformation led to the development of a system in which people of different religions could live together. The Thirty Years War led to the Peace of Westphalia.

The empire didn't collapse because it couldn't be updated. it was attacked by a global superpower. But Napoleon's modern national army eventually lost current legal requirements or no. He was defeated by the unregenerate armies of the United Kingdom and Russia, as well as a collection of German states, including some of Napoleon's former subjects or allies. (The kingdom that gave us Prussian historiography that informed Cooper's opinion has not done so well either.)

In Cooper's analogy, Napoleon plays the role of Trump. But that is not entirely true. Napoleon was a foreign head of state and the commander of an invading army. Instead, I propose that the United States could look like the Holy Roman Empire 200 years before Napoleon, just before the Thirty Years War. Like the empire in the early 17th century, we could soon face a constitutional crisis. Like the Empire, many people are sniffing US politics to take advantage of this situation, and these people are weaker and overwhelmed than they think.

On the other hand, it is difficult to find a German Habsburg who can be compared to the malicious vacuum at the head of the US government. Rudolf II may have gone mad, but that's where the comparison ends. Ferdinand II's decisions, such as the Edict of Restitution of 1629, exacerbated the situation – but Ferdinand was also principled and God-fearing, and he did his duty as he understood it.

The Thirty Years' War claimed the deaths of up to a third of the population of Central Europe. However, the Holy Roman Empire not only survived this crisis. it took another 158 years. After the war, the Reich developed legal institutions that helped prevent this from happening again. Benjamin Franklin traveled to Germany in 1766 and met a leading German constitutional scholar because he was interested in the federal structure of the empire as a model for a political unit of several states, a political group of groups. This is how he saw the British Empire and the later American state.

If the United States is like the Holy Roman Empire, we could do worse than looking at some of its characteristics: a sense of common identity faced with diverse diversity, an appreciation of resistance from below, and the participation of common people in the political process . These qualities have helped the United States for over two centuries. You could make it rival the Empire.

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