The Peril of Absolute Power

Over a century ago, the British historian Lord Acton warned that absolute power corrupts absolutely. While he acknowledged that humanity may be capable of much good, Acton worried that possessing too much power would tempt us to do wrong. And it has.

As far back as the 16th century political thinkers argued that only a balance of power among states, the international equivalent of checks and balances, would preserve peace. Unchecked power would destabilize the world. They might have had the current United States in mind. Since September 11, 2001, the United States has abused its position as the world’s sole superpower.

One result has been the reinvigoration of balance of power theory among those who now seek to protect themselves from American ambition. But the revival of balance of power theory — admittedly in response to American actions — undermines another American tradition that American leaders and diplomats once celebrated: the idea of an international order premised on law.

Law protects the weak who lack the brute power to impose their will on others. Following the American Revolution, and for most of America’s history, the United States was a weak nation. It lacked the military strength to challenge major European powers. Instead, the United States urged the world’s strongest states to abide by shared principles.

Thomas Jefferson, for example, believed peace was possible only when all states treated each other as equals. He argued that the Declaration of Independence’s principles of equality and liberty should determine not just how individuals interact at home but how states interact with each other. He urged free trade rather than entangling alliances and condemned European powers when they violated Americans’ rights abroad.

As Jefferson put it in his Second Inaugural Address in 1805, “We are firmly convinced, and we act on that conviction, that with nations, as with individuals, our interests soundly calculated, will ever be found inseparable from our moral duties.”

Over a century later, at a time when the United States was emerging as a world power, Woodrow Wilson reasserted these Jeffersonian principles. As he contemplated American entrance into World War I, he told Congress in 1917: “Our object now, as then, is to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power and to set up amongst the really free and self-governed peoples of the world such a concert of purpose and of action as will henceforth ensure the observance of those principles.”

As the war ended, Wilson called for a reformation of the world order in his famous Fourteen Points address. Not only did he urge a world governed by law, but he also supported the formation of “a general association of nations,” what would become the League of Nations, to adjudicate international conflicts according to higher principles.

Americans have often resorted to violence in their foreign policy — from displacing Native Americans and Mexicans in the West to toppling unfriendly regimes during the Cold War — but only recently have we abandoned a broader commitment to a world governed by law instead of force.

Recent events have revealed the limits of American power. The United States’ military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan have broadcast to the world that we are not as strong as we think we are. Recognizing our limits may be a good thing if it makes Americans look back to the ideas they embraced when they were weaker players on the world stage.

While absolute power corrupts, awareness of one’s limits can make a people wise. A chastened America now has the opportunity to revive the best in our tradition and recommit ourselves to those principles and ideals that once made us a beacon to freedom-loving people.

Johann N. Neem is an assistant professor of history at Western Washington University in Bellingham and a writer for the History News Service.