[QA’s Q&A] #2: Empires and the Claim to Universalism

I am taking this class on globalization, reading “Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers, and Warriors Shaped Globalization” by Nayan Chanda. Here’s a question raised in an assignment:

In Chapter 6, Chanda shows how governments, nations, empires often make “claims to universalism”.  What does he mean?  Give specific examples of such “claims to universalism” that you know and critique them.

What are your take on the issue?
– Anh Thái


Lately, I’ve already been undertaking an obscene amount of reading (the intellectually provoking kinds, the likes of  “Organski’s Power Transition theory”, or “Gnial’s PvT Fast Stalker into Void Rays. ) And yet I did pick up and read the book, risking a severe case of acute word choking. So if I am to be found a dead corpse in my room, mouth foaming with knowledge and insights – dear lovers and friends, you guys know who to wage your revenge on. (Don’t worry, anh Thai, there aren’t that many.)

Anyhow, without further ado, here comes the second installment of the QA’s Q&A series.


Dear anh Thai,

There is the truth, and then there is politics. Let’s start with the easy thing first (i.e. politics)

Is it even surprising that empires have a penchant for universalist claims? In their rising stage, global empires need something to justify their expansionist policies – something ideal, something noble – something that rises beyond the morally unappealing pragmatism of booty and power. They need such something to unite and persuade their warriors and citizens as much as the conquered. For Plato, it is the idea that non-Greek barbaros (those who can’t speak Greek and only say what sounds like “bar bar”) are, well, barbarians and less than human. For Alexander the Great, it is his self-belief to be mankind’s arbitrator and reconciler sent by God. For Genghis Khan, it is simply the “God-given right” to conquer (Chanda 178, 185).

And for the U.S., I don’t know, perhaps it is the idea that “we are the greatest, best country that God has ever, ever, given man on the face of this Earth.”

Once an empire has secured its hegemonic status, it is no less politically motivated to employ universalist claims as a means to perpetuate the status quo. What is a better tool than a claim that simply demands, with little justification, universal submission to the values and order established by the empire itself? One can only expect secondary powers, or developing states, to appeal to the exactly opposite kind of rhetoric, one that emphasizes sovereignty and autonomy in the so-called “internal affairs.” This has been, unsurprisingly, the pattern in the human rights discourse between the U.S. and China, (or U.S. and Vietnam for that matter.)

So power politics is largely capable of explaining the empire’s and its resistors’ behaviors. But politics cannot answer the philosophical question: whether those universalist claims are true? Just because nations are politically motivated, doesn’t mean that their claims are necessarily false (just as your ex is emotionally motivated to say you’re a jerk, doesn’t mean that, well, she is not right.)

Luckily, some universalist claims are rather easily testable. Take, for example, the U.S. claim that it has a moral obligation to spread democracy, because democracies are more peaceful. All we need to do is to collect a bunch of data, and run a regression between being a democracy and the likelihood of going to war. The Correlates of War project, pioneered by Small and Singer, does precisely just that. The study concludes: democracies fight just as many, and just as bloody war. But, (an emphatic but) democracies do engage in less wars with one another. And yet again, maybe democracies fight less because they don’t share border for most of history, not because they are democracies (Small and Singer 67). Of course, we can then control for “contiguity” (or any other problematic variables) in your regression – that’s what scholars need to continue working on. The key point remains: whereas research has continued, and disagreement has yet to disappeared, on principle, the claim of “democratic peace” can be tested.

But what about claims such as that of universal human rights? Is it possible for countries to have its own version of “human rights” that suit their cultural and historical legacy? Or is human rights, as its name suggests, something every human is entitled to without difference? If so, who gets to decided which rights are universal?

These are philosophical questions that I’m not going to pretend that I can answer. I did broach the topic, arguing for the need for (not the existence of) universal values in a polemic entry against relativism. (See the exchange between me and anh neosvn towards the end of the comment section.) But that’s more like a call to arms – an urge to investigate, rather than a victorious declaration – a resolve of disputes. To answer these fundamental questions, we must enter into the debate of ontology (what are the nature of things?) and epistemology (how do we know what we know?) – in which philosophers have set up various camps throughout history. We have, to name a few, positivism (there is objective truth; and only what can be tested is true), constructivism (there is no objective truth; everything is socially constructed), and pragmatism (objective truth does not matter; theories are true if they help us accomplish practically) (Chernoff Ch. 3-4).

On the issue, I am not unlike a boy after his first day at school – fascinated, but utterly unlettered. So I will wisely stop now before I abuse my limited knowledge of the matter, like the boy babbling about how much he learns (or worse, knows) today. I have grown up way too much for that to be still considered cute.

Darn it.



Chanda, Nyan. Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers, and Warriors Shaped Globalization. Yale University Press. 2007.

Chernoff, Fred. Theory and Metatheory in International Relations: Concepts and Contending Accounts. Palgrave Macmillan. 2007.

Small and Singer. “The War-Proneness of Democratic Regimes, 1816-1965”. The Jerusalem Journal of International Relations. Vol. 1, No. 4, Summer 1976.


Got a question? Ask away at anh.le91 @ gmail.com

  1. To said:

    Smart move deferring the human rights question at the end. But let’s set aside philosophy and biased political reality, and without having to justify your opinions, nor proving the truthfulness of your conclusion, would you personally believe in the notion of universal human rights? It’s a yes/no question basically but I’ll give you 50 words to elaborate if you feel necessary 😛

    • anhqle said:

      Yes, I do personally believe in basic human rights such as the right to life, and the right against extreme sufferings (e.g. torture, cruel punishments.)

      On other rights that may sometimes disrupt the functionality of society, such as freedom of speech, or political opposition, I’m a bit more ambivalent. 😀

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