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It is telling that whenever proponents of a political ideology discuss their particular project as the inevitable outcome of the natural process of history, they generally default to the messianic language of the Romantic-era Christian proselytes. Our current preoccupation with a mildly capitalistic democracy as the best and most-natural system of governance is the unquestioned policy of both the official and the chattering establishments, quite despite its recent paramount failures in Egypt, Libya and Afghanistan. Not even in the heat of the current presidential campaign are its premises being evenly remotely questioned.

Yet, any policy that owes its existence to blind faith not very much unlike that of the Clapham Club risks outcomes that are quite unlike those it envisions. Just as the Victorian missionaries, burning as they were to save the savage souls, laid the groundwork for Empire, and the Marxist true believers for Stalin’s GULAG, so might the present-day world-democracy adherents discover themselves laying the groundwork for a quite different world order.

No more than our predecessors, we have little understanding of what form new geopolitics may take, but one thing does seem certain — periods of instability tend to resolve by the best-positioned powers accumulating sufficient might to form empires, some lasting, some short-lived. For all the attributions of imperialism to the United States, so far this country has resisted the offensive urge. Will it be able to continue doing so in the face of new rising hegemons? This only time will tell.