By ROBERT L. POLLOCK
Yale Prof. Charles Hill is often called a “conservative.” But he is one of the foremost students and advocates of what he calls the “liberal” (“in the finest sense of the word”) world order. And he is worried that Americans increasingly don’t understand how special the modern era has been or their own crucial role in developing and securing it.
To some, the Obama’s administration’s desire to “lead from behind” and seek United Nations approval for actions abroad represents an appropriate retreat to a more humble American posture. Mr. Hill, by contrast, sees the possible end of a great era of human rights and democracy promotion the likes of which the planet has never seen.
Our world has “been increasingly tolerant and increasingly trying to eradicate racism and increasingly trying to expand freedom. And it can come to an end,” he says.
What might replace it? “Spheres of influence.” Or to use a more archaic term, “empire.”
Mr. Hill is the all-too-rare professor with an extensive background outside of academia. He made his career in the U.S. foreign service working on China and the Middle East, among other issues. He has advised secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz and served as a policy consultant to U.N. Secretary-General Boutros-Boutros Ghali. His ability to combine real-world experience with appreciation of the intellectual currents animating history—Dickens comes up during our discussion of the anti-slavery movement in 19th-century Britain—has made his courses some of the most popular at Yale.
So what makes our era unique and valuable? And how did we get here? To understand the road we’ve travelled, we have to go back—a long way.
“The way the world through almost all of history has been ordered is through empires. The empire was the normal unit of rule. So it was the Chinese empire, the Mughal empire, the Persian empire, and the Roman empire, the Mayan empire.”
What changed this was the Thirty Years War in Europe in the 17th century. “That was a war between the Holy Roman Empire and states, and states were new. They had come forward in northern Italy in the Renaissance and now they were taking hold in what we think of as a state-sized entity. The Netherlands and Sweden and France were among these. . . . France was both an empire and a state—and the key was when [Cardinal] Richelieu took France to the side of the states, which was shocking because France was Catholic and the empire was Catholic and the states were Protestant.”