Will We Be Rome or Will We Be Venice?

WASHINGTON — From the Caribbean to Korea, the gales of crises are gusting, forcing this nation again to choose: Will it be Rome, or Venice, or a bit of both?

Any new republic, wrote Machiavelli, must decide whether to expand her dominion by power, like Rome, or to be like Venice, located "in some strong place" that protects it as it goes about its business, which for Venice was business. During America's first century, broad oceans and placid neighbors enabled it to be Venetian, in a strong place, practicing commerce.


Even then there was an itch to be Roman, too -- but America would seek, in Jefferson's words, "an empire of liberty," but without becoming imperial. We would expand our sway by the sparkling example of our institutions, and by what political scientist Gary Schmitt calls Jefferson's "strategy of peaceful coercion." We would use our commercial power to punish disrespect for natural rights.

War, said Jefferson, was "not the best engine for us to resort to" because we had a better one "in our commerce." Thus would America refute Frederick the Great's dictum that diplomacy without armaments is like music without instruments. Using economic power we would pursue Roman potency with Venetian means.


Britain, warring with France, would not respect the rights of neutral shipping? Jefferson would use an embargo to make it in Britain's "interest . . . to do what is just."

The world has turned over often since then, and still we seek new ways of tutoring the way ward world. Regarding Haiti, the Clinton administration has declared the restoration of President Aristide a "vital" U.S. interest, for no better reason than that Haiti is nearby and badly abused by its government.

This policy, so far, is Jeffersonian: It is couched solely in terms of rights and wrongs, and relies on commercial severities. However, it may become mildly Roman. There may be a military invasion, if being Venetian with commercial sanctions does not suffice.

North Korea is a tougher nut to crack. The Venetian approach assumes that our adversaries aspire to be like us, prospering through commerce. If that were their aspiration, they would already be like us, because they share our bourgeois values. But the utter futility of U.S. diplomacy backed only by commercial threats suggests that the North Korean regime remains unaware of any affinity with us.

There is a vital national interest at stake here. If North Korea demonstrates the impotence of restraints on nuclear proliferation, in 15 years there could be 15 more nations with nuclear weapons backing their hatreds. Such is the progress of military technology over the centuries, from an innovation along a river in Central Asia, to a reactor on the Korean peninsula.

In his new "A History of Modern Warfare," John Keegan says military historians recognize that "the banks of the Oxus are to warfare what Westminster is to parliamentary democracy or the Bastille to revolutions." It was on or near the Oxus River separating Central Asia from Persia and the Middle East that man first learned to turn horses into instruments of war. This development shaped military power and notions of martial ethics and valor -- until a second great development, gunpowder. That began the equalization process: In the age of gunpowder, the nature of military materiel mattered more than the nature of military personnel.

Nuclear weapons have pushed this transformation to the point at which North Korea can be a crisis for the U.S. in its most Roman stance. Roman, that is, in this sense: The U.S. is attempting to change the behavior of a nation halfway around the world, in order to shape the future all over the world. Call the objective Pax Americana. Perhaps not exactly pax. The aim is a world of merely gunpowder wars -- wars without the worst weapons. It is well to remember, as Mr. Keegan does, that since August 9, 1945, nuclear weapons have killed no one:

"The 50,000,000 who have died in war since that date have, for the most part, been killed by cheap, mass-produced weapons and small-caliber ammunition, costing little more than the transistor radios and dry-cell batteries that have flooded the world in the same period."


The calculations confronting the Clinton administration are excruciating precisely because North Korea, which says economic sanctions are acts of war, not alternatives to it, has so much gunpowder and so little inclination to act like us in response to us.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.