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From Venice, a Lesson on Empire

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By David Ignatius
Wednesday, September 20, 2006

What do the struggles of 15th-century Venice have to do with America's troubles in Iraq? A lot, in the view of a group of old-guard Washington conservatives who sponsored a conference last week to discuss the lessons for today of La Serenissima , as the "serene republic" of Venice was known.

The sponsors of the conference, about whom more later, began with a question: How did the Venetians maintain their far-flung Mediterranean empire and also prosper as a free republic for over five centuries? Was their model of empire -- heavy on mercantile trading relationships, lighter on military intervention -- an example for the United States in the era of globalization? Did Venice practice a version of "Empire Lite" that America might emulate?

The conference organizers had gathered a retinue of professional historians, so the answers were far more hedged than the questions. The scholars described a Venetian republic that was far from democratic, vesting political power in a small circle of aristocratic families. The imperial ambitions of the city-state were founded on a carefully cultivated myth of Venice's divine right to power, backed by the strongest fleet in the Mediterranean.

But compared with America's current imperial troubles, Venice was serenity itself. One secret was that its empire sought trade, not territory. "The Venetians tried to keep local people and institutions in power. It was very much a hands-off model," explained Edward Muir, a professor at Northwestern University who spoke at the conference.

The Venetians' imperial difficulties came on dry land -- "Terrafirma," as the island state called the territories it administered in northeast Italy. But even there, says Muir, the Venetians sought to extend their power through a system of laws and patronage, rather than military occupation. "The Venetian empire was a judicial network, more than an economic or political one," he argued.

John Martin, a history professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, suggested a comparison between Rome and Venice. If the Roman Empire was about hard military power, imposed by the Roman legions, Venice was "soft power," to use the term popularized by Harvard professor Joseph Nye. It survived so long because it recognized limits to its ability to impose its will abroad.

The canny mercantilism of Venice's ruling families was another advantage for La Serenissima. The merchant families protected their republican form of government at home, even as their trading empire expanded. In contrast to imperial Rome, whose senate became a shell, Venice maintained its system of a non-hereditary ruler, known as the "doge"; its Great Council, where every adult male aristocrat was represented; and its secretive Council of Ten, which supervised a vast intelligence network. A far-flung empire required a strong executive, but Venetians resisted the temptation to turn their doge into an emperor or king, noted Martin.

Now, who might be inquiring into the contemporary lessons of an empire that died more than 200 years ago? The answer is as intriguing as the conference itself. The sponsor was a little-known group called the Committee for the Republic, which was formed back in 2003 by a group of establishment Washingtonians -- paleoconservatives, one might call them -- who were concerned about neoconservative enthusiasm for foreign interventions. The group briefly got into trouble in 2005 after it sponsored a discussion of the Palestinian issue that riled pro-Israel groups in Washington.

A leading member is C. Boyden Gray, former White House counsel in the Bush 41 administration and a longtime amateur historian of Venice. Gray, now the U.S. representative to the European Union in Brussels, wasn't able to attend the gathering. Presiding in his place was William Nitze, the son of former arms negotiator Paul Nitze.

Gray explained his interest in the Venetian model in an e-mail to other members of the group: "Whenever Venice won a naval battle, it asked not for territory, taxes or tribute but free-trade zones," he noted. "As part of its commercial empire, Venice had to rely on extensive intelligence in order to avoid foreign troop basing. As a result, its intelligence service was unmatched and its diplomacy unrivaled."

The quirky Venice conference is important less for any precise parallels it may offer for contemporary America than as an example of the debate that's growing among both liberals and conservatives in the wake of the Iraq war about the limits of American power. It raises the big strategic questions that too often get overlooked in Washington's endless round of seminars: How does a nation maintain a far-flung network of commercial interests without subverting its values at home? How does a nation have the benefits of imperial reach without the ruinous costs of empire? It's a debate that will widen as America moves toward its post-Iraq introspection.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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