Will We Imitate the Romans, or the French and the British?

The United States is mired in another self-induced quagmire in Iraq. Allies are appalled by the contrast between the obvious problems and the continued trumpets of success from the White House. The resources of our country and our society are applied to the problems of enriching some of the least deserving among the most privileged, and of reducing the power of government to interfere with the depredations visited by the rich upon the poor.

Hence federal action in the Schiavo case, and Congressional hearings on steroids in baseball.

A new American century, indeed. This project has hastened the inevitable end of the American empire, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned before, and more besides.

The Decline of the American Empire

One of Gibbon’s best-known contributions is a small set of pithy aphorisms derived from his knowledge of a millennium and a half of Roman history. For instance, his view of view of history: “…little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.” Typical Gibbon: all-encompassing, sympathetic and critical, sharp observation and compassionate judgement working in tandem. And the perfect ordering of items im the list, from most to least despicable. Once I noticed the care he took to order his lists, I began to watch for counter-examples—unordered lists—but I failed to find one.

A second typical statement is his one-sentence summary of his monumental work, “I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion.” As you might guess, he wasn’t high on either of them. He had great sympathy for the struggles and the feelings of people in all walks of life. His contempt was aimed at the dishonest ways people scrambled for power, money, and position, whether the venue was society, government, or the church. Despite his patrician cadence, I quickly grew to trust him as a guide.

So I look for enlightenment to his classic observation that, in evaluating the Roman empire, the question is not Why did it fall, but Why did it last so long? Given all the forces with interests in imperial dissolution, all the weakness and corruption within, all the accumulated grudges, why didn’t the edifice topple sooner?

Though different in style, there’s no question that the United States has developed a world-wide empire. It’s not mainly an empire of direct force, like that of Rome, though if you question the role of military force in the US empire, you haven’t read Chalmers Johnson (Blowback, Sorrows of Empire). Force these days is usually exerted financially, through such mechanisms as NAFTA and the World Bank. It worked on Communism; we starved them of credit, so they were stuck with a declining share in a growing market. In a sense, we boycotted them. But we don’t want to say that boycotting works: if the world starts boycotting us credit-wise, our economy will collapse very quickly.

So, ix-nay on the oycotting-bay.

What the Future Holds

If Emmanuel Todd’s predictions in After the Empire are right, and I’m betting they are, the next couple of decades will be suboptimal from the PNAC point of view: the empire will end with a bang and a whimper.

Consider the current indications. Russia and China will engage in cooperative military exercises on Chinese soil this year. The Europeans will soon be selling arms to China over the objections of the US. The so-called coalition of the willing is shrinking by the day. The governments that were outspoken in support of Bush’s war are either gone (Spain, Poland), in trouble (UK), or under pressure from an angry population (Italy). The governments that defied US wishes (Turkey, Germany, France) have suffered no more than the slings and arrows of spin. The US has few friends. Unless you call Ariel Sharon a friend.

Economically, the US has to borrow something like $1.8 billion every day from overseas to support the consumer lifestyle Americans have been programmed to live. As a result, China now holds a trump card in any dispute with the US: it can pull its support for the dollar, and watch the American economy go belly up. Of course this would destroy the Chinese economy as well; but it might be a credible threat given past instances of Chinese leaders inflicting pain on their population for political gain. Is an American President going to call that bluff? If I were Taiwanese, I’d be preparing for re-unification.

Todd suggests that we might be headed for a topsy-turvy situation in which the US becomes the biggest threat to world peace, and Russia becomes the counter-balance. Europe takes shelter under the alternative nuclear umbrella. The US squanders its remaining strength, capital, and goodwill stirring up trouble around the world as a means of proving its indispensability.

I claim that the question is not, How do we maintain our empire, but How do we manage its dissolution?

Which Way Will We Choose?

Early on, the Roman empire brought peace and prosperity to many of its colonies, if only because the war to defend the local nobility against the Romans was over. But as the empire gathered its riches to the center, it became an inviting target for those it had alienated and impoverished. As the empire broke up, Romans came to be despised and ridiculed:

Their scanty remnant, the offspring of slaves and strangers, was despicable in the eyes of the victorious barbarians. As often as the Franks or Lombards expressed their most bitter contempt of a foe, they called him a Roman; “and in this name,” says the bishop Liutprand, “we include whatever is base, whatever is cowardly, whatever is perfidious, the extremes of avarice and luxury, and every vice that can prostitute the dignity of human nature.”

The colonies of the French and the British were exploited by the respective mother countries for as long as possible. Obviously, the whole “white man’s burden” thing was more a salve for conscience than a plan of action. Nevertheless, many of the former British and French colonies currently have friendly relations with their former occupiers.

Which way will we choose?

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