Friday, October 09, 2009

Rome is the wrong empire

Mark Twain once remarked that while history does not repeat, it does rhyme. It has become the rage in recent years to compare the US to Rome, the model of what an empire should be in western minds. It was mighty, it was huge, it was holy, and in the end, it fell to internal decay and outside attacks. This reading of Rome into the current domestic and international decline of the US, however, is merely the search for a flattering comparison that is deaf to the rhymes of history.

There is another Empire, far more like the current US. Driven by an ideology whose ethics utterly failed to enlighten its overseas behavior, this empire plundered the underdeveloped world. It smashed up local governments, attempted to supplant their cultures with its own, and imposed its language and administrative practices on theirs. It traveled about the world in total ignorance of faraway places, convinced that it alone had the key to salvation and the right and power to order the world. Under the aegis of the leading transnational organization of its day, it divided the world between itself and a rival power. Using the wealth it had plundered from the vast lands under its sway, it inaugurated a new era of trans-Pacific trade that brought the products of the Far East to Europe and the Americas, trading specie and plate for porcelains and spices. Borrowing against that wealth, it embarked on a series of wars using what was then the most feared army on earth to retain its authority in its home regions and expand its power abroad in the name of its globe-hungry ideology. It borrowed too much to pay for its ever increasing list of foreign wars; some years the treasure fleets did not arrive; its ruling classes and national life stagnated under poverty, debt, and the conservatism, insularity, and rigidity of its elites. Under the weight of crushing debts, it slid irrevocably into bankrupcty and decline, falling behind the other European powers in industry and influence, its empire breaking into nation-states that remain plagued by the worst features of that nation's political life. A century later it was an unrecognizable shadow of itself.

I'm talking, of course, about Spain, whose authoritarian Catholicism, stripped of its inner meaning, served as ideological justification for adventures abroad and the suppression of dissent at home. In the cries against immigrants in the US are the echoes of the Edicts of Expulsion; Washington's indebtedness to China for its defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan is merely the distorted replay of Philip II's borrowings from the great banking houses of Europe to finance his reckless, stupid wars against England and in the Low Countries. Even as Spain squeezed Europe and the Americas more tightly in its grip, the future slipped through its fingers -- the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, and the Enlightenment, occurred elsewhere.

But Spain was confronting another rising hegemon, its power still in its infancy, one that had been riven by is own cultural revolution that pitted brother against brother, forcing many into death and exile. Like China, this nation too was an empire, but not one to conjure with like the matchless holdings of the Spanish Throne. It too was an Empire struggling to become a state. That nation would rise to garner global admiration for its culture, its generals, its industries and its armies, its unprecedented influence. That empire too coveted the lands around it, creating "Courts of Reunification" to award itself spurious title to neighboring countries. Its rise would trigger a sprawling series of hegemonic wars that ended at Waterloo, with the victory of yet another Throne whose Empire never saw a sunset. France it was that struggled to modernize even as it sought to expand, whose merchants and thinkers helped spur the Enlightment and the Industrial Revolution in a way that Spain, hidebound and exhausted, could not.

The world is not replaying the Fall of Rome and the barbarians are not at the gates. We are instead reprising the decline of Spain and the rise of France, rhyming the terrible panoply of the 17th century, with its hundred year struggle between an increasingly bankrupt and irrelevant Spain, warring not merely against its rivals but against the future itself, and France, Holland, and England over those geographic expressions known as Italy and Germany, and over lands far away. In the end, as it always does, history had the last laugh, and all the lands Europe conquered would be independent states within two centuries.

So Philip's dreams of Catholic empire were dashed on the rocks of northern England with the destruction of his Armada, so the US faces the same choices in Afghanistan and Iraq. The future is out here, in Asia, but our decision-makers are squandering the national future chasing the petroleum dreams of yesteryear. The US is not Rome and Obama is no Aurelian; rather, he is more akin to Philip III, that ineffective ruler controlled by his servants, whose only virtue was his complete lack of vice, and whose reign was constrained by the empty treasury the previous ruler had left him.

Even now the thunder of history moans in the distance, the spectre of the future moves in the darkness, our ignorant armies clash across the continents. Will our leaders be able to hear the call of the future above this din? I wouldn't bet on that for all the plate of Potosi.
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Anonymous said...

Very clever!

Anonymous said...

Great post Michael, thank you for the insight. I've been reading many articles recently, focusing on China's embracing of new technologies echoing much the same historical importance and lack of US participation.

Here's a good one from Thomas Friedman posted a couple of weeks back in the NY post.


Anonymous said...

Very provocative analysis.


PS said...

Great post

It's frustrating being out here [anywhere in Asia], and it being clear that the ground is shifting, and yet back home the size, strength and significance of the changes are simply not acknowledged.

Haven't seen you touch on this story yet:
[My HTML tag skills suck]

First paragraph:
In the most profound financial change in recent Middle East history, Gulf Arabs are planning – along with China, Russia, Japan and France – to end dollar dealings for oil, moving instead to a basket of currencies including the Japanese yen and Chinese yuan, the euro, gold and a new, unified currency planned for nations in the Gulf Co-operation Council, including Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Qatar.
Could be BS, but Robert Fisk and the Independent are not batshit crazy sources

Anonymous said...

Sorry to disagree, but I can hardly see any comparison between nowadays US goverment and it's peoples and the Spanish of Philip II, neither any rhytm. I think you underestimate your country's capabilities for staying ruling the world.
Un saludo, amigo.

Anonymous said...

Awesome post!

Joel Haas said...

While not disputing your analysis as far as it's taken, I would add another "rhyme." Spain-like Saudi Arabia after WWI-was a newly created and unified country which then stumbled onto great wealth utterly un attributal to its own efforts, the gold of the New World. With this new wealth, like the Saudis, they engaged in religious fanaticism and strangled work and innovation.

Anonymous said...

As long as the saner, more liberal and secular part of the US won't be completely screwed over by christian fundamentalism I simply don't see how the US, or Europe for that matter could be overtaken by any country. Neither Japan nor Korea nor Singapur are siginificantly more advanced than Europe or the US. What we are seeing is the emergence of a technologically capable China, sooner or later probaly playing on the same level with the other developed nations. But thats all there is to it.

STOP Ma said...

Great post, Michael!

After reading this post, I discover that Obama has been given the Nobel Peace Prize.


That's all I can say.


He's about to send thousands of more troops to Afghanistan for crying out loud!

Michael Turton said...

What we are seeing is the emergence of a technologically capable China, sooner or later probaly playing on the same level with the other developed nations. But thats all there is to it.

I hope you're right.

Stefan said...

Regarding the "holy" attribute - did the Roman Empire really attach that to itself? Wikipedia says this was first used by Otto I in 962 - his coronation marking the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire.

On the other hand Philip II's father was Holy Roman Emperor, so maybe he has a claim. :-)

Thoth Harris said...

Don't you think that the Taliban, it's kith, and kin pose a serious dangerous to the world? Personally, I think the United States and its allies should have gone in their sooner, right after the Taliban held their coup, closed universities, destroyed Buddhist statues, and forced women to wear burkas on pain of death, stoning, or lashes. But that's just me. Maybe I've been brainwashed by the Harper government (a detestable government, by the way). Maybe you're indifferent to religious fundamentalism. All the same, I think giving Obama the Nobel Peace Prize is strange. He hasn't actually completed much of anything yet. He and his "accomplishments" are still a work in progress. I am all for troops being sent to Afghanistan. My own country's troops have been there, but unfortunately, the current Canadian gov. sucks at managing them. No doubt, with better management, their will fewer casualties.

Dixteel said...

Holy smoke, that is so refreshing. I never thought of comparing the current situation of the USA to the old Spainsih Empire.

A few days ago, I also notice a lot of people online commenting about the decline of the US and compare the US to Rome and British Empire, and China will replace the US etc etc. I was thinking that is just wrong in some way, and plan to blog about it. But my knowledge of history is not full enough to write a good counter arguement.

Before, there is also a guy (Mahan, I think that is his name) that relate the US situation back in 1890 time frame to the French Empire (just pre-Napolean), and argue that the US needs to make the right decision and not repeat the French mistakes. I guess sometimes it works to look at other empire's situation, not just the obvious or the closely related ones.

Michael Turton said...

Well, the way I see it, "holy" is one of the associations with Roman Empire.

Hey, I had to go with the poet in me, man.

Anonymous said...

Would it be correct to say that Philip's armada was the most powerful instrument of war he had at hand for the task he faced at that time?
And he crashed it all on the coast of England...
So, if comparing Spain (than) to the US (now),
What would be (in the US today) the most powerful instrument of war at hand?
Thinking here perhaps of a little red buttons...
Crashing it all on the "coast" of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, could it be compared to the history of Spain you are referring to?

Some how, i think we are treading in unchartered history.
That perhaps, there is no precedence for the times we are facing.
But that's just me.
interesting post.

justrecently said...

I think you are too pessimistic about your country. Yes, it is imperialist and has been a sample of recklessness, especially during the Reagan and GWB years, but it is also a country that has dithered between isolationaism and expansionism until world war one and beyond (the Monroe doctrine was a case of expansionism too, obviously). But above all, America is a national state, rather than an empire. It will suffice itself, if it needs to. And it is more fascinating, even to those who are at the receiving end of its sometimes destructive sense of mission. The world has seen much worse superpowers - and while Americans can't choose how much influence they want to have worldwide, they can always choose what kind of country they want to be. Not too many nations can do that (yet).