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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