Tuesday 15 June 2010

Pax Americana, or the Illusion of Empire

In the discussion pages of Blog Catalogue one user posted a question recently drawing a comparison between America and the Roman Empire, asking specifically if the downfall of the one is set to be repeated in the downfall of the other. I chose not to participate because it was clearly an American question pitched at an American audience. Still it’s worth thinking about this sort of thing, worth trying to interpret present events in the light of the past.

I have to say that there is not a strict comparison between the United States and Rome and that history does not always move in predictable cycles. The US is a nation state with a distinct identity and cultural unity, whereas Rome was a multi-national empire which was to fragment eventually under sustained external and internal pressures. Even so there is a growing sense that America, like Rome, has overreached itself in the exercise of new forms of imperial power, reflected most particularly in the recently published The Icarus Syndrome: How American Triumph Produces American Tragedy by Peter Beinart.

Interestingly the author originally supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003 though he now sees it as a major error of judgement, an error born of hubris. To that extent the American example bears comparison, at least in my estimation, with the Emperor Trajan’s invasion of what was then Mesopotamia in the kingdom of the Parthians. It was to take the Empire to its greatest ever extent but it was a step too far and too ambitious, a conquest impossible to maintain. Hadrian, his successor, was quick to recognise this in retreating from the east and beginning a retrenchment, a shoring-up of the existing imperial borders that in some ways was to mark the beginning of eventual decline.

Trajan had a vision of endless imperial greatness, a vision that turned out to be an illusion. George W. Bush had a vision, the vision of a Pax Americana. For him the 9/11 attack on New York was an “opportunity”, his own expression, to invade Parthia and reshape the whole of the Middle East. America could do this because America had the power and because the old Soviet Union, the one counter to imperial ambition, was no longer around. But like Icarus, as Beinart argues, America under Bush flew too close to the sun, tumbling sharply to earth in what now seems like endless conflict in an unstable region, from the Gulf to Afghanistan.

America needed a Hadrian to come in the steps of Trajan. Instead it got Barack Obama, who is realistic enough to recognise that there are limits to the exercise of imperial power but is tied to a course already set. Unlike Rome America will not fall; it will just get tired of playing a game that has no obvious end.


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  4. Tales of American demise are grossly exagerated, and for some reason constantly repeated.
    Rome was almost exclusivly a Land Power.
    America, is primarily a Naval Power.

    Whereas the destruction of a Roman Legion was a catastrophy that severely weakend the emperors might, the destruction of a US field army is an inconvenience that slows Americans plans.
    The Iraq and Afghanistan occupations were disasters, but they are not disasters on an empire breaking scale, baring some sort of Black Swan, they never can be.

    As I said above, American Power doesnt rely on the Army, so the defeat of the army can never be a threat to its survival, its the Navy, unless you can bring to battle the USN and beat it decisivly, America can isolate you and starve you into submission.
    Very much like the British Empire on which its designed would operate.

    When Rome fell, its military budget WAS government spending, and it was vast.
    When Rome fell, multiple enemies could threaten the source of its power, the legion.

    American Taxation is low, and military spending even lower, if the Barbarians invade, theres a lot of fat that can be turned to muscle.
    The American fleet is far above any potential rival, the next most powerful fleet is the Royal Navy. When the Empire fell, we were trying to maintain a 5:3:2 ratio with the next highest powers, we eventualy accepted a 5:5:3 ratio. The US operates 11 Supercarriers, only the French operate a conventional carrier at half the size, with the UK building two.
    The rest of the worlds carrier fleets are small vessels a quarter of the size of the US Super Carriers.

    Until a nation or coalition can seriously threaten that force, Pax Americana in one form or another is here to stay.

  5. I don't think that the war in Iraq can be used as a reason for the fall of America.
    What has hurt them is the greed and unchecked activities of the financial markets, and the behaviour of the esteemed banking industry.
    Greed is good was Wall streets foundation in the eighties, do anything you can to turn a dollar was what was built on it ever since.
    These people and institutions need to be regulated and controlled, and the industry needs to go back to conservative values and reasonable conduct. They behaved like criminals and nearly got away with it, ruining prosperous countries in the process.
    As soon as that is sorted, America can go back to what it was, it has the infrastructure and means to do this.
    Ana, I did see you supporting deregulation and being against government control, but reflecting on what can happen when you let the cowboys loose without a sheriff, even you must admit that regulation of the financial sector is a must to ensure the survival of the west.
    The Pinstripes did the damage that could be Americas downfall, the war was just a pathetic adventure that sadly cost lives and reputation.

  6. Ana, you might find this site interesting. There has been much discussion on the subject of quo vadit America, Empire or Republic, and what ahould be done in either case. (Along with much else, and not a lot of Democrats about.)


  7. Dominic, I could never see a return to 'splendid isolation' but I think America is growing tired of the role of world policeman.

    Rainer, no, just as Trajan's ill-advised Mesopotamia adventure did not bring the immediate fall of Rome. As for your points on the regualtion of financial markets, yes, but at a night watchman level.

    Bravo, thank you for that. I'll have a look and maybe report back. :-)

  8. Not isolation, but not occupation either.

    US Power is in its mobility and its ability to deny mobility to anyone else.
    I wouldnt want to bore with an essay on Strategic Raiding as a doctine, but suffice to say the US could sack every city on the east asian coast and retreat before superior land armies could cath up and engage them.

  9. Yes, Dominic, decline, real decline, if it ever comes will be from within, another dimension of the Roman experience worth highlighting. A succession of Obamas might help things along the way.