So, Are We Britain or Rome?

I’m thinking the 2016 presidential race will tell us a lot on that front.

Empires expand, become unsustainable, then die. The United States will not be an exception. Some will say I’m trashing my country. I’d say I’m just recognizing reality.

The most recent book I’ve read on this subject is Time No Longer, by Patrick L. Smith. Smith explains that the American century extended from 1898, when we invaded the Philippines, to 2001, when the World Trade Center was attacked. In Smith’s view, an empire operates under a myth (think, American exceptionalism), until it collides with history. At that point, the empire can recalibrate, in which case the decline will be relatively painless, or it can attempt in vain to perpetuate the myth, in which case the decline tends to be far more ugly for the populace.

Britain is the example usually given of the first form of decline. Rome is an example of the second.

Seems like America is looking more like Rome. Britain’s decline was attributable to it depleting itself in two wars. It was on the winning side of both, but they took their toll. At the same time, a newer, stronger power, America, became the world’s leading superpower. It was a natural transition for Britain to allow America to take the lead. Even for Britain, leaving the myth behind was not immediate. The process was not complete until the 1950’s, despite the inevitability of Britain’s decline being there for all to see at the end of World War II.

America will not take that path. Its military might is unchallenged, and will be for some time. In that sense, it is a modern-day Rome.

The parallels don’t end there. Remember the gluttons of Rome? They used their power to gorge themselves with food and drink, occasionally vomiting to make room for more. Today’s gluttons are America’s super-rich, acquiring wealth, as Edward Moore put it, “beyond the dreams of avarice.” Although the super-rich do not all gorge themselves on food and drink, many do on consumption of other forms. Their conspicuous consumption has been reported ad nauseum. Is a million dollar birthday bash any different from a 6,000 calorie day?

How things ultimately will unfold is sheer speculation. Still, I wonder. Are Al Qaeda and ISIS the modern day Huns and Visigoths? Is the game of whack-a-mole America is playing today similar to the one the Romans played long, long ago?

Which brings us back to Patrick Smith. Will America recognize the myth for what it is and, in doing so, accept its role in history? Or will America act as if the 20th Century never ended? So far, the answer is obvious. Here’s Smith in his latest Salon piece, Rudy Guliani’s dangerous game: Jeb Bush, patriotic lies, and the truth about American exceptionalism:

“I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country…. With all our flaws, we’re the most exceptional country in the world.”

That is Rudy Giuliani, New York’s former mayor…

Here is Jeb Bush, …

“America does not have the luxury of withdrawing from the world. Our security, our prosperity and our values demand that we remain engaged and involved in often distant places. We have no reason to apologize for our leadership and our interest in serving the cause of global security, global peace and human freedom.”

And here is President Obama, introducing his administration’s 2015 National Security Strategy, an annual announcement as to how America’s defense and foreign policy cliques intend to get us through the year:

“Any successful strategy to ensure the safety of the American people and advance our national security interests must begin with an undeniable truth—America must lead. Strong and sustained American leadership is essential to a rules-based international order that promotes global security and prosperity as well as the dignity and human rights of all peoples. The question is never whether America should lead, but how we lead.”

There it is, readers. You have your lumpen rightists, who have acquired more power than seemed possible a few years ago but still face the knotty problem of stupidity. You have your mainstream rightists, polished and clever, intent on staying the expansionist course and persuading us it is best for all. …

And you have your neoliberals, ever dressing up the rightists’ agenda as the progressive thing to pursue. This, the Williams-Sonoma crowd, is possessed of an egregious righteousness. They are the heirs of the Cold War liberals, those gutless many who assumed whatever shape necessary to avoid confronting American paranoia, reaction and aggression, usually out of sheer self-interest.

The myth in America is alive as it ever was. Will the 2016 Presidential race alter that reality, or lock it more firmly in place? I know my bet.

Long live Rome!


12 responses to “So, Are We Britain or Rome?

  1. All’s fair in love and war? What a dumb cliche.

    The funniest thing to me, and I repeat, and then I must cease and desist for a month or so, by George Bernard Shaw: “I learned long ago, never wrestle with pigs. You get dirty, and besides, they like it.”

    Solutions !!! You want SOLUTIONS !!! YOU CAN’T HANDLE.. SOLUTIONS !!!

  2. You know, Bob, when I am feeling especially depressed, I sit and think that the United States is following the path of Rome in repeating history. I see things like the obsession with sports and think of the gladiators and the place they held in Roman society. Especially since we seem to prefer the emerging bloodier sports like cage fighting. I see spreading corruption in our politics (and don’t fool yourself into thinking the corruption is limited to the GOP), our never ending involvement in armed conflicts around the world, the ever increasing numbers of people in prisons, the breakdown of families, the abuse of drugs and alcohol, and a hundred other indicators of decline both socially and morally and I wonder how we can ever stop it…or if we even want to.

    I do think you have taken the wrong lesson from the Huns and the Goths, though. They didn’t invade the Roman Empire because they wanted to destroy it; they invaded it because they wanted to be part of it. Rome built its empire by first conquering a people with their army and then by building a Roman civilization and making them Roman citizens. There were benefits to being Roman and, once the Empire grew too large to manage, and Rome turned its attention to the Middle East, Rome drew a line in the sand in Europe and said, “No more”. That was when the invasions began as the Huns, the Visigoths, the Goths and a hundred other tribes moved on Rome. I don’t think ISIS, Al Quaeda, Hamas, Iran or anyone else represents a serious threat to us. Like Rome, our threat is from too many people wanting to come here and our lack of will to control it.

    I don’t think we can go the way of Britain because Britain had the luxury of bowing out gracefully while we stepped into their former position. Who stands ready to replace us?

    • Thanks, Steve. You may be right about the Huns and the Visigoths. I may be misremembering my history. In a way, though, it’s the same problem. However you slice it, at some point the empire becomes unsustainable. In the case of Rome, you’re saying it was because the empire was too attractive to those outside it. In the case of the U.S., it may be too unattractive to those subject to it (or, really, its client states).

  3. Thank you, Bob Lord. As one literally raised in the 1950s in the best British schools to run the said British Empire, where the sun never set, the sun set in ~1960 when we finally lost Nigeria, Malaysia, Singapore, et al. I’m a rare one who has lived here almost five decades after the aforementioned upbringing having come here to Ivy League schools. What you say here is not news to the few like me. I knew this would happen when I saw Reagan and his ilk and what they were deliberately doing. And I worked directly for him!!!! Two things changed the course of the USA for the worse: the assassinations of JFK, MLK, RFK, and, Watergate. The former made Nixon possible and a hard right turn away from a demise like Britain to one like Rome, and the latter made this terrible loss of faith in government saleable by the far right as a plan, a plan that makes Fox News convince the cancer patient of society refuse treatment, to blatantly vote against their own best interests. The daily cognitive dissonance boggles this highly educated mind!!!! But I will continue to educate and fight one by one, we all have to in the memory of the great plans of JFK, MLK, RFK.

    • Mr. Chatterjee, it is good to know you are still around. When you didn’t respond to my last missive prepared especially for you, I wasn’t certain what could explain the resounding silence from you. Well, I have a theory, but there is no way to test it.

      We share a common experience! I was assigned to the Reagan White House for two years as a Military Liaison Officer. I don’t recall reading or hearing your name mentioned, but we were probably there at different times. I called an old friend of mine from those days who was one of the Warrant Officers who carried the Football for the President and was therefore within arms reach of the President at all times, and he didn’t remember you, either. But, again, we were probably there at different times. Just out of curiosity, were you there as a result of your military service as a fighter pilot after Vietnam? Or was it civilian service?

      In any event, it was good to read that you are still around and willing to share that highly educated and brilliant mind of yours with the rest of us. I believe the one thing this blog was missing was an Ivy League perspective. I look forward to your future contributions!

  4. Thanks Bob for being a realist. You are probably right and the U.S. is like Rome, esp. with obese people, indicative of gluttony. The AMA recognized it as a “disease” in June 2013:

    • You will know we have a REAL problem when – like the Romans – we begin building vomitoreums in our homes for entertaining in a stylish and robust fashion.

  5. Brian Clymer

    Good Lord, Bob, lighten up! If we’re doomed & you don’t think we can do anything about it, don’t depress the rest of us with your gloomy thoughts. Either keep quiet or offer us some constructive solution to our problems. There’s a great line in a hymn which says, “Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.” The prophets could be gloomy but most all of them offered the people some hope & guidance on what to do. My favorite is Micah who reminded us, “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Notice the word “require”, not “suggest”, not “consider doing”, not “if you have the time”, but “require”. To those of us from the Judeo-Christian faith tradition, I think that is excellent advice. It reminds me of what I need to do. For those who aren’t of that faith tradition or who have lost hope, I understand how discouraging the current situation seems. Maybe you need a little rest until you’re ready to get back to work. In the meantime, for the rest of us, let’s not despair. Let’s fight for justice for the economically opposed, let’s show mercy to the vulnerable & let’s try to avoid being too self-righteous (myself included) along the way.

    • Brian, if your “faith” is as strong as you suggest it is, I, an atheist, could not depress you, as you claim I have.

      Please don’t instruct me to “keep quiet” on my blog. If you don’t like my posts, don’t read them.

      In any case, I think you utterly failed to read between the lines here. The decline of an empire is inevitable. It would be silly not to recognize that. Moreover, implicitly you are saying the decline of the American empire is associated with evil. I would argue that for humankind’s sake the decline is a good thing, and the evil would be its perpetuation. But the hope here is that we can go the way of Britain, rather than Rome. The more people who understand that, the better our chances are. That was the purpose behind the post.

      Or, we can take your advice and bank on solving our problems by electing spineless Blue Dogs.

      • Brian Clymer

        Bob, I’ll take your advice and not read your blogs anymore.

        • Brian, I think you will be depriving yourself from reading the best writer on this blog. I agree that he seems to be a little depressed lately and his writing has been a little darker than usual, but he is still head and shoulders above the others in terms of readability and approachability. I am hoping to see his sense of humor come back soon and then you will really miss out on some top notch writing.

          • Thanks, Steve. Ironically, as you and Brian were commenting, I was working on a follow-up post, which I just posted.

            Wonder if Brian will read that one? 🙂