Thursday, September 9, 2010

Why the US isn't quite like the Roman Empire

In August Rome marked the 1,600th anniversary of the Visigoth sack of the ancient capital. Rome hadn't been successfully invaded in 800 years and it was a massive psychological blow to the Empire; the Western Empire lasted only a few more decades before being finally destroyed by 'barbarian' Germanic tribes.

In modern times the might of the United States has been compared with that of Ancient Rome: the long-standing peace of US-dominated NATO sometimes called 'Pax Americana' in memory of Pax Romana, the relative peace enjoyed within the borders of the Rome-dominated empire.

The future of this US domination has also sometimes attracted gloomy comparisons with Rome, from commentators of both left and right. This anti-socialist critic blamed a crude early social welfare system and government intervention in the ancient market for Rome's downfall. While this writer makes a list of comparisons between Rome and the US, including the sense of exceptionalism, the military advances into regions whose cultures they did not understand and the farming out of military duties to 'barbarian' mercenaries.

A common claim among opponents of American militarism is that the US is stretching its military might too thin and, like Rome, will crumble beneath the weight of taxation needed to pay for it. From the opposite perspective some right-conservative critics say the declining fertility rates in North America and Europe are opening the West to invasion from the ever more populous Africans, Asians or Latin Americans as, they claim, depopulated Rome was conquered by the more fecund Germanic people.

All this is interesting and it is always worth remembering history to understand the present. But there is one critical difference between Roman times and today: nukes.

No matter how depopulated, decadent or indebted the US becomes, so long as somebody has a finger hovering above the deploy button an outright conventional invasion is impossible. The Visigoths could sack Rome because they were fighting ordinary men who they could defeat in battle. For the barbarians to take Washington DC today would mean sacrificing their own capitals to nuclear holocaust.

This doesn't ensure American domination by any means, but it could be that there will be a more gentle decline and withdrawal instead of a catastrophic collapse. Nuclear weapons seem to change the rules of the game completely.


  1. And to further the point, it prevents the so called "empire" expanding militarily into countries that possess nukes with adequate delivery systems regardless of how small they are.

    On second thought that probably wouldn't stop them at all even if the enemy didn't have a sufficient delivery system. A so called "rogue state" could very well and most probably develop their own nuke in the not so distant future and become a part of the 'AXIS OF EVIL' (wasn't that in Austin Powers?). The threat then, especially from medieval countries, would be deadly. If a country say, like, I don't know, Iran (those rapscallions) developed such a weapon the US would have little choice but to preemptively raise that country to the ground as the threat to the West would be too great. Ok, raised to the ground might sound a bit extreme but nevertheless we'd all be in a whole pile of shit.

    I say the US because the EU would be too worried about political correctness and tolerance while the UN would relapse into its usual state of impotence when the heat is on (tits on a bull comes to mind).

    This wouldn't be a military expansion. As I said, it would be a preemptive defense by the West's protector. (Whether or not we like to admit it, and even if we do bitch about them endlessly, this is true. We'd all be in an Orwell novel right now saying "four legs good, two legs bad" but watching pigs walk around on their hind legs and keeping more than their fair share of the milk and apples, if it wasn't for the American's sheer military might). Has the US ever expanded itself militarily since it's teething years? How is this ridiculous analogy with Rome justified? It don't think it can be. It isn't at all quite like the Roman Empire.

  2. "Has the US ever expanded itself militarily since it's teething years?"

    The US started as 13 colonies on the east coast, remember, and then spread west in both violent colonisation and diplomatic annexations. Over the course of its history it established colonies in places like the Philippines, dramatically expanded its own territory in North America and violently interfered in dozens of foreign countries. Today the US has military bases on every continent:

    Today the American military expenditure is almost as much as the entire rest of the world put together. So they did expand a bit from 13 colonies!

    Of course there are loads of differences between US and Rome, for example some American conquests were rebuilt using American taxes and returned to independence - Germany, Japan, South Korea, etc. But the US is today's superpower while Rome was in ancient times. Rome, like the US, had an expensive military stretched across a vast area. The question is: can a mighty military power last forever?

    Nah, everything ends eventually, but when? And how will it decline? The British Empire went quite quickly but without massive damage to Britain itself. The UK is also a nuclear power (and surrounded by friendly nations, some say courtesy of Pax Americana) so the barbarians can't sack London either.

    I find this fascinating. People sometimes talk about how history is cyclical, but modern technologies really do seem to change the way society functions, so that the future cannot be predicted by reference to the past.

    Rome could be over-run by more populous, expansionary neighbours. But the superpowers of today are functioning under different rules. (I wonder if nuclear weapons had a role to play in the break-up of the USSR too? Russia lost a lot of territory but it was not invaded or destroyed, and such an invasion is all but unthinkable.)

  3. When I said "teething years" I was referring to its expansion across the North American continent. (Not all military though, it bought Alaska.)

    But I don't see how its military conquests* can be compared to that of Rome. The US did not make South Korea, Germany or Japan part of its so called empire** nor has it or will it with Afghanistan or Iraq. South Korea was in danger of becoming part of a communist empire as a satellite of the USSR, the Germans were trying to create their own empire in eastern Europe, while Japan was doing likewise in the Pacific and in China. These three countries never became states of the USA. Roman military conquests on the other hand became part of the Roman empire by and large. Germany's endeavour for lebenstraum, Japan's imperialism, Russia spread of its power under the guise of communism and European colonalism are closer analogies to the Roman Empire, at least in my opinion.

    The USA, while it has military bases all over the world (as so does Britain, from the Falklands to Afghanistan) has not expanded itself, at least not geographically, since its early years (again all its military conquests never became part of its empire). The expansion of the USA since the beginning of the 20th century has been primarily an industrial and economic expansion. Globalisation is in many ways Americanisation. (The Chinese might have a few ideas of their own on globalisation pretty soon though.) This is the most perceptible sign of American expansion. While the Americans have been taking over the world with their products and services, Rome and all the other empires tried to do it militarily. Furthermore, it is the private citizens in the US and the welcoming arms of foreign governments that are responsible for this. From this point of view the comparison between the USA and the Roman Empire is feeble.

    But to get back to the point, nukes have changed the game. When the USA loses its dominance it will be something like what happened in Britain but maybe not for the same reason as they are not the same kind of empire.

    *Conquest is a strong word that makes the subject to which it is attributed sound like an aggressor. The Americans would say that that the war in Europe and the Pacific was to stop the real aggressors while Korea and Vietnam was to prevent the spread of communism. As for the current situation in the Middle East it is too early to say what the true intentions of the Americans are, especially in Iraq. We will have to see where this goes.

    **The USA is not an empire, at least not in the traditional sense. These countries (Afghanistan and Iraq) might become part of America's economic empire through globalisation as have South Korea, Germany, Japan and the world.

  4. Sorry, just need to clarify the statement in the first parenthesis in the third paragraph. I mean all its military conquests since its spread across the North American continent.

  5. Well I'm not, in this post anyway, making a moral point about the rights and wrongs of American military dominance - simply pointing out that it exists! (For now :P )


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