Last week's warning from David Walker, comptroller general of the US, to learn from the fall of Rome led me to reconsider, by which I mean go back and re-read a few books, the utility of that oft used comparison. After further reflection I think a far more apt analogy to our (i.e. the United States) situation is the rise of Rome from effective city-state to Empire, rather than its fall. I believe a study of the rise of Rome teaches more useful lessons because the US, as currently constituted, more closely resembles the Roman Republic after the Punic Wars than it does the Empire prior to its fall.
Prior to the wars with Carthage (the Punici in Latin, i.e. Phoenicians) Rome had managed to expand its domain in the Italian peninsula, in the main, without changing its Republican government. For the most part the conquered states within the peninsula adapted well to the Roman modes of government and language. Indeed, all the Latin tribes spoke some form of Latin.
The growth of the United States within what are now the contiguous states between Mexico and Canada followed a similar path in that each expansion was able to be added without changing the form of government or language.
Once Rome had gained control of the peninsula, as when we gained control of the contiguous states, attention was turned to growth across the seas- growth which, in Rome's case, eventually led to the demise of the Republican forms and which, in our case, seems to be leading us down the same path, which is why I find that earlier period a more apt analogy than the fall.
Consider this view from J. A. Richards' The History of the World Vol IV: Now the system which worked while the city was self-contained, while it was actually a city within a domestic area of adjoining territory, proved itself defective as soon as the dominion of the city expanded, but not at first conspicuously. The Latin and Italian allies had their grievances, but they were of a fixed and therefore of a tolerable kind. Through the great wars the Senate and the nobles maintained their high character for public spirit in spite of many blunders. But the mere fact that war was being conducted on a large scale brought into prominence the impracticability of a system which annually changed its generals and disbanded its armies.
In other words, as we are currently learning, the Republican model of reasonably frequent elections and thus changes in leadership which had proven effective (in Rome and elsewhere over the centuries) in maintaining domestic support by giving the people a "say," however limited, in government proved ineffective when conducting large scale wars of long duration. Remember this the next time you hear some politician on TV, from either side of the aisle, speak of the long term War on Terror. Long wars and Republican forms of government do not mix.
Rome "solved," in a manner, this problem much as we have, although we tend to use local governors, by adopting a provincial system, which Richards' explains: The next step [in the provincial process] was the reduction of the whole [recently conquered by Rome] area to the form of a province, the "command" of a Roman governor exercising the imperium [i.e. absolute rule]. It was his business to preserve order and to collect the revenue for which his province was responsible. A constitution was laid down for the province, adapted to its special conditions, and the governor was supposed to act in accordance with the provisions of the constitution.
The position of provincial imperator became a much sought after prize- many Romans looked on Roman political office as a stepping stone to such appointments, as it came without the conditions imposed by the Roman constitution. Having tasted absolute (in many ways) power, Roman governors, like Julius Caesar, saw that form of government as a better model for Empire.
Julius Caesar and his adopted son Augustus led Rome through the last stages of the demise of the Republic and birth of the Empire.
Some (many) of you might be wondering if my choice of the rise of Rome as Empire as more apt analogy for our current situation implies the view that we will be as successful as Rome in making a similar transition. I don't think we will be as successful as Rome in that endeavor.
The first and foremost reason I don't see us following that path is the difference between our military expansion and Rome's. Rome proved quite capable, even while Hannibal was causing problems within the peninsula, of fielding sufficient men to fight on multiple fronts. Rome fought and won the Macedonian War, thus gaining a foothold in the heart of the Hellenic world, while the Second Punic War was ongoing.
The two centuries which followed the destruction of Carthage were, admittedly with quite a few setbacks, years of Roman military success- years which eventually led to Roman dominion over the entire Mediterranean.
By contrast, and, I believe, fortunately, we have proven to be less adept at bringing foreign powers to heel. It has been more than 5 decades since we last "won" a war against a major power. Korea, Vietnam, and more and more obviously Iraq, are demonstrating the limits of our military power in a world where human rights for peoples of all colors are valued and news travels around the world in the blink of an eye. The sensibilities of the modern world and speed of communication are, at least thus far, far less amenable to Empire than was the case two millennia ago.
The second reason I don't see us following Rome to Empire lies in the expanded "say" of US citizens in our Republican government and the enforced indoctrination of our young in the virtue thereof. We have, I believe, many more Cicero-like characters around these days.
Wars of foreign conquest over the past 5 decades of our history have fomented more or less peaceful domestic rebellion. Anti-War politicians find their way to power much easier than was the case in Rome.
Certainly things could change. There are those who seem as prepared to discard the old forms of government as were the Caesars, but, thus far, they have not been of the same quality as those two. Had Julius and Augustus been less successful militarily their attempts to lead Rome from Republic to Empire might well have ended differently. Rome, in that scenario, might have collapsed back on its Republican forms much as Britain did after its Empire proved too difficult to maintain.
George Bush, in my view, is, in a sense, correct when he warns of the consequences of Iraq becoming another Vietnam. Given our reliance on imported oil to fuel both our economy and military expansion- an Achilles heel which Rome did not have, I doubt we will get another bite at the apple of Empire if we lose "our resolve," to quote the President, in Iraq.
It seems to me that it is either now or never for Empire. Losing Iraq likely means a fall back to the old forms, i.e. a true conservatism.
We will see what the future holds.
p.s. I'm still working on the Knightian uncertainty essay