Pax Americana: Is the U.S Headed for a Downfall?
It’s often necessary to ask; what make the past (history) matters? Why is it often important to study the past and the legacies of the past in the present? The answer is that all people and peoples are living histories. We all speak languages that are inherited from the past. We all live in a society with complex cultures, traditions and religions that are connected to the past. We are all born with a unique genetic template (genome), which evolved over the entire life-span of the human species. Therefore, investigating the past is either a prologue or a lesson to the present.
In this article we will compare and contrast between the United States and the Roman Empire and try to proof that America is not headed for a downfall but rather America's best days are still ahead.
This analysis is important because the comparison between the United States and Roman Empire is not only attractive but these two most powerful nations of their time, the U.S actually modeled some of its institutions and philosophy after the powerful Roman Empire example. Current political climate seems to suggest that the U.S is getting worse by the day and perhaps heading for a downfall.
However, historically, no empire has lasted forever(so far) and that the U.S is due for a challenge is no exception!
Looking back at the Roman Empire we can all agree that it’s one of the most successful political and social entities in human history, lasting for over 500 years, from 31 BC to 476 CE. It’s so successful that at the height of its power, the empire extended over 5 million square kilometers, controlling around 70 million people, about 21% of the world’s population at the time.
Like the U.S., the Roman Empire during its times spread its influence around the world through its culture, languages, religion, philosophy, laws and technology.
But while the U.S. is the world's only current superpower, pronouncements of its Rome-like fall are greatly exaggerated and not entirely appropriate. Here's why:
1. Current Political Instability Is Threatening the U.S. and its Global Influence but the U.S Is Still a Republic
The history we know as the time of the Roman Empire actually followed another nearly 500-year block when it was the democratic Roman Republic (509 BC - 27 BC). A period of unrest and civil wars dominated the transition to the empire. That was when the infamous assassination of Julius Caesar took place in 44 BCE. After a power struggle that followed Caesar’s demise, Augustus (Caesar’s nephew) was crowned as Rome’s first emperor. More or less effective emperors followed, with much internal intrigue and corruption that led to series of coups and assassinations. The infamous Caligula (12-41 AD) was killed by the Praetorian Guard, while the corrupt and mad Nero (37-68 AD) committed suicide afterwards.
The U.S. is certainly undergoing a period of difficult political uncertainty, with the country often split on major issues and animosity rising between different sides. The election of Donald Trump both increased the divide (both within and without) and is a symptom of it. Still, the U.S. is a democratic society, with checks and balances, and Trump is no emperor-and will never be.
The U.S system is robust and do absorbs socks both politically and otherwise whenever is challenged. Remember, it’s also not the first time in recent history the U.S dealt with divisive issues, with the civil rights struggle and Vietnam War being quite contemporary events (especially from a historical perspective). The country has survived more turmoil, and barring unprecedented measures from the new administration and ineffectiveness of other branches of the government, the U.S. is poised to continue with its political system relatively healthy and functioning.
2. The U.S (Un Like the Roman Empire) Economy Needs Work but Is in No Danger of Collapse
Rome was engaged in regular wars and constantly overspent to keep protecting the borders of its huge empire. But eventually not only slowed but stopped mainly due to stronger opponents and even pirates like Vandals operating in North Africa. This eventually slowed the supply of cheap slave labor and additional taxes. Roman rich also worked just as hard back in their time to pay less taxes, creating an increasing gap between the wealthy and the poor. Historians also point to a trade imbalance that eventually grew between Rome and China and India. These factors led to a slowing economy and a decline in Roman power.
The U.S. economy is not dependent on colonies or slave labor, but the rising inequality between the rich and the poor, and the resulting political repercussions and unrest are certainly here to stay. The emergence of Trumpism, a political ideologies that focus on the job losses in the manufacturing industry and fear of job-taking immigrants, as well as the need for foreign trade reform, points to just how much Americans are worried about the future of their country’s economy.
Still, despite Trumpism rhetoric, and thanks to the Obama era efforts to stabilize the economy the unemployment is low and the country’s steady, if unimpressive, annual GDP growth rate of about 2% point to the fact that the economy is not in such shambles as to predict an imminent collapse. The military spending in the U.S. is somewhere around 3-4% of the GDP, a sizable but not unusual amount, comparable to other world powers.
3. The U.S-Roman Empire Military Situation Is Not The Same
After fighting off all challengers non-stop for centuries, Rome’s military power waned and it was finally overtaken by a series of military losses to Germanic tribes, including the sacking of Rome in 410 by the Visigoth King Alaric, and another sacking by the Visigoths led by Geiseric in 455. In 476, the Germanic warrior Odoacer led a revolt from within that deposed the Emperor Romulus Augustulus, making him the last Roman emperor to rule Italy from Rome. The Eastern part of the Empire actually survived until 1453 CE, when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks.
The U.S. has powerful military opponents like Russia and China, but an all-out conflict involving any of the nuclear powers seems highly unlikely due to mutually assured destruction-a very effective deterrence factor. However, asymmetrical warfare like terror attacks by Islamic fundamentalists or cyber-attacks and subterfuge from Russia can cause more gradual decline in American power due to weakening confidence in its leaders and institutions. Still, this is not likely to result in a serious military loss unless a more direct confrontation takes place, which at this point seems impossible. Therefore, as the world’s most powerful military America should be intact for the time being.
4. Unlike Roman Empire the U.S. Is Not in a Cultural and Social Decline
This point is certainly debatable as some would argue the U.S. is undergoing a weakening of its values. The country is transforming from a Christian and white-majority nation into an ever-more multicultural melting pot. Interestingly, some like the historian Edward Gibbon, in his seminal “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” have pointed to the adoption of Christianity and its weakening of traditional Roman values as the reason for the empire’s eventual collapse. However, others saw it differently; they rather blamed the overspending and dumbing down of Rome via gladiator games and debauchery via crazed emperors like Nero for its decline. This, of course, makes an easy parallel to America's preoccupation with sports and reality tv stars, with the left painting Trump as a latter-day Nero. On the other hand, it can easily be argued that these types of entertainments and politics are nothing new historically and can be found in any century and cultures-American or non-American. As if they didn't have Kardashian-type subjects of everyone's gossip in Renaissance-era Florence of the ruthless Medicis and the Borgias.
Its true that the wind of history and change is blowing and the U.S. is undergoing transformation, with social changes like the adoption of gay rights, and rapid technological changes via the internet and automation, there’s little reason to point to some kind of major worsening of society. It’s more likely that it’s changing and adapting appropriately, in step with the rest of the Western civilization.
5. Believe It Or Not: Technology, Not Politics Will Transform the U.S. (And the rest of the World)
With so much attention focused on the political strife, the lasting changes to America and its power are not likely to come from invading barbarian hordes. The coming world of complete automation, major life-extending medical advances and space exploration will transform the U.S. in ways the Roman Empire never experienced. The Romans did employ and advance the technology of the day but their life was not upended because all the jobs were suddenly staffed by robots, something likely to happen within this century.
How technology changes America and the political entities around the world will not be clear until the singularity factor hits. Perhaps the battle by Trumpism ideologues against “globalism” which has a strong anti-intellectual and anti-technology component, is a last ditch effort to fight back against what is really a war that’s already lost.
However, political force should not and cannot be discounted. Gibbon’s book; “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” clearly shows, we still have reason to look at the Roman history for warnings and careful not to make the same mistakes:
“The provinces, long oppressed by the monsters of the republic, sighed for the government of a single person, who would be the master, not the accomplice, of those petty tyrants. The people of Rome, viewing, with a secret pleasure,(Augustus’) humiliation of the aristocracy, demanded only bread and public shows; and were supplied with both by the liberal hand of Augustus. The rich and polite Italians, who had almost universally embarked the philosophy of Epicurus, enjoyed the present blessings of ease and tranquility; and suffered not the pleasing dream to be interrupted by the memory of their old tumultuous freedom.”
America’s Best Day Are Still Ahead
The period of relative peace at the height of Roman power called Pax Romana lasted about 200 years. We are now over 70 years into Pax Americana (from the end of WW II).
Despite the current climate of fear and uncertainty America’s best days are still ahead of her and here is why? Nowadays many people see a nervous America that seems to have lost its confidence. It’s true that Americans today have become scared and paranoid. Such sentiments are not helped by doomsayers who have conclusively predicted America’s decline.
However, the United States of America is founded on the principle that all men are created equal. It is based on the idea that regardless of one’s background, with determination and hard work, one can achieve whatever one aspires to in life i.e the pursuit of happiness!
This very core of the American Dream has continued to unleash enormous amounts of human potential and creativity, and is still attracting top talent from around the world. Despite Trumpism America is still the most popular destinations for many people around the world.
China rise will not surpass the United States as a global leader mainly because of America’s ability to attract the best and brightest from the rest of the world.
Now, more than at any time, Americans need to be reminded what a great country America has been and still is. American power is partly based on alliances rather than colonies, and is associated both with an ideology that encourages individual aspirations and with a system that provides the means for people to achieve them.
It is no doubt that America today is facing an extraordinarily trying time. We are burdened with Trumpism, trillions of dollars in national debt, fear of immigrants and a high unemployment rate. Our troops are fighting secret wars thousands of miles from our soil with money we do not have.
Plenty of evidence shows that despite the doomsayers predictions the case for an American decline is incorrect. For example, America is ranked at the top in opportunities for entrepreneurship, and 70% of U.S. venture capital is invested in domestic startups. America is not only the most competitive country in information technology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology, but is also a frontrunner in agricultural innovation. American inventors register more patents than the rest of the world combined.
I have complete confidence in America’s ability to reinvent itself. Despite the financial troubles we are in, our economic system is fundamentally healthier than China's. Despite the political mess in Washington DC, nearly everyone in the world wants to live in a democratic society.
China's ascension as a major economic power provides an excellent opportunity for America to reinvent itself. For example, a growing Chinese middle class will not only help the Chinese economy to rebalance from its current excessive-saving syndrome, but it will also create markets for American companies to sell into China and therefore alleviate the pain of America’s overconsumption. When the two major economies with opposite strengths and weaknesses can rectify and fortify each other, the world will be able to thrive on a virtuous cycle of globalization without being vulnerable to an American recession.
Most importantly, in order for America to live up to the challenges of the 21st century, it needs to move away from "the global dominance" mentality . That is precisely the mentality that led to America’s arrogance in world affairs and caused anti-American sentiment in some parts of the world.
Globalization allows the "rise of the rest." The world is moving toward what Fareed Zakaria of CNN GPS called "multi-polar order" with major players such as the U. S., European Union, China, Japan, India, Russia, Brazil, etc. The challenge for America in this new world order is to exercise a new leadership role that is not about preserving hegemony, but about consultation, coordination, and even compromise.
If America cannot play that role, no one else can – not Beijing, not London, not Moscow. But if America can live up to this challenge as the global leader, America’s best days are still ahead. How we meet this leadership challenge is still up to us.
© 2017 David Kohen