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Our Roman Predicament

In 1776, the year of the American Declaration of Independence, Adam Smith and Edward Gibbon published the first volumes of two works that used history to illuminate Britain’s imperial dilemma in the face of the American Revolution: The Wealth of Nations and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

In these monumental and parallel works, Smith and Gibbon explored what I term the “Roman predicament”: the way that peaceful commerce is frequently seen as a way of building a stable, prosperous and integrated international society. At the same time, the peaceful liberal economic order leads to domestic clashes and also to international rivalry and even wars. The conflicts disturb and eventually destroy the commercial system and the bases of prosperity and integration. These interactions seem to be a vicious spiral, or a trap from which it seems almost impossible to escape. The liberal commercial world order subverts and destroys itself, and Smith’s gloomy concluding chapters are a long away from the apparently optimistic beginning with the immense productivity gains possible as a result of the division of labor.

Gibbon and Smith clearly thought that imperial Britain had reached the limits which demonstrated the extent of its vulnerability. Gibbon’s Rome under Augustus started off as peaceful, but the moment that it started to expand by force it set in motion the logic of its own downfall. Both eighteenth century writers detected not only an external challenge but also an internal decay as the cause of weakness.

In the early twenty-first century, in the wake of increasing chaos in Iraq, analyses about the “imperial overstretch” of the United States have become commonplace. The most usual version of this analysis shows the futility of military power alone. A massive military potential, greater than at least the next twenty states combined, cannot be translated into effective power because it prompts endless resistance. Power as measured in a conventional way turned out to be useless.

In fact, the origins of modern American power can be explained in quite different terms. In the course of the twentieth century, the United States became uniquely powerful because of the strength of an economic order that produced unprecedented prosperity, not just in the imperial center but all over the world. The collapse of its major ideological rival, the Soviet Union, required no application of military force.

Today there are no grounds for thinking that the United States – or the global economic system – has reached any kind of inherent limit to growth. The pace of technical innovation even seems to be increasing, and the U.S. is one of the world’s most dynamic and innovative societies.

The possibility of an unraveling of the U.S. position comes rather from political developments that respond to the uncertainties of the new economy as well as the new security situation. Some of the backlash stems from fears of immigration, even though it is precisely the openness to immigration that has made the U.S. so dynamic. Our political and social psychology responds to globalization by imagining an idealized safe and closed off world. The more we think of the military and security challenge, the more likely we are to try to close ourselves off.

Yet another part of the psychology that develops in response to globalization stems from resentments brought by changes in relative income and wealth. Periods of globalization and high levels of economic growth also tend to be periods when inequalities increase. This was true of ancient Rome, as it was true of eighteenth century Britain where the big corporations of the day, such as the East India Company, generated enormous personal wealth for a handful of directors. Gibbon concluded that: “Such is the constitution of civil society, that, whilst a few persons are distinguished by riches, by honours, and by knowledge, the body of the people is condemned to obscurity, ignorance, and poverty.” Inequality was the social problem that provoked the rise of what he saw as the egalitarian ideology (namely Christianity) that would undermine the Roman empire.

The domestic discontents have a powerful international dimension, and that is likely to produce an erosion of preeminence even faster than any domestic disintegration. In particular, there is widespread mistrust of the power of the world’s only superpower, and increased doubt about the sort of politics that the United States tries to impose on the rest of the world.

The central problem is that we need rules for the functioning of complex societies, whether on a national (state) level, or in international relations. But we do not always comply voluntarily with rules, and rules require some enforcement. In addition rules need to be formulated. The enforcement and the promulgation of rules are both consequences of power, and power is concentrated and unequally distributed. Even when we think of voluntarily negotiated rules, there is the memory of some act of power, the long shadow of a hegemomic strength – the shadow of Rome - falling on the negotiators. The propensity for subversion and destruction of a rule-based order comes about because and whenever there is a perception that rules are arbitrary, unjust, and reflect the imposition of particular interests in a high-handed imperial display of power.

Even relatively small conflicts can lead to a reevaluation of the position of the hegemonic power, and since 2003 the conflict in Iraq has unleashed a wave of discussion of whether the United States is “imperial”. Iraq provoked – in a way that U.S. interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo had not done – a combination of the discussion of domestic inequalities in the United States and accusations of malign abuse of U.S. strength. It is the moment when the United States came face to face with the ghost of Rome.

Adam Smith’s first volume of the Wealth of Nations (1776) closed with the reflection that “the ordinary revolutions of war and government easily dry up the sources of that wealth which arises from commerce alone.” Over two hundred years later war has lost none of its power to make the complex skein of globalization unravel into a tangled web of suspicion and resentment.