Monday, September 08, 2003


Billmon gives us an interesting historical perspective on the arrogance of imperial power and how it almost inevitably leads to the downfall of said power.

Arrogance has always been an imperial perogative -- sometimes expressed crudely, sometimes in jest, sometimes cloaked in the lofty language of diplomacy. But the common denominator is always the power relationship behind the words.

The Latin word imperium itself means "command" -- thus imperator (emperor) or "commander." The Greek equivalent, autocrator goes even further, "the ruler answerable to none." By definition then, empires do not seek the voluntary assistance or obedience of others, they demand it. They may negotiate with enemies or with allies, when circumstances compel, but they do not willingly accept any limits on their authority.

Whether America is really an empire in that sense is an arguable point (and boy, do people argue about it!) Certainly not internally -- not even now, in the twilight of our democracy. Externally, however, the case is difficult. At times (the U.N. Charter, the creation of NATO, Gulf War I, Bosnia and Kosovo) the United States has shown a willingness to share power -- or rather, to use its power within the framework of generally accepted external rules. At other times (the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Central America, Gulf War II) it's shown a definite, and at times aggressive, unwillingness to do so.

You would think the relative success rates of the two approaches would speak for themselves. But it's a curious fact that as empires age, they often tend to become more arrogant, and more imperative, not less.

As always, Roman history provides an intriguing parallel to American experience -- and perhaps a cautionary lesson for the American future.

The latter history of the empire -- after the German tribes had infiltrated imperial territory, the imperial army and even the imperial general staff -- contains repeated examples of the witless arrogance of emperors, Senators and common citizens alike. Long past the point where Rome had lost the power to command obedience, the Romans clung to their old notions of absolute superiority, and rejected (or deceitfully betrayed) the treaties proposed by their barbarian opponents.

America is not quite at the point of total decay that was 5th century Rome. But we are heading rapidly in that direction if we continue to believe that we will triumph simply because we are America. Are we to be a country living on the glories of past victories while the world crumbles around us? Or are we to be a country that moves into the future, adopts new strategies to confront new situations and does not assume that we have any special blessing to be the leaders of the world?

That is the choice we face today.


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