Rome and Us
But this is not the dominant take on the Rome-America comparison right now, is it?
Right. The other camp is probably dominantthe one that worries about American decline, not just in terms of power but in terms of basic social health. And there's good reason to worry. You can think about it on two levels. One is macrohistoric: Does anything last? We all know the answer. We don't live in Jefferson's America any longer, or Roosevelt's, or Kennedy's. On the microhistoric level,America possesses certain characteristics, and is looking at some trends, that ought to give us pause if you project the consequences down the road fifty years or a century. The hollowing out of government. The mismatch of ambitions and resources. The growing inequality. One of the reasons the example of Rome is so useful is that it allows you to see how forces play out over long periods of time. Rome was in business for a millennium.
One feature of this pessimistic comparison has to do with a dangerous reliance on the military. Can you explain?
A key issue for Rome then and America now is manpower. Rome in the end did not have enough peopleor enough money, or enough willto do all the jobs that needed doing, and at the same time to keep the army as strong as it needed to be. The United States finds itself in a similar situation. Rome in the end had to start buying soldiers from outside to help fight its wars and protect its borders. The United States is doing the same thing by hiring contractors.We're not using the Huns or Visigoths, but we are using Aegis and Blackwater. One big story of the Iraq war is the degree to which we're relying on private security contractorsmore than 50,000 of themto perform very basic functions that would otherwise have to be done by soldiers.But even this isn't enough.We are very close to stretching our military to the breaking point.
Another reality we face that Rome faced long ago is that you can't just exert military power in a vacuum. It's not as though America is the only actor whose behavior matters. Every action creates a reaction, and the more actions you take around the world, the more reactions you elicit. Those reactions are outside of your control, and in the end can become overwhelming.
You say the capitals of the Roman Empire and the United States both succumbed to a delusional self-importance. How so?
Rome and Washington are both artificial places, and both saw themselves as the centers of the world. The Romans even had a monument in the forum called the umbilicus Romaeit means "belly-button of Rome"which symbolized the city's status as the navel of the world. The artificiality of Rome and Washington is striking in comparison with capitals like London and Paris, which are real places with real economies and real cultural weight.Rome was sustained by a massive tax called the annona, where grain would come from all over the empire to keep the city alivea constant movement of merchant ships and barges with an entire government ministry to watch over the process. The Washington analogues are the tax revenues arriving electronically every second of every day, supporting not only government but the entire regional economy.