What Roman History Means To America

This is my last article this week. I’ll be away from the free site until next week, but will be sending The Kelly Letter to subscribers this weekend, as usual.

More on our current theme of America’s future comes from historian Jonathan, who wrote:

Your reader [Marcel from Monday’s article] evidently doesn’t understand what became of the Roman Empire. It split in twain, and (excepting my folk hero Julian the Apostate’s brief efforts) remained that way.

The western portion could certainly be considered to have fallen in a sense, given that Alaric the Visigoth and his homies sacked Rome (by which time the administration was at Ravenna anyway) when hardly anyone could be bothered to defend it. Later that century it fell to a Scirian barbarian king, then became an Ostrogothic kingdom, and in general we watched the rise of Germanic-speaking people — Franks, Goths, Vandals, etc.

But an interesting thing happened there. When those successors finally produced a new empire, they called it the Holy Roman Empire. I am not contending that the HRE was any form of direct descendant of the Empire of Vespasian and Diocletian, of course. I am contending that in one form or another, the western Roman Empire hung on quite a long time — even if only as an idea.

But that was the weak side of the split.

The eastern portion could not be considered fallen at all at the same time as the western. It became the Byzantine Empire, a thriving place, and endured for a millennium after Odovacar the Scirian contemptuously told the last western Emperor: “You can run along now, son.”

Of course, it’s not good enough to just tell the history; part of the task is to draw lessons and inferences. I think your British example is a reasonable one; I think it’s a worthy topic of discussion which former major power we resemble more.

I am greatly fond of pointing out to Americans that our Francophobia is ironic in light of the fact that we so resemble the French. We are unilingual, we overrate ourselves, and we’re often insufferable about both facts. We ought to view the French as kindred spirits, because they’re the only other people in the world as abrasive and difficult and annoying as we are. (Then there’s that little part about us probably losing the Revolution without them, us helping Napoleon, a big statue, then two major wars together. If ever two nations were meant to be friends it is us and France.)

I do not think that the U.S. faces the fate of the western Roman Empire, or even the eastern. I do think that the world contains a finite number of resources, an issue Americans have often been able to ignore for domestic purposes but which was enough of a deal-breaker for Japan to lead her to war against us. The Japanese know (because, so far as I know, they have almost no natural resources).

I also think that the underdeveloped world wants to live like the developed world. Chinese and Indians want to live like Japanese and Americans. So do Bolivians and Botswanans. The rest of the world is hurrying to catch up, and that means significant amounts of infrastructural and consumer spending as homes get their first indoor plumbing, water faucet, phone line, microwave, electric socket to power a microwave, etc. Therefore, we will see them grow at a faster rate for some time — probably into my retirement years (I’m 44 now).

But that doesn’t mean America is in decline. It may mean that America’s growth slows; it may mean that other nations grow faster. If someone wants to consider that relative decline, I suppose they can, but they’re applying too much spin by putting it that way.

What it does mean is that Americans will have to get over their Suite Madame Blue [lyrics and live performance] delusions and realize that our national military and economic power has limits. What it means for the American investor is that there’s profit to be had investing overseas, at least for those few Americans who understand or care what’s going on overseas.

The rest are the mullethead in the flag do-rag and shades we’ve all seen in the pic holding a sign that says, “Get a Brain Morans.” They’re the same Americans who think that because fuel prices have now finally reached equivalent levels to the early 1970s, death and destruction will rain upon our land. Odd. I was a boy in the early 1970s. I remember long gas lines but I don’t remember death and destruction. (Watergate, yes.)

As for those who don’t realize that a portion of the Roman Empire survived intact for nearly a millennium after the exile of Romulus Augustulus in the west, it might profit them to check their analogies before using them.

A great history lesson, and consistent with the main message of Fareed Zakaria’s new book, The Post-American World: It’s not so much that America is declining, but rather that other countries are finally catching up. Zakaria calls it the rise of the rest.

America will remain the sole superpower for a long time yet to come. Will it use that position to its advantage, or get sidetracked and become the buffoon in the room that everybody else is snickering about?

There’s been a lot of snickering so far this century. Some fine statesmanship would be a pleasant change of pace.

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