From the Archives • June 24, 2007

The Issue is Empire

Question: from essayist Cullen Murphy: Are We Rome? — as in “the glory that was…,” and, of course, “decline and fall…” Answer: from political economist Alice Amsden, in Escape from Empire: Notice rather that there ...

Question: from essayist Cullen Murphy:

Are We Rome? — as in “the glory that was…,” and, of course, “decline and fall…”

Answer: from political economist Alice Amsden, in Escape from Empire:

Notice rather that there have been two American Empires since World War 2. The first was an improvisational Golden Age from 1944 to 1980 (FDR through Jimmy Carter) that worked growth wonders for pretty much everybody, including Latin America and Africa. Our post-Vietnam, tight-money Second Empire from 1980 to the present (Reagan to Bush II) could well be remembered, like the British Empire, as a place where “the sun never sets and wages never rise,” and it could be the ruin of all but Asia.

The motto of Amsden’s first American Empire was “get smart”; the instruction to developing economies was “use your own brains and run your own show.” The motto of the second empire is “get tough,” and the effective rule is roughly: Washington’s way or the highway.

The first lifted all boats; the second lifted all yachts. In one case prosperity and growth were graced by Heaven. In the other, inequality and stagnation were squired by Hell.

Alice Amsden, Escape from Empire

Cullen Murphy’s Are We Rome? feels more like an evening in Edward Gibbon’s study, or in Murphy’s own life-library. Murphy was an editor of the Atlantic Monthly, and he wrote this book in a nook of the Boston Athenaeum, glancing back and forth from the classical authorities on Rome to the digital chronicles of Late Bush. Here’s a taste of Murphy:

The Roman historian Titus Livius, better known to us as Livy… explained that what makes a society strong is the well-being of its people — basic justice, basic opportunity, a modicum of spiritual reward — and the people’s conviction that “the system” is set up to produce it. As Livy wrote, “An empire remains powerful so long as its subjects rejoice in it.”

So here’s the Titus Livius Hundred-Year Workout Plan:

First, instill an appreciation of the wider world. Start teaching it round instead of flat. Immigration helps us here. The influx of foreign students does too. And so does — seriously — America’s entry, at last, into the world of soccer-playing countries. Colonial America defined itself as a nation as it advanced into an unknown interior; in a globalizing age the unknown world is as close to us as it was to any seventeenth-century settler. To drive home the idea that “we are not alone,” there is no substitute for fluency in another language. Every educated person in the Roman Empire spoke at least two languages, and so did the strivers among the, uh, immigrant hordes. Americans have their priorities backward. They worry needlessly about the second part: whether the immigrants will ever learn English. They should be worrying about the first: whether the elites will ever speak anything else…

Cullen Murphy, Are We Rome?

There are two wonderfully distilled small books here on what has seemed to me the underlying choice of our time: Empire or Republic? The oldest warning from our Founders, who knew their Roman history, is that the republic was ours only, as Franklin said, “if you can keep it.” Furthermore, it seems that the broadest underlying consensus off the presidential blarney trail is that Empire is the name of what has gone wrong in our country. My consensus ranges back to the warnings of George Washington and John Adams but also Mark Twain and William James. Among contemporaries it includes opposite figures like Pat Buchanan and the late Susan Sontag, the repentant Niall Ferguson and the left-conservative Norman Mailer, not to mention Chalmers Johnson and Gore Vidal.

Empire as a debating theme may not be ripe yet for presidential politics, but let us make it the stuff of a radio hour and this open thread, please.

Extra Credit Reading

Fareed Zakaria, The Arrogant Empire, Newsweek, March 24, 2003.

Bryn Lloyd-Ballard, Imperial America?, The Uncapitalist Journal, June 15, 2007:

“The US is not an empire in the sense that it wields *direct*political control over foreign populations and territories, but it is an empire by merit of its unparalleled military, economic, and financial supremacy. American hegemony rests on the perpetual exploitation of an economically-dependent periphery in order to feed its metropolitan core, and uses its hegemonic position within the international economy to prevent countries from opting out of its imperial fold. In these respects, the United States resembles the most powerful empires of past epochs.”

New American Century, Statement of Principles: “We aim to make the case and rally support for American global leadership. The history of the 20th century should have taught us that it is important to shape circumstances before crises emerge, and to meet threats before they become dire. The history of this century should have taught us to embrace the cause of American leadership.”

James Shikwati, For God’s Sake, Please Stop the Aid!, Der Spiegel, July 04, 2005: “Why do we get these mountains of clothes? No one is freezing here. Instead, our tailors lose their livlihoods. Africans are taught to be beggars and not to be independent. In addition, development aid weakens the local markets everywhere and dampens the spirit of entrepreneurship that we so desperately need. As absurd as it may sound: Development aid is one of the reasons for Africa’s problems. If the West were to cancel these payments, normal Africans wouldn’t even notice. Only the functionaries would be hard hit. Which is why they maintain that the world would stop turning without this development aid.”

John Perkins, Interview with Amy Goodman, on Democracy Now, June 05, 2007: I think it’s fair to say that since World War II, we economic hit men have managed to create the world’s first truly global empire, and we’ve done it primarily without the military, unlike other empires in history. We’ve done it through economics very subtly.”

razib’s comment to Open Source, June 25th, 2007: “america itself is an empire, our influence around the globe is that of a hegemon.”