In the allegorical film Gladiator, after a tenuous Roman victory, the general Maximus is embraced by the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius. With the scent of carnage fresh, Maximus assures the weary emperor that the battle has affirmed Rome's invincibility. The wise Aurelius retorts stoically that it foreshadows Rome's inevitable decline. Aurelius implores Maximus, a career soldier and political innocent, to restore the republic. In fact, after the 192 C.E. strangulation of Aurelius' successor, his son Commodus, the empire imploded, habituated to surrender civilian rights to military authority in times of crisis, deluded and anesthetized by bread and circuses. By the third century, the empire was "a mere corpse in armor." The barbarian sacking of Rome in 476 was simply an epilogue to a protracted, internal decay.
That the present resembles the past is unsettling but not novel. Thucydides reminds us in his History of the Peloponnesian War that analogies to the past are a means by which we can act more prudently in the present. After 9/11, comparisons of the U.S. with past imperial powers are instructive and can guide us in averting or postponing similar fates.
For more than 100 years, U.S. historians have written of America's imperial character. Recently, and especially since 9/11, a chorus of scholars have acknowledged an American Empire but differ on interpretation. On one side, scholars assert that our new manifest destiny is "nation building" -- to disseminate the benefits of democracy and free-market capitalism (i.e. "globalization") to host societies in obsolete systems. On the other side, scholars contend that, like earlier imperial powers, the U.S. has conducted its foreign policy in contradiction of the principles it espouses, even behaving as a rapacious, acquisitive conqueror. In the guise of spreading law and citizenship, ideals and freedom of commerce, the Roman, Spanish and British Empires plundered their colonies and thus hastened their demise.
These same scholars are debating whether the American Empire is in ascent or decline. Robert Kaplan in his book Warrior Politics (2001) suggests the former, while Kevin Phillips in Wealth and Democracy (2002) argues the latter.
After 9/11, many demand more than the paralysis of a scholarly polemic on U.S. policy -- people want immediate and resolute action that results in improved national security. We must be cautious and fully debate this issue: How is the U.S. perceived globally, and what do we wish our policy to be? To do less is to run the risk of taking a course that may sabotage ourselves. As John Lewis Gaddis, Yale historian, has suggested, while Americans are not responsible for 9/11, it would be "irresponsible in the extreme" if we do not scrutinize U.S. policies. There are two requisite conditions to this debate.
First, while clearly there are differences on how to achieve national security, free and open debate is imperative. The Constitution, framed on the ideals of the Enlightenment, still confronts the Realpolitik of a Machiavellian world; therefore it is argued that in a time of crisis it is necessary to limit freedom. Restriction of freedom to protect freedom, (e.g., the U.S.A. Patriot Act, a law that implies that policy critics abet terrorists) is chillingly contrary to the idea that a vigilant, critical citizenry is the true guardian of freedom. Viable policy based on consent is premised on on-going dissent. This freedom is a sacred secular truth. Do we have the resolve to defend others' right to disagree with us? This is the fundamental question in a democratic, pluralistic state. As the empire continues to be assailed, there is the tendency to silence internal opposition as civilians are mobilized in a united front against the enemies of the state. Rights as well as truth are casualties of these wars. In the darkest days of the Peloponnesian War, for instance, Athens executed the one who epitomized free inquiry -- Socrates. Now, as then, the ideals of democracy are fragile when faced with the realities of empire.
Second, in this crucial debate we must differentiate between more and less credible opinion and the equal right to express those opinions. Is it not fair to state that a person with a Ph.D. in U.S. foreign policy is likely to have a more accurate policy analysis than the "man from Lubbock?" This is not elitist but rather a standard to which education aspires. To degrade intellectuals and exalt relatively uniformed public opinion is ominously reminiscent of the volk mentality of Nazism that romanticized ignorance, scorned valid scholarship and thus rendered the German people vulnerable to the kind of specious reasoning that has infected public discourse since 9/11. The vox populi is the essence of a democracy, but it is the duty of the individual to refine his voice through learning so that, as Jefferson said, "A man can determine himself what it is that protects and endangers his freedom." At the same time we must be skeptical of the "experts," specifically those in service to the state. Even "the best and brightest" can err, as we witnessed in Vietnam. Furthermore, knowledge invokes the duty to act. As Pericles reminds us in his Funeral Oration, "We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say he has no business here at all."
Despair of the plutocracy, but curse not its excesses if you are but a spectator to the demise of the republic.
John Hagney has an M.A. in contemporary U.S. foreign policy, has published an oral history of the early rule of Gorbachev and teaches at Lewis and Clark High School, SFCC and EWU.