Friday, August 17, 2007

The Fall of Rome: Implications for U.S. Primacy?

Angevin13, over at The Oxford Medievalist, recently put up a great post on the fall of Rome in which he reviews Peter Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire.

Angevin provides an excellent analsysis. Even better, though, is that his writing's a pleasure to behold! The post was written in response to
the recent claim by the Comptroller of the Currency that the lessons of the rise and fall of the Roman empire might have some contemporary implications for the longevity of U.S. global leadership.

Here's how Angevin condudes the post:

I do have some exit questions that some people may want to debate. I happen to believe it's chauvinistic to think the United States will endure forever, unchanged. Assuming it does not, will the end be more like the fall of the Roman Republic, or the fall of the Roman Empire? If the latter, will it be like Gibbon's "internal maladies" thesis, or Heather's "exogenous shock"? More than a few acquaintances of mine have opined that our present illegal immigration problem is comparable to the wave of Germanic migrations the Romans faced in the fourth and fifth centuries. I think, at present, that hypothesis has some merit, but is also deeply flawed. But I'll opt out here and let you all flesh that out...
Here's my response from the comments:

Your historical analysis and review of Heather's thesis is precise and well-stated. I don't know enough of the history to quibble with any of it.

Yet, I'm skeptical of the rise and fall thesis for the U.S. case, which ties in to the decline and fall argument. The debate on American decline was going really strong in the late-1980s with the rise of Japanese industrial competitiveness and the significant structural economic problems the U.S. was facing in the late Reagan administration (especially the huge trade and budget deficits).

Historians and political scientists spent a lot of time analyzing the issues, and much of the analysis was very persuasive. I was particularly inclined to support more of an activist trade and industrial policy to promote strategic sectors in the economy, which might have had an impact on beating back Japanese attempts at world high-tech predominance.

In hindsight, our worries of U.S. decline were overblown. The U.S. outgrew all the Western democratic economies in the 1990s. By the end of the decade, America had stretched its lead on all the major measures of great power status. American unipolarity was so pronounced, that some scholars argued that even if a balancing coalition of states wanted to rein in American hegemony, the U.S. lead (in the economy and military spending - which was larger than the top 20 economies combined) was so pronounced that others simply gave up any efforts.

Today, while the considerable budget deficits of the Bush years have troubled some economists, it's been American difficulties in Iraq that have raised the declining hegemon thesis again.

I'm of the belief that while the U.S. is currently strained militarily, economically defense spending as a percentage of GDP is sustainable, and thus we would not be getting to the point of "imperial overstretch" that was the popular critique in the '80s. Paul Kennedy - in "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers" (1987) - wrote that countries that were overextended military were likely to face strategic decline over the long term.

The problem here? History proved Kennedy wrong. Today, to the extent that the U.S. faces relative decline, one has to analyze comparatively the prospects for America's peer competitors to bridge the gap in America's power vis-a-vis their own.

Even countries like China face decades before they could supplant the U.S. as the world's most vibrant and dominant nation. The locus of technological and financial innovation remains in the U.S. Talk of financial power in Beijing - with the large Chinese balance of payments surpluses - omits the point that for China to pull the plug on capital liquidity to the U.S. would be tantamount to torpedoing its most important consumer market. Economic interdependence makes both parties to a bilataral relationship vulnerable.

How will the U.S. collapse and disintegrate? It's a fascinating question. Most likely it will be a combination of economic weakness and internal chaos (perhaps unmanageable ethnic segmentation emerging from greater and greater diversity). Yet, Rome's probably not the model of what will happen to the U.S. in the wake of imperial decline. Britain is. We will move into the ranks of second rate powers, and hitch our interests to the dominant state in the system. This could be centuries from now, as far as we know.

The point about immigration needs to be looked at in context, of course. If high rates of continuing in-migration result in demands for ethnic separation (in the Southwest, for example), the traditional assimilationist melting pot model could be threatened and overturned. It's something that has to be considered, and perhaps a period of restrictionism in immmigration - as was the case in the early 20th century - might work to incorporate those already here and build up and renew American national identity.

On the other hand, demographically, the U.S. is expected to be in a much better position in terms of the percentage of young, productive citizens compared to the other advanced democracies. America is much more likely to sustain a large economy and avoid a debilitating social welfare cost liability than is true in the case of countries like Japan.

Given an analysis like this, U.S. preponderance will endure. And should America's dominant ideology of capitalism, liberty, and inclusion prevail over fissiparous multicultural tendencies, then talk of a Roman-style collapse will look quaint and ill-informed - for decades, if not centuries, into the future.
For more information on this, see some my posts on the durability of U.S. primacy (here, here, and here).

And don't forget to sure to check out Angevin's page!

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