A SILENT EMPIRE OF OUR OWN
by Seymour Schechtman
My school boy days and the four years of Latin that were part of it are hazy memories. But some of the glory of ancient Rome gleaned from the study of that "dead" language still resonates. Not only for the solid English word base Latin provided but for the phrases and verbal pictures that were often projected. The two most vibrant for me were Mare Nostrum and Pax Romanum, and they still are echoes of the past that still linger in our historic conscience as possibilities now, but in somewhat altered form, of course. Mare Nostrum is "our sea"--the Mediterranean-- and Pax Romanum, of course, is the Roman peace, or really the Roman Empire, in the heyday of its power and the peace it imposed throughout most of the civilized world. This Roman Peace lasted for over three hundred years, a good bit of the time with relative tranquillity and rather good times.
So why not now again, with the United States the sole super power, the most powerful nation in world history, at least militarily? We already have a leg up on this process, accomplished somewhat indirectly over the years---more or less as ancient Rome did, piece by piece and somewhat haphazardly. Our "mare nostrum" is the Caribbean Sea, and our hegemony is at least in place in Central and South America. And we did not start out haphazardly, but quite boldly, almost two hundred years ago with the Monroe Doctrine, declaring that all the Americas, North, Central, and South were off limits to further colonial expansion. And we have occasionally intervened in the domestic affairs of our neighboring countries to the south with what has been derisively called by some as "dollar diplomacy". The only outright failure was the Cuban fiasco, a failure of nerve at the last minute at the Bay of Pigs attempted invasion by President Kennedy, who aborted our official support for the project when the volunteer army attack had already started. (An error he atoned for with the confrontation over Russian secret missile placement in Cuba later on). Generally we have worked quietly and efficiently in support of our "empire", sometimes thwarting the will of more radical populist movements, as in Chile, but many times propping up ailing economies with large bailout loans, as in Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, either directly by the US or through the agency of the International Monetary Fund, where we are a prime contributor.
Also, we have cloaked our own imperialist designs on this continent by the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. that our expansion westward to the Pacific ( and beyond) was inevitable.
Cuba still remains outside our sphere of dominance, the exception that proves the general rule, at least while Castro still endures. (Should we not have our best gerontologists study his life style and diet? Maybe we should put the CIA to useful intelligence work spying this out, too!)
There are many theories as to why the Roman Empire finally fell. Rome was founded almost a thousand years before it was sacked late in the fourth century AD. The period of almost universal world rule began with Caesar Augustus, Julius Caesar’s nephew. A succession of gifted emperors followed, but since no orderly legal succession was in place, the path to the power of the Emperor was always a very problematic event. Toward the end of the three hundred year span many internal struggles and even assassinations took place by rival contestants vying for the title of Emperor, thus creating divided loyalty, and jealous disappointed factions. Besides this dysfunctional expenditure of political energy as a cause of Rome’s decline was the rise of Christianity. First a persecuted minority within the Empire, Christianity was made the official religion of Rome by Constantine in about 312 AD. The historian, Edward Gibbon, who was not a friend of organized religion, in his famous book, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, attributes much of Rome’s weakening to the clash of rational, secular paganism versus the strict moralizing of the nascent Catholic Church. This stance has been hotly contested; other causes of ultimate decay have been conjectured-- the more mundane fact of agricultural decline due to soil exhaustion, and even the gradual undermining of basic physical health over time due to certain toxic chemicals such as lead and arsenic gradually accumulating in the depleted soil and gradually affecting the water and wine consumed.
However it is worth remembering that the Goths and other Germanic tribes who sacked Rome did not trample on the "Glory that was Rome", for they too carried on the mantle, devoid now of substantive meaning, of being Roman citizens, at least for a while. And this mantle of erstwhile Roman greatness was carried down through the middle ages with the Holy Roman Empire, the instrument of a political battle waged between the Catholic Papacy in Rome and neighboring kingdoms using the mantle of ancient Roman greatness for prestige.
Besides our own present hegemony we should consider the British Empire of very recent memory. Less than 100 years ago "Britannia still ruled the waves." And it had done so for many hundreds of years before. In 1897, at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee Britain controlled 444 million people living on 25 percent of the world’s land surface, amply reinforcing the claim that " the sun never sets on the British Empire." Over many centuries the British acquired colonies through conquest and claim due to diligent exploration. Then in its mature days it held on to these lands and subject people by skillful balance of power diplomacy. But in the last century the tide turned and the British had three wars to fight; the Boer War in South Africa, and 2 World Wars. And financially very much depleted, even though militarily victorious, Britain divested itself of its erstwhile glorious empire. But for many centuries of imperial rule it "had assumed the white man’s burden". Much maligned and scorned for subjugating the native populations, one can still make a strong case for the infrastructure they brought to many primitive people; roads, modern communications systems, electrical power( and refrigeration), modern sanitation concepts and much improved medical care, and basic schooling and educational instruction.
Indeed, now that over fifty years have passed since British, and other colonial rule, have ceased to be, the welfare of many liberated African countries seems only dubiously better, to state the matter as charitably as possible.
So now the American colossus, with only five percent of the world’s population has the largest gross national product by far, consumes 25 percent of the world’s resources--so its detractors claim- and also imports 40 percent of the world’s oil. It is said that when The US economy sneezes the rest of the world has rather violent economic conniptions. It is also worthy of note that for the last fifty years or so we have gone from the position of the world’s largest creditor nation to the world’s largest debtor country. But offsetting this, of course, is both the positive material asset gain in infrastructure and life style unsurpassed in the world and the creative potential both technologically and in motivation because of our free institutions and entrepreneurial spirit to continue as before as the dominant force in the world. The world still votes with its feet and we have over 1,000,000 immigrants a year delighted to gain entry to our shores.
The problem now is do we have the will and the ability to go further along the road to more overt hegemony. From our silent "empire" ---our covert imperial position--to more obvious involvement in overseas dominion. We have been forced from our present path of more insular purpose by the direct assault on our country in the attack of 9/ll/01. We have responded forcefully and impressively against the terrorist enemy. Besides overcoming the Taliban we have overthrown the manifest terrorist evil of Hussein in Iraq. Even if no obvious weapons of mass destruction are found the message to militarist, fanatic Islam--probably still a minority but with control of much of the Moslem educational and media power sites--is that we will not only defend our turf but also have a stance in their world if only to counter their vitriolic hate anti American propaganda. And to proclaim to the rest of the Moslem world that essentially we are not vile infidels whose enviable superiority, since they can not match it, must be brought down by any means possible. And that the non Islamic world has ideals, values and aspirations that both cultures can share to our mutual benefit, just as centuries ago we in the west profited from a then thriving Moslem realm. And by our actions in Iraq, in the rebuilding and rejuvenation of that country, that will hopefully prove that point.
This, of course, is much easier said than done. The prayerful, somewhat hopeful, but with just a tinge of sarcasm’ response here is "From your mouth to God’s ear"! Or to resurrect an old Latin proverb from my ages past school days Festina Lente, make haste slowly!". We can not shrink back behind national borders or ocean wide distances. Judicious preemptive attack is our best defense. Within an international framework such as the United Nations but still with flexible legal parameters to allow selective alternative action when the UN resolutions are flouted by malefactors like Hussein and then not enforced. But empires, if they come about, are still built haphazardly, depending on circumstances. We many never have a Pax Americana, as in ancient times, but still an American Century, just as the one we have just successfully concluded. Then we can have that warm feeling of perhaps passing on a better world to our posterity.
Fond delusional hope!!