Our Roman Predicament

News Abroad

Mr. James is the author of The Roman Predicament: How the Rules of International Order Create the Politics of Empire (Princeton University Press).

In 1776, the year of the American Declaration of Independence, Adam Smith and Edward Gibbon published the first volumes of two works that used history to illuminate Britain’s imperial dilemma in the face of the American Revolution: The Wealth of Nations and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

In these monumental and parallel works, Smith and Gibbon explored what I term the “Roman predicament”: the way that peaceful commerce is frequently seen as a way of building a stable, prosperous and integrated international society. At the same time, the peaceful liberal economic order leads to domestic clashes and also to international rivalry and even wars. The conflicts disturb and eventually destroy the commercial system and the bases of prosperity and integration. These interactions seem to be a vicious spiral, or a trap from which it seems almost impossible to escape. The liberal commercial world order subverts and destroys itself, and Smith’s gloomy concluding chapters are a long away from the apparently optimistic beginning with the immense productivity gains possible as a result of the division of labor.

Gibbon and Smith clearly thought that imperial Britain had reached the limits which demonstrated the extent of its vulnerability. Gibbon’s Rome under Augustus started off as peaceful, but the moment that it started to expand by force it set in motion the logic of its own downfall. Both eighteenth century writers detected not only an external challenge but also an internal decay as the cause of weakness.

In the early twenty-first century, in the wake of increasing chaos in Iraq, analyses about the “imperial overstretch” of the United States have become commonplace. The most usual version of this analysis shows the futility of military power alone. A massive military potential, greater than at least the next twenty states combined, cannot be translated into effective power because it prompts endless resistance. Power as measured in a conventional way turned out to be useless.

In fact, the origins of modern American power can be explained in quite different terms. In the course of the twentieth century, the United States became uniquely powerful because of the strength of an economic order that produced unprecedented prosperity, not just in the imperial center but all over the world. The collapse of its major ideological rival, the Soviet Union, required no application of military force.

Today there are no grounds for thinking that the United States – or the global economic system – has reached any kind of inherent limit to growth. The pace of technical innovation even seems to be increasing, and the U.S. is one of the world’s most dynamic and innovative societies.

The possibility of an unraveling of the U.S. position comes rather from political developments that respond to the uncertainties of the new economy as well as the new security situation. Some of the backlash stems from fears of immigration, even though it is precisely the openness to immigration that has made the U.S. so dynamic. Our political and social psychology responds to globalization by imagining an idealized safe and closed off world. The more we think of the military and security challenge, the more likely we are to try to close ourselves off.

Yet another part of the psychology that develops in response to globalization stems from resentments brought by changes in relative income and wealth. Periods of globalization and high levels of economic growth also tend to be periods when inequalities increase. This was true of ancient Rome, as it was true of eighteenth century Britain where the big corporations of the day, such as the East India Company, generated enormous personal wealth for a handful of directors. Gibbon concluded that: “Such is the constitution of civil society, that, whilst a few persons are distinguished by riches, by honours, and by knowledge, the body of the people is condemned to obscurity, ignorance, and poverty.” Inequality was the social problem that provoked the rise of what he saw as the egalitarian ideology (namely Christianity) that would undermine the Roman empire.

The domestic discontents have a powerful international dimension, and that is likely to produce an erosion of preeminence even faster than any domestic disintegration. In particular, there is widespread mistrust of the power of the world’s only superpower, and increased doubt about the sort of politics that the United States tries to impose on the rest of the world.

The central problem is that we need rules for the functioning of complex societies, whether on a national (state) level, or in international relations. But we do not always comply voluntarily with rules, and rules require some enforcement. In addition rules need to be formulated. The enforcement and the promulgation of rules are both consequences of power, and power is concentrated and unequally distributed. Even when we think of voluntarily negotiated rules, there is the memory of some act of power, the long shadow of a hegemomic strength – the shadow of Rome - falling on the negotiators. The propensity for subversion and destruction of a rule-based order comes about because and whenever there is a perception that rules are arbitrary, unjust, and reflect the imposition of particular interests in a high-handed imperial display of power.

Even relatively small conflicts can lead to a reevaluation of the position of the hegemonic power, and since 2003 the conflict in Iraq has unleashed a wave of discussion of whether the United States is “imperial”. Iraq provoked – in a way that U.S. interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo had not done – a combination of the discussion of domestic inequalities in the United States and accusations of malign abuse of U.S. strength. It is the moment when the United States came face to face with the ghost of Rome.

Adam Smith’s first volume of the Wealth of Nations (1776) closed with the reflection that “the ordinary revolutions of war and government easily dry up the sources of that wealth which arises from commerce alone.” Over two hundred years later war has lost none of its power to make the complex skein of globalization unravel into a tangled web of suspicion and resentment.

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omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

Mr Heuisler
Your repeated use of the term "Islamofascism" intrigues me.

How did you, and others, come to that totally new , patently PR, in the low sense of PR ie as in American TV commercials, developed term?
Terms should convey the substance of the thing they denote.
Communism is communism ,capitalism is capitalism and both clearly denote the substance they refer to.

I would not mind at all using the term "Islamism", although where it really matters ie in Arab/Moslem lands, serious writers use the more precise term "political Islamism" or "political Islam" when referring to the political/governance dimension in Islam ( a highly controversial issue) and to distinguish it from "religious" Islam.

It is not that I mind it only because of the cheap PR trick it involves but equally because it is inaccurate, misleading and does not respect the intelligence and the political education of the Western reader.
Serious political writers here use terms as "Western and/or American style" or "liberal" democracy but never "exploitative " or "money dominated" democracy that some cheap hacks here use...they have too much respect for their readers than to fall into such childish verbal games.

omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

Mr. Willis,
If you find it convenient you can on using the term "Islamofascim" but then, wittingly or unwittingly, you are contributing to the abysmal ignorance of the American public particularly re Islam!
The term is gaining so much currency, through ignorant use or malicious abuse, that it threatens to became the standard reference to "Political Islam".
Whereas if you care about exactitude of expression, and not cheap mob pleasing sloganeering , then must know that the most important Islamist political party, by any standard including election results and pervasive influence ,the "Moslem Brothers" is not only nonviolent but energetically anti violence.And by no stretch of imagination, bar sick imagination, could it be described as "fascist"!
For words to have real meaning and transmit thought, they have to be truly descriptive of the substance they refer to.
I have no ax to grind here , I am far from being an "Islamist" (excuse the personal note), except that I believe the correct choice of words is indispensable to understanding, whether through agreement or disagreement, each other correctly.
Misunderstanding does not form the basis of any useful dialogue.

omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

Mr. Rodden
You have hit the nail on the head.
I could not have come with a better example to show how absurd is the term and how really devoid of any real meaning it is.
Adjoining a qualification to a term to reflect a certain opinion or bias degrades the meaning of words as the primary tool to convey a distinct meaning or substance !
Opinion or bias, should, in fairness to the reader, be expressed separately to show where the user stands.

For example should one say :"the fascist Islamist movement of al Qaeda" it would be a proper, though not necessarily correct, way of expression that keeps opinion/bias separate from the term Islamist which includes many other variations , some of which are ,by any standard, counter "fascist" such as "Sufism"!

It would indicate accurately what his opinion is and where he stands.

It would be easy enough for me to say "Ziononazism" ( which would not be far from the truth) or "Israeloracism" (which would be even closer to the truth) but that would be a corruption of the meaning of words and a cheap, cowardly, way of expressing my opinion and disrespectful of the reader .

Whereas expressions such as:" Nazi like aggressive Zionism" and "racist Israel" show clearly what I think, where I stand and depict accurately both Zionism and Israel while always respecting the reader.

The mental/psychological/ethical association of a term is, and should always be left, with the receiver if the writer has any respect for him.

"Communism", say, has come to be associated with and mean the vilest of meanings for some and the noblest with others while always denoting the same distinct meaning for all!

"Islamofascism" is a cheap PR generated expression meant to malign and obfuscate the meaning of the word Islam, spread bias and exploit the ignorance of the unknowing and gullible.
It was coined, and is constantly furthered, by the arch enemies of intercultural dialogue and the advocators and harbingers of ignorance and prejudice: Zionism and neo-conservatism to serve their cheap designs and objectives!
Users of the term either fell to their trick or are actively advancing the cause of ignorance and prejudice.

Patrick M. Ebbitt - 9/24/2006

Just how advanced really was the Roman Empire?


Rob Willis - 5/13/2006

Mr. Baker,
We are obviously not communicating here. The Moslem Brotherhood, by your description, are not a group who could therefore be identified as Islamofascists. However, there are still a certain number who can.

mark safranski - 5/13/2006

Why al Qaida of course, Mr. Rodden.

While it is normal to have strong partisan feelings about American presidents - Bush, Clinton, Reagan, Nixon etc. only a fool or an extremist ideologue would compare one of them to al Qaida, Hitler and so on.

Jos Hanson - 5/11/2006

You're right Steve. I wish we could go back to those happy days when the media didn't need polls to use "the popular U.S. president" as an appositive for President Bush.

Deborah Avant at the Elliot School of International Affairs at Geo. Wash. University estimates revenues of private military companies like Haliburton and Dyn-Corp will quadruple from 1990 to 2010.

Billions have gone to Haliburton, which has risen from the 50th-something defense contractor in 2000 to the the third in terms of money received from the Pentagon. That's war profiteering on a large scale.

Defense industries now represent 25% of GDP and are about all that's left of our once-mighty industrial economy.

Actually they may be "running dogs," but they're not capitalists. These are no-bid, crony contracts. These guys have never had much success in a competitive business environment.

Steven R Alvarado - 5/11/2006


I can't quite figure which is more laoughable your belief that polls are worthy of mention or your dated code words "warprofiteers". I'm surprised you don't call Republicans "running dog capitalist".


Jos Hanson - 5/11/2006

Omar, wow this post brought out the wingnuts.

It's futile to try to exchange ideas with them. They can only handle slogans.

As the polls show, two out of three Americans now see President Bush's "defensive war against Islamofascism"
has done nothing but enrich warprofiteers, put us deeper in debt, alienate the rest of the world, and limit the rights of Americans.

By the way, yesterday Rumsfeld spoke out on the growing threat of Russia and China.

It's not islamofascism that's their enemy. It's peace. The only real manufacturering the U.S. does now is in weapons to sell to the government, sort of like a starving man trying to get nourishment by eating his own body wastes.

Rob Willis - 5/11/2006

The term is no less descriptive or inappropriate than "Christian extremist", "Leftist radical", or "Democratic socialist". It is a compound word meant to communicate the essence of thought and action of a group of troublemakers in the most efficient way. It works for me, and billions of other folks too. We know what we mean when we use it, and I think you do to.

Glenn Scott Rodden - 5/10/2006

"A hyperviolent, reactionary, political movement that runs on religious bigotry and reflexive brutality can't be sanitized by genteel terminology."

Are you describing Al Queda or the Bush administration?

mark safranski - 5/10/2006


It's shorter than writing "Takfiri-Jihadi lunatics".

A rose by any other name. A hyperviolent, reactionary, political movement that runs on religious bigotry and reflexive brutality can't be sanitized by genteel terminology.

Rob Willis - 5/10/2006

It is an appropriate term, not a PR handle. Radical Islam has adopted all of the dark political trappings of traditional fascism (and some new tricks as well), but the goal is to assert radical Islamic law, tradition, and punishment on their victims.

Don't take it personally, you don't seem to part of that pack.

R. Willis

Bill Heuisler - 5/9/2006

Mr. James,
Trying to place the US as Imperial and then matching the US with other Imperial powers is a contrived way to criticize President Bush and our defensive war against Islamofascism.

First, we were attacked for decades by international terrorists backed by certain dictators. We responded.

Your (Gibbon's?) premise that Rome under Augustus began as peaceful strikes me as reaching for a premise that did not exist.

Marcus Antonius, Marcus Lepidus and Gaius Octavius formed the Second Triumvirate and began proscriptions of 300 senators and 2000 Equites, taking their properties and many of their lives. This purge effectively robbed Rome of an opposing party.
Antony and Octavian then defeated Brutus and Cassius at Philippi.
In 32 BC, Octavian declared against Antony and defeated him in the Bay of Actium. Caesarion, son of Julius Ceasar by Cleopatra, was "butchered without compunction".
Hardly peacerful.

Gaius Octavius became Augustus and his legions immediately conquered Northern Spain, Alpine territories, Europe to the Danube, Germany to the Rhine , Armenia and the TransCaucus. His Imperial designs on Germany were only halted at the Teutoberg Forest in 9AD. Octavian was never peaceful; the peace of Rome was the peace of the Gladius.

A better comparison would be the reign of Stalin, begun in civil war, purged domestic enemies, absorbed central Asia and Eastern Europe and kept "peace" with the Red Army.

Imperial US exists only in the minds of our enemies.
Bill Heuisler