The rise and fall of the American empire

Empires usually collapse from internal forces which are sometimes exacerbated by international events.  When the great British historian Arnold Toynbee cataloged the rise and fall of civilizations in his monumental multi-volume A Study of History, he studied how different civilizations responded to internal and external challenges.  The key to understanding why some civilizations grew and prospered and others declined and died was "challenge and response."  The rise and fall of empires — including the American empire — are subject to similar analyses.

America rose to imperial power by effectively responding to internal and external challenges.  At its birth, the American republic first defeated Great Britain in a war, then overcame internal division by erecting a constitutional structure that imperfectly combined unity and division.  It then responded well to another challenge from Britain in the War of 1812 and launched its effort to occupy and politically appropriate a continent, known as "Manifest Destiny."

The American empire overcame perhaps its greatest challenge during the Civil War, a sectional conflict that threatened to undo America's imperial project.  After Lincoln and Grant saved the Union, Manifest Destiny continued unabated with the spectacular advances of the Industrial Revolution until the American empire stretched "from sea to shining sea."

But at the end of the 19th century, America, in Alfred Thayer Mahan's words, looked outward, gaining overseas colonies as a result of the Spanish-American War and the annexation of Hawaii.  By the end of Theodore Roosevelt's presidency, America was both an Atlantic and a Pacific power, and Roosevelt gloried in showing America's global reach by sending the fleet around the world and beginning construction of the Panama Canal.

Europe's near suicidal war between 1914 and 1918, and the even greater catastrophic war between 1939 and 1945, set the stage for America's global pre-eminence, but that pre-eminence came with a price — a national security state of gargantuan proportions tied to what President Eisenhower called an avaricious, insatiable "military-industrial complex."  As Randolph Bourne once said: "War is the health of the state."

The growth of state power in America, as elsewhere, was accompanied by a diminution in the individual freedom and liberty of its citizens.  And it led to the growing power of a seemingly self-perpetuating, elite ruling class whose first priority has been to maintain and expand its power and privileges.  It was that elite ruling class that Donald Trump called "the swamp," and that the late, great Angelo Codevilla wrote about in his books The Ruling Class and America's Rise and Fall among Nations.

It is that elite ruling class that captured control of our nation's cultural, media, and educational institutions and let loose internal forces — as if from Pandora's box — that are corrupting and weakening America, and that if left unchecked will leave us vulnerable to, if not defenseless against, external challenges.  And today, the greatest external challenge is from the Chinese Communist Party, which seeks to replace America as the world's leading economic and military power.

Today, many American elites think of themselves as "citizens of the world" and pursue a globalist agenda that supersedes the parochial concerns of Americans.  Those elites look to Davos and the World Economic Forum for economic guidance; to the World Health Organization (WHO) for medical policies; to the United Nations for international norms related to environmental, immigration. energy, climate, and maritime policies; to the International Court of Justice at the Hague for legal norms; and to a variety of multinational forums to determine "world opinion."

America's elites have made "nationalism" a dirty word, equating it with racism, fascism, and right-wing fanaticism.  And they have attempted to ban Christianity from the public square in the United States as part of a broader effort to undermine civic virtue among the citizenry by normalizing practices previously considered deviant (what Daniel Patrick Moynihan labeled "defining deviancy down") and promoting a "woke" agenda (e.g., Critical Race Theory, the sexualization of young children) that undermines traditional beliefs and customs.

In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon ruminated on the "latent causes of decay and corruption" in Rome.  He noted the introduction by the ruling elites of "a slow and secret poison into the vitals of the empire."  "The minds of men were gradually reduced," he wrote, and "the fire of genius was extinguished, and even the military spirit evaporated."  The corrosive effects on the citizenry manifested themselves in the collapse of "public courage" and the diminished "love of independence" and "sense of national honor."  "A cloud of critics, of compilers, of commentators," Gibbon lamented, "darkened the face of learning, and the decline of genius was soon followed by the corruption of taste."  A "degeneracy" set in among the Roman elites and spread to the citizens, which "debased their sentiments, enervated their courage, and depressed their talents."  The result, Gibbon wrote, was that Rome was "peopled by a race of pygmies" when the barbarians from the north swept in to conquer.

America's elite class is leading us down the path of Rome.  Hopefully, it's not too late to change course.

Image via Max Pixel.

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