The decline and fall of the Spanish (and American?) empires
To the extent that Americans think about historical analogies for our position in the world and our fate as a global power, we tend to look to Britain and Rome to provide clues as to how to maintain our position as world leader and avoid the decline that led to catastrophe for Rome and genteel second tier status for the UK.
But in a fascinating and erudite article in Compact Magazine, R. Taggart Murphy argues that Spain’s decline from a global superpower to an also-ran in Europe offers important lessons directly relevant to Americans’ debates on overseas military involvements and deficit spending.
Spain was the first global superpower. Obviously, there had been other great powers—Rome, the China of the Tang and Ming dynasties, the vast Mongol domains—but none had spanned oceans and continents the way the Spanish Empire did at its height. In the first half of the 16th century, Charles V reigned over vast swathes of Europe; his son Philip II controlled most of the Western Hemisphere as well as a sizable chunk of Asia (the Philippines were named after him). Imperial Spain’s maximum territorial reach would only be surpassed by the British Empire in the 19th century, and in the 20th by the informal American imperium, with its 750 overseas bases and network of global alliances.
But then Spain blew it. Already by the middle of the 17th century, under the crisis-ridden rule of Philip IV, the Iberian kingdom “had been left behind by the rest of Europe,” as John A. Crow wrote in his classic study, Spain: The Root and the Flower. England’s emergent sea power had dealt an early, crippling blow to Spanish naval might in the 1588 defeat of the Armada. A little more than three centuries later, the United States would effectively end Spain’s overseas empire, seizing control of its last colonies in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam. Between these two catastrophes there intervened a long period of slow decline.
“The parallels between America and Spain are striking.”
Those contemplating the possible demise of American global hegemony most often turn for lessons to Rome or the Soviet Union, but the parallels between America and Spain are striking. Both countries, in their formative, pre-imperial periods, were defined by processes of territorial expansion across shifting frontiers: the reconquista of southern Spain from the Moors and the conquest of the American West. In both cases, the closing of the frontier—Spain’s in 1492 with the capture of Granada by Ferdinand and Isabella, America’s famously marked by the historian Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893—coincided with the initial phase of overseas territorial expansion that would lead to superpower status. Columbus arrived in the Caribbean the same year Granada fell; America’s seizure of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines occurred in 1898, the same year Congress ratified the annexation of Hawaii.
But what struck me most powerfully was the analogy Murphy drew between Spain’s abundant supply of gold from its New World conquests, and America’s ability to metaphorically print money and have it accepted worldwide thanks to the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency. In both cases, these global imperiums were able to spend large sums on maintaining empires without the hard work of generating real wealth via tangible industry and commerce. In both cases, the decline in the ability to generate real wealth (in our case, the hollowing put of manufacturing; in Spain’s case, the failure to have an industrial revolution) led to decline.
Of course, I vastly oversimplify and do no justice to Murphy’s argument.
This is a long and nuanced essay, well worth your while.
Full disclosure: “Tag” Murphy, as he was known to all, was a student of mine at Harvard too many decades ago. The fact that he is now a professor emeritus (at Japan’s prestigious Tsukuba University) makes me feel very old.