America Could Die Like the British Empire or Live Like the Roman Empire

Anna/Istanbul, Turkey

Despite internal setbacks and external actors having diminished America’s relative geopolitical strength compared to its 20th century height, America is still superior to any single competitor and remains fully capable of sustaining a massive and powerful presence in areas of vital interest.

But the commerce-based, expansionary reverse-mercantilism model that worked so well for American dominance in the Cold War and 1990s is becoming obsolete as the fundamentals shift. It’s not going to last. Part of our general need for structural and ideological rethinking is that we also need to rethink our geopolitical strategy.

America can continue following the logic of neoliberalism, or it can pursue a different model. Let’s take an applied history approach to examine two possible models, and their historical analogues, for America’s current situation and the strategic possibilities it offers:

  1. Indirect-Universal model: Expansionary neoliberalism. Continue to follow the current geopolitical course. While America was capable of sustaining this strategy throughout the 20th century due to its economic might, in the 21st century this strategy has set America on the path to becoming a power based primarily on its reserve currency and military. In light of a relatively declining output economy, this strategy is unlikely to be sustainable for long. Furthermore, it is likely to lead to one of a few logical conclusions. The first possibility is stumbling into a disastrous Pacific War with China. The second possibility is continuing to expand political responsibilities until there is a contingency that breaks the proverbial camel’s fiscal back. Third, a gradual loss of geopolitical power due to deficit-based economics, which will culminate in a forced reduction of influence once the American-led financial order shifts to reflect the real economic strength of China. In each scenario, America’s geopolitical position diminishes against its will.
  2. Formal-Consolidated model: Formalization and retrenchment. Explicitly make clear what America today is: a fully sovereign dominion with a core population and territory, and vital interests around the world. Then take a full and honest audit of who in this dominion wields power and holds assets: governmental, military, informational, ideological, cultural, and commercial. Assign formal responsibilities to those who wield real power at all levels, inclusive of the private sector. Openly and honestly acknowledge the zones of the two other fully sovereign powers on earth: Russia and China. Then come to a mutually-agreed-upon bilateral modus vivendi with each power. Possibly acknowledge the zones of quasi-sovereign emerging powers. Determine which vassal states are necessary to core American interests and which ones are not. Discharge those vassal states which are not, or those which cause unnecessary friction inside the American dominion or with Russia or China.

Historical precedents exist for both models.

The Indirect-Universal Model: the British Empire

An example of the Indirect-Universal geopolitical approach is the largest empire in history: the British Empire in the 1800s-1900s.

The British Empire began mostly as conquest and settlement under the operating principle of mercantilism in the 1600s and 1700s. Following London’s loss of the Thirteen Colonies in America and epochal military victory in the Napoleonic Wars, the strategy shifted. By the 1840s, Britain had fully transformed its imperial strategy from mercantilism to free trade enforced by the British Navy and facilitated by the British pound.

That is, in the half century from 1790-1840, London shifted its raw materials extraction strategy from one of relying on British settlers overseen by British governors protected by the British military to one of relying on aboriginal peoples overseen by controlled local potentates enforced by the British military. This shift from direct colonization to an indirect imperialism through local potentates was a major factor in the long-term over-extension of the British Empire. No longer basing its raw materials extraction strategy on the expansion of its own population into new geographies, London now was able to become unconstrained in its imperial territorial ambitions.

During this period, the British Empire adapted Anglo-centric Lockean liberal political theory to meet the ideological requirements of its now-aboriginal-centric resource extraction strategy. This made sense for the post-Napoleonic-Wars militarily unchallenged British Empire requiring casus belli to expand: the liberalism that justified the Glorious Revolution in the 17th century now became a universal political rationale to justify Britain’s imperial expansion over non-English-speaking peoples in the 19th century. The British Empire likewise operated its economy on the universal economic principle of free trade, a sensible strategy for the nation that had begun the Industrial Revolution that now required new sources of raw materials and markets. Throughout the 19th century, these twin universal justifications of liberalism and free trade were used for major British imperial expansions against foreign peoples as varied as Qing Dynasty China, the Khedivate of Egypt, and South Africa.

This Indirect-Universal model put London at the heart of a world trade system based on vassal state raw materials flowing to the center in exchange for its currency flowing out to the periphery. It served Britain well so long as it followed the pattern of militarily controlling a territory as a vassal, importing the vassal’s raw materials in exchange for British pounds, then selling British-manufactured finished goods back to the vassals. Due to British manufacturing dominance, this constituted an economic system not entirely dissimilar from Britain’s earlier mercantile model.

However, by the late 19th century, the dynamic had shifted for a number of reasons. For one, by the 1870s, geopolitical conditions were changing due to exogenous factors: America had come through its Civil War and Reconstruction era a united nation-state, and Germany likewise had unified into a nation-state. Both new nations were rapidly industrializing and ‘catching up’ to Britain. In addition, the pound having emerged as a global reserve currency fostered the development of London’s banking, financial, and insurance sectors, beginning the long-term process that shifted emphasis in the British economy from manufacturing to services. Due to external and internal factors, from 1870 to 1914, Britain’s industrial growth rate, manufacturing output, and GDP per capita all declined in relative terms versus America and Germany.

Still, Britain’s geopolitical dominance of world trade—dominance that stemmed from its overwhelming naval advantage, which guaranteed open lanes of commerce—led to the pound maintaining its status as the main currency in the invoicing of international trade. This reserve currency status allowed the British government easy access to debt markets and the temptation to debt-finance the Royal Navy in London’s increasingly expensive naval arms race with Berlin and Washington, which it used. As a result, despite having been overtaken as the world’s largest economy by 1870, nearly two-thirds of world trade was still invoiced, financed, and settled in pounds from 1870 until the outbreak of World War I in 1914, thus allowing the British government easy access to debt financing to militarily maintain an overstretched, unconstrained imperial presence.

During that conflict, the situation rapidly shifted; the pound was supplanted by the dollar as the main reserve-currency of world trade within a decade of 1914. Once the critical mass of trade invoicing had shifted from the pound to the dollar, the primacy of London as a financial hub began shifting to New York. This dynamic massively eroded the British government’s ability to draw upon cheap credit to maintain its geopolitical position.

The Indirect-Universal model geopolitical approach initially made sense for the post-1783 British Empire, but it led to the over-expansion of its geopolitical presence due to unconstrained ideology, ambition, and cheap debt financing. Once geopolitical conditions shifted, Britain failed to shift its strategy to compensate, and consequently lost its empire in the aftermath of World War II after having been supplanted as the dominant geopolitical power two decades prior. Had Britain adopted a more suitable geopolitical strategy, it may have been able to avoid this fate.

The Formal-Consolidated Model: the Roman Empire

Historical examples of both aspects of the Formal-Consolidated geopolitical approach can be found in the same polity in different eras: the Roman Empire. The Roman government twice faced levels of geopolitical turmoil that should have caused the collapse of its empire. On the first occasion, the turmoil was internally generated; on the second occasion, externally generated. Instead of collapsing, however, on both occasions the Romans followed aspects of what can be identified as the Formal-Consolidated model geopolitical approach, and preserved their empire.

The first occasion, in which the geopolitical turmoil was internally generated, required the formalization of the Roman state and its geopolitical presence.

It came in the latter half of the 1st century BC, when reality had become impossible to ignore: Rome’s dominion was too large to be run effectively via the Consular-Senatorial political system, a system which had been created when Rome was a small city-state at the beginning of the 5th century BC.

Starting in the mid-4th century BC, Rome had rapidly expanded. Victory in the Latin Wars in 338 BC gave Rome control of the immediate surrounding areas in Italy. Shortly thereafter, Rome defeated the Samnites, gaining full control of central Italy in 290 BC. The Romans were then able to annex southern Italy, following their defeat of Pyrrhus of Epirus and the Greek colony of Tarentum in 272 BC. Rome then gained Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia from Carthage after the First Punic War in 241 BC. Finally, the conquest of Italy was complete when Cisalpine Gaul was taken in 225 BC. In little more than a century, Rome had expanded from a city-state to being in command of the entire Italian peninsula. Once able to draw upon the full manpower of Italy, Rome would not stop there, bringing Carthage, Greece, the Iberian Peninsula, and western Anatolia under its dominion by 133 BC.

The Roman state, however, was still operating under largely the same Consular-Senatorial system designed for the small city-state it had once been. By the first century BC, this incongruity had begun causing structural stability issues in the expanded imperium. In 90 BC, this led to a rebellion against Rome by its Italian subjects over their being denied the privileges of Roman citizenship. Then, by the time of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, Rome’s empire had expanded to encompass the entire Mediterranean basin. Under the vastly expanded geopolitical reality of empire, the Consular-Senatorial system itself was now creating tensions; civil wars broke out repeatedly between nominally partnered consuls with different geographic bases of power among the far-flung empire.

The systemic incompatibility of a political system designed for a city-state and a political system required for managing a multi-continental empire had become irreconcilable. The Consular-Senatorial system had gradually adapted over time; for example, the expansion of citizenship to non-Roman Italian peoples, following the Social Wars of 90 BC. However, the failure came when Julius Caesar attempted to bring newly conquered and very foreign Gauls into the Consular-Senatorial system to use against his domestic political opponents; this was a large reason why he was accused of tyranny and assassinated by his technically fellow Senators. The political system designed for a city-state—and that required for running an empire—were simply too different.

Octavian understood this. Following the end of the Great Civil War in 30 BC, he set to work formalizing and streamlining the Roman state. Having gained firm military control, Octavian was able to accomplish this with the support of both the Plebeians and the Senate. Having defeated Antony and his foreign consort Cleopatra, he was able to frame his actions as those of Roman patriotism. Over the next decade in the 20s BC, Octavian slowly accumulated and combined the powers of the three main Roman political offices: Consul, Pontifex, and Tribune.

Briefly, the Consuls were the twin chairmen of the Senate who also served as Commanders in Chief of the Roman army and exercised the highest juridical power in Roman state. Octavian became permanent Consul, making the other Consul a salutary position. The Tribune was the chairman of the Plebeian assembly, tasked with defending the rights of the Plebeians in the Senate. It had veto authority over senatorial legislation. The Pontifex was the highest religious office, tasked with maintaining soteriological responsibilities and peace between the Romans and their gods by advising magistrates, interpreting omens, controlling the calendar, and overseeing religious ceremonies. It was the most influential cultural position in Rome.

Over the span of a decade, Octavian assumed each these offices and placed their legal authorities into the newly created office of Princeps, or “First Citizen.” Crucially, Octavian did not simply use his temporary political ascendancy to rule as a perpetual dictator, as his uncle Julius Caesar had done. Instead, he formally combined the powers of Consul, Tribune, and Pontifex into the office of Princeps and then built formal institutional framework for administering its numerous governmental duties around the new office.

By placing the main functions of state under the same office, Octavian thereby was able to formalize Rome’s empire and streamline its governance. Instead of provinces being under the personal control of individual members of the Senate as before, provinces now were reorganized into senatorial provinces and imperial provinces. Senatorial provinces, those closer to the center, were ruled by Proconsuls who answered to the Senate as an institutional body, over which sat the Princeps. Imperial provinces, the more far flung areas of the empire, were governed directly by the person of the Princeps through imperial governors and legions who answered directly to him.

From this formalized power structure, the Roman state went from the chaos of the first century BC to a new foundation that led to 200 years of peace and prosperity. In addition, having formalized its empire and largely ended the incentives of individual elites to expand their personal power bases, Rome geopolitically was able to establish its borders. Rome thus largely ceased its attempts to continue pushing its frontiers, instead opting to establish official relations with the various peoples and tribes that lay beyond its borders.

The second occasion, in which the geopolitical turmoil was externally generated, required the consolidation of the Roman state and its geopolitical presence.

It came in the late 400s after the chaos of the Hunnic invasion and increasingly unstable condition of the Roman state in the West. At that time, there were twin Roman empires: a Western Empire governed from Ravenna and an Eastern Empire governed from Constantinople. These two imperial courts had been split administratively in 395, but both were equally ‘Roman’ states and empires, with each considering the other as its counterpart, and sharing both a legal system and geopolitical interests.

It was not destined that the West would fall, while the East would survive: on several occasions during 400s, the Roman state at Constantinople also had been on the verge of collapse. There was never any guarantee it would outlive its twin. However, the Eastern Roman state was able to maintain its geopolitical coherence, unlike its twin. Ultimately, it did so because its policymakers soberly analyzed their situation and stopped committing imperial resources to strategically untenable objectives out of sentimental attachment to even their spiritual twin in the west.

The linchpin of the West was North Africa. It had been the breadbasket of the Western Empire for half a millennium, supplying grain and olive oil to the major cities of the West. From its agricultural base, it also provided the tax revenues that funded the civil service and military of the West. Spiritually, Carthage had been the Romans’ first major overseas conquest more than six hundred years prior, and held enormous importance in the Roman psyche. This was the one region that was truly a sine qua non of maintaining the Western Empire.

In 429, the Vandals invaded North Africa and captured Numidia. Then, in 439, the Vandals captured Carthage itself, the heartland of North Africa. The Vandals quickly went on to capture Sardinia, Corsica, Malta and the Balearic Islands, and even Sicily, forging the nascent Vandal kingdom into a powerful state. This was a massive blow to the Western Empire in its struggle to survive. North Africa previously having been peaceful and wealthy, it had required only a small garrison of the Western imperial army to maintain. With its rich agricultural land, this meant it had been a massive source of tax revenues for the West. Now, these revenues had been lost, as had a food source keeping the cities of the Western Empire fed, including Rome itself. Losing North Africa massively undermined the Roman Empire as a whole.

The Roman state at Ravenna was hobbled by the loss and unable to recover the lost territories on its own. As a result, in 442, Constantinople sent a full-scale expeditionary force to recapture North Africa. However, this force was unable to make significant headway and had to be recalled, due to attacks by the Persians and Huns along the northern and eastern borders. These new Hunnic attacks collapsed the Roman Danube frontier; the entire frontier went up in flames, and raiding parties pushed as far south as the Peloponnese. Constantinople had spent large amounts of time, treasure, and blood trying to project power and retake North Africa to maintain the West, but this had left its own frontier vulnerable to attack.

In 467, with the Western Empire’s situation growing increasingly dire, Constantinople once again dispatched a massive fleet and army to attempt to retake North Africa. This expedition likewise failed. This time, beyond battle losses, the damage was fiscal: the Eastern Roman state was bankrupted for nearly a decade by the failed expedition. This was when Constantinople came to terms with geopolitical reality: the Western Empire required North Africa to survive, but the Eastern Empire could not continue to make attempts to retake North Africa from the Vandals without bankrupting itself and opening its own frontiers to danger.

The Roman state in the East came to the conclusion that it had to consolidate its position and let the West go. It came to this decision actively and with intentionality, and it survived because of it. A new generation of statesmen in the Eastern Roman government had internalized the lessons of 442 and 467, when geopolitical overextension for strategically untenable aspirations led to ruin for the homefront and bankruptcy for the state. Now, the Eastern Roman state institutionally understood the need to consolidate the geopolitical footprint of what was considered the Roman Empire. Instead of continuing to throw resources after a lost cause based on fealty to a no-longer-feasible operating paradigm, Constantinople consolidated its geopolitical presence.

This was demonstrated in 476; when Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustulus, the final emperor in the West, the East did not attempt a relief expedition. Instead, Constantinople came to an agreement with Odoacer’s new Kingdom of Italy and a “perpetual peace” agreement with the Vandal state in North Africa. Practically speaking, Constantinople had moved away from attempting to maintain the entirety of the old Roman Empire and instead focused on maintaining its own territories in the east against a resurgent Persia. It survived because of this decision.

By consolidating their geopolitical presence, the Romans in the East rode out the apocalyptic fifth century and emerged with a coherent political system, a growing economy, and a thriving culture. From the 400s to the 1200s, the Roman state and civilization centered on Constantinople survived, again and again, despite its inferior strategic position, new foes, new foreign war technologies, and massive geopolitical setbacks. It did this by consolidating its geopolitical position and relying on diplomacy over force as much as possible. Operating under this model, this Roman state was able to withstand enormous and repeated geopolitical shifts.

On a final note, Constantinople’s withdrawal from attempts to preserve the Western Empire did not lead to a permanent loss. Once geopolitical conditions had shifted, the Roman state under Justinian was able to recapture and resume control of most of the lost Western territories, including North Africa, by the mid-500s. By consolidating and thus preserving its geopolitical presence, the Roman state in Constantinople was able to bide time, strengthen relative to its adversaries, and become geopolitically able to once again effectively project power.

While there are important deviations and caveats to any historical analogue, both of these scenarios seem to apply well to the contemporary American context, the difference being largely in controllable factors like how we choose to handle the current crisis.

Expansionary neoliberalism as a strategy for America was only possible for a brief moment in history, and is not a normal geopolitical condition. Realistically, America today cannot continue with the unsustainable model of expansionary neoliberalism. This Indirect-Universal model explored here is only effective in the context of overwhelming geopolitical dominance and is only ever sustainable for a relatively brief period; just as America and Germany catching up economically to Britain in the late 19th century affected the efficacy of Britain’s geopolitical strategy, so has Europe and Asia’s catching up economically to America in the late 20th century affected the efficacy of America’s. Due to the increasing relative power of external actors, the current geopolitical model will not be sustainable for much longer. However, America’s geopolitical course is not set in stone; there are elements from other approaches that America can use as an example, such as those from the Formal-Consolidated model.

We should note that the realm of geopolitics must necessarily be detached from the vicissitudes of day-to-day politics. A serious geopolitical approach will be multi-generational. It will not rely on friendly partisan politicians being in factional control to execute it. Instead, whatever it is, it will be a clearly justifiable approach that appeals to the political class as a whole, irrespective of internal factional fights over domestic policy.

A collision between the current ideology of neoliberal globalization and future reality is coming, and America will be forced to adapt with a new geopolitical model. Whether this change is a disaster or a decisive strategic shift depends on how quickly and confidently we can converge on a new model with intentionality and sobriety. An approach incorporating elements of the Formal-Consolidated model, which could amount to a reorganization and retrenchment around plainly stated definitions and limits of American interests, is one possible outcome. The alternative is that we continue to spend strategic capital on an unsustainable but ideologically comforting geopolitical approach, and ultimately learn of our error the hard way.

The core difference between these possible outcomes is the presence or absence of a viable alternative model, articulated and argued with enough force to energize America in a new direction.

Daniel Weissman is an entrepreneur based in Boston. He graduated from the George Washington University and lived in Egypt and Turkey for several years.