Quickly, Octopoe returns to this concept that we (Americans as generally manifested on the global geopolitical stage) often miss those vicissitudes of history which could otherwise inform our current set of predicaments. It is my sense that our public discourse has increasingly sensationalized an adversarial duality between China and the West, some of which twinges on talk of a seemingly impending military clash. In drawing some connections between this contemporary dilemma and a time from the past, we do not have to jump back to antiquity as before to dig up a historical precedent long since missed about our devastating involvement in Afghanistan. We need only skip back about a century or so to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cheery years filled with fierce nationalistic rivalry for political and economic domination of the globe, intensified by the imperialistic expansion of the industrialized powers – the United States, Europe in many of its national manifestations, the Empire of Japan. Images of industrial war modeled on this period have been featured on Octopoe in the past. In the one hundred years leading up to the end of the Second World War, nearly every corner of the world had been touched by the global economic order (via imperialism or imbalanced foreign relations) and affected by the industrial-scale wars which left swathes of Europe and Asia destroyed. While the history is admittedly complex and nuanced, one can draw simple tropes from the record, such as the reluctance of those powers in relative control of the global geo-political scene to make room for the rising players while nationalistic rhetoric fuels competition and ultimately conflict. Some writers whom I have read on the subject speak to a relative unlikelihood of conflict with the trade connections between the two and the general troublesomeness it would create for a region which will only thrive with continued stability. A country which can barely keep the top on its on kettle at times, and flinches at the mere hint of a whistle (thinking about the Western media’s recent reporting of increased crackdowns within China against artists and dissidents, such as Ai Weiwei) may desperately avoid a destabilizing war. Being an internationalist pacifist and a language educator who has nothing to gain from conflict between my people and my number one client, I hope this recent bout of nationalistic propaganda does not drum us into the horror of the trenches and camps, the aerial bombardment and atom bombs.
Were not those that failed to learn from history doomed to repeat it? With Barack Obama gearing up another American surge, this time in Afghanistan, we could afford to look at a bit of history. Let’s take a quick look at one of America’s most influential political, social and artistic predecessors: Rome.
And this is not the Rome of the modern European travel circuit, but Latin Rome that began as an Etruscan influenced city-state ruled by kings from 600-BC onwards. About a hundred years later, the city’s aristocracy established themselves via coup as those enfranchised with power and formed what we could call a republic with the lower classes (who were given nominal representation within this power sharing system). Anyone who was not a propertied male did not have much voice or agency at all. Rome went on to clash with its neighbors, conquering them militarily and savagely working away at consolidating the entire Mediterranean basin into an economic and political unit that became the dominant power in the Western world in the years around the turn of the previous millennium.
However, the original class based republic did not last. Hundreds of years into the republic the (in)famous Julius Caesar declared himself dictator in 44-BC based on his popular and military support, and was promptly stabbed to death by those same enfranchised aristocrats above (on the very floor of the Roman Senate – talk about political theater!), not keen on surrendering power to one member of their class alone. Military struggles between factions ensued, and eventually Augustus Caesar (Julius’ chosen heir) won out in 27-BC, settling on a new constitution that claimed to “restore the republic” but in fact gave the Roman people a monarchical government. Augustus was princeps (first citizen), and his successors called themselves imperator (emperor), and thus the Roman Empire germinates around this time.
America can take some strong points here for its own consciousness; examples that we could keep in mind as we evolve with the paradigm shift (which certainly will not be easy in proud and exceptionalism-minded America) that is coming with a multi-polar world of geopolitics: exampled by our intrinsic lock with China over finances, our historical/socio-cultural/militaristic ties to Europe, and dependence on (often hostile) oil-producing states.
The imperial expansion of Rome introduced the same paradox that the Athenian Greeks faced between democracy (Athens was in fact a class/gender based democracy) and the pursuit of empire and subjugated peoples. The United States soon followed Rome’s precedential path from republic to empire in picking fights with both Mexico and Spain, amongst many others from Asia to Africa throughout its short history — sometimes acquiring vast tracts of territory and population, sometimes acquiring subtler or non-existent gains; look at the mess we caused in southeast Asia. A country which cannot afford or prioritize giving its people healthcare, building decent transportation networks (let alone high-speed trains), or keeping its education system credible cannot afford to militaristically harass far flung peoples. We have and will continue to expend enormous amounts of blood and treasure on our misadventures, clearly stressing our current creaking economic system. Hundreds of years went by for the Roman Empire before they succumbed to internal and external pressures, seeing generals vie for influence through military power struggles, eventually buckling under the immigration influx of what history has branded Germanic tribes, around 400-AD.* As the United States continues to face old and new pressures, such as relative power decline, economic strain and a continued influx of large numbers of immigrants (Spanish speaking peoples mostly, coming back to reclaim much that was stolen during a mid-nineteenth century war?), it will be interesting to see what happens to this country.
And now back to Afghanistan, where we seem to be further investing ourselves in an endlessly violent quagmire. Here we are hideously not learning anything from the historical record. Our predecessors the British in the mid-1800s and the Russians in the 1980s, were two other foreign powers that tried to control Afghanistan forcibly, to disastrous results. Sinking more resources into forcing our conceptualization of the modern state onto a people who are not accustomed to it, let alone did not ask for it, is not going to work out and it serves to only weaken the United States further. It will function as one of the external pressures like those felt by Rome in its twilight period.
*For a hint of more context, this is when the beginnings of our ideas of France/French, Spain/Spanish, Italy/Italian et cetera develop in western Europe.