September 01, 2006

Mr. Vlahos' Neighbourhood -- Late Antiquity's Upcoming Role in Constraining American Foreign Policy

[cross-posted on Chicagoboyz]

In the past few months, I've had a chance to review two substantial books on the Fall of the Roman Empire and its after-effects (Peter Heathers' Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History, and Bryan Ward-Perkins' The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. These books summarize the post-WW2 archaeology and literary analysis covering the late Roman and post-Roman periods, and offer a useful corrective to a more recent trend in scholarship which has created a soft-soaped "Late Antiquity" ... in competition to the "Dark Ages" of popular imagination. For these revisionist scholars of the last thirty years, the migration of barbarians into the Roman empire (both eastern and western branches) was both justifiable ("they only wanted the Roman good life") and relatively benign ("they settled in and became staunch allies"). Heather and Ward-Perkins discredit this post-modern, New Age image of the Fall very thoroughly but we shouldn't be surprised if major portions of Western academia and literati will choose to hold onto such a rosy-hued version of Roman/barbarian relations. If only the Romans had been nicer to the barbarians, they'll proclaim, so much unpleasantness could have been avoided.

Equating America with Rome has been a spectator sport for a very long time. A dominant power -- economically, militarily, and culturally -- is widely resented, and subtly envied, whether by those pretending to dominance themselves, or those merely poor and hungry. Either too vulgar and decadent for ongoing success. Or too conservative and religious for such success. Either too powerful and entangled in every global squabble, or too disengaged and ignorant of the world's woes and complaints. The Rome analogy is an endlessly flexible tool, especially when historical examples can be drawn from the founding of Rome (roughly 750 BCE) through to the fall of the Eastern Empire in 1453 CE. There's something for every philosophical and political stripe in a Roman history that lasts more than two millenia. Pick and choose at will.

The Rome/America analogy has certainly been worked overtime since 9/11. Will Goliath topple? It's the question of the era, just much as it was in the early fifth century. It's not that people want the barbarians to win. It's just that they really, really want the new Rome to lose.

A particularly ham-handed example of the comparison was written by Niall Ferguson in 2004 called Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire. The counter-arguments ... about whether America is an empire, about whether it's best days are past, about whether "pride goeth before a fall," about whether its decadence or its sanctimony is the greater global danger ... obsess the domestic audience as much as the foreign. So we should brace ourselves for a steady, indeed growing, stream of public commentary that seeks to make comparisons with Rome, and if Heather and Ward-Perkins are correct, seeks to portray any Fall of an American Empire as altogether a matter of minor inconvenience on the way to a far, far better place. The fact that we'd have to see the American economy retrench to the 1820s (before telegraphy and mobile steam power) in order to make the Roman/Late Antiquity analogy ring true seems to have escaped the chattering classes completely. The fate of the hinterlands of modern globalization under such a collapse hardly bears contemplation.

Let's take a look at a concrete example of how the academic confection called Late Antiquity will be applied to judging America and American options in coming years. Just recently, foreign policy academic Michael Vlahos wrote an article posted on TCS Daily called The Puzzle of New War. The article begins by noting that all the hand-waving about terrorism and guerrilla warfare being something "new" is in fact overblown. The Romans themselves dealt with a variety of antagonists: states (e.g. Dacians, Parthians, and Sassanid Persians), non-state actors (the various tribes, clans, and ethnic groups around Roman imperial borders), and mere "lawless elements" ... the bacaudae or bagaudae of fifth century Gaul and Spain.

Then the author describes the Roman solution to non-state parties: negotiation and elite subsidies. If that didn't work, legionary invasion and ethnocide were applied. The Romans had a very immediate practical use for conquered peoples, of course: slavery. Vlahos notes that the Roman way is clearly not the Israeli or American way. In the current Middle East conflicts, the goal has been the suppression of armed opponents, not the obliteration of civilian populations, let alone their enslavement. America (and Israel) won't eliminate such populations, so how, Vlahos wonders, can they deal with them ultimately?

The solution, it would appear is to make a convenient transition from defining these groups as "non-state actors" to "unrecognized armed communities." And here, the first whiff of post-modernism and Late Antiquity myth-making rears its head. For if these groups are violent merely because they are "unrecognized" and because they seek a more substantial legitimating "relationship" with the Goliath ... who could deny them? Really ... what honest, humane, thinking person could deny them?

Vlahos has written a substantial and useful article [.PDF] elsewhere on the distinctions that need to be drawn in the Muslim world between the Wilderness Ghazi and the Civil Militia. The former draw their inspiration from the patchwork quilt literary material of early Islam -- a corpus so deeply confused and compromised by non-Muslim theological sources that even to the discuss the subject now is to risk assassination. For Vlahos, the ghazi are inspired by a literary confabulation with little relation to historical reality. They are dangerous to both the Muslim and non-Muslim world for their willingness to court demolition in support of their dreams.

The Civil Militia, however, are more socially anchored to particular ethnic and religious institutions ... and are in resurgence in a post-Ottoman, post-colonial, world. Vlahos notes, rightly to my mind, that every effort to stabilize the Muslim world now confronts these revitalized communities -- armed and dangerous in the zero-sum political world they inhabit. Supporting repressive and corrupt national governments empowers these Civil Militias. Toppling their repressive regimes simply peels the lid back on the inherent antagonisms suppressed for centuries by the Turks, or the Persians, or the Indians, or the Indonesians, or the Thais, etc. etc.

America is in a quandry, then, much as Rome once was ... it had a multitude of state, non-state, bandit opponents with limited manpower and budget to address them.

Establishing two principles as givens, (1) Muslim armed communities seek recognition (not despoilation), and (2) America has an obligation to provide that recognition through greater "relationship", Vlahos can invoke the putative history of Late Antiquity. Just like the supposed Roman engagement with the Goths and Germans, the Americans should provide legitimation and sustenance for the Muslim world. By doing so, Vlahos proposes, America can assist the Civil Militias in suppressing the more nihilistic Wilderness Ghazis in their midst. Something of the sort is underway in Iraq, de facto and supported more broadly in a philosophical way by Robert Kaplan's invocation to Warrior Politics. To not assist this cultural housecleaning, Vlahos suggests, is to allow both the Ghazis and the Militias to compete with each other in demonizing the West, marginalizing any internal efforts at moderation in Islam, and closing off all options except the Roman tool of obliteration.

This all makes a kind of sense on paper. There's no doubt that the Muslim world (poor, illiterate, obsessed with victimhood, and stoked by a globalized media) is inevitably undergoing change, with or without American influence. There's also no doubt that if America just gave the Muslims what they want (the obliteration of Israel, the assumption of dhimmi-hood), the Muslim world would be far happier (and feel far more "recognized"). And America is destined, one way or the other, to be the world's bogey man for the indefinite future.

Unfortunately, I believe Vlahos suffers from what I've come to think of as Thomas Barnett disease -- the proffering of a plausible, credible foreign policy without reference to a plausible, credible American public that will execute it. As James Lileks noted earlier this summer:

When compared against some ideal country - say, a solar-powered pan-ethnic secular Switzerland with a socialist economy based on bartering hemp - the messy realities of America past and present come up short.

American foreign policy won't be executed by perfect humans plucked from Swiss hemp fields. American foreign policy won't be perfect and it won't be dictated by the constipated realities of the Muslim world alone. History is the allocation of tragedy. And that allocation will be subject to the vagaries of inheritance and circumstance of all parties involved. Vlahos not only requires modern Americans to act like Hemp Barterers, he must retroactively posit Roman Hemp Barterers as well (implicitly in his TCS Daily article, explicitly in his Two Enemies article). That's the only way that the acquiescence to, and "recognition" of, resurgent Muslim ethnic and tribal groups can seem like a remotely plausible alternative in American foreign policy.

We know, from Heather and Ward-Perkins, that the air-brushed version of the Fall of the Roman Empire has major archaeological and literary flaws. Many parts of Europe regressed to prehistoric economic levels after imperial collapse. No American, offered the Late Antiquity model of economic collapse, would be likely to sign up for a round of Muslim "relationship" and "recognition" in the hopes that those rickety cultural contraptions wouldn't simply implode from their own demographic, economic, and cultural instabilities. Nowhere, amidst Vlaho's discussion, do we see a recognizable America electorate that will vote or applaud its own demise.

If America was actually run by insulated diplomats in Foggy Bottom, we might hypothesize a slow, painful decline into second tier cultural status in the 21st century. In actuality, a far more compelling vision of America is described by Walter Russell Mead's "four schools" of foreign policy (Jeffersonian, Wilsonian, Hamiltonian, Jacksonian), which at least has the advantage of linking itself to actual ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups that live in the country. From Mead's culturally-based perspective, American foreign policy is a narrative synthesis that must call at least two of the "schools" to action.

More recently, Mead has written a great article that outlines how the Jacksonians (least indulgent of bullying and duplicity from the rest of the world) have religious strains that view the world as inherently corrupt (the fundamentalists) or inherently redeemable (the evangelicals). The debate over global withdrawal or engagement in American foreign policy will certainly not be phrased in terms of "recognition" of the post-Ottoman militias of the Muslim world. The major voting publics in America seek honest productive trading relationships with the world (while maintaining national safety). The current Muslim populace offers neither. In the face of such realities, American continued willingness to shoulder a "Muslim tax" every time they walk through an airport will reach a limit.

In the late fourth and early fifth century, waves of Goth, Germanic, and Hunnic peoples (men, women, and children) broke through brittle frontiers of the Roman Empire and were never expelled. Their social structure could survive by the predatory destruction of an undefended domestic economy but could not sustain itself afterwards except as illiterate warrior elites amidst localized, diminished economies. The Romans maintained their deep disdain for barbarian ways, and for those Romans who took the opportunity to form "relationships" with them for career gain. Given any opportunity at all, such as fell to the Eastern Empire's Emperor Justinian in the mid-sixth century, they resorted to the Vlahos' tried and true Roman solution -- obliterating their enemies (in that case, the Vandals of North Africa, and the Ostrogoths of Italy).

Now, in the 21st century, we are faced with hundreds of millions of poor, illiterate people fed their political philosophy for the first time through rabid television ... convinced, as they teeter on economic stilts built on oil income and Western techology/medicine, that their time (and their religion's apotheosis) has come. Unlike the Roman legions of old, the modern American divisions of citizen-soldiers have no venal use for the local people they are protecting in farflung corners of the globe, either as trading partners or as slaves. Any disengagement from the Muslim world will mean a painful adjustment for the industrialized West but the West is no more dependent on the people in the Muslim world than Roman economic sophistication was dependent on the Huns of eastern Europe.

Vlahos believes that the Roman tradition of exterminating enemies is unsustainable by the Western world. I believe he is right, barring acts in extremis by our own culture's "Wilderness Ghazi." But there are sins of commission and there are sins of omission.

Given sufficient provocation, a SARS-like epidemic perhaps, or the newly resurgent polio (spread courtesy of ignorant imams in Nigeria) will not trigger the normal outpouring of American money and technological sophistication that the globe has come to expect, and come to depend upon. Americans may not have the stomach to slaughter hundreds of millions, but they may well (given sufficient inconvenience and antagonism) be willing to stand aside (with their TVs firmly turned off) as hundreds of millions die from their own ignorance, incompetence, and economic vulnerability. Indifference can be a weapon, too.

What can the "golden myth" of Late Antiquity accomplish in the hands of a foreign policy wonk? An opportunity to misunderstand Rome, barbarians, and America it would seem, all at the same time. In Mr. Vlahos' neighbourhood, the Romans apparently forgot how to hate. That would be a poor historical lesson for the modern world to draw when it comes to imagining America as the New Rome.

Posted by jmccormick at September 1, 2006 09:12 PM

These semi-historical trends seem to ebb and flow with little thought other than a desire to find portents in the past that fit some political goal of the present. Immediately after WWII quite a few German historians of Ancient Greece emphasized, carefully of course, the tragedy that Athens and Sparta essentially destroyed each other while the real enemy, the Persians, sat waiting for the Greeks to finish their bloodletting. Shades of the Allies destroying their fellow Western power, the Germans, while the Soviets like the Persians, bided their time. This kind of thinking was no more accurate in the 40's then these current preoccupations with finding echoes of Rome in the USA.

Who therefore must be America's Coriolanus or even worse Caesar?

Posted by: Pat Patterson at September 2, 2006 09:30 PM

I am not a scholar of the Roman Empire nor of its alleged American successor, but of British imperial history and of the 18th century Empire in particular. Nevertheless, I feel that one observation regarding the British Empire's contemporary pundits is relevant to this discussion.

Put simply, one of the most prurient features of early modern historians, from Locke to Gibbon, to Macaulay and Ruskin, and well into the late 19th Century, is their pallid obsession with holding up parallels between their own age and Hallowed Antiquity, so to speak. Its most commonly recognised manifestation lay in the utterly paranoid tendency to see evidence of 'decline' in virtually every event of the 18th and 19th centuries - a tendency which provided a rather macabre counterpoint to Whig Progressivism. Rome declined and fell, so Britain was going to do so. High Georgian economic expansion? That's luxury, so we're declining. Loss of the American colonies? That's luxury leading us towards an easy submission to tyranny, so self-evidently we're declining. 1815? Well, er, aha! Yes, that's over-expansion, d'ye see, a sure potent of decline. The Golden Jubilee celebrations in 1897? Well, we all know what comes after Hubris, don't we - good olf Nemesis.

And so on. But it was not just in fears of decline in which the British evidenced a deluded obsession with the example of Rome. Britons in India were supposed to be the heirs of Rome, whereas in fact it was a more-or-less straightforward replacement of the Mughals: Zamindars with Telegraphs. Colonial expansion in North America was also, apparently, Roman in some undefined manner. The Cult of Monarchy was also somehow similar to the Cult of the Emperors in Rome, although I doubt that Queen Victoria could have thrown some ethnic minority to lions or ordered the poisoning of the Prime Minister - the Daily Mail would never have let her live it down. And of course there was London.

My favourite example of this whole phenomenon is Dr. Johnson's purple description of the gerry-built agglomerations of London buildings in his Vanity of Human Wishes. Johnson’s writing was a deliberate emulation of the satirist Juvenal's writings on Rome, specifically the 3rd Satire. Indeed, the parallels are so exact – Johnson's "stony-hearted step-mother" and Juvenal's "horrida mater"; Johnson's "falling houses thunder on your head" and Juvenal's "horrere incendia, lapsus tectorum" – that the work tells us little except about Johnson's literary tastes and pretensions. Johnson was certainly more pleased than outraged that his city should bear resemblance to that of his witty predecessor in the business of satirising the chaos and hypocrisy of the Cosmopolis, and as such he was making smug comparisons between Rome and London, Juvenal and Johnson, rather than engaging in serious social commentary.

Indeed, this is merely a very telling example of a more general failing – not just of Johnson but amongst many commentators of the early modern period, both contemporary and modern. People tend not to appreciate that eighteenth century social commentators and 21st century historians of the Georgian Empire are working according to opposite and incompatible mindsets. Whereas modern scholarship seeks always to learn about the past as a means of establishing parallels with the present, Johnson and his contemporaries sought always to learn about the present as a means of establishing parallels with the ancient world – particularly after the Peace of 1763 which saw Britain emerge as such a powerful Empire – with the result that contemporary sources do not always tell historians what they would like them to tell.

So my advice to any American who is worried about the terribly admonitory example of Late Antiquity is as follows: put down the book, look out of the window, and there's your answer.

Posted by: Ed at September 3, 2006 01:13 PM

I think there are two aspects that need to be separated here.

America's options are not defined in a way that bears absolute comparison to the late Roman situation. We still have the third option of obliterating our enemies to a degree that was beyond the capacities of late imperial Rome. That is what Vlahos means by dismissing the third option on moral grounds (unless we are nuked first) rather than on grounds of impossibility.

The problem is that we may not be able to manage non-state actors if our relative position remains what it is. If our enemies are unified and intransigent, then either our present ambitions in the Middle East must come down or our willingness to sacrifice for military purposes must go up.

Michael Vlahos has written a new essay, in which he argues now that US policy since 2001 has brought the Islamic world together in opposition to the United States:

Posted by: David Billington at September 5, 2006 11:59 PM

This is really unrelated to this fine post, but one James Pillman has published two excellent essays on the Anglosphere at The Monarchist, which I invite all readers here to take a look.

Posted by: The Monarchist at September 6, 2006 10:18 AM
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