The ecological rhythms of empires

Much has been written elsewhere about the battles that go on between humans and viruses.  Preston’s The Hot Zone and others illuminate that our increased connectedness through international trade and travel makes us increasingly vulnerable to strands of viruses, whether they be Ebola, AIDS or Avian flu.  It’s the very pace and rhythm of our interconnectedness that enables the virus to spread much more rapidly, overwhelming us before we have a chance to adequately fight it.  Of course what’s bad for the goose is bad for the gander.  Viruses really want a host that they can live off of for a while, and Gladwell’s Tipping Point demonstrates that point with contagious diseases.  The ideal for a virus is to be somewhat infectious but not too much, so it doesn’t kill off the supply of hosts to infect.  [Barry’s The Great Influenza, another really interesting read, also makes this point about the optimal infection rates of viruses.]

Reading Jonathan Freedland’s review in the New York Review of Books (Bush’s Amazing Achievement) makes one think about the ecological rhythms and dynamics of empires.  Empires expand to increase their impact and then (like Rome, or the Hapsburgs, or the British Empire) are laid low by their over-extensions.  It’s as though there is an invisible bug called “rebellion” or “problems” and as the empire extends too far, it’s far less able to withstand these challenges (due to stretched resources), in the same way as an overtired person or an AIDS patient or a newborn infant is much more susceptible to catching diseases and being laid low.

Jonathan Freedland’s review of 3 books suggests that foreign policy blunders of Bush (being a unilateralist cowboy, taking on Iraq when we didn’t have to, etc.) have left us with an infected leg.  We now can cling to the Empire, and as the Romans in the process lose both our Empire and Republic, or follow the Brits and abandon our empire to save our democracy. Freedland discusses Johnson’s Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic. Freedland writes: “Johnson joins those who urge Americans, despite their anti-imperial origins in ejecting King George, to see that they have succeeded both ancient Rome and nineteenth-century Britain in becoming the empire of their age. This impulse became fashionable in the post–September 11 period, including among those who saw the imperial mission in a benign light.  Johnson’s perspective is very different. He wants the scales to fall from American eyes so that the nation can see the truth about its role in the world, a truth he finds ugly.

“Scholars can make a parlor game of compare and contrast between Washington and Rome, and the parallels are indeed striking.  Both rank as the predominant military powers of their time, Rome brooking no competition, while, by Johnson’s reckoning, US military spending exceeds that of all the other defense budgets on earth combined. In each case, military strength both fosters and is fostered by technological prowess: while Roman armies built the straight roads that served as the arteries of their conquered lands, so the US Department of Defense incubated the information superhighway, the Internet that now girdles the globe.

“The Romans often preferred to exercise power through friendly client regimes, rather than direct rule: until Jay Garner and L. Paul Bremer became US proconsuls in Baghdad, that was the American method too. Rome even took in the scions of their defeated peoples’ leading families, the better to prepare them for their future as Rome’s puppets; perhaps comparable are Washington’s elite private schools, full of the “pro-Western” Arab kings, South American presidents, and Afri-can leaders of the future. Sometimes the approach backfired, then and now. Several of those who rebelled against Rome had earlier been sponsored as pliant allies; their contemporary counterparts would surely be Saddam Hussein, a former US ally against Iran, and the one-time CIA-funded “freedom fighter,” Osama bin Laden.”

And Johnson says that the fact that America does not have colonies should blind us to the hundreds of thousands of Americans and the 700-1000+ U.S. military bases we have fighting overseas for our interests.

Interesting food for thought…


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