The decline of empire may for a time be delayed but it can never be averted. Rome was torn apart by recurring civil wars amidst cultural and moral decay. Barbarian incursions dealt the final blow, yet they were more a symptom than a cause of decline. As Edward Gibbon says of the late emperor Valerian, who attempted to revive Roman society while temporarily beating back the hostile border tribes: “It was easier to vanquish the Goths than to eradicate the public vices” (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire).
The fundamental issues have not changed. Some will argue that America is a “republic not an empire.” But this seems to simplify a great deal. In the very first generation of our nation’s founding, Thomas Jefferson unconstitutionally acquired the Louisiana territory in the hopes of founding a new “empire of liberty.” We have been on an imperial path for some time.
Perhaps the answer lies at the opposite end of the spectrum: the highly competitive city states of Greece. Yet such societies are as volatile as they are brilliant. Athens and Sparta exhausted themselves in a vicious fratricidal conflict (431 – 404 B.C.) – pitting “democrats” against “oligarchs” – in a manner comparable to the fanatical bloodletting of Europe’s Thirty Year’s War (1618 – 1648). The exhaustion of Greece society led to its eventual conquest by the Macedonians and later the Romans. Nor could one really blame them for welcoming the Pax Romana. In much the same way Europeans of the 17th century looked to benign despots like Louis XIV to deliver them from anarchy, and America, suffering its greatest bloodletting during 1861-65, turned away from states rights. Moderation in such matters may be the best policy; historically, it has few adherents.
Gibbon recognized that under absolutism the potential for both virtue and vice is greater than under more representative institutions.
If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.
What such a society gains in the way of temporary vigor, it loses in terms of cultural solidity. Gibbon understood that constitutional government founded on a stable upper and middle class are optimal, so long as the tension between freedom and restraint can be maintained. Speaking of his own epoch, he wrote that
The division of Europe into a number of independent states, connected, however, with each other by the general resemblance of religion, language, and manners, is productive of the most beneficial consequences to the liberty of mankind.
This arrangement was the surest defense against centralized tyranny. Sadly, by the time of the English historian’s death in 1794, a new power had emerged to upset all this – a revolutionary absolutist ideology, which took root in France and eventually shaped the declining polities of Western civilization. Today we seem to be nearing the end of the cycle once more.