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Justin Vernold

June 24, 2012

'The decline and fall' has a familiar ring

At the end of the 20th century, America still basked in the glow of emerging as the last superpower standing after the Soviet Union's collapse.

But with 9/11, divisive war, economic malaise and political dysfunction marring the last decade, many in foreign policy circles have begun to wonder how much longer America will be regarded worldwide as pre-eminent. Foreign Policy magazine even started its "Amerislump" blog to track stories fueling the debate while "assessing their relative slumpiness."

But the Soviet Union's sudden rise and equally dramatic fall was not a tale without historical precedent. Three centuries before the birth of Christ, two similar superpowers stood alone at the summit of Western civilization.

The ancient North African city-state Carthage was long the world's dominant maritime power. Its sailors circumnavigated Africa and even braved the icy trade routes of the Baltic.

Its upstart rival, Rome, had emerged from humble roots as a refuge for castoffs to become the Italian peninsula's supreme power by 270 B.C.

Relations between the two emerging colonial empires soured over Sicily, and two long wars over the next century left Carthage reduced to just the city itself. But in 146 B.C., Rome's bitter rival was sacked for good after a lengthy siege — its population enslaved and its fields salted, according to legend.

For many contemporary observers, this rapacious triumph marked a turning point in the national character, as expressed by first-century historian Velleius Paterculus:

"When Rome was freed of the fear of Carthage, and her rival in empire was out of her way, the path of virtue was abandoned for that of corruption, not gradually, but in headlong course. The older discipline was discarded to give place to the new. The state passed from vigilance to slumber, from the pursuit of arms to the pursuit of pleasure, from activity to idleness."

Readers who grew up in the early 20th century understand what sort of 'virtue and vigilance' a nation needs in uncertain times. Those who experienced Hoovervilles, war bonds, victory gardens and the Marshall Plan firsthand were aptly dubbed "the Greatest Generation" by Tom Brokaw. Their extraordinary sacrifices ensured American competitiveness in the face of the Axis and Soviet power.

That sort of urgency was needed by Rome in 242 B.C., after 22 years of inconclusive war left both Rome and Carthage exhausted. With no funds left for either side to rebuild its fleet, Rome's noblemen — who were also citizen-soldiers — donated enough for the treasury to finance new ships. This step tipped the scales a year later after Carthage's aristocracy couldn't be persuaded by its generals to follow suit.

Likewise, the U.S. has devolved from "ask not what your country can do for you" civic virtue to an era of "what's in it for me?" narcissism.

Men such as Tim Geithner and Tom Daschle angle for leadership positions while ducking their taxes — and Mitt Romney runs for president while concealing undisclosed millions in his Swiss and Cayman Island bank accounts. In Congress, matters of vital national importance such as health care and economic stimulus are auctioned off to whichever lobbyists offer the most to have their version of the legislation used as the bill's template.

The Soviet Union fell because of a failure of ideology, which prevented the state from adapting to a changing reality. Even after communist China embarked on free-market economic reform and disavowed the Cultural Revolution, Soviet leaders clung stubbornly to outdated doctrine that eventually proved unfeasible.

Some in Congress have recently espoused a different sort of economic zealotry; one that dictates that any government activity whatsoever is inherently counterproductive, correctable only by a stringent formula of tax cuts, deregulation and public-sector layoffs. Meanwhile, in reality, the U.S. runs massive trade deficits with nations such as China and Germany — with their 21st-century blends of state-subsidized infrastructure and research projects and free-market capitalism.

The madness of this sort of thinking was described last year by billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban in a blog post titled "The Most Patriotic Thing You Can Do."

"While some people might find it distasteful to pay taxes, I don't. I find it Patriotic," Cuban wrote. "I'm not saying that the government's use of tax money is the most efficient use of our hard-earned capital. It obviously is not. In a perfect world, there would be a better option. We don't live in a perfect world. … We live in a time where the government plays a big role in an effort to help lead us out this Great Recession. That's reality."

The U.S. remains unrivaled, but it's only a matter of time before a more multi-polar world takes shape, with American interests increasingly less able to determine the global balance of power. If we can't find a way to harness our competitive and cooperative instincts again, the Pax Americana will collapse for good.

Justin Vernold is a copy editor at The Daily Star. Contact him at jvernold@thedailystar.com or 432-1000, ext. 216.

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