Athens and Rome – February 13, 2011

At the end of World War II, the United States found itself the last superpower standing. We were so strong, with an economy built up by wartime production, that we could afford to rescue our enemies, the Germans and Japanese, from economic collapse and rebuild their economies while simultaneously offering aid and support to our former allies. But the U.S. was quickly confronted by the rising power and ambition of the Soviet Union, whose ordering principles based on collectivism and personal repression were antithetical to American ideals of a market economy and personal liberty.

The U.S. was compelled to expand its sphere of influence worldwide and attempt to shape local politics and economics in its own image in order to prevent a rising tide of darkness. The result was 45 years of Cold War chess games: stalemate in Eastern Europe, check in the Caribbean and South America, check in Southeast Asia, checkmate in Russia.

In the past 20 years, the U.S. has once again become the last superpower standing. We are, indeed, being challenged economically by the Asians: first Japan and the Four Tigers, then China and India. And we—that is, the entire western democratic world—have been challenged on issues of religion, politics, and social organization by a rising fundamentalist interpretation of Islam fueled by our own petrodollars.

With the impending collapse of the secular states that U.S. and western policy1 created and have long supported in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Turkey, and Afghanistan—a collapse that many fear will follow the revolutionary pattern established by the mullahs of Iran—the basic question of intent now confronts us: How far will we go to promote our view of the world?

It was one thing to oppose a totalitarian philosophy of militaristic socialism having world-dominating ambitions, first in Germany and Japan, then in the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Their brand of economic and personal repression was relatively new—generally less than a century old, found in the writings of a few radicals like Marx and Lenin—and won the hearts and minds of most converts only at the point of gun and bayonet. But what does it mean for the U.S. now to oppose a 1,300-year-old religion with a rich and consistent approach to religious, political, and economic questions through submission to God and tradition, that wins hearts and minds through teaching and charity?

I am suddenly reminded of two ancient examples for ordering the world to your liking: Athens and Rome.

Athens was a city-state, first and last. Yes, she joined with other Greek states to oppose the Persian invasion, because her citizens would rather be free and Athenian than wealthy and protected as vassals of a distant King of Kings. Yes, she formed her own tiny empire in the Delian League, consisting of a circle of Aegean city-states, but that was a protective measure and a way to pick up some tribute. Yes, she founded colonies in southern Italy and Sicily, but they were not closely held, being as distant as moon bases would be today. Yes, she fought a long and complicated war with Sparta over issues—similar to the U.S. opposition to the Soviet Union—of totalitarian control versus personal liberty. Yes, she was technically a democracy that had a long history of military despots and tyrants.

Through all of these ups and downs, Athenians mostly cared about what happened in their own garden. The rest of the Greek-speaking world was sometimes ally, sometimes enemy, but not really important as any kind of equal. And the world beyond Greece was the realm of slaves and the barbaroi, people whose language sounded like “bah-bah-bah” and could safely be ignored. The important people and issues were found in Athens. For all their wars and alliances, the Athenians were isolationists.2

Rome started as a city-state, too. But rather than an enlightened community of scholars and philosophers, the earliest Romans were a camp of brigands who had to steal women from their neighbors the Sabines in order to start families. In time—actually about three or four hundred years—Rome acquired the tribes of central Italy as vassals, then allies, then as members of something approaching a nation. She fought a trade war with the Phoenicians, suffered invasion, and hit back so strongly that Rome ended up controlling North Africa. From that point on, Gaul and Spain, Greece and Syria, Egypt and Judea, Germany and Britain were just steps along the path to empire.

Unlike Athens, Rome was out to civilize the world. Conquered peoples became colonies, then allies, then part of the state. Romans looked down on the newly conquered barbarians, to be sure, but they also offered them a path to citizenship and equality: build up administrative centers with aqueducts and a municipal water system so you can bathe properly; learn Latin so you can speak and read intelligently; build roads across your land so we can move our armies to defend you against the barbarians on your far borders; learn our administration; supply men for our legions; become one of us. The offer was genuine. The old Roman families might snigger at Gauls in togas taking their seats in the Senate, but they didn’t kick them out.

To the Athenians, the threat of Persian domination and Spartan competition was a reason to resist and turn inward, to build long walls and Aegean alliances for defense. To the Romans, the threat of Phoenician competition was a speed bump on the path to ordering the entire Mediterranean world and most of Europe to their liking.

The United States of America spent two hundred years as, first, the various colonies of England and Spain, then another hundred years establishing a republic and taming the plains, the great northwest, and the Pacific Coast, and a further hundred taking our place on the world stage as the cleanup hitter in two world wars and winner of the Cold War. We’ve entered the period that Athens and the Greeks were facing in the fourth century BC and the Romans were facing in the second century BC. We have pretty much gained control of the local environment and are reasonably free from neighborhood squabbles and foreign invasion. The big world outside now confronts us: Asia represents a competitive threat based on cheap labor, loose laws, and political corruption; fundamentalist Islam represents a return to medieval religiosity and cultural darkness; Europe still struggles with the residues of war and socialism.

What’s it going to be for the United States of America? Do we turn inward, like Athens and tend our garden, dismiss the “bah-bah-bah” people as unworthy of our time, and cultivate the arts of civilization? Or do we turn outward, like the Romans and remake the world in our image, teaching the barbarians to bathe and speak clearly, and cultivate the arts of war and administration?

I don’t know the answer. But I think I can recognize the question.

1. In this case, “the west” must include the Soviet Union and its Russian inheritors, as a legacy of Cold War meddling.

2. Until, that is, they and the rest of Greece were taken over by the Macedonians, whose young prince went adventuring and created a Greek-speaking empire from Egypt to India, overrunning and smothering the once-feared Persians. But this was never the Athenian way.