Dawn of a new era in American political life

June 03, 1999|By Ron Dworkin

AMERICA is Rome, now and for the foreseeable future. It is the unwobbling pivot around which other nations move, the country that brings order to the world through a system that spans the globe.

It does not matter whether NATO decides to continue with its war against Serbia. The fundamental material reality of world politics will go unchanged.

Every great empire rests on a tripod of strength -- military, economic and ideological. So it was with Rome and Britain. So it is with America.

In military terms, America's empire is far greater than any empire preceding it. Even at its height, Rome had much to fear on its borders. Enemies of Great Britain, during its moment of great power, risked only a naval blockade.

But with America's vast superiority in weaponry, both conventional and nuclear, no country can attack the United States without risking complete annihilation.

In economic terms, the United States is more central to the proper functioning of the global economy than Rome and Britain were during their moments of greatness. The U.S. economy is twice as large as its nearest competitor. It is the lender of last resort and the safe haven when investors worldwide fear instability.

But it is in the ideological or cultural realm that America's empire differs from earlier forms, not just in scope but in style.

The Romans were notorious for conquering a nation but leaving its cultural fabric intact. Except in matters regarding taxes, military recruitment and the printing of money, the everyday lives of the new subjects barely changed.

To a lesser extent, this was the British empire's method, too. While the introduction of capitalism and Western notions of law brought change to colonial nations, the British did not have sufficient resources or infrastructure to foster a social revolution. Often only the larger colonial cities clearly bore the imprint of British dominance.

But America's cultural influence is changing the world. Through popular appeal and a network of mass communication, U.S. culture is beamed past every national border, ultimately, lodging in the minds of an entire people. There it prunes and bends the human imagination until its host mouths the virtues of America's consumer culture without hesitation.

Being like Mike

In my recent travels, I have stumbled across a Bedouin tribe in the Arabian desert where men wear Michael Jordan T-shirts and children wear baseball caps. I have seen Slovakians don dark glasses to look "cool."

In the Middle East, I was invited to a neighborhood dance, where I was shocked to find only American-style disco dancing. They laughed at my "provincialism," and said that the national dances I read about in the guidebook were only performed for the tourists. It brings to mind the writer who once said that a culture is in serious decline when natives dance their traditional dances only for the tourists.

This is not "cultural imperialism." That phrase implies malicious intent and brute force. The populations of the world are clamoring for U.S. culture -- American business can barely keep pace with the demand.

Americans believe they are exporting "the good life." Unlike the Romans of the past, they do not want to conquer and rule but simply to bring a kind of "civilization" to the rest of the world, to instruct others on how to achieve happiness. And much of the rest of the world agrees.

Historically, the decline of empires has resulted in many problems, including famine, war and economic chaos. After the collapse of Rome, the hands on the dial of progress were turned back for generations.

In some circles, there is fear of global tumult resulting from an American failure in Serbia: NATO will collapse, the United States will turn isolationist, dictators will rise up around the world and the whole world order will become jumbled and confused.

Fortunately, this will not occur even if America decides to just declare victory in Serbia and go home. The military venture will have proven to be a serious miscalculation but hardly a fatal one. The world will still be content to let America lead. Political, economic and military reality will let it do so.

Nero's fiddling

In a way, America is like the Roman empire during the first century. Great leaders such as Julius Caesar and Augustus put the empire in place. They were followed by a series of lesser, often ridiculous emperors like Nero who would miscalculate or embarrass themselves, but who had the luxury of doing so because of Rome's greatness.

America's empire was put in place this century by great leaders -- Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan. But now we have our tragicomic figures, our Neros, who miscalculate and embarrass themselves, yet who can do so without threatening geopolitical reality.

It is the dawn of a new era.

Ronald Dworkin is a Baltimore physician and political scientist.

Pub Date: 6/03/99

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