Romans at the End of History

There’s a good chance we’ll look back at the US’s emergence as the lone superpower after the Soviet Union fell in 1991 as the last, best chance for humanity to achieve a permanent and stable international system in the Nuclear Age.

Historians may one day characterize the post-cold war period from 1991 to 2022 as an era defined by American hegemony, unprecedented global peace and prosperity, and absolute foolhardiness in the face of the greatest existential threat humanity has ever faced: the existence of nuclear weapons.

I write this on the heels of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which is a watershed moment and turning point in history for many reasons. One of these reasons is that the conflict proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that a stable international system was not achieved during this period. 

The liberalization of Russian and Chinese economies in the 1990s and the unprecedented globalization of trade and communication networks have done nothing to bring about the much-vaunted “End of History” that the triumphant West prematurely predicted after the fall of the Berlin Wall. A state of nature still exists in international relations.

Humans may regret Pax Americana having ended without a stable solution to the nuclear problem more than we’ve regretted any other mistake in history since it could lead to our extinction. 

With the rise of China and the collapse of the rules-based order championed by centuries of British and American hegemony, we find ourselves entering what Samuel Huntington identified as a multi-polar, multicivilizational world order for the first time in history; and this happenstance, which is uniquely unstable, coincides with a time when apocalyptic weapons have proliferated to many countries with opposing value systems, geopolitical interests, and civilizational foundations.

What this means is that there is not only an increased chance of great power war — but that such a war is actually probable, maybe even inevitable over the long term. Each year that passes under the current international regime is one more turn at nuclear Russian roulette. Eventually, our luck will run out.

Won’t Mutually-Assured Destruction prevent nuclear conflict? 

This is a common objection, and one which is making people irrationally (I would argue suicidally) complacent about the geopolitical situation we face.

I don’t mean to pick on the person in the tweets above. I merely include these tweets as one example that I recently observed of a way of thinking that one is likely to encounter among Westerners — particularly Americans — who grew up in the “end of history” and have extreme normalcy bias as a result. 

Before I argue against the actual merits of complacent thinking about nuclear security, I’ll indulge in the following bit of armchair psychology: if you grow up with the teleological point of view that time’s arrow points in only one direction >>> i.e. progress (a deep-seated conviction in many Westerners’ minds, even those who have read some history and should know better), then you are going to be irrationally blind to age-old risks that have proven an ineradicable part of human existence since our species first began to walk the earth. 

Unfortunately, great power war is Lindy — the idea of voluntary global consensus among armed organizations known as nation-states not to fight each other because it would be suicide, on the other hand, is less than a century old.

Next, I would point out that the evidence is against the viability of mutually-assured destruction as a long-term solution to the predicament of multipolarity in a nuclear age.

First, every war between great powers in the industrial age has ended up being a total war. 

People forget that before World War I, there was a lot of high-minded rhetoric and general agreement amongst European powers about never using air power to bomb civilians. For example, the Hague Convention of 1907 stated the following:

Article 25: “The attack or bombardment, by whatever means, of towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings which are undefended is prohibited.”

Article 26: “The officer in command of an attacking force must, before commencing a bombardment, except in cases of assault, do all in his power to warn the authorities.”

Article 27: “In sieges and bombardments all necessary steps must be taken to spare, as far as possible, buildings dedicated to religion, art, science, or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals, and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not being used at the time for military purposes.”

It did not take long for this agreement and others like it to look hopelessly naive in retrospect. Before WWI ended, air raids had already begun. By the end of World War II, allied planes were incinerating hundreds of thousands in the firestorms of Tokyo and Dresden without a second thought. 

Picasso’s famous Guernica, which illustrated an early example of the uncontrollable nature of modern warfare, is a depiction of the bombing in 1937 where Franco’s Spanish fascists showed themselves willing to deploy apocalyptic air power against their own people to win the Spanish Civil war.

Such is the terrible, numbing, inhuman, systematically-expansive nature of modern warfare; like Pandora’s Box, once unleashed its participants inevitably lose control in a self-perpetuating cycle of escalating violence that only ends when one side surrenders. The destructive capacity of modern weapons, and the logistical capabilities of modern societies to supply fighting power and materiel to the front under a war economy, make this inevitable.

In this way, it is fundamentally different from older eras of warfare. As Putin recently predicted in warning NATO not to persist in remaining open to Ukraine, “you will be pulled into conflict against your will” against what he has repeatedly warned is a nuclear-armed Russia.

His words are unintentionally reminiscent of how World War I started — it similarly involved a punitive action of an aging imperial power (Austria-Hungary) against a seemingly much weaker adversary (Serbia) that performed much better than anyone expected. 

In that case, Serbia ended up being just the first domino in a chain reaction that led to the most apocalyptic war in human history, despite the desperation of many of the European actors to avoid just such an eventuality. Let us pray to the war god that the parallel does not apply fully to the current crisis.

At this point, you may be tempted to point to the Cold War as evidence that mutually-assured destruction works. I would say in response to this that the Cuban Missile Crisis took us a flip of a coin away from the apocalypse, and if such near 50/50 misses happen just once every century then nuclear war is inevitable. So the Cold War shows that while mutually-assured destruction has worked for a small amount of time, that hardly recommends it as a permanent solution. 

On top of that, I’d be remiss not to remind you that the Cold War was a bipolar (two-power) showdown where both parties were extremely focused on avoiding the risk of nuclear war or even anything that could escalate into it, despite having a deep-seated ideological and strategic rivalry. The situation now is very different — the risk of war goes up exponentially because of the number of nuclear-armed parties involved and all the potential Franz Ferdinand moments that could precipitate a crisis have multiplied.

Trusting in nuclear-armed governments to not act irrationally and blow themselves up just because the stakes are too high flies in the face of both logic and the clear evidence of history. I consider it a suicidally naive and complacent belief. The downside of being wrong is infinite. We must assume that nuclear conflict under multipolarity is inevitable if we want to have any claim to be morally responsible actors.

Most of all, we can never again make the mistake of complacently thinking that there can be an “end of history” or a “war that ends all wars” or a voluntary “league of nations” that will solve war once and for all. We must have one goal and one goal only — to secure the survival and future of humanity by eliminating even a small possibility of nuclear war.

Solutions

How can this be done?

As late as the 2000s, there was a lot of talk about nuclear disarmament. In my opinion, it was foolhardy even then, and lunacy now. The level of trust needed between countries to bring about this outcome has never been shown to exist even once in human history. 

The long-term trend of nuclear-capable countries over time has grown from exactly one in 1945 to five by the time of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1970, to (probably) more than 9 today. That number will only continue to go up. Weapons technology has never before in history gone in reverse unless as the result of civilizational collapse.

So entering the Nuclear Age looks like a one-way door. Remember that the fatal mix is multipolarity plus nukes. If we don’t want to keep playing nuclear Russian roulette, and we can’t remove the nuclear ingredient, we must endeavor to end multipolarity.

This will be hard and likely will not succeed. But unlike disarmament, it has at least one precedent: the Roman Empire.

The Roman Republic, at the time when it had begun to expand beyond Italy in the second century, entered a multipolar, multicivilizational system in the Mediterranean World similar to the one we now confront. 

In the East, there was a vast and sprawling Hellenistic civilization with several great Greek powers including Macedon, the Seleucid Empire, and Hellenistic Egypt. To the West were the Carthaginians and their trading empire. Both civilizations had outposts in Sicily, which was the mother of all powder kegs — leading to the devastating Punic Wars that almost ended with the destruction of the Roman Republic, but instead ended with their undisputed unipolar rule over the entire Mediterranean World.

The extent of their conquest, as Edward Gibbon, the greatest English-language historian of Rome, once pointed out, was not what made Rome unique — it was the stability of their system, which encapsulated many nations, ethnicities, and geographies across three continents into the same unipolar system for a thousand years (or more if you include the Byzantines).

Although Gibbon’s history of the Romans catalogs its many internal dynastic struggles, he points out the remarkable stability of Roman rule in the provinces (i.e. the non-Italian parts of the empire) which rarely revolted and required minimal amounts of military manpower to retain control over. Throughout Rome’s empire, the majority of its legions were concentrated on border regions, with tiny garrisons for places like Spain and Egypt which once vigorously resisted Roman rule.

I believe the Romans discovered the secret sauce of stable global government for the first time in human history, and one which was humanist in outlook and proto-liberal in its values. The ingredients of that secret sauce were as follows:

  • A clear lingua franca (Latin in the West, Greek in the East)
  • A proto-federated government that decentralized everything except military/foreign policy and taxation to provincial and municipal governments
  • Religious tolerance (with one notable monotheistic exception) 
  • Cultural assimilation of subject peoples via incentives like tiered citizenship

Some of these elements were found in other stable empires containing many nations, notably the Persian and Ottoman ones. In my opinion, something like it is what the US should have aimed to implement when it emerged victorious from its own version of the First Punic War (the Cold War); it was unable to do so because of an ideological attachment to the nationalist principle of the right to self-determination.

Instead, we subsidized pseudo-imperial bodies like the IMF and the UN, hoping to export our values through spreading pop culture (very different, which we failed to notice, from High Culture) via McDonald’s and Hollywood and Coca Cola, and to spread our free trade principles and market products via multinational corporations and globalizing trade treaties.

I would argue that this did little to engender the lasting goodwill of the world, while our perceived hypocrisies invited their disdain. Meanwhile, the first global superpower in world history did nothing to consolidate its dominant position, so that, having escaped one period living with the danger of nuclear annihilation, we are now rushing headlong into the next. Would a type of ruthless Roman expansionism not have served us and the world better in the long run?

We shall never know. But the day may once again come where a single power regains economic or military hyper-dominance over other countries without having had to resort to nuclear war. Maybe the West will rally and regain the upper hand in a future iteration of itself, maybe another civilization will inherit the mantle. Either way, when that time comes, Roman pragmatism, and attaining the will and ability to unify the known world under one stable system while simultaneously avoiding nuclear conflict could be our only hope.

To this thought, it is entirely justifiable to point out the threat of tyranny and totalitarianism that could attend a single system that spanned the whole earth. The human suffering that could result would be unthinkable. I think that is a legitimate, serious risk, and although I suspect extinction would be worse, it may not be worse by much. 

Or, as Bertrand Russell put it in his essay on the Future of Man, which draws similar conclusions to my own:

To summarize the above arguments: we have to guard against three dangers—the extinction of the human race, a reversion to barbarism, and the establishment of a universal slave state involving misery for the vast majority and the disappearance of all progress in knowledge and thought.

That is why decentralization and federalism are so important as a necessary counterbalance — the tension between security and liberty is age-old, but the former is not worth much if it means destroying the latter. Things that were achieved in the Roman case by lack of technology (limiting the depredations of Emperors like Nero and Caracalla in scope) may be possible again through smart contracts and blockchain technology or something along the same lines. 

The other possible path to salvation, other than the Roman imperialist path, is deus ex machina. If the Elon Musks among us are able to successfully create interplanetary civilization, thereby diversifying the risk so that nuclear war on one world does not spell the end of humanity, it may forestall the problem. We then begin a race against the clock — what happens first, a successful, self-sustaining extraterrestrial civilization, or a great power war between nuclear powers on Earth?

Even in this plan of going interplanetary —  which recalls to mind the flight of Aeneas from the total devastation of Troy to terra nova in Italy to found Rome — eventually, the same issue will come up. Everywhere humans go, our apocalyptic technologies will follow — and the only way I can think of to ensure they are never used is to make it so that there’s no one to use them against.

The end of history was declared prematurely, which came from a naive belief in the self-evident appeal of liberal democracy. But an end of history will happen one way or another — the nuclear weapon (unless some unlooked-for powerful defensive weapon arises) assures this. It will either come to an end in the sense of finishing with human extinction, or history will achieve its logical end (telos) in the sense of unifying human military power under a single, stable system that destroys the state of nature in international relations until nuclear weapons cease to be an existential threat for sentient life.

That is why I believe that the vision of the eternal city — that of a stable, global world system — is what must await us at the end of history.

By Sachin Maini

Longtime student and enthusiast of antiquity writing about the history of ideas, cultural evolution, and complex adaptive systems.

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