The American Interest

Running On Empty

All imperial projects eventually come to grief.  The causes, time spans, and forms of decline differ from one great power to the next and from one century to another, but they all have in common one important feature: At some point the weakening hegemon is no longer able to bear the economic and financial burden of its military and political commitments.  Attempts to postpone the consequences of economic frailty through greater reliance on coercive tools invariably prove self-defeating.  The cost of maintaining a massive military machine eventually drains the power’s capacity to compete with its actual or potential adversaries and merely hastens the decline.

No hegemonic power in recorded history has been able to avoid this fate, with the Persia of Xerxes providing an early example.  Only decades later, after leading the Hellenic coalition against Persian aggression, Athens tried to convert consensual leadership into imperial hegemony—and destroyed Hellas as a first-rate political and military factor.  The Roman Empire was able to maintain full-spectrum dominance for the first three centuries of the Christian era, but it was never as self-confident, virile, or spontaneously cohesive as the Republic.  Justinian’s Renovatio imperii in the sixth century proved militarily feasible in the short term at a huge cost, but geopolitically and economically it was not sustainable and actually reduced Byzantium’s...

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