Few things on earth last forever. America may be the most powerful country on earth today, but our elevated status as “the new kid on the world’s block” is but a nano-second in the history of mankind. What about the next 100 years and beyond? Will America continue to be the most powerful? Who or what will emerge as our greatest existential threat? And heaven forbid, if we are attacked on home soil, could we defend ourselves without help?
For most Americans, these thoughts are not particularly unsettling. They should be, but they aren’t. Our pride, our patriotism, and our self-proclaimed “excellence” create a comforting, yet overconfident sense of security. Whether we are willfully blind, or naïve — or worse still, arrogant — does not matter. For our policy-makers and business leaders, the unthinkable must be thinkable. If we are to continue to flourish, we need to be brutally realistic and self-deprecating. Now is not the time to blow air up our own backsides, domestically or in international circles.
Humility is a dish best served to ourselves, by ourselves, and not by others. America’s future may be bright, but our future is not predetermined. Unless America proves herself to be unique — history’s first and singular outlier — our preeminent power status on the world’s stage won’t be ours forever. Things constantly change and evolve. Our future is neither certain, nor secure. We need only look in the rear-view mirror at the plight of the Romans, the Persians, the British, and other so-called “empires” in human history. Each took their turn as the most powerful, and no doubt that each believed their respective empires would reign supreme forever. And yet, each failed. Why? And what makes America different, if it is?
The answer to both questions is the same. Empires come in all forms, not simply those based on economic or military power. Our uncommon pursuit of human dignity, equality, free will, and the rule of law is what makes us an outlier — a leader of aspirational values and principles, neither of which depend upon the strength of our economy or military. The power to dominate is fleeting. Others before us were just as dominant, perhaps more so, and each ultimately collapsed because at some broad over-arching level, most historical empires were held together only by raw power, subjugation, and fear. Their pursuit of equality, justice, or even simple benevolence became secondary, if at all.
We would be prudent to ponder the significance of these historical signposts for America’s future. When Rome began to crumble, for instance, no one came to her defense. There was a reason. Rome, like most of the empires before and after her, was hated by many for the manner in which she became powerful, and perhaps even more by the manner in which she exercised her power. History may move slowly, but it can teach us if we are willing to learn. No empires were America’s equivalent in terms of their founding aspirational principles.
This much is undeniable. Our turn in history’s “empire” barrel is coming, perhaps in 100 years or more, or just maybe in our lifetime. Russia, China, Iran, Turkey and North Korea (and others) are now aligning as never before, each knowing that America, by itself, is not as powerful as their combined resources. The existential threat is real. China’s regional and worldwide reach expands almost daily. Russia’s influence is on the rise again, as it seeks to regain its former glory under the Soviet Union. Even if only China and Russia were to join forces, they may well be our power equal.
Which begs several additional questions. If world events are not always within our control, what is? And what or who is most likely to protect us when we are no longer the most powerful single country on earth? Eventually, when our economic and military power advantage diminishes — and it will — we will be vulnerable. We will need help to survive.
Again, the answers are found in the power of the invisible empire of our founding ideas and ideals, which will exist in perpetuity if we honor them. The aspirational DNA imbedded in our Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and rule of law is the common sinew that binds Americans, and all nations of good will, together. As a country, we can at least control the controllables and honor our democratic institutions and our nation’s values. They are what make us powerful; they are why we are envied by many in the free world.
And if we don’t, we are no better than the Romans. Their plight will be ours. Good doesn’t, by right, defeat evil. Good prevails only if the world is willing to fight for what is right and just. The lessons of World War II were painful. Could we be the next Poland or Czechoslovakia, which were overrun by Germany as the world watched? Who will come to our defense and shed blood for us? Isn’t it better to be humble, to know our place in history now and in the future, than to risk being humbled?
The day will come when Americans will need our allies and the power of the invisible empire more than ever. Let’s act like it.
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