By Payam Zamani
Could the United States of America, the world’s most powerful country, become a failed state, just as the mighty Roman Empire once did?
These kinds of failures don’t happen quickly. The Roman Empire did not fall overnight.For 200 years, the western half of the Roman Empire – once the world’s most advanced pillar of education, innovation and the arts – wavered under the weight of constant warfare, overspending, and government corruption. Its collapse was self-inflicted, and while it wasn’t inevitable, little was done to stop it. Early historians of the time even described the Roman Empire as a dying republic before it eventually crumbled.
I fear we may now be witnessing a similar weakening of the United States, both internally and on the world stage.
The widening disparity between the wealthy and poor, the racial inequality that leads to human rights violations, and our polarized, uncompromising tribal politics continue to sap our strength and our unity. A financial situation that includes a fast-growing national debt which no longer seems manageable and many more challenges, too long to list here, all have America, the “shining city on a hill,” now slipping down the slope.
If the United States, the “Great Experiment” in democracy, further weakens its influence in the world, then like the aftermath of the fall of the Roman Empire, humanity could plummet into another Dark Ages, a period of lethargy and decline. Which world power will then step in to help lead the world? China? Russia? Which nation has the moral authority, the liberty and the democratic form of government that the U.S once pursued?
Despite some similarities with the history of the Roman Empire, however, the “failed state” outcome doesn’t need to turn out the same way for the U.S. The United States of America has a destiny beyond mere material success. This nation has always conducted an ever-improving experiment – operating with a level of vision and boldness that has helped the country and society improve and prosper. In some important ways, the goals of the United States – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – are truly spiritual goals, not just governmental ones.
The followers of the Baha’i Faith, me among them, have long believed in the spiritual destiny of America. Here is an excerpt from a prayer spoken by Abdu’l-Bahain Chicago in 1912:
O God! Let this American democracy become glorious in spiritual degrees, even as it has aspired to material degrees, and render this just government victorious. Confirm this revered nation to upraise the standard of the oneness of humanity, to promulgate the Most Great Peace, to become thereby most glorious and praiseworthy among all the nations of the world.
So how can the United States “upraise the standard of the oneness of humanity” and “promulgate the Most Great Peace?” All around the world, humanity desires leadership that stands for good, watches out for the downtrodden, and protects the health of the planet and the rights of its inhabitants. In the absence of an effective system of global governance, only the United States, unfettered by Europe’s historic fractiousness or the autocratic approach of some other powerful nations, has the freedom and the moral authority to take on that role.
The United States cannot lose this moral authority – it could set the world back hundreds of years. So, let’s explore what we need to focus on to improve our current situation.
You Cannot Find Peace By Constantly Planning For War
In the third and fourth centuries after Christ, Germanic and Goth tribes won several battles against the Roman Empire, which was under constant threat of invasion and raids. As Rome’s policies of colonization spread its military across wider territories, Roman taxes rose, and resistance to paying those taxes increased.
Likewise, the United States has engaged in expensive overseas military campaigns for decades and, more recently, has declared war on enemies and ideologies with no real borders or centralized leadership. The goals of those military campaigns, often vague or too complicated for the average American to understand, have led members of Republican, Democrat and third parties to express their frustrations over decades-long war engagements with no discernible exit strategies.
War, as a means to protect humanity, is one thing. Many historians believe that World War II, for example, was necessary to stop genocide and take humanity to a safer place. But in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has spent trillions of dollars without much positive outcome – and has lost some of its moral authority as a result.
The money the U.S expended so far on the Afghanistan War, for example, has far exceeded multiple years’ worth of GDP in Afghanistan. The vast sums spent on these wars, however, isn’t the primary problem.
Instead, the moral outcome diminishes America’s standing in the world. We cannot kill people and then ask the survivors to respect us.
War creates not only casualties in the hot zones of battle but at home. Maintaining a war effort comes at the expense of funding vital domestic programs and services such as education, healthcare, infrastructure – and once these decline, so does the quality of life and life expectancy.
The United States has a$740.5 billion budget for national security. It spends more on defense than the combined spending of the militaries ofChina, Saudi Arabia, India, France, Russia, UK, and Germanycombined.
To make up for that excessive military spending, in 2019 the federal government enacted a $248 billion cut to Medicaid. The next federal budgetproposes cutting billions of dollarsfrom programs to support Americans with disabilities, significant reductions in college student financial aid, and eliminating food assistance for more than 10 million Americans.
When the world accumulates weapons of war it inevitably ends up using them. Historically, this has always been the case. That’s a very terrifying prospect today, given how much weaponry many countries have already accumulated and how many resources have been spent on planning a level of destruction never yet witnessed by humanity.
The Roman Empire fell, not only because of foreign invaders, but because its economy collapsed. The economy of the Roman Empire operated precariously for much too long, trying to maintain a far-flung Empire. According to The History Channel,“constant wars and overspending had significantly lightened imperial coffers, and oppressive taxation and inflation had widened the gap between rich and poor.”
The United States arguably finds itself in an even worse position today. As of June 2020, the U.S national debt is $25.2 trillion. The World Bank found that if a nation’s debt-to-GDP ratio exceeds 77% for an extended period of time, it slows economic growth. The U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio is 110% – and that’s assuming a healthy pre-pandemic GDP, which may be wishful thinking at least for a few years to come, during which almost certainly we will add much more to the national debt.
When that happens, inevitably the U.S currency will decline, interest rates will rise, imports will become more expensive and inflation will occur.
With a $4 trillion dollar annual budget – and if interest rates go back to where they were in the early 2000’s – there will be more than a trillion dollars in interest that we will have to pay annually. That’s 25% of the entire budget. In that case, the math simply won’t allow for the U.S to continue as a world power.
The former chairman of Citigroup,Walter Wriston, famously declared, “Countries don’t go bankrupt” – but that’s just not true. Many countries have bankrupted themselves – for example,Argentina faces defaultfor a second time this century. Given everything we as a nation have dealt with, we simply cannot keep our heads in the sand and assume that for some inexplicable reason we are different and that arithmetic simply doesn’t apply to us.
Soon the world may not have enough free cash flow to support our desire to live outside of our means. To think the United States cannot fall victim to this is absurd. What is so unrealistic about believing we have such a great burden of debt that the system can collapse?
The Rise of the Eastern Empire
In Rome’s case, its own eastern half, headquartered in Constantinople, often posed major problems. In fact, that portion of the Roman Empire, known as Byzantium or the Byzantine Empire, actually survived the fall of the Western branch of the Empire.
But for the United States today, the rise of China and the diminishing U.S. participation in international affairs pose the biggest threats to its global influence.
Recently, the United States has begun to take a significantly isolationist stance in governing, withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, UNESCO, The World Health Organization, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the 12-nation free trade agreement meant to counter China’s growing influence in global commerce. This isolationist policy returns the United States to a 19th-century view of the world, a nationalist approach ill-suited to the interdependent world we live in today.
Nationalism has never ended well. The reality is that global ecommerce, trade agreements and treaties have connected the world further than any ancient empire ever succeeded in doing. Functionally, the world is one. National borders no longer pose a major barrier to trade, migration or commerce, but certain governments still try to enforce their borders as they did a century ago because it benefits those in power, not the people. They work to dismantle the institutions that center and balance the country’s collaboration with other countries.
In real terms, the world in 2020 has become more like a single country – which means we need better global governance, not a return to unbridled nationalism and the network of dysfunctional relationships and rivalries it creates. The weaker our global institutions become, the more chaotic interactions between nations will become. We have a global economy – but we still act locally. Humanity has reached a new apex of global collaboration, but many governments still try to draw lines and build walls.
Rome’s emperors indulged in excesses, and the Roman Senate was not only corrupt but incompetent. During its decline and fall, the Roman Empire suffered through periods of turmoil, with one single year having four emperors and another six.
For the United States, the political divide between the two major parties, Republican and Democrat, has widened significantly over the course of 30 years. That polarization means the parties are increasingly at odds with each other at the expense of the average citizen. Citizens have not collectively done enough to dismantle this corrupt approach to governance.
Elected officials have been caught in scandals, selling their offices and profiting from their positions. They’ve allowed monopolies like Google, Amazon and Facebook to control more than 80 percent of their industries. Companies now build billionaires, not jobs, and billionaires create their wealth from stock prices and often the manipulation of those prices, rather than from profits and their share of them.
Commercialized, profit-centered news media, running 24/7, driven solely by ratings since the 1990s, blurs the lines between information and entertainment. That continues to fan the flames of partisan division in the country, even as new threats of disinformation, foreign propaganda, and conspiracy theories spread unchecked online.
With all of these factors at play, thetrust in America's institutionshas dramatically eroded. Overall trust levels in government and public institutions, ranking at 84% of Americans who said they trusted their national government during the middle of the 20thcentury, has declined to less than 33% today.
If a couple is disunified, they’ll end up divorced. Only love and unity enables things to get built. We must resolve this issue of partisanship and trust, or we won’t end up in a better place.
Why the World Should Fear an American Collapse
I am an immigrant, a refugee. I have loved this country from a distance – as a child in Iran facing daily persecutions, learning about the United States in school and in the media, about its greatness, its opportunities, its leadership in the world. The U.S gave me a home when mine didn’t want me. Icannot put into words how much I love this country.
The United States was never perfect, but for generations, it served as a beacon of hope and set an ethical example for the rest of the world.
I don’t know if today’s children will view America the same way I did.
What followed the fall of the Roman Empire was a period that swept Europe referred to (debatably) as the Dark Ages – defined not only for its decline in culture, science, and innovation but becauselife became nasty, brutish and short. This period lasted 900 years.
We Owe It to the World to Save this Country
One of the best things any American can do for the future of the world is working to save their country from its decline and fall. Here are a few ways we can all work on this together:
Become an engaged citizen.Vote – in every election. Get off the partisan bandwagon, change your political affiliation to “no affiliation,” and adhere to that independent principle. Freedom comes with responsibility. Commit yourself to becoming educated on the issues, diversify your news sources, expand your friendship circle, and follow the best answer to problems instead of blindly following one political party and voting only for that party.
Dismantle racism in our communities and institutions.Yes, Black Lives do Matter. Racism is America’s original sin. Until we have love, equality and justice for everyone, we will not be united as a nation.
Become an activist for love.How can we justify spending more on weapons but less on education than the rest of the world? We need to implement a change in the way we think about safety and peace. Let’s bring about national security by being a source of good and not a country the rest of the world should fear or despise. Let’s demilitarize and disarm, and end our foreign entanglements. Bridges cannot be built in times of war.
Recognize the pitfalls of greed.We cannot expect our government to run an untenable national debt and have an ever increasing expectation of additional services and higher benefits, assuming that somehow the math will work. We should allow our elected officials to tackle difficult financial decisions without fearing that as a result they will not get reelected. We can put them at ease by empowering them to make the right decisions.
Nationalism breeds exceptionalism – we must end it.We are citizens of one globe. This world was created for everyone, without borders. The dividing lines and borders were forced on us centuries ago, and it’s time we finally learn how to celebrate our differences and cooperate. Let’s work across those artificial lines some colonial power or despot once drew on a map, and work toward oneness.
Wars never win hearts and minds. Instead, we should focus on securing lasting peace, not just for ourselves, but for the planet. Our happiness and security are firmly tied to everyone who we share this planet with. The sooner we recognize that fact, and act in that manner, the sooner we will experience a better world.