Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


August 2007

After the attacks of 9-11, many scholars and some pundits wrote that a new American empire had emerged and began comparing it to the empire that Rome ruled two millennia ago.

One scholar, Niall Ferguson, titled his book: "Colossus: The Price of America's Empire." A new one by Cullen Murphy, "Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America", has elicited both praise and skepticism from reviewers.

Some observers applaud the idea that America is the new Rome. They argue that the United States is the only country that has the necessary power to maintain order in an increasingly chaotic world. It has, they assert, the economic and military strength to be the world's policeman. U.S. interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq were necessary, they say, to bring down dictators who threatened their neighbors and brutalized their own people.

Critics of empire are convinced that America, as it extends its military power and hegemony abroad, risks "strategic overstretch," a condition that brought on the demise of Rome's vast empire. They argue that in the process of becoming an empire, the Roman Republic was replaced by the dictatorship of emperors, most of them military commanders.

Advocates of American empire believe there is little likelihood that our democratic institutions are in jeopardy. Opponents, however, warn against the growth of executive power in Washington and the influence of a "military-industrial complex," which President Dwight Eisenhower warned against in 1960.

The United States does in some ways resemble Rome. It has the most powerful military forces in the world, with near-global reach. The Pentagon maintains military bases in nearly one hundred countries, from which to project that military power.

America also has the world's largest and most productive economy and exercises huge financial influence over many countries. Its democratic system of government and cultural achievements are widely admired abroad. As The Economist observed in its cover story last month, "Still No.1: Wounded, tetchy, and less effective than it should be, America is still the power that counts."

In important ways, however, America does not resemble the Roman Empire. For example, the empire maintained large conscript armies in conquered countries whose tribute sustained Rome's economy. The countries also provided Rome with a steady flow of slave labor. Military commanders were powerful political leaders who, beginning with Julius Caesar, destroyed the Roman Republic and ushered in four hundred years of imperial dictatorship.

The most significant difference is that we Americans cherish our deeply-entrenched system of government, which embraces universal suffrage and imposes restraints on executive authority.

A major political issue for Americans today is whether granting any president additional authority to combat international terrorism undercuts the constitution's checks on executive power and opens the door for a too powerful presidency.

Congress's debate two weeks ago over revision of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) focused on this key issue: should a special court approve cases involving communication between suspect foreign sources and U.S. residents, or should the president have that authority?

As the nation approaches the sixth anniversary of the tragic attacks of 9-11, Americans have a heightened awareness of the nation's vulnerability to additional attacks, on cities, transportation systems, energy resources, even the food supply.

Congress has responsibility to decide whether the country should provide additional powers to all presidents to deal with threats to national security. Some fear that if it does so, the country starts down the path to an imperial presidency.

That is why it is essential that executive branch agencies, Congress, and the courts continue their vigorous oversight of the intelligence organizations, and ensure that the constraints on executive power which the nation's founders intended continue to be enforced.

File last modified on Tuesday, 08-AUGUST-2007 11:10 PM EST

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