The first time I did any serious reading of the Roman Empire, the thought that was always with me was why they never thought to downsize. The cost of conquering Gaul was relatively low, so it made sense to do it, but the cost of hanging onto it never seemed to make sense. The same was even more true with Britannia. By the third century, it should have been obvious that the Empire needed to downsize. Yet, that was never a part of the logic of the empire.
The same is true of the Thirty Years War. The Habsburgs were exhausting themselves trying to preserve something that was probably not worth the effort. Of course, we look at these things in hindsight and from a modern perspective. It seems silly to care about the local religious practices, but important people did care about these things. Still, when I read about the rise and fall of empires, I end up thinking through the alternatives, wondering why they were never considered.
The answer is probably the simplest one. People, even the shrewdest rulers, live and plan within their allotted time on earth. Even the Chinese, who take the long view of things, act in the moment. People can think about how their actions will impact their descendants a century from now, but it will never have the same emotional tug as how their contemporaries think of them in the moment. Most men will trade the applause of today for being remembered long after he is dead.
That is probably what we are seeing with the current struggles of Western elites to keep this house of cards together. The “liberal international order” is the perfection of a solution to problems of the long gone past. From the French Revolution through the Cold War, the great challenge in the West was over conflict resolution. After a long bloody series of experiments, the West finally figured out something that worked to keep the peace, maximize material wealth and settle disputes.
The current arrangements are not answering the questions of this age. In fact, they appear to be exacerbating the problems that face the West. Angela Merkel’s decision to invite in a million Muslim warriors made her the hero of her contemporaries, but it guaranteed that generations of Germans will be engaged in a long twilight struggle to save themselves and their people from the terror of contemporary Islam. A generation from now Merkel will be remembered as a monster.
Of course, when we talk of the West, we are really talking about the American Empire that arose following World War II. Washington has its tentacles in every nook and cranny of the world. The United States has active duty military troops stationed in nearly 150 countries. The cost of this is close to a trillion per year, not counting the unknown sums that are not in the budget. If the American ruling class decides it is time to downsize the empire, then the liberal international order is finished.
Assuming it is true that the top 5% of Americans pay 60% of taxes, the cost of empire is mostly paid by rich people. Rich people like peace and stability, so fear of the alternative keeps them invested in a system that no longer makes sense. The internal contradictions of this empire may even be known to the people in charge, but the way out of it is not clear, so they stick with what has worked for generations, no matter the cost to them and their descendents.
Inertia plays a part in these things too. To abandon what their ancestors built would seem like failure, so our rulers keep throwing good money after bad in places like Afghanistan and Mesopotamia. If there is a reason to be involved in the Syrian civil war, not one has said it, but there we are anyway. If Putin wants to set himself up as a modern day Tsar, what is it matter to us? We have an army of specially trained Russia experts, so our rulers keep pretending Putin is a super villain.
The truly weird thing about the American Empire is it started as a homogeneous nation, composed of English speaking white people. The Romans bankrupted themselves trying to keep the barbarians out, while going to great lengths to integrate those that came in through conquest and migration. America is bankrupting itself trying to import barbarians from every corner of the globe. The point is to keep the current arrangements in place, no matter how illogical.
It is an error to assume the people in charge are thinking this stuff through. Lots of smart people were bamboozled into thinking China would get rich and become a modern Western style democracy. Sure, the people who talked those smart people into this foolishness were in it just for a quick buck, but that just proves the point. The people in charge of the West are not thinking too far past next week. They do what seems to work today, no matter the long term cost.
That is probably the best way to think of the logic of empire. No one lives in the long term, because as Keynes said, in the long run we are all dead. Ultimately, relative to the march of history, everyone in charge at all times and all places has a high time preference. The people in charge are just getting what they can from the current arrangements. It is why they instinctively defend the system. It is what provides them with the lifestyle they believe they deserve. That and it is all they know.