Sunday, January 28, 2018

Donald Trump: Wise Emperor or Condemned to Damnatio Memoriae?

About one year ago, shortly before the US elections, I published a post on Cassandra's Legacy where I wondered what Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would look like if they were Roman Emperors. I reasoned that the Roman Empire of the 1st and 2nd Century AD was facing many of the same problems which the American Empire is facing nowadays: declining resources, excessive costs, overextended military apparatus, and others. I concluded that Hillary Clinton might have resembled Emperor Trajan, who embarked on a difficult and ultimately self-defeating military attempt to expand the empire. Trump, instead, might have looked like Emperor Hadrian, Trajan's successor, who took the opposite path: stopping all wars of expansion and consolidating the Empire within its borders.

One year after Trump's election, it seems that my interpretation was correct. Trump is doing more or less what Hadrian did some 2.000 before him. Apart from not having engaged in new wars, Trump's tax plan has a very transparent purpose, that of decoupling the US from the globalized economic system. (an interesting discussion on this point is provided by Dr. D. on "The Automatic Earth"). That may not be so apparent by listening to what Trump says, but the insults, the threats, and the outrageous behavior are mainly noise that masks the direction in which the Trump administration is trying to move - and it is like steering a transatlantic liner. It is slow.

In short, Trump is engaged in reversing the grand plan that the Neocons had devised in the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union. At that time, the idea of a US-led World Empire seemed feasible and the plan was explicitly laid out in the "Project for a New American Century" published in 1996. It included such details as a "New Pearl Harbor" needed to provide the propaganda justification for the enterprise. It seemed to work, for a while, but the plan soon bogged down. It was just too expensive.

The Romans abandoned the idea of a World Empire at some moment during the 2nd century AD. The modern Americans may not have abandoned it completely and, if Trump is taking the role of Hadrian, the future may bring new equivalents of Trajan in Washington. But that would change little. All empires go through the same cycle of growth and decline - it is the hard law of the Seneca Cliff. Even Hadrian, as wise as he was supposed to be, couldn't save the Roman Empire. At best, he managed to keep it alive a little longer.

So, should we think of Trump as a wise emperor? In a certain sense, yes, but we can't forget his responsibility in setting back the last-ditch attempts of stopping the ongoing climate disaster. So, in the future (if there will be one for humankind), Trump may rather be subjected to the ritual called the "damnatio memoriae" which the Romans reserved to bad emperors after their death. That was the case of Emperor Nero, said to have burned the city of Rome. Trump could be accused of having done much worse than that.

From "Cassandra's Legacy", November 6, 2016

Which Roman Emperor Would Donald Trump Be?

By Ugo Bardi

Comparing Donald Trump to Emperor Hadrian (76 – 138 CE) may seem ludicrous after that Marguerite Yourcenar presented Hadrian to us as a wise and enlightened emperor in her book "Memoirs of Hadrian". Yet, Hadrian found himself facing problems similar to those that all US presidents face nowadays. And some of Hadrian's solutions were not so different than those that Donald Trump is proposing today; for instance, building a wall to keep the Barbarians out. 

All empires in history have gone through similar trajectories: rapid expansion at the beginning, then stasis, then decline and collapse. That was the trajectory of the Roman Empire and there is no reason why the modern empire that we call "Globalization" would follow a different one. It seems clear that the Global Empire has reached its limits and it is poised for a decline in the future.

So, we find ourselves in the conditions that the Roman Empire faced during the 1st and 2nd centuries CE. The turning point for the Romans may have been the battle of Teutoburg, 7 CE, where three Roman legions were annihilated by a band of German barbarians. That was a signal that something wasn't working so well any longer with the Empire. The cost of wars had simply become too much for an Empire that was short of resources and had reached its practical limits to expansion. Then, the Emperors faced a dilemma: keep an aggressive stance and try to continue the expansion or retrench and defend what the Empire already had?  

Different emperors gave different answers to the question. Most of them were prudent; engaging only in cautious and limited conquests. But some were ambitious; the best example being Emperor Trajan (53 – 117) who embarked on a difficult campaign against Dacia with the objective of gaining control of the gold mines in the region. The campaign was a success in military terms, but it was extremely expensive and it badly strained the finances of the Empire. Trajan's successor, Hadrian, hastened to stop all attempts of expansion, to retreat from areas that were not defendable, and to sign peace treaties with the traditional enemies of the Roman Empire. His legacy includes Hadrian's wall, a fortified line that defended the Roman territories in Britannia from the Northern peoples. He also built and reinforced other defensive lines that would become the standard defense element for the Roman Empire. Hadrian may have been a wise emperor, but it is dubious that the walls were a good idea, and their costs may well have bankrupted the Empire in the long run.

Now, fast forward to our time: the next Global Emperor may be Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Both will face the same problem: defending the vast Global Empire has become terribly expensive in a phase of diminishing resources and with the threat of climate change looming. Trump seems to have understood, at least in part, that some limits have been reached. His foreign policy is non-interventionist. It also includes a reduction of the financing for NATO and negotiates with Russia. It is not unlike Hadrian's policy of retrenchment and, like Hadrian, Trump plans a defensive wall at the borders. Just as for Hadrian's fortifications, the wisdom of this idea is at least dubious. 

Conversely, Trump's adversary, Hillary Clinton, has been much more aggressive in the past as secretary of state and she will probably maintain that stance as president. If Clinton were a Roman Emperor, she would look more like Trajan in her attitudes, or perhaps like Germanicus, a Roman general and candidate emperor who led the legions into a dangerous military adventure in Germania in 15-16 CE, until a more cautious emperor (Tiberius) recalled him and probably got rid of him by poisoning. Where will President Clinton lead the Global Legions? As the Romans learned, victory is never guaranteed but it is always expensive. And excessive military expenses are, normally, what takes empires to their doom. 

Whatever it happens with the upcoming elections in the US, squandering our remaining resources in new wars or in defensive walls will not be a good idea. In addition to resource depletion, we are facing a problem that the Roman Empire didn't face: that of rapid climate change that may do to us much more damage than any Barbarian army did to the Romans. Neither Trump nor Clinton seem to have understood this point.

Will we ever find a wise Emperor who will lead us to fight against the real threat, that of climate change? The future will tell. 


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)