Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Monday, February 11, 2019

What's Emperor Trump Doing? He is Busy at Splitting the Empire in Two

Donald Trump seems to be doing what Roman Emperors like Diocletian, Constantine, and Theodosius did long ago: splitting the empire into two halves. Trump may not have consciously decided to do that, but an Empire can only be as large as it can afford to be and the American Empire can't afford anymore to dominate the whole world.

Flavius Theodosius Augustus "The Great" (347- 395 CE) was the last emperor to rule over the whole Roman Empire. His success was probably due in large part to his habit of plundering Pagan temples for the gold he needed to pay his troops. But Pagan temples were a limited resource and Theodosius himself seemed to understand that when, shortly before his death, he partitioned the Empire between his two sons, Arcadius and Honorius. Afterward, the empire would never be united under a single emperor again.

The Roman Empire had been a strong centralized power during its heydays, but it never was very interested in creating an ethnical and linguistic unity among its subjects. The Roman authorities understood that it was less expensive to tolerate diversity than to force uniformity -- a typical policy of most empires. So, the Empire remained split into two main linguistic halves: the Latin-speaking Pars Occidentis and the Greek-speaking Pars Orientis. Theoretically, Latin was the official language but, in practice, the Empire remained a bilingual entity and, during the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the Roman elite would tend to speak Greek -- considered more refined and classy than Latin.

The split of the two sides of the Empire was not just linguistic, it was economic as well. The Pars Occidentis remained based on mineral wealth which, in turn, fueled the Empire's military power. The Pars Orientis was more based on commerce and manufacturing and it exploited its favorable geographical position as the terminal of the silk road that connected China to Europe. During the expansion period, the military strength of the West made it dominant but, with the exhaustion of the gold mines in Spain, it lost the resources needed to pay for its oversized military apparatus. In time, the Western Empire became unable to control even its own territory and it squandered its remaining resources in huge border walls. It collapsed and vanished during the late 5th century CE. The Eastern Empire lasted nearly one millennium longer but was never able to rebuild the power of the old Roman Empire.

Fast forward to our times, and it is clear that the American Empire is facing the same situation that the Romans were facing around the 2nd century AD. Like the old Western Empire, the American Empire's economy is mainly based on mineral resources: crude oil in particular. But, with the gradual exhaustion of these resources, the empire cannot afford to dominate the whole world anymore.

Emperor Trump seems to have an uncanny ability to understand the situation, even though he may not be an expert in Roman history. His actions are perfectly understandable in light of the plan of splitting the empire into two halves. One half (Pars Occidentis) will still be dominated from Washington, the other half (Pars Orientis) will have Beijing as its capital. The Western Part will retain the original Imperial language, English. The Eastern Part may switch to Chinese.

Consistently, Trump is planning to abandon Afghanistan and also Syria, both too far and too expensive to defend and he also was not interested in an all-out confrontation with North Korea. But he seems to consider South America as part of the Western dominion, so he is moving to take control of Venezuela. Trump is also acting to destroy the hegemony of the dollar as world currency. Apparently, the idea is that the Western Empire is safer from financial disasters if the dollar becomes the Western currency only. So, the economic sanctions enacted against Iran, Russia, and other countries are forcing the Eastern Empire to develop new currencies and financial systems independent of the dollar.

Clearly, Emperor Trump is facing strong resistance. Just as many Roman Emperors, he not completely in control of the Imperial military apparatus and a sizeable opposition is trying to maintain the American Empire alive in is most extended and expensive form: dominating the whole planet. But the direction is clear and the situation is simple: an Empire can only be as large as it can afford to be. The gradual depletion of the mineral resources and the increasing costs of pollution are making a global empire impossible.

The Globalized World Empire was a beautiful creature as long as it prospered, but it was burning the dynamite stick at both ends. The time of global dominance is gone and the Empire is now in a convulsive phase: retreat is the most dangerous military maneuver and it is best executed maintaining an aggressive posture. Which is exactly what Emperor Trump is doing with his threats of war. But it is also true that the game of chicken is the second most dangerous game known (the first is the Russian Roulette). So, the retreat of the Western Empire may not involve just a rapid Seneca Collapse, as it was the case for the old Roman Empire, but a final blast of fireworks in the form of a nuclear war which would end civilization as we know it. Not pretty, but that's the way things are.

There remains one point of contention: is Western Europe in the Orientis or in the Occidentis part of the Empire? Surely, Britain tends to remain part of the Western Empire because of its linguistic ties with the United States. But the non-English speaking parts of the former EU don't have this link and they have strong - practically unbreakable - ties with Russia as an energy supplier. So, they might become part of the Eastern Eurasian Empire.

It seems that Trump understands this point very well, too, and it is in these terms that you can interpret his lashing out at the NATO allies at last year's G7 meeting. Trump's message to the states once forming the European Union was simply, "Sorry, fellows, we can't afford to defend you anymore unless you pay us more money than you can afford to pay." In this sense, Western Europe could play the role of Britain and Dacia during the 3rd and 4th century CE, abandoned by the central Roman Government and left to fend off by themselves against the barbarian invaders. Who knows? History rhymes again and we might even have a new King Arthur.


Was the fall of the Western Roman Empire a Seneca Collapse? Yes, by all means it was. Look at this:

From Taagepera, Size and Duration of Empires, 1978 -- the vertical scale is in million square miles

See also "Can Donald Trump be the last world emperor?"

And you may also be interested at how Theodosius's daughter, Galla Placidia, managed to keep the Western Empire together even without plundering temples. The story is here.  

Note also that I used the term "understanding" but that doesn't mean that Trump consciously understands the deep reasons of why he is doing what he is doing in the sense of moving intentionally to the splitting of the empire. He is simply reacting to the stimuli he perceives and he moves accordingly. (which is, BTW, what we all do!!)


  1. Please don't attribute understanding any of this to Trump. He does not understand. Heck, you yourself pointed out in an earlier post how contemporary accounts of Roman decline showed a lack of understanding of the causes and likely trajectory of that decline. Trump has less understanding than most of those Romans. He is almost certainly hastening decline, but it's not intentional. Someone who was trying to manage a planned retreat from global hegemony would be trying to replace military power with diplomacy and economic ties, not randomly insulting other countries and their heads of state.

    1. Yes, I used the term "understanding" but that doesn't mean that Trump consciously understands the deep reasons of why he is doing what he is doing in the sense of moving intentionally to the splitting of the empire. He is simply reacting to stimuli he perceives and he moves accordingly. (which is, BTW, what we all do!!)

      Being not part of the traditional Washington establishment, Trump can probably perceive the right stimuli better than other people who are deeply embedded in the industrial-military complex. Then, his reactions are in a certain sense obliged, being smart or dumb makes no difference.

    2. To continue: so you could say that insulting other leaders is part of a diabolical plan to cut expensive ties with countries which are a burden for the Empire. Or you could say that it is just the way Trump reacts to stimuli. It is a general epistemologic problem: we cannot enter Trump's mind, so we don't know if he is playing the dumb guy while being a smart manipulator inside, or if he is really dumb enough that he just reacts to stimuli -- as a Pavlovian dog.

      Anyway, good point you made, I am going to add a few notes to the post

  2. If you are indeed correct and we MUST "transition" to a new "green economy" with "renewable energy" which only keeps the massive inequality between the haves and have nots in place then Trump better build that wall. In fact it needs to be at least 30 meters tall and 20 meters deep and extend out into the ocean on both coasts. Also we need to increase the militarization of US police force and other surveillance options including chipping citizens and cashless society.

    Why? Because if you think things are bad, now are hateful, divisive, intolerant, ignorant, violent, etc. you haven't seen anything yet.

    Come to think of it thats exactly what is happening. So I guess we can all shut down our blogs as the future is written.

  3. Today marks the 7th Anniversary of the Doomstead Diner Blog & Forum, chronicling the causes and effects of Collapse.

    Come celebrate with us with a fabulous Surf & Turf FEAST for this auspicious occasion!

    Thanks again to Ugo for his friendship and support over the years here we have been blogging about Collapse, and did many round table video discussions of as well, which you can still find on Diner YouTube, many of which are as relevant today as when we originally recorded them.

    1. Hi, RE -- keep on driving the catastrophistic truck!

    2. I'm running on fumes these days, but I Keep On Truckin'. :)


  4. Will the Pars Orientis rely on nuclear technology, while the Pars Occidentis struggles with its analogous Spanish gold mines--the Permian Basin, Venezuela? If a panic-like meme of mineral depletion and climate feedback goes viral (perhaps between 2025 and 2035), will the Western Empire turn to a massive build-out of nuclear power--and could that prove a consequential mistake? Some writers are turning toward a kind of pessimism/realism cocktail. Orlov, Kunstler, Tverberg, for example, as well as many MSM environmental writers, with overall pessimism that some temper with a nuclear power Hail Mary. Although Kunstler in particular is consistent--let's anticipate the Middle Ages, like Galla Placidia.

    1. There is a wave of horrible pessimism crashing on the catastrophist shore. Kunstler is so consistent that he seems to be repeating always the same thing!!!

    2. Ugo, you and the rest of the Limits of Growth gang helped birth the doomerist world view. Now you feign this new optimism that seems quite unjustified. Other than perhaps a bit more oil and gas what has changed? Seems to me we are still riding the BAU express to collapse.

    3. Strange. I thought that the first step is to identify the problem and then you can see what you can do to solve it. Instead, it seems that a lot of people reason that identifying a problem means that it is unsolvable by definition. Meh....

  5. Not sure that the empire split analogy to Roman - Byzantine is a good match. China - India, SE Asia, are, and always have been nations in their own terms. The USA empire & allies in this region, or encircling of Asia, is Taiwan, Japan , South Korea, a large number of military bases, some pacific islands, maybe Australia. Its kind of coastal, naval based. The stand-offs and challenges from China claims to South China Sea constitute opposition to the USA. Keeping all USA planes flying, ships and base logistics, missile sites, plus occupation in Afghanistan in readiness is a huge ongoing cost, and the gains to present time in real terms of energy and resources acquired for the outlays are not readily apparent to me, excepting as overall hegemony payoff in trade - sanctions, market rules enforcement, and maintenance of cheap oil supplies. So the empire is more of high handed general negotiation position, and relates to use of US dollars & petro-dollars, which the USA makes from thin-air.
    Its the re-negotiation of trade terms & currencies from US dollar, and development and growth of the Asia world, and associated resource flows, which makes the USA military naval & base global enforcement look futile. The analogy then becomes, as was noted here, the trade strengths of the eastern empire vs the loss of value of the Roman / USA currency.

    1. Yes, of course there are differences in addition to similarities. History doesn't repeat, it rhymes. So, one difference is that China has been integrated in the Western economic system, but not directly in the political system. Officially, it was never dominated by Washington. But then, of course, the current empire is much better than the Roman one in terms of propaganda and of convincing people that they are really free! It is only recently that, as for many other things, the quality of Western propaganda has been going down the drain.

  6. "Or you could say that it is just the way Trump reacts to stimuli. It is a general epistemologic problem: we cannot enter Trump's mind, ..."

    The Empire is not of one mind. Oligarchs must always watch their backs. I can't vouchsafe for this bit of reporting, but 'regime change' has been standard operating procedure for a long time.

    US historical aggressive support of its commercial dominance in world markets, and the advantages derived from its hegemonic trading currency, certainly mean that monetary policy and expanding (or contracting) markets remain as important as the resource base.
    I am sure that monetary policy figured in the Roman Empire, but find your explanations inadequate. The agrarian world had always struggled with trading / money (and oligarchs) as exemplified by Athenian Solon (c.638 – c. 558 BC) when he had to institute reforms. Solon has entered modern discussion of monetary policy - see a paper from IMF Research a few years ago before Kumhof moved to the Bank of England. The long history prologue in the Working Paper is fascinating.

    Personally I think there are still grounds for 'pessimism' .


  7. "What's Emperor Trump Doing? He is Busy at Splitting the Empire in Two"

    now cross-posted on the Doomstead Diner.




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)