VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — What is the nature of the modern world order? Answers to this question are incalculably many. However, the one provided by Salvatore Babones, a native New Yorker and currently a professor at the University of Sydney, has recently struck me as probably the most compelling.
Challenging the conventional wisdom, Babones argues that America’s hegemony is far from getting weaker — quite the reverse, it is growing stronger, approaching “a true world-empire.” The contemporary world consists of nominally sovereign states. In reality, though, most “sovereign” nations are little more than self-governing provinces within a larger imperial system governed by the United States. Even such major states as China and Russia can exercise only limited sovereignty.
Babones writes that over the past 15 years we have witnessed a fundamental transformation of the world system. It used to be a capitalist world economy, where rules were determined by global markets while individual states, even the most powerful ones, held a relatively limited influence.
However, in the late 1990s or early 2000s, says Babones, “the United States, its wealthiest citizens, its largest corporations, and its Davos allies finally overcame the market to impose an economy based on the centrally-controlled political administration of economic rewards: an American world-empire.”
The globally dominant political regime is what Babones, after the political theorist John Keane, calls “monitory democracy.” Under this system, the principal actors are “monitors,” various civil society groups and organizations, whose mission is to hold governments accountable. These watchdogs can even initiate the overthrow of democratically elected leaders deemed to have abused their power. As Babones points out, these monitory institutions are often supported — financially and politically — by the U.S. and allied governments. This is also the case with global “democratic” movements, most of which are actually “pro-systemic” in the sense that their activities are fully compatible with the interests of American world-empire. Truly anti-systemic voices, such as ecofeminism, Zapatismo, pan-Islamism and Marxism, “have been marginalized, contained, or worse.”
America — ‘The Fourth Rome?’
Babones draws parallels between the contemporary American empire and the late Roman republic. Rome’s internal regime was also a kind of democracy. Rome had a circle of close and privileged Latin allies, which resembles the relationship the U.S. maintains with four other Anglo-Saxon countries — Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Rome’s non-Latin allies can be compared with the U.S. partners in Europe and Asia. All of them closely collaborate with America in order to keep in subjugation those nations who are outside the elite circle. That said, although the U.S. partners are getting their share of the world empire’s benefits, “there was no more confusion in ancient Italy than there is in modern Europe and Asia about who is the empire and who are the allies.”
The grand princes of Muscovy considered themselves the heirs to Rome and Constantinople, taking pride in the self-styled title of “The Third Rome.” This imagery is still alive among some nationalistic quarters in Russia. Yet Washington may now claim the legacy of ancient Rome with far stronger reasons. For example, reminiscent of imperial Rome, Washington is inundated with pleas and pleaders from all over the world. They often bring to the imperial capital cases against their own governments — just like the residents of Roman provinces appealed to proconsuls or the emperor himself with complaints against local kinglets and rulers. One thing the ancient Rome did not have, though, is an Internet petitioning service through which any person in any country can address the White House.
Russia — ‘Carthage’ or ‘Parthia?’
If Babones is right and America is a true world empire, this has ominous implications for Russia, which currently find itself at loggerheads with the U.S. over Ukraine and a host of other issues. It means that Russia was reckless enough to enter into an open conflict with an omnipotent adversary — a struggle where the balance of forces is clearly not be on Moscow’s side.
Parallels between Rome and Washington are found not only in the design of the Capitol and the likeness of the U.S. presidential office to the prerogatives of the emperor, but also in the fact that American empire is ruthless with those who openly challenge its primacy. Such rivals should be either subdued or crushed: Carthago delenda est (“Carthage must be destroyed”). Many in America’s establishment have come to view Russia as Carthage that should be defeated and crushed — once and for all. Their speeches on Russia are beginning to smack of Cato the Elder.
Hannibal’s genius notwithstanding, Carthage was finally incinerated by Roman legions. Is Russia facing an inevitable defeat, and perhaps the end as a great power, at the hands of the Empire?
Fortunately for Russia, there is yet another — more encouraging — historical analogy. The only state, which stood against the Romans almost as a peer and did not submit to it, was the Parthian Kingdom. (By the way, is it a mere coincidence that the modern descendants of Parthians — Iranians — continue to tenaciously oppose the new Roman empire?).
For Russia, Parthia may be a more apt comparison. Like Russia, Parthia was a vast continental autocratic state situated in the East. Importantly, Rome could not encircle and besiege Parthia as it did with Carthage, because Parthia’s eastern borders were not accessible to the Empire. Russia’s eastern rear is today shielded by a friendly China (curiously, ancient China was also Parthia’s major trade partner via the Silk Road).
The epic struggle of Rome and Parthia was focused on Mesopotamia and especially Armenia, over which the two states waged a series of costly and inconclusive wars. This may resemble the way Washington and Moscow are clashing over eastern Europe and Ukraine.
Yet historical analogies only go so far. Even if Russia is “Parthia” rather than “Carthage,” its standoff with the new Rome will be protracted, difficult — and with uncertain outcomes. For one thing, Parthia was economically self-sufficient and did not depend on Rome, whereas the petrostate Russia is, to a great extent, dependent on the world economy, which is — so far — largely controlled by American empire.
The original version of this essay appeared on the Russian International Affairs Council website.