Imperial Democracy: How the history of Athens may foreshadow the future for the U.S.

During the 4th century BC, Athens dominated the Eastern Mediterranean artistically, economically, politically and philosophically. Sparta remained a power because of its military structure and political stability, but economically she exerted little influence. Fast forward 2500 years. The U.S. dominates the world politically, economically and sadly, culturally (Michael Jackson, Brittney Spears, etc.). There are a few militaristic nations that remain a power (China and Russia), but the U.S. is the sole superpower. Does Athens’ behavior have any correlation with its fate, and is the U.S. falling into the same situation?

Will Durant describes the lead up to the Peloponnesian War thus:

But the basic cause of the war was the growth of the Athenian Empire, and the development of Athenian control over the commercial and political life of the Aegean. Athens allowed free trade there in time of peace, but only by imperial sufferance…Athens defended this domination as a vital necessity; she was dependent upon imported food, and was determined to guard the routes by which that food came. In policing the avenues of international trade Athens performed a real service to peace and prosperity in the Aegean, but the process became more and more irksome as the pride and wealth of the subject cites grew…Athens reserved to Athenian courts the right to try all cases, arising within the Confederacy, that involved Athenian citizens or major crimes. If any city resisted, it was reduced by force…If we may believe Thucydides, the democratic leaders at Athens, while making liberty the idol of their policy among Athenians, frankly recognized that the Confederacy of free cities had become an empire of force. “You should remember,” says Thucydides’ Cleon to the Assembly (427 B.C.), “that your empire is a despotism exercised over unwilling subjects who are always conspiring against you; they do not obey in return for any kindness which you do them to your own injury, but only in so far as you are their master; they have no love for you, but they are held down by force.” The inherent contradiction between the worship of liberty and the despotism of empire cooperated with the individualism of the Greek states to end the Golden Age.

So what does this have to do with the U.S.? When Durant was writing this book (copyright 1939), the U.S. had yet to reach the status of a world power. He was writing at a time when Britain was still near the zenith of empire. However, seventy years later we see the U.S. in this role of lauding liberty at home while following the “Athenian custom of establishing in every city democracies (or dictatorships) dependent upon (or willing to play by the rules of) the Empire.”

What countries throughout the world feel the words Cleon used to describe the inter-state problems facing the Athenian Assembly? As much as the U.S. tries to do acts of goodness and service (i.e. humanitarian efforts in Indonesia and Pakistan), these countries see that economically and militarily the U.S. is their master and they are forced to play by a certain set of rules.

When these countries are pushed to their limits (it will be different for each), they align themselves with a powerful military to help put off the dominating nation. In the case of the Greek city-states, this was Sparta. In today’s environment it is likely to be China or powerful Islamist countries (Iran specifically). We see this happening as Venezuela courts both of these powers; as Lebanon and the Palestinian peoples appeal to Syria and Iran for assistance.

If the U.S. continues its bully tactics in foreign and economic policies we will continue to alienate those who feel the brunt of these decisions and the challenges faced by Athens will likely confront the U.S.

8 Replies to “Imperial Democracy: How the history of Athens may foreshadow the future for the U.S.”

  1. This is something I have often contemplated. Not that I have fretted about it at all, really just wondered if we (USA) are headed down the same road as past “empires.”

    There is really little we can do to keep it (the fall of the so-called US empire) from happening. It’s just a matter of timing. If history holds true, each era is dominated by a country/region/city with abundant power and eventually that power dwindles and another country moves up the ladder.

    As you mentioned, the most recent was the British empire, but I think there is a large difference between that empire and what the US appears to be moving towards. The British occupied much of what they conquered. The American philosophy doesn’t have that paradigm and I think that will make a huge difference.

    You compare the US with the empire of Athens and perhaps that is the closest comparison we have. But there is still one very large difference:

    The US is not just one ethnic group. We are a melting pot of all kinds of races and ethnicities. Thus, when we invade a country or treat a country unfairly, there are typically individuals and groups from the same ethnic background that will cry foul. This doesn’t work too well if the population isn’t large enough to have a voice, but there are lots of leaders and activist groups in the US looking for opportunities to support the underdog. This, by itself, may be the one aspect that will keep the United States at the top of the food chain for many years to come.

    I have more of a concern about the inner turmoil of our political system. I strongly feel that America needs a new political party soon. The left and right seem to be more interested in beating out the competition than helping the people who they represent to live better lives.

    Interestingly enough, Orson Scott Card has just released a new book on exactly this topic [1]. Of course, it’s a fictional depiction of what might happen, but I’m sure it is a competent evaluation of our current situation. I have not yet read/listened to it, but wait with baited breath to do so.

    [1] http://www.hatrack.com/osc/books/empire/empire.shtml

  2. Reluctant,

    Thanks for the comment. Regarding internal problems in America, there will be more to come discussing how Athens fell mostly due to similar internal strife, bickering, etc. The OSC book looks interesting. I look forward to reading it. It looks like it is due out in November?

  3. yddy42,

    That first chapter is indeed a stinging indictment against the materialism, selfishness, and arrogance of God’s people specifically and elites in general. However, I fail to see anything specifically pointing to the U.S. Isaiah seems able to criticize society in his immediate day, in the time of Christ, and in our day, and is probably applicable all throughout human history.

  4. The “specificity” level of the words of Isaish, is, admittedly, determined by how much you believe terms like Judah, Jerusalem, Zion, .etc apply to the United States in our day. (Okay, perhaps it requires reading more than the first chapter).

  5. yddy42,

    I do, however, agree with your sentiment. If as a country we are too arrogant to see that the words of Isaiah apply to us, we will suffer as Athens (and all societies based on materialism and consumerism) suffered. Hopefully we can wake up, recognize our responsibility to each other as brothers and sister not only within our country, but the entire world over. Hubris has no place in politics or religion. History and truth will always come back to bite the arrogant one.

  6. While materialism and consumerism are somewhat bad, I wonder if we will be punished, not because of our lack of generousity towards the hungry and naked (because I think Americans, on average are quite generous – especially when we aren’t burdened with the heavy hand of government), but rather (as you pointed out) our pride?

    I also have to wonder whether America must be cleansed because we have allowed evil men to rule over us?

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