Photo above: The Hertford Bridge in Oxford, England. Used by Permission. © Tom Ley 01302 782837

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Reluctant “Emperor”: Lessons from History by Dr. Mary Manjikian

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama focused on two eternal political themes – the importance of paying vigilant attention to the needs of voters and citizens at home, and the need to seek peace and continuity in the international community, while considering the costs of maintaining leadership abroad.

Clearly, his emphasis was on domestic politics and the ways in which America’s leadership should respond to economic crises, as well as to retool and adapt to technological change. Foreign policy, in comparison, received short shrift -- as did any real consideration of America’s status in the international community. Instead, Obama sounded almost apologetic for the fact that America is a superpower. He noted that America “should not be number two” in education and industrialization–but seemed uncomfortable with the notion that America is number one. He avoided the sort of language we have come to expect about American leadership, primacy and the role of the hegemon and instead, quietly made the point that a nation exists within a web of other nations.

But in neglecting to consider more precisely what America’s role is in the world today, I feel Obama abdicated his responsibility to the international community – who were also watching this speech for clues about America’s role in the world. Obama spoke as a president – but he did not speak as the head of the world’s leading superpower. He sounded like a reluctant emperor, unwilling to acknowledge his responsibilities to the world community. In doing so, he brings to mind another reluctant emperor, Nero of Rome, who ruled in 60 AD.

But does the tale of a long-ago Roman emperor have any bearing for our situation today? I feel it does – for the parallels are striking. First, both Obama and Nero were populists, pointing out gaps between the rich and poor in their societies, pointing fingers at corruption and undertaking large-scale domestic projects to put citizens back to work in a time of economic crisis. Both incurred domestic criticism for their stances, with leaders from the Roman Senate and upper classes describing Nero as having ruined the empire and calling for its restoration. Both were young rulers who were sometimes described as neophytes with neither the head nor the appetite for politics. And like Obama, Nero was also rumored (presumably by his harshest critics) to be the antichrist.

Unfortunately, history shows that despite Nero’s commitment to his citizens and his ambitious public works projects, he was not a successful leader. Rather, many point to his reign as the beginning of the end of Rome’s empire. His elaborate construction projects left Italy thoroughly exhausted, with pockets drained and the provinces ruined. More importantly still, Nero was weak on foreign policy. He pleased his domestic constituents with his decision to withdraw Roman troops from the Parthian empire in response to concerns about troop deployments and a budget deficit – but the peace he brokered only lasted fifty years. And not wishing to anger foreign powers and stir up trouble, he made the decision to allow Greece to stop paying taxes and tributes to Rome -- which some see as having helped to bankrupt the republic.

In short, Nero’s discomfort with the mantle of leadership prevented him from successfully representing the foreign policy interests of his empire. In choosing engagement rather than leadership, he shortchanged his citizens and his neighbors. In turning inward, he helped to bring on the darkness that would shortly envelope Europe for hundreds of years. In pleasing his citizens and focusing on domestic policy alone, he set in motion a chain of events that might have been foreseen and prevented. Let’s hope that the Obama administration wakes up and smells the coffee before it is too late.

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