In the 3rd century B.C. there were two great powers that were vying for dominance in the western Mediterranean Sea. One of these was Carthage, an established empire centered in northern Africa. The other was the Roman Republic, rising in power and centered on the Italian peninsula. Both of these were seeking to extend their influence in the region, both militarily and economically. As their interests began to overlap, they fought three brutal and costly wars with each other, the Punic Wars. The Second Punic War, the most famous of the three, is known for the Carthaginian general Hannibal invading the Italian peninsula with his war elephants, striking fear into the hearts of Romans, threatening the city of Rome, and occupying and destroying the countryside for fifteen years. After a few initial defeats, the Romans refused to engage Hannibal in direct combat and tried to hold out inside their city walls and hoped to figure out another way to evict Hannibal from their country. Rome stayed strong in the face of this crisis, displaying a remarkable civic spirit and unity in the face of danger. Even as they were faced with destruction, the Romans, as the historian Livy writes, did not breathe a word of peace. They were unified against Carthage, and put aside their personal differences until they could defeat their enemies. Eventually they did defeat Hannibal and Carthage, and in 146 B.C. Carthage was destroyed and the Roman Republic came to dominate the region as the sole power left.
The Republic’s people had showed unity and strength when they were threatened, and that unity allowed them to ultimately prevail. The common threat had tied the citizens together, but the citizens were now faced with a world without threats. As Cato the Elder warned, “What was to become of Rome, when she should no longer have any state to fear?” The cooperation of the Roman people deteriorated without an enemy to defeat, and internal dissension eventually tore the Republic apart, replacing it with a Caesar and an empire in 27 B.C. The destruction of the Republic was a long, slow process, but it began when the Roman Republic found itself in a world of unipolarity. In their destruction, the Carthaginians had a much more damaging effect to the Roman Republic than they ever did while alive.
What does this have to do with anything current? Everything. Josef Joffe, as a way of proving the U.S. was not in decline, pointed out that all of the prophecies about U.S. decline made since the 1950’s had proven false. That is true, but could it be that the destruction of a hegemonic power sometimes takes much longer than a decade or two, as with the Roman Republic?
Or could it be that another superpower may not challenge the U.S. anytime soon, but the relative safety of a unipolar world might have damaging internal effects and threaten our republican government? It is easy for citizens to put aside their differences and rally together against a perceivable, identifiable, and genuinely threatening enemy, such as the Soviets were during the Cold War. While unity was not always present, notably during the Vietnam War, people were genuinely afraid of the Soviets. However, with the Soviets gone and with the new threats to the U.S. being much more ambiguous and hard to identify, such as terrorism, will division inside of U.S. society come to the surface and slowly weaken the system of government, and unravel the republic? The position of the U.S. as the lone superpower may yet prove to be stable, but it might ultimately endanger the U.S. Republic.
The collapse of the Soviet Union may, like with Carthage, cause destruction to their enemies long after they are gone by unleashing internal dissent. Time will tell if this is the case, but the U.S. would be wise to remember the fate of another republic who found itself alone at the top of a unipolar world.