The New Rome — The Two Pillars of the West: How the US and the EU could work together in the future
The last time the West was as united and peaceful as it is today was almost two thousand years ago. The Pax Romana was the longest continuous period of peace that Europe has ever experienced. However, Rome’s success brought with it a whole host of strategic problems which required innovation, an openness to change and constant vigilance to maintain.
The pressure of these challenges eventually came to a head and Rome went through a period known as the crisis of the third century. After the Emperor Alexander Severus was murdered by his own Legionaries in the year 235 AD, the Empire went through a 50-year period of chaos where there were at least 26 different claimants to the throne. A series of invasions, a host of internal problems, from rebellious legions to break away states in Palmyra and Gaul, and religious and social strife led to the Empire teetering on the brink of collapse.
Various theories and explanations have been advanced as to why this occurred, the details of which is beyond the scope of this piece. However, one seemingly obvious explanation for the endless crisis was that the Empire had become too vast and complicated to be ruled by one strong man in the form of the Roman Emperor. In short, the political settlement reached by the Emperor Augustus after the civil wars of the 1st Century BC had run its course and was no longer a viable way to rule such a vast and diverse territory.
This realisation dawned on the Emperor Diocletian when he came to power in the year 284 AD. Diocletian was a no-nonsense soldier of humble origins, who rose through the ranks to be cavalry commander to the Emperor Carus. Upon Carus’ death on campaign in Persia and the death of his son Numerian, the troops declared Diocletian Emperor, a common pattern at this point. Further civil war looked inevitable as Carus’ other son, Carinus, also claimed the Imperial title. Diocletian defeated Carinus at the battle of the Margus in the Balkans in July 285 AD and took the whole Empire for himself.
At this point Diocletian could have continued the pattern developed over the preceding 50 years, riding around the Empire at the head of an army fighting invasions and putting down rebellions until he was inevitably killed or assassinated. A practical man, Diocletian realised the folly of continuing the system which had led Rome to the verge of collapse and resolved to design a better and more workable format for power. Diocletian achieved this feat in two different, but linked, ways.
First of all, he brought more soft, spiritual, cultural and hard power to the centre by elevating the Imperial Throne. From the time of Augustus on, Rome was still nominally a Republic, the position of what we call Emperor was merely the wielder of several Republican offices, making the holder the first among equals, known as the Princeps. This was an informal position made from an informal amalgam of various offices of state all held by one man. This period, roughly 27 BC until the reign of Diocletian, is known to historians as the Principate.
Diocletian did away with the pretence of equality and the illusion of a Republic long since dead, from now on the Emperor would hold an official position, elevated from that of man to semi-divine, Jupiter’s appointed ruler on earth, in many ways adopting wholesale the customs of rule from Rome’s eastern provinces and Persia. The effect of this was to dissuade rebellion, assassination and pretenders to the Imperial Diadem by creating a spiritual, almost godly, aspect to the head of state. The Emperor and Rome were one, and the Emperor was the gods favoured ruler on earth. This had the effect of pulling power towards the Imperial centre allowing the Emperor to wield hard and soft power over their realm like never before. The Emperor became a divinely blessed universal monarch rather than the preeminent aristocrat they had been for centuries. These changes initiated a period known aptly as the Dominate.
However, Diocletian’s master stroke was to realise that this one change was not enough to wrest the Empire from the brink of a precipice. Having pulled power up towards the throne, he set about devolving relevant power downwards, freed from the immediate threat of rebellious legions.
As a practical, military man Diocletian could see the challenges posed for a vast Empire spread over three continents with a large sea in between, beset with external and internal threats from all sides. Such a construct was unwieldy and difficult to direct, and so, because he could not shrink the world, Diocletian would shrink the challenge by devolving the right power to the lowest practical level.
The system he developed would become known as the Tetrarchy, or the rule of four. Diocletian split the Empire in half, taking the East for himself and appointing his comrade Maximian as Emperor, or Augustus, in the West. Each Emperor then selected a junior Emperor, or Caesar, to serve under them and be their appointed successor.
This simple and almost elegant solution allowed each region of the Empire to have a centre of political power in close proximity to all of its borders and regions and to react to any regional issues which arose, whilst also maintaining the overall integrity of the Empire. The right amount of power maintained in the centre, whilst the provinces of the Empire were allowed enough political power and autonomy to tackle issues that affected them.
Perhaps the ultimate testament to this system is that Diocletian and Maximian were the only Emperors to retire from office.
Unfortunately, these reforms did not embed deep enough in the Roman psyche before Diocletian died and the Tetrarchy would not last long after his death. Another civil war would eventually see Constantine become the sole Emperor in 324 AD.
However, the wisdom of a division of power in the Empire whilst pulling spiritual power to the centre was undeniable. Constantine’s re-founding of Byzantium as New Rome, or Constantinople, as a power centre in the east in 330 AD and his promotion of Christianity was a testament to this insight.
This process would culminate with the Emperor Theodosius who would make Christianity the official religion of the Empire, a monotheistic and universalist religion giving extra weight to the spiritual association of the Emperor and divine authority in the psyche of the Romans. Theodosius also completed the process of division by formally dividing the Empire between his sons upon his death in 395 AD. The political and strategic lessons were undeniable and, as a result, the monolithic central authority of the Roman world was forever divided onto two pillars to hold up the mantle that was Rome.
Although not a perfect analogy, the situation the West finds itself in today is remarkably similar to that of the late Roman Empire. The core territory controlled by what we can loosely call the West spreads over a vast area, covering the North American continent and Europe, with a vast ocean, the Atlantic, in between. On top of this, although never more united, the West finds itself beset by internal problems and external challenges on all sides, with a resurgent Russia on Europe’s border, the rise of China in the Far East and a vast contested space sweeping from the Middle East through Africa and Latin America. On top of these physical challenges, the cyber domain offers a new and ungoverned space where competition is even more fierce.
Furthermore, the West has also adopted the lopsided stance similar to that of the Roman Empire of the third century. An over reliance on a central military power based in Washington which cannot hope to be everywhere at once is but one symptom of this, creating a feeling of overstretch and weariness of taking the lion’s share of the burden in the US and a complacency in Europe.
Although times, technology and politics have all changed since Diocletian, some simple realities remain a constant and there is wisdom to be gleaned from the Emperor’s example.
The lessons we can draw are myriad and cover a wide range of issues, but the rest of this piece will focus on the alliance between the states of the West.
The NATO Alliance is perhaps the greatest example of multi-national statecraft in human history, but the West needs to recognise that the original purpose of the Alliance was fulfilled, and the world today is very different to that of 70 years ago. For this alliance to last, and the unprecedented period of peace and prosperity to continue, a reorganisation on the scale of Diocletian is needed.
Although its efforts in the defence of Europe were, and are, greatly appreciated, the US needs to acknowledge the old certainties of the bi-polar world of the Cold War are gone and other strategic and geopolitical challenges require its attention. Further, Europe needs to recognise that the US Alliance is a two-way street and that it is now rich and strong enough to stand on its own two feet, shoulder to shoulder with its American ally.
In order to achieve this reorganisation a trick similar to that which Diocletian pulled off is required. First of all, a reorganisation of military power toward the centre, placing the military control firmly in the joint hands of the military hierarchy of the NATO leadership, with all participants seeing defence and security solely through the prism of NATO.
In order for this to be established, a simultaneous and somewhat counter intuitive devolving of power will be necessary. Europe will need to reorganise its defence arrangements, centralising and standardising practices as well as expanding spending to make the militaries of European states capable of carrying out complicated operations free from American support, with the US giving up its central role in the defence of Europe and so relinquishing the military power and leverage that comes with it. In this way, European forces will be able to relieve the burden on US forces for the defence of Europe and allow the US to fully commit to its pivot to Asia.
The Asia-pacific and the Western Hemisphere can then be established as the US’s domain of influence and control, with Europe, the middle east and north Africa established as Europe’s domain. This arrangement will allow the two to operate as equal partners with a centrally controlled military doctrine, whilst also able to focus on their own immediate challenges, each force offering assistance to the other as and when required.
The NATO Alliance needs to be cherished, nurtured and grown. It is the formal mantle upon which the inheritors of Rome have pledged their friendship and thus the two new pillars of the West, the American Republic and the European Union, need to prop up this mantle. One pillar anchored on the North American Continent looking toward the Pacific and Latin America, and the other in Europe looking east and south, stood together shoulder to shoulder to face the challenges of the 21st century head on.
This radical change will not be an easy task, both blocs need to get their house in order. The American Republic is a Union which has successfully passed the necessary powers upwards to an over arching body in the form of the Federal Government, whilst a suitable level of power has passed downwards to the lowest practical level, this is an arrangement which Europe needs to learn from in order to succeed. Similarly, Europe has demonstrated how diverse Western States can co-operate on a multinational level to the benefit of all, a lesson the US will need to learn in a new multi-polar world.
By learning from each other and co-operating closely, ensuring that political, strategic and military power is wielded by the right people, at the right level and in the right place, the West can create a system to face the challenges of a global and multi-polar future together. A united and peaceful solution rather than a descent into an international free for all with global hegemony an ever-elusive prize.
Rome began to fall when one of the pillars of its new system collapsed into the shifting sands of what was once the Western Empire. Although it would take another thousand years for the Eastern Pillar to finally topple over, the Western world would not experience the same level of unity and peace again.
The Western Empire collapsed as the Imperial Throne slowly lost control over the regions and provinces making the power at the centre irrelevant, the formal division of the Empire into East and West saw the East increasingly disinterested in the fate of its Western sibling. A lack of co-operation at the highest level and a lack of attention to the local and regional issues set in a rot which could not be reversed. The West of today is in a position to learn the lessons of these mistakes and build a system which is strong, flexible and robust to meet the challenges of the future. The two pillars of the west need to stand strong over the new mare nostrum of the North Atlantic, a firm anchor from which to build a stable and robust power for the 21st century and beyond.
Mary Beard, “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome”, Liverlight, September 06 2016
Michael Grant, “Climax of Rome”, Phoenician Paper, October 06 1997
Christopher Kelly, “The Roman Empire: A Very Short Introduction”, Oxford University Press, August 08 2006
David M. Gwyn, “The Roman Republic: A Very Short Introduction”, Oxford University Press, October 25 2012
Chris Scarre, “Chronicle of the Roman Emperors: The Reign by Reign Record of the Rulers of Imperial Rome”, Thames & Hudson, May 01 2012