Politics & Policy

Is America Becoming the New Carthage?

(Dreamstime image: Jerry Coli)
If Republicans cease to be the party of republican virtues, America can expect the same fate as ancient Rome’s rival.

‘Nothing is so powerful as a commonwealth in which laws are exactly observed,” Montesquieu wrote in an extended passage contrasting the strength of republican Rome with the degeneracy of Carthage. Rome, of course, was the most successful republic of the ancient world and Montesquieu the most quoted Enlightenment philosophe during the creation of the American republic. In Federalist No. 47 Madison called Montesquieu an “oracle” and in Federalist No. 9, Hamilton referred to him as “that great man,” quoting at length his “luminous abridgment” of what Hamilton viewed as the best arguments that could be made in favor of the new Union.

While the Founders strove, with Montesquieu as their teacher, to model their new country on what was best in the Roman republic, today America is beginning to look more like Rome’s plutocratic foe.

Carthage vs. Rome was the struggle that decided the fate of the ancient world. Rome, according to Montesquieu, was governed by laws and the people entrusted the senate with the management of affairs. Carthage was governed by fraud. Carthaginians, who had become wealthy earlier than the Romans, were soon corrupted and “particular persons boasted the wealth of kings.” The venality of Carthage saw great fortunes amassed by friends and relations of those in government, and in such cases ultimately “universal ruin must ensue.”

Carthage was split between two factions; one always for peace, the other always for war. In the absence of a monarchy, Montesquieu argued, feuds and divisions can be settled by the coercive power of the prince, “but they are more lasting in a commonwealth, because the evil [of faction] generally seizes the very power which only could have wrought a cure.” Yet such was Rome’s internal cohesion that even without a prince, war immediately united Rome’s competing interests.

Montesquieu wrote his Reflections on the Causes of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1734, nearly a decade and a half before The Spirit of the Laws, his magnum opus on political theory, which historian Peter Gay called the most important book of the Enlightenment. But already in the earlier work Montesquieu’s preoccupation with the importance of constitutional design is evident: “In the infancy of societies, the leading men in the republic form the constitution; afterwards the constitution forms the leading men of the republic.”

Montesquieu in Reflections also describes the separation of powers in the Roman republic: “The Roman laws had widely parcelled out the public power into several magistracies, which mutually supported as well as restrained and tempered each other.” Powers were circumscribed, and Rome’s equivalent of term limits meant the people saw a succession of men wielding power so they did not become habituated to any particular one. This description occurs in a section where Montesquieu records the substance of republican government dissolving, when competitors for supreme power “annihilated the authority of the magistrates, and drew all the great affairs into the hands of one man.”

Montesquieu too provides a profound insight that stands as a warning against an imperial executive power. After the death of the Roman republic,

Augustus (for that was the name offered by flattery to Octavius) was careful to establish order, or rather a durable servitude; for when once the sovereignty has been usurped in a free state, every transaction, on which an unlimited authority can be founded, is called a regulation; and all instances of disorder, commotion, and bad government, are represented as the only expedients to preserve the just liberty of the subject. 

Julius Caesar, Octavius’s adoptive father, had been assassinated because he couldn’t hide his contempt for the senate. Upholders of senatorial rights and prerogatives themselves likewise died grisly deaths. Unwilling to acknowledge Julius Caesar’s rule, Cato the Younger committed suicide, botching it by slitting open his abdomen so that his viscera fell out. Cicero, who supported Octavius against Mark Antony, was hunted down by Mark Antony’s soldiers when the two later allied, his head and his hand cut off and nailed to the rostra in the forum.

 Augustus learnt how to deal with the senate. Watch out Ted Cruz. He praised Cicero in death and retained the forms of the republic, every ten years expressing the desire to divest himself of his burden. “These were little refinements of low cunning,” Montesquieu comments. “Every action of Augustus, and each of his various regulations, visibly tended to the establishment of monarchy.”

Today, America is split between a party of Carthage that supports identity politics and sees the spoils of politics as prizes to be distributed to favored groups and individuals, and a party of the republic, that, like republican Rome, stands for the equality of all citizens before the law.

The American republic’s separation of powers is increasingly subverted. The constitutional requirement for the Senate’s advice and consent on treaties was ignored when the executive rubber-stamped the Paris Climate Agreement. The executive branch bypassed the Congress after it declined to pass cap-and-trade legislation, which is now to be accomplished by administrative fiat. Despite a Supreme Court stay, the chances of judicially overturning the Clean Power Plan to restore the balance of constitutional powers hangs by the thread of the future composition of the Supreme Court.

Were the American republic to lose its remaining party, it would be in serious trouble. Whatever their policy shortcomings, John McCain and Mitt Romney were, in their different ways, exemplars of republican virtue. It wasn’t enough. Rome became master of the ancient world because it didn’t lose wars. If defeated in battle, it learnt from its enemies how to win the war.

Like the Romans, Americans are meant to win wars.

Like the Romans, Americans are meant to win wars. Twelve years on from the start of the Iraq War, Republican leaders still had no answer to what had gone wrong, so a plurality of Republican primary voters decided to make America great again by supporting a candidate who doesn’t pay even lip service to republican virtues.

After an earlier failed war, Richard Nixon warned Americans in his second inaugural against retreating from the world, cautioning that doing so would invite new danger abroad. But he also warned that in order to maintain its strength, America would need to refrain from indiscriminate intervention abroad. “It is important that we understand both the necessity and the limitations of America’s role in maintaining that peace,” Nixon said. Rejecting JFK’s promise to bear any burden, Nixon declared that the time had passed when America would make every other nation’s conflict its own. “Just as America’s role is indispensable in preserving the world’s peace, so is each nation’s role indispensable in preserving its own peace.” A republic whose domestic tranquility had been torn apart by a divisive war had to find new ways of projecting its power and maintaining its position in the world.

Nixon’s radical diplomacy aimed to break out of the Cold War by bringing about a multi-polar international system, much as had existed in Europe after the Napoleonic wars. Napoleon wasn’t much impressed at the way Castlereagh, the British foreign secretary, used victory to forge peace. “Castlereagh had the continent at his mercy. . . . And he made peace as if he’d been defeated. The imbecile!” Castlereagh wanted to win the peace, and the next 99 years saw a degree of peace that Europe had not seen in the previous century, and did not see in the first half of the next.

President Obama’s foreign policy failed because it presumes American weakness. No one was at his mercy when he attempted to make the peace. In a world in which Great Powers annex the territory of other states and stake illegal claims to vast areas of the sea, only American strength, intelligently applied, can bring about a stable, multi-polar system. And, whatever the outcome in two months’ time, more than ever now, it’s of paramount importance that Republicans honor their duty to be the party of the republic. As Carthage shows, political dissoluteness at home brings defeat abroad, and as Rome shows, the untrammeled power of an imperial executive destroys the source of the republic’s, and thus America’s, strength.

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