The Glory of Rome's Name

Having been made public, the National Security Agency (NSA)’s activity regarding the listening in on allied heads of state (the French president, the German chancellor, not to mention leaders of less important countries and their staff) has generated quite a long-running scandal that has stretched on since the summer — with winter now just around the corner — and shows no sign of abating.

Quite the contrary: Thanks to a shrewd dosage of disclosures, coming not in aggregate but little by little — thus does one correctly stoke a fire, by supporting the combustion — U.S. allies are kept in a constant state of umbrage and even resentment. It has been a long time, even a very long time, since American ambassadors in Berlin and Paris have been summoned to the foreign ministry for an official statement about the unacceptability of their government’s actions. Brazil and Germany’s initiative to put a resolution condemning Internet surveillance before the U.N. also has an obvious addressee with a residence in Washington.

The unprecedented nature of the reaction does not mean, of course, an immediate break with the U.S.; in the short term, it hardly means anything serious at all. They will talk it over and calm down, because a shift in one’s entire political orientation is a long and costly affair, and they are not about to take apart their entire politics over a single, albeit extremely unpleasant, incident. It is a different matter, however, that the sediment [from the situation] has left a bad taste in the mouth; in the long term, the NSA’s immoderate curiosity could prove quite costly.

Since the days of Romulus and Remus, the dominant positions of a hegemonic power have been secured not only by a direct show of might, forcing all neighbors both far and near to submit, but to a lesser extent by what is now called “soft power” in the Americans’ coinage and what was previously termed “the glory of Rome’s name.” The empire’s civic virtue allured and conquered no less than the relentless pace of the legions.

We later see the great significance of this virtue that conquers nations in the examples of the French, British and Soviet empires. In certain moments of history, the glory of these states — seemingly incontestable to their contemporaries at the time — preceded guns, although guns were never neglected by these empires, of course.

“Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” “Britons will never, never, never be slaves.” These are [testaments to] the glory of the victor nation that crushes fascism — all of this was the great treasure of great empires. Similarly, the American Empire is unthinkable without the covenant inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” A shining city on a hill — like the once no less shining city on seven hills.

But nothing lasts forever, and virtue gradually dims and loses its appeal, giving way to a more pragmatic motive uniting nations around a hegemon: “There’s no arguing with a big fist.” The glory and virtue of the “shining city” is not what it used to be, but its might is overwhelming, so humble yourself, proud Gaul (or Teuton, etc.). The glory is only remembered on solemn occasions, otherwise not at all, but there are some unmistakable benefits, and once again, “Where else would you go?”

For a time — sometimes quite a long time — empires cling to the logic of arguing with a big fist, but as old age sets in, shameful incidents like the current one prove all the more devastating. Needless to say, the practice [alluded to by the term] “Big Brother is watching you” does not at all mesh with the ideal virtues of the empire. It strips the gilding from the ideological constructions once and for all, leaving them in quite an unsightly state. But the instinct of submission still remains, for the model of Big Brother presupposes the chilling fear of an irresistible and all-pervasive force, in the presence of which Big Brother might even dare to show his contempt for laws and customs. But there comes a point when Big Brother, having been caught wiretapping, acts like a naughty schoolboy; at this point, the end is already near. It becomes obvious that the fist with which there is supposedly no arguing is, in reality, not so big.

Thereafter, the arrogant hegemon, whose superiority is incontestable, begins quite a rapid evolution toward the status of an ever-less convenient partner whose ambitions clearly do not match its current ammunition.

Next begins the family life of King Lear, when it turns out that 50 knights in the retinue is far too many, that 25 is enough and finally five knights end up being an excessive luxury. There is nothing pretty about it. Having been freed from Big Brother’s custody, allies usually behave no better than Lear’s eldest daughters — but what can one do? The senile decrepitude of empires is no less bitter and ignominious than human decrepitude. And the scandal over the NSA has strongly contributed to the senescence of the U.S.

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About Jeffrey Fredrich 199 Articles
Jeffrey studied Russian language at Northwestern University and at the Russian State University for the Humanities. He spent one year in Moscow doing independent research as a Fulbright fellow from 2007 to 2008.

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