The barbarians are at the gates, aren’t they?
The similarities with the fall of Rome seem inescapable. Hordes of migrants are forcing their way into Europe while back in the region sending them forth, a barbaric state openly declares it will march on Rome and destroy the West. It’s no surprise that in the resulting climate of fear back in the imperial capitals, far-right populists are rising while Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency takes a dark turn reminiscent of the politics of Nazi Germany.
But it’s not just blowhards like Trump who believe the only solution to the refugee crisis is to shore up imperial defences — turning everyone back, building border walls, tracking the movements of those who already got in. In a recent op-ed in the Boston Globe, the rock-star historian Niall Ferguson said that the terrorists of the Islamic State are themselves the modern barbarians at Rome’s gates. Ferguson wrote that Europe made a fatal mistake when it ‘opened its gates to outsiders who have coveted its wealth without renouncing their ancestral faith,’ declaring unequivocally ‘this is exactly how civilizations fall.’ And to support his controversial claim, Ferguson cited the path-breaking work of fellow historian Peter Heather, whose history of Rome’s fall demonstrated that the culprits who brought it down were the barbarian invaders out to destroy a complex civilization.
Pretty compelling stuff. Except, that’s not quite what Peter said. I know because this is something Peter and I have been talking about for years. About a decade ago, after having drifted out of contact since our Oxford days, Peter and I happened to spend Easter together when his family visited a mutual friend in the south of France (where I was then teaching). He was just wrapping up his book on Rome’s fall whereas I had just published a book on contemporary globalization. What struck us then was the remarkable similarities in our two separate narratives.
Like the Roman Empire, the West had expanded into its periphery and grown rich off its empire. However, during this ascendant phase, trade with the periphery drove economic progress there, supporting the rise of local elites eager to roll back the empire. Initially, each empire managed this challenge by creating or sanctioning client states in the periphery — independent states which nonetheless operated within an international framework governing their relations with the former imperial powers. During this highest stage of empire — the late fourth and early fifth century for Rome, the second half of the twentieth century for the West — the empire’s prosperity reached its peak. But thereafter, their relative decline began, and peripheral states began spinning out of their control.
Ferguson’s right to feel deja-vu when reading the history of the fall of Rome, but he’s looking in the wrong places. Not surprisingly, for someone who’s made his career at the great centres of Western learning, he sees things from the vantage-point of the imperial centre. But as both Peter and I have argued in our respective works, and as an upcoming book on which we are working together will argue, the real action takes place in the periphery. The idea of imperial blowback, the ‘equal and opposite reaction’ which Peter has called Newton’s Third Law of Empires, is the most intriguing. What Islamic State are doing on the streets of Paris and other Western cities does not even deserve the level barbaric, since the barbarians were humans. So there’s no point saying the West deserves it, because nobody deserves that. But on the other hand, it seems consistent with history’s evidence to make the agnostic statement that sooner or later, the legacies of empire will rebound on you, for better or worse. You don’t have to dig deep in the accounts of the West in its colonies to discover tales that will shock you as much as those from latter-day Paris, and that was Peter’s point: the barbarian invasions of Rome are inseparable from the earlier Roman invasions of their lands.
That doesn’t mean we have to resign ourselves to fatalism, and say (as some do) that the Western empire has entered its decadent phase and all we can do is prepare for the end times. Instead, it’s a good time to remember that there were legacies of Western empire which were, and are, seen as positive and worth keeping. That we sometimes checked our principles at the entrance to the colonies is no reason to chuck the principles. Islamic-State ideologists prey upon the resentment many people in the Third World feel towards the West for tis exploitation, and use that to build a narrative which conflates Western values and rapaciousness to reject everything about us. They may be cynical, but they are clever: time and again, we walk right into the trap they have laid for us when we buy the rhetoric and agree, rejecting Islam and the West as fundamentally incompatible.
The West lost the minds of many in the Third World by the hypocrisy and callousness it showed during two centuries of imperial exploitation. But that doesn’t make it too late to win them back, by setting aside what was wrong in our past and focusing on what was, and still can be, right.