Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman in The National Interest:
THREE DECADES ago, a German history professor listed 210 proposed explanations for the fall of the Roman Empire. The remarkable array included such fanciful causes as Bolshevism, public baths, hedonism, the pressure of terrorism and, most famously, lead poisoning.
The last explanation has been discredited. It is highly unlikely that lead water pipes caused the empire to collapse in a tumult of brain damage, gout and madness. Yet exploded theories can point towards important truths. Like classical Rome, America’s empire today depends less on pomp than on plumbing. Instead of roads, aqueducts and seaports, it relies on pipelines conveying financial flows and torrents of data, as well as vast distributed supply chains. These look like a global public infrastructure, but can readily be redirected to private national strategic advantage. America’s domination of obscure, seeming technical structures is generating its own forms of hubristic folly among imperial administrators, who have begun to think that there is nothing they cannot do with it.
Far beneath the boastful speeches, petty insults and spiteful feuds; the fights over NATO and Russian influence operations; the subterranean conduits of empire are failing. If America’s empire is indeed headed towards expiry, many future historians will blame the obvious problems: the rise of China, overextension in the Middle East, the defection of allies. Yet some might trace the beginnings of decay back to two more quotidian crises: America’s botched decision to sanction the Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE Corporation, and Europe’s creation of an apparently innocuous technical arrangement—the “Special Purpose Vehicle”—purportedly to facilitate humanitarian exchange with Iran.