A recent comment by my friend and colleague Davefairtex on the Roman Empire's self-destructive civil wars that precipitated the Western Empire's decline and fall made me rethink what I've learned about the Roman Empire in the past few years of reading.
Dave's comment (my paraphrase) described the amazement of neighboring nations that Rome would squander its strength on needless, inconclusive, self-inflicted civil conflicts over which political faction would gain control of the Imperial central state.
It was a sea change in Roman history. Before the age of endless political in-fighting, it was incomprehensible that Roman armies would be mustered to fight other Roman armies over Imperial politics. The waste of Roman strength, purpose, unity and resources was monumental. Not even Rome could sustain the enormous drain of civil wars and maintain widespread prosperity and enough military power to suppress military incursions by neighbors.
I now see a very obvious trajectory that I think applies to all empires that have been too successful, that is, empires which have defeated all rivals or have reached such dominance they have no real competitors.
Once there are no truly dangerous rivals to threaten the Imperial hegemony and prosperity, the ambitions of insiders turn from glory gained on the battlefield by defeating fearsome rivals to gaining an equivalently undisputed power over the imperial political system.
The empire's very success in eliminating threats and rivals dissolves the primary source of political unity: with no credible external threat, insiders are free to devote their energies and resources to destroying political rivals.
It's difficult not to see signs of this same trajectory in the U.S. since the fall of the Soviet Empire in 1990.
With the primary source of national unity gone, politics became more divisive. After 9/11, new wars of choice were pursued, but the claims of a mortal threat to the nation never really caught on. As a result, the unity that followed 9/11 quickly dissipated.
I have long held that America's Deep State--the permanent, un-elected government and its many proxies and public-private partnerships--is riven by warring elites. There is no purpose in making the conflict public, so the battles are waged in private, behind closed doors.
Competing nations must be just as amazed as Rome's neighbors at America's seemingly unquenchable drive to self-destruct via the in-fighting of entrenched elites and the battle for supremacy between various parasitic elites who hold the power and privilege to squander the nation's resources on needless self-destructive wars of choice and on domestic in-fighting.
I suspect this trajectory of great success leading to self-destructive waste of resources is scale-invariant, meaning it works the same on individuals, families, communities, enterprises, cities, states, nations and empires.
It reminds me of former Intel CEO Andy Grove's famous summary of this dynamic:"Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive."
An empire weakened by self-inflicted internal conflicts may appear mighty, but it becomes increasingly vulnerable to an external shock. The Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire) may well have collapsed from the devastating effects of the extreme weather circa 535 AD and the great plague of Justinian in 541 AD had it been weakened by internal in-fighting. But despite the staggering losses caused by these external catastrophes, the Byzantine Empire survived.
Rome, on the other hand, burned while self-absorbed factions jockeyed for power.
Source: Of Two Minds
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