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Commentary

October 20, 2005

Lessons from superpowers of the past

Traveling across Europe last week, it was hard not to notice that the ancient ruins of Rome often are difficult to tell from the rest of the place. What a mess: When your mother warned you that if you don&

t clean your room your empire will crumble, she wasn&

t bluffing.

I spent much of that same week in London and concluded that, despite having a substantial number of newly initiated immigrants, London places a far higher value on its imperial heritage and treats its past with a far more appropriate dignity. Grounded in its heritage, and infused with new immigrant energy, it has a far greater chance than Rome to rise anew in empire terms.

Empires have been on my mind recently, not because I believe that imperialism is a good thing, per se. Rather, I have been fascinated and troubled since Sept. 11, 2001, by the vulnerability of the mighty, nuclear-tipped American empire. This American empire is at its own crossroads. In most eras, one or two empires drive the course of human society, and it is no longer clear that the United States can maintain that role simply through traditional means.

How have past empires managed? Rome is about retro, London is about heritage. An automotive designer, discussing the appeal of classic auto models, observed that there is a fine line between retro and heritage: Heritage is more forward-looking, whereas retro is a more literal interpretation of the past. Retro is mere nostalgia, but heritage is a sense of lineage that propels you toward your destiny with a firm sense of identity and purpose. Both have their charms, but the former one is, at last, impotent.

Rome has at times ignored, pillaged and embraced its own imperial-era treasures, such as the Colosseum. A certain nostalgia and the profit motive of tourism led Romans in recent centuries to make a half-hearted attempt to tidy up the shambles of their own past.

Their fathers strode the globe like a colossus, and now the sons of Caesar stride tiny scooters, more scooters than in any other town on the planet. But they do make up for this with wonderful gelato.

As for London, it is the best mix of old and new, of heritage and destiny, that I&

ve ever seen in a world city.

Civic boosters in New York or Los Angeles frequently attempt to convince others that theirs is the crossroads of the 21st century world, just as all roads once led to Rome. Yet London is the planet&

s vibrant, buzzing crossroads, with 300 languages spoken there (compared to some 200 in New York and 100 in Los Angeles).

As I noted last week, London is capacious in its ability to make room for others. It, like Rome, has always been a crossroads for tribes from various walks, but it continues to play that role in a way that Rome no longer bothers to.

&

The people here are closed to new things and new people,&

a Nigerian woman working at Roman clothing store sighed. &

Not like in London.&

London carries a far greater sense that it is again a crucible for a great new civilization.

We, as the American empire, have much we could learn by watching the contrasts in these past empires more closely &

and sensing our own potential future reflected in them.

America&

s own empire, extended not mainly by guns, but by cultural infection of other nations, could run its course soon unless it is revitalized in the ways that every empire must. Overwhelming evidence exists that we take the future for granted. Nations such as India and China churn out more technologists, all willing to work for substantially lower wages.

We are, for the first time in decades, no longer viewed by the Third World, Europe or even friendly England as a positive influence. We may already be living in and off the past.

Writers at publications such as The Economist frequently wax about the unbounded dynamism, energy and innovation of America (and California, in particular). It is as though the view across the pond looks greener, as they see their own warts more clearly and their assets in fuzzier terms.

The fact is that London is the incubator site of a new empire, one which could someday soon be the influencer of societies everywhere. We should stand up and take notice.