The year 238 AD began with Maximinus I as Emperor of Rome– a former peasant who had worked his way up through the ranks of the military before being chosen as Emperor by his troops.
By August of that year, Maximinus was dead, and five other men had briefly held the title of Emperor. Only one (Gordian III) was still alive by the end of 238 AD.
This is known in Roman history as the ‘Year of the Six Emperors’, and it was an obvious watershed moment in the decline of the empire.
It’s not like Rome hadn’t seen plenty of turmoil before–
There had been full-blown civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great nearly three centuries prior in 49 BC. Caligula managed to engineer a major supply chain crisis during his reign in the early 1st century AD.
Much of the city of Rome burned to the ground under Emperor Nero in 64 AD. Caracalla heavily debased the currency and caused widespread inflation in the early 200s.
And more than a dozen emperors had been assassinated up to that point in Roman history.
People were used to crisis and chaos. But the Year of the Six Emperors felt different. It was as if Romans suddenly realized they were no longer the dominant superpower.
The next few decades, in fact, are known as the “Crisis of the Third Century”, with more than two dozen emperors seizing the throne in a power struggle, murdering their political enemies, and then being assassinated themselves.
Some emperors, like Silbannacus, Quintillus, and Saloninus, literally sat on the throne for a matter of days before being killed.
The government was extremely unstable, and notoriously corrupt. They rigged elections. They sent Praetorian guards to harass and intimidate their opponents. And they sewed social conflict so that Romans turned on one another.
In the meantime, the Roman economy was collapsing. Inflation became so rampant that Diocletian infamously had to implement extreme price controls, and then threaten to kill anyone who didn’t follow them.
They also lost control of their borders, as countless barbarian tribes poured into the empire and squatted on Roman lands.
The barbarian migration eventually turned into full-blown invasions and military conflict, and the Roman military lost a number of major battles.
In 251 AD, for example, Rome suffered a crushing defeat by the invading Goths at the Battle of Abritus. The Goths decimated three Roman legions, killed the emperor, and stole TONS of gold.
Even the lowest peasant was able to figure it out: dominant superpowers don’t lose battles.
They maintain secure borders. They have strong currencies. They don’t blow through six leaders in a single year. They aren’t in a constant state of social revolution. And they aren’t bankrupt.
We could easily apply the same logic today.
And this is especially true after last week’s watershed moment in which the US national debt reached $30 trillion for the first time.
It’s hardly controversial to assert that dominant superpowers don’t accumulate $30 trillion in debt (which, by the way, is 25% larger than the entire US economy).
But it’s not just the debt. It’s so much more.
Dominant superpowers don’t surrender tens of billions of dollars of military equipment to their sworn enemy, and then fly away with local civilians clinging to the side of their aircraft.
Dominant superpowers don’t abandon their own citizens abroad.
Dominant superpowers don’t engineer historically high inflation… and then ignore it. Nor do they embrace socialism, i.e. the literal opposite of the capitalist economic system that created so much wealth and power to begin with.
Dominant superpowers don’t send their government agents to harass innocent citizens, or tell parents they have no say in the education of their children.
Dominant superpowers don’t suspend their Constitutions because of a virus. They don’t give people incentives to NOT work. They don’t constantly make it difficult for small businesses to succeed.
Dominant superpowers don’t deliberately reduce their military’s physical fitness standards in the name of diversity and inclusion. They don’t prioritize “equity” over national security. And they certainly don’t fire experienced intelligence operatives because of individual medical decisions.
Dominant superpowers don’t placate their adversaries and bow to their demands. They aren’t afraid to offend their rivals.
Dominant superpowers don’t create incentives for countless people to illegally cross the border and go live under a bridge.
And above all else, dominant superpowers are able to deal with challenges.
Yes, there’s always been conflict and disagreement. But dominant superpowers have stable, effective governments who can do what is necessary to solve problems. And they have societies whose people can coexist peacefully without being at each others’ throats all the time.
It might not be pleasant to think about, but these are all true statements about the United States. And like Rome, they are all obvious signs of decline. Simply put, the US is no longer the dominant superpower.
This doesn’t mean the world is coming to an end, or that some horrible cataclysm is about to take place.
But it should be reason enough to have a Plan B.