Nero in the Coliseum

Author: Gary Hart

“Rome was robust enough…to survive terrifyingly bad rulers.”  This is Professor John Lewis Gaddis in his new book On Grand Strategy commenting on Caesar Augustus’ failure to train a successor before his death and the subsequent decline in the caliber and quality of Rome’s rulers, including the notorious Nero forty years later.

The book is a graduate seminar in 313 pages, covering not only Caesar Augustus but also Xerxes, Pericles, Thucydides, Augustine, Machiavelli, Lincoln, and Isaiah Berlin, among many others.  It represents true joy in learning.  Had he more interest in learning, in books, in history, I can think of a current president who should read it.

Very few bad leaders have these interests, or to put it another way, without those interests bad leadership is guaranteed.  It was Jefferson himself who said he could not live without books.  The man now occupying his presidential office cannot live with them.

If that man suddenly chose to read, he might find out about the Marshall Plan, the subsequent North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the emergence of the European Union, the World Trade Organization, and the United Nations itself.  Then regional trade agreements such as NAFTA, the G7, and security agreements such as the Iran nuclear agreement.

Almost all of these were opposed by the isolationist wing of the Republican party at the time, at least until it understood this network of institutions was the democratic world’s bulwark against the Soviet Union and the spread of communism.  And it worked.

Without the communist threat to require cooperation for collective security, sure enough the isolationist wing, once lead in the 1930s by Charles Lindberg and Henry Ford, has now re-emerged from its cave and wants to undue the network of international organizations that prevented a world war for 75 years.

One of many lessons offered by our current detour from history is the danger of one party government, abetted by its several captive media conglomerates. No checks.  No balances.  All power concentrated in one political party with its own great megaphone guarantees excess and ultimately “terrifyingly bad rulers” whose central organizing principle is to destroy any evidence a previous president existed and to tear down brick by brick the international institutions favored by at least eleven of his predecessors.

For all practical purposes the Republican Congress is this president’s rubber stamp.  If a Democratic president had tried to disrupt NATO in previous years you could have heard the outraged cries of Republicans from one end of this country to the other.

Great leaders throughout history have almost always trained their successors or at least mentored them into positions of leadership.  Not so of recent presidents, including the two Bush presidents, which produces vacuums for Neros to fill.

Like Rome at the height of its power, America is robust enough to survive bad rulers, that is at least until they begin to succeed one another.  But that survival must overcome the wreckage of abandoned international networks for security, trade, the environment, world health, and much else.  And it will require the patient restructuring of reasonable and necessary regulations for energy and the environment, public education, health care, worker safety, safe food and drugs, and very much else currently being thrown away domestically.

We have had too few presidents who were strategic thinkers, alas.  If leaders do not anticipate the future and its new realities, they are consigned to reaction.  Reactive options are almost always flawed one way or another and by definition defensive.

There is always the possibility that the current president is operating according to a plan.  If so, it is not one that he seems willing to share with his fellow countrymen whose lives and whose children’s lives will be jeopardized by wholesale withdrawal from a well-established international order that has served the world reasonably well for seven decades.

This president not only is willing for the United States to retreat from the world but seems hell-bent on destroying existing structures for others whom most of us consider our friends and allies.

The whole world is his Coliseum.

3 Responses to “Nero in the Coliseum”


    Senator Hart, well described, as a modern day Roman Senator, one aware of the nature of the Caesar!!!

    Nobody is going to say Hail Caesar in the UK this very day or so when the Emperor Trump arrives, we shall have a giant blimp, a big balloon over the capital, a demonstration of how little respect there is for him.

    Reagan is looking like Julius Caesar, Carter like Claudius, and Gary Hart ,maybe, indeed, Marcus Aurelius!!!!!!!!

  2. Neil McCarthy Says:

    I’m with Lorenzo on this one. And congratulations to the Brits and their blimp. Also, the Gaddis book is great, as are his book on the cold war and his bio of George Kennan (for anyone interested).

  3. John Dedie Says:

    This POTUS is a non reader like a lot of his followers. It reflects a lack of desire to learn new things.

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