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Three Presidents: Hollande and Obama with Xi Jinping at a nuclear security summit in April. Beijing continues to undermine security in Asia (©Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Just over a quarter of a century ago, the liberal West celebrated triumph in the Cold War. Its victory was underpinned by an evolving strategy of containment, détente, proxy battles and rollback that defeated the Communist bloc without unleashing nuclear war. After unimaginable bloodshed during the 20th century, the fall of the Berlin Wall signalled a triumphal note for the beginning of the next one. Today, less than a generation after the “end of history”, such hopes are all but forgotten, as the global order cracks under a combination of strains either long ignored or wilfully dismissed.

The eight years of the Obama administration have seen only worsening risk and intensification of conflict around the globe. The pace of aggression continues to increase. Yet unlike the still familiar period of great power struggle against totalitarian ideologies during the 20th century, today’s threat to the liberal world comes from two different fronts: the seemingly permanent scourge of Islamist terrorism, and the rise of revanchist and revisionist major powers, such as Russia and China. The United States and its liberal partners have been challenged and found wanting, failing to eliminate or contain the threats. The next US president must do better, or run the risk that the next generation will be one of permanent global disorder.

Superpowers have faced great trials before. But in this particularly complex environment, America and its next leader will have to accept the uncomfortable fact that they face a challenge not unlike that which plagued the Roman Empire for centuries.

Comparing America to ancient Rome has long been a cottage industry, by those both in favour of and opposed to US hegemony. In the last decade, it was fear of George W. Bush’s overreach during the war in Iraq that spawned dozens of books by authors such as Chalmers Johnson and Andrew Bacevich decrying America as a new Rome and prophesying its decline. In contrast, other observers, such as Charles Krauthammer and Robert Kagan, vigorously argued that decline is a choice, and that the United States still had a unique responsibility to defend the liberal global order to which it had been midwife at the end of World War II and protected throughout the Cold War. Though these commentators did not explicitly use the world “empire”, some, like Niall Ferguson, wrote with approbation of the global politico-military role of the United States.

Whether he or she likes it or not, the next US president will face a challenge that many a Roman emperor would have recognised. For centuries, Roman armies fought against irregular barbarian tribes and great powers alike, often swinging between military fronts over periods of years or decades. In the north and west of the empire, defending against Germanic tribes along the Danube and Rhine rivers mandated thousands of miles of manned borders and physical defences. In the east, Rome repeatedly fought full-scale wars with major states like Parthia and Persia. Accommodation of either threat proved all but impossible, despite attempts to absorb Germanic tribes into the imperial state or set up buffer kingdoms between Rome and Parthia. Instead, warfare was the endemic, if not continuous, condition of Roman life.

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