What Alec Guinness Tells Us About US Alliances

06/16/2010 10:21 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Michael Vlahos Professor at The Johns Hopkins University Advanced Academic Programs and adviser to the Kiernan Group

The last of the Roman blockbusters of the 1960s was also the most interesting politically. The Fall of the Roman Empire was designed as an allegory of us, and released in the year Lyndon Johnson so passionately ramped up our stake in Vietnam.

This gorgeous (if tendentious) production was not simply about its cavalcade of stars -- Alec Guinness, James Mason, Omar Sharif, Stephen Boyd, Christopher Plummer, and a Sophia Loren decked out in the most bodacious furs that ever graced the 2nd century. It was not simply about a complete recreation in marble of the Roman forum, or battle scenes with over 8,000 soldiers on a Spanish plain.

This movie was a paean to US world leadership -- to our modern Pax Americana. Even our then-Dean of History, Will Durant, helped with the screenplay.

The key scene comes early. The Stoic philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) has been laboring for 12 years in the conifer-wilderness of Barbaricum, holding off the Marcomanni and Quadi (just as Richard Harris and Russell Crowe would fight them in 2000 in Gladiator) -- selflessly prosecuting his own "Long War" against (German) terrorists and extremists.

But we are transported, on a crystalline winter's day, to the emperor's command center near present-day Prague. Here we witness a ceremonial and ritual occasion. It is the convocation of "friends and allies" and a celebration of Roman world authority.

One-by-one, each local leader from the civilized world pulls his chariot up before the emperor, where from his high platform the emperor salutes him personally:

"Welcome Castobicus, King of the Omnia" -- "Welcome Pertinax, welcome Britannia"

There are so many allies, all of whom have made the pilgrimage to Prague-in-the-forest, that the emperor cannot recall them all by name. As he gestures, his Secretary of State (James Mason) whispers the correct name in his ear. Many are addressed as "Proconsul" yet clearly they are not Romans:

"Welcome Pericles, Proconsul of Athens" -- "Welcome Severus, Proconsul of Judea"

The Greek is Greek and the Judean is clearly Judean. Finally Omar Sharif sidles up and the emperor declares: "Rome is honored that Armenia's king is with us" -- To which Sohaemus replies: "My lord Caesar, Armenia hopes only for even closer ties to Rome."

This is the code. The civilized world seeks to be close to America. Only beneath the transcendent nimbus of the US can they too flourish. America after all is their framework, their backstop, their security blanket, and their guarantor of national identity.

Then Alec Guinness makes a short speech. Tell me if it tells you something about us, or at least about what we so wanted to be:

"You have come from the deserts of Egypt, from the mountains of Armenia, from the forests of Gaul, from the prairies of Spain. We do not resemble each other, nor do we wear the same clothes, nor sing the same songs, nor worship the same gods. Yet, like a mighty tree with green leaves and black roots, you are the unity which is Rome. Look about you, and look at yourselves, and see the greatness of Rome. Two hundred years ago the Gauls were our greatest enemy, and now we greet them as friends. In the whole world, only two small frontiers are still hostile to us: One here in the North, which separates us from those who are called barbarians, and the other in the East, Persia. Only on these two borders will you find walls, palisades, forts, and hatred. But these are not the frontiers Rome wants. Rome wants and needs human frontiers. We have had to fight long wars, and your burdens have been great. But we come now to the end of the road. Here, within our reach, golden centuries of peace. A true Pax Romana -- Wherever you live, whatever the color of your skin."

Indeed, in the reign of our GWOT Emperor George Bush, only two frontiers were still hostile to America: Barbaricum (not German, but Muslim), and yes, Persia. The former emperor sought in actual life, like Alec Guiness on celluloid, to bring us to the end of the road. He sought to break down all walls, palisades, forts and hatred, by bringing both hostile places into the sublimely beneficent embrace of the American Way.

So the end of history was actually declared in a 1964 Hollywood movie -- A prefiguration of an American emperor's hopes (and then dilemmas) after 9-11.

The Fall of the Roman Empire
fit perfectly within the zeitgeist of America in the early 1960s. NATO, Japan and the ROK -- and so many others -- desperately looked to us, and to our imperial approbation, just as much as Alec Guinness's client kings and native proconsuls did on film. That framework of world relationship would remain in place until the wayward excesses of the GWOT.

If we had been the Rome of our own imagining we would never have come up with "a coalition of the willing." We could also never have leveraged NATO into Afghanistan. These nakedly disingenuous expedients have served us poorly. Or rather, they served our narcissism at the expense of good strategic sense -- and our world relationships.

Simply, in the Iliad-GWOT we forfeited the very framework of relationship that we had so long declared we most treasured. Instead we squandered our treasure, and more important, continue to scatter it to the winds even now.

For 60 years we owned an "empire of alliance" -- perhaps not so different in its actual relationships from the world of the real Marcus Aurelius. This world worked because our imperial offer was essential to Western identity, prosperity, and survival. After the Soviet fall our claim began to weaken. Even as NATO expanded, the urgency undergirding American leadership diminished. Allies still might muster modest support and rhetorical genuflection.

But not so much, it might be argued, so as to parade in allied chariots before our emperor in the shadow of the Hindu Kush, in pursuit of another endless Barbaricum.

We need to relearn the art of alliance-as-partnership, a skill we lost during our Roman "empire of alliance" era. NATO, Japan, and the ROK still want and need us. A flexing new Russian threatening to "go rogue," or a stern China seeking regional genuflection, create new anxieties -- which in turn create new opportunities. For example we could renew our relationship with Japan by ditching old paternalism and forging a joint naval enterprise in the Western Pacific to counterbalance China.

We talk "partnership" endlessly it seems. We should try putting it into practice. Failure in the Iliad-GWOT -- aka The Long War -- shows us not the end of alliances, just the end of an "empire of alliance."