March 10, 2010

The Spanish Empire

Just a thought:  Today, the United States still stands as what is called a "hyperpower" -- it possesses territory, client-states, economic influence, technological superiority, prestige, political power, and even its language and currency are accepted the world over.  To be sure, there are rivals and challenges on all fronts but the U.S. is still the leader in every measure of global power that possesses any meaning.

If we spin up the ol' Wayback Machine and s look at the world in, say, 1560, we'd see another picture.  Another hyperpower dominated the world, facing many challenges to its hegemony but was obviously the dominant power everywhere you went.  That would have been Spain.  1492 was to Spain what 1776 was to the United States.  Spain's rise to global dominance after taking the New World was hallmarked by Spanish becoming the lingua franca of its time, by the fact that the Spanish real was accepted (and indeed preferred) as legal tender across the globe, by the fact that Spanish military might was unbeatable in Europe and elsewhere, and by Spain's territorial reach on nearly every continent. 

While King Philip never got to realize his dream of looking at a globe and seeing a map of Spain, it was nevertheless true that when you consider the Hapsburg holdings in Europe, Spanish possessions in Africa, India, Indonesia, the Philipines, and the Americas, the sun never set on the Spanish Empire in the sixteenth century.  History enthusiasts like to play the parlor game of comparing the United States to Rome.  Maybe we'd benefit more from comparing the U.S. to Spain.

1 comment:

Michael Reynolds said...

We don't teach history so Americans only know two empires: Britain and Rome.

Weirdly they use Rome as a by-word for failed empires. Of course it lasted much longer than Britain's empire and was actually a huge success for far longer than the US has even existed as a nation. But basically Americans have some sort of vague notion that Rome fell, and did so because of Christianity. In fact it continued for quite a while as a Christian empire, and shifted to Byzantium where it went on as a Christian empire.

I think where the USA-Spain comparison breaks down is that Spain achieved empire less by reason of its own virtues, and more as a result of their unconscious spreading of diseases, particularly smallpox. They then set about draining gold out of their possessions in a short-sighted and frankly stupid way.

We did not achieve empire primarily by spreading disease, we murdered and stole land the old-fashioned way.