Spain’s Lessons for American Decline

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(Compact Mag) – Spain was the first global superpower. Obviously, there had been other great powers—Rome, the China of the Tang and Ming dynasties, the vast Mongol domains—but none had spanned oceans and continents the way the Spanish Empire did at its height. In the first half of the 16th century, Charles V reigned over vast swathes of Europe; his son Philip II controlled most of the Western Hemisphere as well as a sizable chunk of Asia (the Philippines were named after him). Imperial Spain’s maximum territorial reach would only be surpassed by the British Empire in the 19th century, and in the 20th by the informal American imperium, with its 750 overseas bases and network of global alliances.

But then Spain blew it. Already by the middle of the 17th century, under the crisis-ridden rule of Philip IV, the Iberian kingdom “had been left behind by the rest of Europe,” as John A. Crow wrote in his classic study, Spain: The Root and the Flower. England’s emergent sea power had dealt an early, crippling blow to Spanish naval might in the 1588 defeat of the Armada. A little more than three centuries later, the United States would effectively end Spain’s overseas empire, seizing control of its last colonies in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam. Between these two catastrophes there intervened a long period of slow decline.

“The parallels between America and Spain are striking.”

Those contemplating the possible demise of American global hegemony most often turn for lessons to Rome or the Soviet Union, but the parallels between America and Spain are…

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