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The American Empire: Pax Americana or Pox Americana?

On June 10, 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivered a commencement address at American University in Washington, D.C., in which he declared that the peace that the United States sought was “not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war.” His remarks were a response to criticisms of the United States advanced in a recently published Soviet text on military strategy. Kennedy dismissed the charge that “American imperialist circles” were “preparing to unleash different kinds of wars” including “preventative war.” The Soviet text, he pointed out, had stated, “The political aims of American imperialists were and still are to enslave economically and politically the European and other capitalist countries and, after the latter are transformed into obedient tools, to unify them in various military-political blocs and groups directed against the socialist countries. The main aim of all this is to achieve world domination.” In Kennedy’s words, these were “wholly baseless and incredible claims,” the work of Marxist “propagandists.” “The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war.”*

Despite such high level denials, the notion of a “Pax Americana” enforced by American arms was to become the preferred designation for those attempting to justify what was portrayed as a benevolent American Empire. Thus, in his widely read book, Pax Americana, first published in 1967 during the Vietnam War, Ronald Steel wrote of “the benevolent imperialism of Pax Americana” characterized by “empire-building for noble ends rather than for such base motives as profit and influence.” A chapter of Steel’s book on foreign aid as an “element of imperialism” was entitled “The White Man’s Burden,” hearkening back to Rudyard Kipling’s celebrated poem calling on the United States to exercise an imperialist role in the Philippines following the Spanish-American War of 1898.* Such explicit imperial views, largely suppressed in the United States after the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, have now resurfaced in a post–Cold War world marked by U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and by a permanent U.S.-led “War on Terrorism.” Once again we hear establishment calls for the “defense of Pax Americana” and even renewals of the old cry to take up “the White Man’s burden.”

Kennedy had depicted the global military expansion of the United States as an attempt to contain Communism. Today the Cold War is over. The Soviet Union is no more. Yet at the beginning of the 21st century the United States is viewed more than ever by the world population as an imperialist power, enforcing its will unilaterally by force of arms. Since the fall of the Soviet Union we have seen the largest military interventions by the United States in Europe since the Second World War. The U.S. war machine has waged full-scale conventional wars in the Middle East. The United States now has military bases in locales such as Central Asia that were previously beyond the reach of the American Empire. In the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Washington made it clear that it was conducting a preventive war in light of the potential threat represented by weapons of mass destruction that could be used against the United States. The fact that there was no evidence of the existence of such weapons prior to the war did not seem to matter because a declaration by the administration that such weapons existed was deemed sufficient. Nor did it seem to matter after the war that no such weapons were found since once the invasion had taken place the new reality on the ground in Iraq dictated all. In this way imperialism provided its own justification.

Rather than breaking with earlier U.S. history these most recent military actions represent the continuation and acceleration of an old pattern—going back at least to the second half of the 1940s. Major U.S. interventions, both overt and covert, include: China (1945), Greece (1947–49), Korea (1950–53), Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Indochina (1954–73), Lebanon (1958), the Congo (1960–64), Cuba (1961), Indonesia (1965), the Dominican Republic (1965–66), Chile (1973), Angola (1976–92), Lebanon (1982–84), Grenada (1983–84), Afghanistan (1979–1989), El Salvador (1981–92), Nicaragua (1981–90), Panama (1989–90), Iraq (1991), Somalia (1992–94), Haiti (1994), Bosnia (1995), Yugoslavia (1999), Afghanistan (2001–present), and Iraq (2003–present). The enormous scale of U.S. military engagement is evident in the fact that its military bases gird the globe. Chalmers Johnson has written in his Sorrows of Empire, “As distinct from other peoples on this earth, most Americans do not recognize—or do not choose to recognize—that the United States dominates the world through its military power. Due to government secrecy, they are often ignorant of the fact that their government garrisons the globe. They do not realize that a vast network of American military bases on every continent but Antarctica actually constitutes a new form of empire.”*

The primary goals of U.S. imperialism have always been to open up investment opportunities to U.S. corporations and to allow such corporations to gain preferential access to crucial natural resources. Inasmuch as such expansion promotes U.S. hegemony it tends to increase the international competitiveness of U.S. firms and the profits they enjoy. At the same time U.S. imperialism promotes the interests of the other core states and of capitalism as a whole insofar as these are in accord with U.S. requirements. Such goals, however, frequently put the United States in conflict with other imperial states since an empire by definition is a sphere of exploitation in which a single imperial power plays the dominant role. Moreover, the logic of empire militates against all attempts to change the status quo in the periphery of the system—if not in the center as well.

For these reasons militarism and imperialism are inseparable for U.S. capitalism, as they are for capitalism as a whole. Although spending almost as much on the military as all other states combined, the United States finds itself constantly in need of more armaments, more new weapons systems, and more soldiers. As it relies increasingly on the military to maintain, and where necessary restore, its economic and political hegemony on a global scale the problem of imperial overstretch becomes chronic and insurmountable.

By the end of the Vietnam War the mask had been torn off the American Empire. In 1970 Steel issued a revised edition of Pax Americana with a new final chapter entitled “No More Vietnams?” The main thrust of this new chapter, written in a period marked by the looming U.S. defeat in Vietnam, was entirely opposed to the chapters that preceded it. “After Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, and the Greek junta,” Steel wrote, “it is not so easy for an American President to speak with a straight face of the nation’s foreign policy being based on the ‘liberation of man’ or the ‘survival of liberty.’”* Pax Americana was revealed as imperialism pure and simple.

Nonetheless, the American Imperium did not fade away with this loss of “face.” The momentum behind such imperialism remained. Washington held on to its empire awaiting new opportunities for expansion. The empire struck back in the late 1970s and ’80s under Carter and Reagan. The rapid decline and fall of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s opened up the way to a full-scale U.S. military intervention in the Middle East for the first time, with the onset of the 1991 Gulf War between the United States and Iraq. No longer simply intervening against revolutionary movements, the United States, now the sole superpower, gave notice to the world that a substantial departure from the global status quo in any direction would be met with overwhelming force. Noting this, Harry Magdoff and Paul Sweezy wrote in a July-August 1991 article entitled “Pox Americana”:

The United States, it seems, has locked itself into a course with the gravest implications for the whole world. Change is the only certain law of the universe. It cannot be stopped. If societies are prevented from trying to solve their problems in their own ways, they will certainly not solve them in ways dictated by others. And if they cannot move forward, they will inevitably move backward. This is what is happening in a large part of the world today, and the United States, the most powerful nation with unlimited means of coercion at its disposal, seems to be telling the others that this is a fate that must be accepted on pain of violent destruction.*

With the rising death toll of both Iraqis and U.S. soldiers during still another war and occupation, with the atrocities and torture inflicted by the United States in Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere leading to protests across the globe, with the barbarism of the U.S. intervention in Iraq in all of its aspects increasingly evident, it is more difficult than ever to maintain the illusion of the “benevolent imperialism of Pax Americana.” The American Empire has truly become a Pox Americana in the eyes of the world, and exposure of its inner workings has become an urgent necessity. If the United States seems bent, as Magdoff and Sweezy suggested more than a decade ago, on playing “Samson in the temple of humanity” at least now there is a growing world awareness of that fact. The immediate task is to deepen this critical understanding in ways that will help equip humanity for the major anti-imperialist struggles that lie ahead.

Notes

* John F. Kennedy, “Commencement Address at American University,” June 10, 1963 http://www.jfklibrary.org./j061063.htm; V. D. Sokolovskii, Soviet Military Strategy (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963), 149; originally published in the Soviet Union in 1962 under the title Military Strategy. In his speech Kennedy substituted ellipses in the main part of the quotation offered here. Here we quote from the same passage, replacing the ellipses with the actual text.

* Ronald Steel, Pax Americana (New York: Viking Press, 1967), 16–17, 268, 336.

* Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the Republic (New York: Henry Holt, 2003), 1.

* Ronald Steel, Pax Americana (New York: Viking Press, 1970), 334.

* Harry Magdoff and Paul M. Sweezy, “Pox Americana,” Monthly Review, 43: 3 (July–August 1991), 1–13.