The American Empire: Pax Americana or Pox Americana?

By Foster, John Bellamy; McChesney, Robert W. | Monthly Review, September 2004 | Go to article overview

The American Empire: Pax Americana or Pox Americana?


Foster, John Bellamy, McChesney, Robert W., Monthly Review


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." (1)

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. (2) 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). …

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