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Peace and the Empire

by Berry Friesen (October 16, 2017)

How do you describe the relationship between the US-led empire and world peace?

Robert Kagan, the neoconservative lobbyist who has advised Democrat and Republican presidents, put it this way in 2012:

“The present world order—characterized by an unprecedented number of democratic nations; a greater global prosperity, even with the current crisis, than the world has ever known; and a long peace among great powers—reflects American principles and preferences, and was built and preserved by American power in all its political, economic, and military dimensions. If American power declines, this world order will decline with it.”

Former President Barack Obama holds a very similar view, as quoted from his January 20, 2017 transition letter to President Donald Trump:

“American leadership in this world really is indispensable. It’s up to us, 
through action and example, to sustain the international order that’s expanded steadily
 since the end of the Cold War, and upon which our own wealth and safety depend”
The claim that the US-led empire makes the world more stable and peaceful strikes me as utter nonsense.  Yet among the political elite, it's conventional wisdom.  Why?

Let’s quickly list some of the emotional reasons.  (1) It reflects what we all learned in school: America ends wars and ushers in peace. (2) It’s reiterated constantly by media propaganda. (3) It’s pleasing to our vanity. (4) It provides a moral justification for our consumption of a hugely disproportionate share of the world’s resources. (5) It makes all of us wealthier than we would otherwise be.  (6) It makes us feel important, giving meaning to our lives. (7) We live at the center of the empire, not at the edges where the empire is most brutal.

A sophisticated rationale has been cobbled together in support of this claim that the empire bring peace.  The first part has been articulated by a handful of scholars, including Steven Pinker in his 2011 bookThe Better Angels of our Nature:  A History of Violence and Humanity.  Pinker asserts that due to various “civilizing” factors—especially the increasing power of the nation state and its near monopoly of force—the percentage of the human population killed in violent conflicts has been dropping steadily through the centuries and years. *

The second part of the pro-empire rationalization (not necessarily Pinker’s) is implied by the quote from Kagan:  the international leadership of the US empire keeps the lid on international conflict. In other words, the US is the “big dog” that keeps the fights among the quarrelsome “little dogs” from getting out of hand.

This association of “peace” with “empire” is hugely consequential. Essayist Caitlin Johnstone explains.

“The fact of the matter is that America is conducting a nonstop campaign to destabilize, manipulate, bully and control other nations to prevent the rise of a new rival superpower, and many Americans would rather it keep doing so. I can’t tell you how many Americans I’ve encountered while sharing my anti-war message who have said ‘Yeah, I agree war is bad and we’ve done some awful shit… but if the world is going to have a top dog controlling its affairs, I’d rather it be America’.”

Johnstone's most important point follows:

“The crux of the issue is that you cannot want America to remain the world’s only powerful force and also be anti-war at the same time. These are necessarily two mutually exclusive ideals. One of the crucial ways that America remains on top is by keeping potential rivals off-balance using endless war in key strategic locations — if you stop the US war machine from doing this, you cripple America’s ability to ensure that it remains the world’s only superpower.

“No anti-war philosophy is complete unless it directly addresses this fundamental reality. If you want America to remain the world’s leader while also wanting America to stop waging endless wars based on lies, you’re not anti-war, you’re a vapid, cutesy vanity politics airhead sharing social media-friendly bumper sticker ideals with nothing behind them. You don’t want the killing to stop, you just want to look like someone who wants the killing to stop.”

And Johnstone adds this:

“So the question being asked of all peace-loving Americans, really, is this: 
are you courageous enough to relinquish your attachment to the neoconservative notion 
that America should be the world’s only superpower? Are you truly anti-war, 
or are you a neocon with a ‘Coexist’ bumper sticker?”

Is Johnstone exaggerating the empire's malignance?  Not at all.

Consider first a few of the many historical events that demonstrate how the American Empire behaves:

--Wars of aggression against Korea (1950-present), Vietnam (1955-1975) and Iraq (2003-present);
--A strong alliance with the dictatorial House of Saud, the world’s primary source of Islamic terrorism;
--Active cooperation with and support for al-Qaeda or Daesh in Kosovo, Chechnya, Libya and Syria;
--Covert collaboration with criminal networks moving narcotics from Southeast Asia, Afghanistan and Latin America into Western consumer markets;
--Deployment of Special Operations Forces in 138 countries (2016); currently bombing (including drone assassinations) in seven majority-Muslim countries;
--Overthrown 35 governments since World War 2 including Iran, Congo, Indonesia, Chile, Nicaragua, Somalia, Yugoslavia, Venezuela, Libya and Ukraine. **

Then consider the human impact of the empire’s actions in the post-World War 2 era:

--4 million killed in Korea
--6 million killed in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos
--1 million+ killed in Iraq
--10 million killed in US-led proxy wars (e.g., Afghanistan, Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo, East Timor, Guatemala, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sudan, Libya and Syria).***

These partial lists demolish our Pollyannaish view of the US-led empire. In 1967 the Rev. Dr. M.L. King said the US is “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”  How long will we continue to deny this still remains true today?

For the last word,****  let’s return to Caitlin Johnstone.

“The reason the US power establishment works so hard to manufacture public support for its wars is that it needs that support. The public can make things very, very difficult for the war machine if it stops listening to the propaganda lullabies and decides enough is enough. But that can’t happen as long as the American people are living in fear of the rest of the world. If you want peace, at some point you’re going to have to get okay with letting the world manage its own affairs. There will be no significant peace movement in America until this happens.”
*     To read vigorous critiques of Pinker’s work (including his emphasis on “battlefield deaths”), see John Arquilla’s “The Big Kill” and Michael Mann’s “Have Wars and Violence Declined?

*** See “US has Killed More than 20 Million People in 37 ‘Victim Nations’ Since WW2” by James A. Lucas.

**** For a more scholarly discussion of the relationship between peace and empire, see David C. Hendrickson's "Is America an Empire?".

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