Peace and the Myth of Pax Americana by Carl Mirra

Mirra, Carl (SUNY-Old Westbury). "Peace and the Myth of Pax Americana." CPP Newsletter Vol. 24, No. 1 (Spring-Summer 2004).

Peace is an idealistic term; it envisions humanity striving for cooperation and harmony, thereby inviting skepticism in a competitive world. Yet, if we juxtapose images of peace against US military aims, it becomes increasingly clear that militaristic sensibilities are as ambitious and idealistic as peaceful visions. The problem is that militarism cloaks itself in so-called realistic solutions, while peace is often jettisoned as a sentimental treat, something reserved for long-haired peaceniks chanting ‘give peace a chance.’ I am suggesting that a pragmatic and practical philosophy of peace offers a greater chance of security than military options. That is to say, the militaristic attitudes embraced by the Bush II administration resemble an idealistic theodicy that is likely to spark a nearly endless cycle of war. In this context, peace should be understood as a viable alternative, not a philosophical dream.

That the notion of peace itself is contested complicates my proposition. Johan Galtung, widely regarded as the father of peace studies, clarifies matters with his distinction between negative and positive peace. Negative peace signifies the absence of war, a desirable condition although it is frequently accompanied with a stalemate, where warring parties are at “peace” but hostilities and threats remain. Positive peace indicates the presence of justice and peace values, such as non-violent conflict resolution skills and a genuine respect for human dignity. Under positive peace, a social order characterized by economic, gender and racial equality exists alongside non-violent dispute resolution strategies. In his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. embraces this two-tiered definition peace, arguing that negative peace is merely “the absence of tension,” while positive peace constitutes justice.

The distinction between negative and positive peace does not suggest a conflict between them; rather, they comprise a larger whole that combines absence of war with realization of justice. An effective philosophy of peace connects the two understandings by raising awareness about the causes of war and the barriers to non-violence, while building the skills needed to create a world defined by economic, gender and racial equality. American foreign policy largely masks these non-violent alternatives, while pursuing violent strategies that frequently spark conflict and war.

Rather than building an American peace or Pax Americana, U.S. interventionism since 1945 has done much to erode basic rights and the prerequisite conditions for peace. Although Ronald Reagan once argued that, “We always seek to live in peace. We resort to force infrequently,” the U.S. has violently intervened in the world at least 55 times since the end of the Second World War, according to data compiled in William Blum’s Killing Hope.1 Contrary to the myth of Pax Americana, these interventions did little to foster global peace. Consider that a Department of Defense study admits that, “Historical data show a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the U.S.” Amnesty International adds that, “on any given day,” someone is likely to be “displaced, tortured or killed…more often than not, the United States shares the blame.” The U.S. routinely assists governments that commit “gross violations and unspeakable offenses,” concludes the respected human rights agency.2

It is important to note that these interventions are animated by what are really idealistic values ensconced in a so-called realist paradigm. Realpolitik, or power politics, seemingly animates American diplomacy. A 1954 Executive Branch panel, for example, felt that, “acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply” in the fight against Communism, which forces us to adopt a “fundamentally repugnant” foreign policy.3 This “repugnant” realism, canonized in Western philosophy by Hobbes and Machiavelli, is infused in the policymaking of almost every postwar American president, who believed that a hostile world forced the US to extend its power over other power-hungry nation-states. For instance, the US as the world’s noble center of power was obliged to “defend” (attack?) such nefarious, power hungry communist states as Guatemala and Grenada. The notion that American liberal democracy (the good) must contain, at all costs, the spread of communism (evil) is little more than a celebratory theodicy of good defeating evil.

The second Bush administration quickly and conveniently applied this mental framework to the war on terrorism. Recall Bush’s declaration that “a monumental struggle of good versus evil” commenced on September 11 and that “good will prevail.” The crisis in Iraq, for example, took on biblical proportions. Bush piously warned Americans of imminent doom. There is “no doubt” that Iraq conceals the “most lethal weapons ever developed,” and when “evil men” plot nuclear terror it foreshadows “a destruction never before seen on this earth.” This apocalyptic nightmare not only required a preventative strike, but Bush also promised to regenerate the misguided country. Just as God in the Book of Revelation split apart Babylon to renew it, Bush sought to “tear down the apparatus of terror” and “build a new Iraq.” Putting aside that ancient Babylon resides in current day Iraq, Bush equated U.S. military prowess to a religious redemption after he sensed a victory on the horizon.

In sermonic fashion, Bush declared an end to major combat operations from the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003. Quoting the prophet Isaiah, Bush thundered, “To the captives come out—and to those in darkness be free.”4 More U.S. soldiers have died since Bush supposedly set the captives free, yet Bush continues to peddle a missionary vision of building peace in Iraq. This violent redeemer attitude is nothing more than an antiquated, fairytale theodicy of good against evil. Indeed, peaceful visions should be taken as practical alternatives to this crusader spirit. For one thing, Bush’s proclamations about spreading peace are clearly contradicted by a September 2003 Amnesty International report that finds the war on terrorism is, “undermining international law” and, “has given governments an excuse to abuse human rights.”5

There are peaceful and practical alternatives to this paralyzing, mythological paradigm that the Bush administration champions. United Nations consultant and peace researcher, Johan Galtung, reminds us that there are several alternatives. These options are supported by most of the world and American citizens, according to Gallup polls. Roughly eighty percent of those polled throughout the world following the September 11 massacre prefer a police action to a military campaign. A UN police force could arrest, detain, and convict those responsible for crimes against humanity. Only about fifty percent of Americans polled immediately after the watershed of September 11 responded that they preferred military action to this option.6 This action requires bringing the suspects before the International Criminal Court; a similar tribunal has condemned the U.S. for its role in the massacre of Latin Americans in the 1980’s. Washington, D.C. policy makers would prefer to conceal this from the American public, so they eliminate an action that most of the world supports. U.S. leaders ignore this viable option, while simultaneously manipulating the public’s understandable anger and fear by suggesting that bombing is the only realistic solution. Instead, U.S. leaders follow violent policies that place everyone in danger.

Simply put, peaceful solutions are far less idealistic than messianic crusades in distant lands under the banner of Pax Americana.

Notes

1 See William Blum Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions since World War II (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1995).

2 Information on the Defense Science Board Report of 1997 in Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (New York: Henry Holt, 2000), p. 9. Amnesty International quoted in Human Rights and Security Assistance: An Amnesty International USA Report on Human Rights Violations in Countries Receiving US Security Assistance, 4th edition (New York: Amnesty International Publishers, 1996), p.1.

3 William M. Leary, ed. The Central Intelligence Agency: History and Documents (Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1984), p. 144.

4 Bush quotations from “President Bush Meets with National Security Team,” (Washington, DC: Office of the Press Secretary) 12 September 2001, available at http://whitehouse.gov; “President Says Saddam Hussein must leave Iraq within 48 hours: Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation, The Cross Hall,” (17 March 2003), http://whitehouse.gov (accessed on April 15, 2003); “President Bush announces Major Combat Operations in Iraq have ended, Remarks by the President from the USS Abraham Lincoln at Sea off Coast of San Diego, California,” (1 May 2003) http://whitehouse.gov.

5 Gideon Long, “Amnesty: War on terror has made the world worse,” Reuters, 28 May 2003.

6 Johan Galtung, “September 11: Diagnosis, Prognosis and Therapy,” in Johan Galtung, Carl Jacobsen and Kai Frithjof Brand-Jacobsen Searching for Peace: The Road to Transcend (London: Pluto Press, 2002), p. 95-6.

Carl Mirra teaches American Studies at the State University New York College at Old Westbury and his book Enduring Freedom or Enduring War will be published in early 2004.

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