The United States’ invasion of Iraq has given rise to a long overdue debate about whether the Republic has become an empire and, if so, of what kind. Those who view the United States as an imperial power usually point to the Roman or British empires as relevant or even appropriate models, but their comparisons raise a number of objections. In the first place, however we choose to reinterpret Roman or British forms of imperial governance and law in hindsight, the ethical and ideological foundations of their empires are antithetical to the privileges, responsibilities, and freedoms embodied in the United States Constitution. There are echoes of Roman and British rule in the United States today, but they are—or should be—as faint as cosmic echoes of the big bang. A second objection is that while neo-imperialists rummage through history for precedents that might look good in the light of 21st-century sensibilities, today’s architects of an imperial United States simultaneously flatter themselves with the novelty of their ideas. It takes a fatal arrogance to imagine that the Bush administration invented the pre-emptive use of brute force in defense of national interests, the so-called “Bush Doctrine.” Mix this with the questionable belief that Western democracy is the natural state of mankind and you have all the makings of a Pax Americana.
The following article was written in the spring of 2003, on the eve of the United States’ invasion of Iraq, and published in Clio’s Psyche 10:3 (Dec. 2003): 91-97. A central if unstated premise of the article is that the ability of the United States to project power worldwide proceeds from its overwhelming naval power. Thus the historical parallels, or preludes, are drawn from empires founded on naval and maritime power.
(“A pox upon you” is a sixteenth-century English curse meaning “May you get syphilis.” Pax is the Latin word for peace, not the clap.)
A Pax Upon You: Preludes and Perils of American Imperialism