How is it possible that people from all over the globe agree that the United States of America is now? one of the primary threats to world peace and democracy?
Having leveled two Japanese cities with atomic bombs and established itself as the world’s top superpower following the collapse of the international order in the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. quickly became intoxicated by its newfound military superiority.
The U.S. soon went on to introduce a doctrine that positioned itself as the world’s police, drop more bombs in the Korean and Vietnamese wars than there had been dropped in the whole course of World War II, and orchestrate military coups against democratically elected governments throughout Latin America. It was then able to support brutal dictatorships, and establish more foreign military bases than any other country or empire in the history of the world.
All this took place within the first 30 years after the end World War II. The United States was the world’s only military and economic superpower by the dawn of the 21st Century. However, this did not end the U.S.’s imperial ambitions. A “global war on terrorism” was initiated in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, with the U.S. ending up by 2013 being seen by people around the world as “the greatest threat to world peace.”
What are the roots and consequences of U.S. Imperialism? What have been the effects of imperial expansion and wars upon democracy at home? Is the U.S. empire on the verge of collapse? Khury Petesen-Smith is a scholar and activist. She is the Michael Ratner Middle East Fellow at Institute for Policy Studies. This interview discusses how U.S. empire has undermined democracy both at home and abroad. The wars abroad are even tied to domestic police brutality.
C.J. Polychroniou : The U.S. is a long-standing nation that has waged war on terror since the early days of anarchism. During the Cold War era, communists were routinely labelled as “terrorists,” and the first systematic war on terror unfolded during the Reagan administration. The Bush administration renewed the war against terror after the September 11 attacks. It implemented a number of far-reaching policies, many of which went unnoticed by most people, but were also continued by the Obama and Trump administrations. These policies subverted democracy, the rule of law, and democracy. Could you please elaborate on the impact of wars-on-terror policies on the destruction of U.S. democracy
Khury Petersen Smith: It’s true: The tactics and beliefs that the U.S. has deployed in the war on terror have deep roots that stretch well before our current time. I argue that the U.S. has never existed as a democracy and that its almost permanent state of war, which began with it’s founding, is a key reason. New England settlers, for example, waged a war of counterinsurgency against Indigenous peoples here who resisted colonization in King Philip’s War. The settlers besieged Indigenous nations, considering communities of adults and children to be “enemies” and punishing them with incredible violence. This happened in the 1670s.
In a different U.S. counterinsurgency, in the Philippines in the early 20th century, American soldiers used “the water cure,” a torture tactic comparable to the “waterboarding” that the U.S. has used in the war on terror. This was one of many features of the U.S.’s horrific war on scorched earth, which occurred as Filipino revolutionaries fought for independence from Spain. The U.S. killed tens of thousands of Filipino fighters, and hundreds of thousands — up to a million — civilians. A staggering number of deaths occurred due to secondary violence like starvation and cholera epidemics. This was also due to the U.S. declaring that civilians were acceptable targets (as demonstrated in the Balangiga Massacre). It was during that episode in 1901, on the island Samar, that an American general ordered troops kill all persons over the age 10. The designation of whole populations as the “enemy” — and therefore targets for violence — has echoes that reverberate in Somalia, Yemen, Iraq and other places where the U.S. has fought the war on terror.
This is to say that there are different chapters in the history of U.S. empire, but there is a throughline of justifying military violence and the denial of human rights in defense of U.S. power and “the American way of life.” This history of wars informs those of the present.
In the 20th century, labeling various activities “terrorism” was one way of rationalizing the use of force. This was done by the U.S. and its allies as a response to anti-colonial liberation movement. So the South African apartheid regime called anti-apartheid resistance “terrorism,” and the Israeli state did (and continues to do) the same to Palestinian resistance, however nonviolent. The U.S. has armed and defended these states, embracing and promoting the rhetoric of war against “terrorism.”
The flip side of “terrorism” — the blanket enemy against which all violence is justified — is “democracy” — the all-encompassing thing that the U.S. claims to defend in its foreign policy. Again, the U.S. supported, armed, and waged war on every continent in the 20th century. As a result of waves of resistance for economic justice and social justice, the U.S. supported and carried out decades of violence throughout Latin America in late 20th century.
All of these factors helped to create the foundation for the Bush administration’s war on terror.
To answer your question more directly, military violence always requires dehumanization and the denial of rights — and this inevitably corrupts any notions of democracy. In fact, war always involves an attack against democratic rights in general. The federal government also waged military campaigns overseas when the U.S. launched its war on terror in2001 AndUSA PATRIOT Act legislation was passed. Other practices, such as legal guidelines, introduced new levels in surveillance, denial of due processes, rationalization of torture, and other attacks on civil liberties. These efforts especially targeted Muslims and people of South Asian, Central Asian, Southwest Asian and North African origin — all of whom were subject to being cast as “terrorists” or “suspected terrorists.”
It is worth noting, however, that while Bush used the deep roots U.S. violent violence to launch the war against terror, there has been remarkable continuity, expansion and escalation throughout it. Bush launched the drone war and President Barack Obama wildly expanded it. expanded and escalated it.Donald Trump, then escalatedIt goes on.
Do you think the war on terror policies have had an impact on struggles for racial or migrant justice as well?
The war against terror has been devastating for migrant and racial justice. The U.S. has implemented Islamophobic domestic programs. They can be expanded to other populations once they have been piloted against a portion of the population. This is how U.S. State Violence works. Indeed, the mass policing, mass incarceration regime built up in the 1990s — which was supposedly directed at “fighting crime,” and the “war on drugs” — targeted Black people and Latinos in particular, building an infrastructure that was then deployed against Muslims and others in the war on terror. With policing vastly expanded in the name of the war on terror, its force came back to Black and Indigenous communities — as it always does in the United States.
It is important that we acknowledge the new level in credibility and power the police have achieved since 9/11 and during the war on terror. There was actually a powerful wave of anti-racist protest against the police in the 1990s — especially strong in cities like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles. New York saw thousands rallying to demand justice in the case of Amadou Diallo and Abner Louima. The police were on guard. They used the post-9/11 moment, and the start of the war against terror to rehabilitate themselves and gain new powers.
With this in mind, I wonder if the current moment of “racial reckoning” unfolding in the U.S. over these two years — brilliant and important as it is — could have actually happened 20 years ago. It was on track to happen, and the war against terror set us back two decades. Consider all the Black lives lost during that period.
Yes, the war on terror was a disaster for migrant law. One of the first measures was the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System. This system required the registration of non-citizens of South and Central Asian, Middle Eastern, North and East African countries. It was largely unopposed, which set the stage for more racist and targeted policies like the Muslim ban. There was no Department of Homeland Security and no Immigration and Customs Enforcement before the war against terror. The U.S. government took advantage of the war on terror to continue the long history of white supremacy in managing migration and opened a new chapter in border militarization and policing, surveillance and deportation of migrants.
The U.S. trade ban on Cuba, which was in effect for the 29th time in a row, was condemned by the United Nations. The U.S. has been widely viewed as the greatest threat for world peace because of its violations of international law. However, the influence of the U.S. in world affairs is sharply in decline and its so-called “soft’ power has all but evaporated. Are we witnessing the demise of an empire in our time?
I’m afraid that U.S. empire is far from death, or even dying.
From the perspective both of humanity and the planet’s, the war against terror has been a disaster in terms of its level of destruction and death. The war on terror was, however, a gamble for the U.S. empire and its leaders. Officials from the Bush administration knew right away that the invasion of Afghanistan was the beginning of a series of military operations and invasions to show U.S. hegemony and punish the few states that were not in the American orbit. After invading Afghanistan, Bush declared the “Axis of Evil,” targeting Iraq, Iran and North Korea. The U.S. invaded Iraq, suggesting that Iran and North Korea might be next. The idea was to project U.S. Power and to stop potential rivals from rising.
The gamble was not a success for the U.S. The wars caused untold millions of deaths around the globe. The U.S. also failed to achieve its strategic goals. The regional and world powers whose ascension the U.S. sought to curtail — especially Iran, Russia and China — emerged more powerful, while U.S. power was set back.
The United States is still the most powerful country on the planet. It will not give up this position easily. It is, in fact, preparing for confrontation against China, even though it supports military operations as part the war on terror. It is pursuing a belligerent path that is driving rivalry and militarization — a path toward conflict.
Another story that shows the subterranean, forward-moving empire that continues throughout presidential administrations is that of the U.S. policy regarding China hostility. President George W. Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy first signaled that, “We are attentive to the possible renewal of old patterns of great power competition,” and identified China as one potential competitor. Bush administration made a further gesture in 2006 to identify China as a threat to the U.S. empire. saying, “Our strategy seeks to encourage China to make the right strategic choices for its people, while we hedge against other possibilities.”
The U.S. foreign policy establishment was united in its belief that China was an enemy to isolate and whose rise should be stopped when President Obama took office. Hillary Clinton, then-Secretary to State declared “America’s Pacific Century” and argued for a winding down of American attention to Iraq and Afghanistan, and a new strategic focus on Asia and the Pacific. Obama launched the “Pivot to Asia,” which involved shifting military weapons and personnel to the region and building more facilities there, all aimed at addressing China’s ascension. Trump brought anti-China hostilities to fever pitch by blaming China and using crude, racist language directed towards China (but affecting Chinese Americans and many other Asian Americans) and opening the door for negotiations with China. Fox News personalities and officials like Sen. Tom Cotton to talk directly about the supposed “threat” that China poses and call for military action against it. We now reach the point where both parties are almost unanimous in their belief that the U.S. should engage in armed conflict with China.
Unfortunately, empires do not simply die. This means that we — around the world, and especially those of us located in the United States — are called upon to resist, undermine and disrupt empire. We must work together to create a new world and fight for it, regardless of borders.
This interview has been slightly edited to increase clarity.