Pax Americana

October 18, 2008

Entering the term “Pax Americana” in Google produces 433,000 results. Some use the term in derision; too many in approbation. While our politicians have not endorsed the term, many have embraced the concept of a global peace enforced by the United States. Yet let us look at the antecedent of all this, the Pax Romana. Is such a hegemony a worthy goal?

The Pax Romana is a period of roughly 150 years, from 27 to 180 AD, in which the Roman Empire enjoyed a period of relative security. And for the citizens of Rome, this was certainly a period of prosperity and safety. No barbarians or wayward generals crossed the Rubicon; the emperors were, for the most part, good, at least relative to those of other times (at least if one omits consideration of Nero and Caligula). But the citizens of Rome were not the entirety of the world, and while many others shared the Roman Empire, few shared the Roman Peace and this “peace” was still a time of war and of oppression. This was the peace of Claudius’s legions as they conquered Britain; this was the peace of the one million civilian dead when Titus besieged Jerusalem; this was the peace of Boudica and the bloody suppression of her war for freedom: a time of peace for the rulers; a time of suffering for the ruled. But not even the rulers escaped unscathed, for they found it to be impossible to rule others while retaining their own virtue. For Rome this was a time of prosperity, but not the prosperity of Republican austerity: instead, this was the prosperity of “bread and circuses”, of decadence, of depravity. As the empire rose in might, as the Roman eagles spread across the world, the Romans forgot what it was to be Roman, forgot the ideals of citizen service, of governmental accountability, that had first built the prosperity of Rome, replacing them with spectacle, with handouts, with despotism. And thus, the Roman Empire fell, its foundations cut away by its final, superficial triumph.

So, what out we to expect from a Pax Americana? Peace in our time, perhaps. But not a peace of virtue, of mutual desire and mutual cooperation. Rather, a peace by war, and not even by the threat of war, but by the active use of war. And since this would a peace of force, of hegemony, let us not speak of ourselves as a global police force and of “making the world safe for democracy”. Justice is not to be found in violence, aside from the redress of specific wrongs. Furthermore, as our society comes to rely on war, the slave will become the master. Just as the Roman Republic could not grant the powers to its generals necessary for the latter to expand the empire without risking the ascension of those generals into supreme power, consummated first in the triumvirates and ultimately in the Caesars, we cannot expect to found a world order dependent on the military and still expect to retain control of that military. Let us remember that few men in the history of the world valued their form of government more highly than did the citizens of the Roman Republic, and yet the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire. Let us not feel so secure in our Constitution as to allow forces that must in time destroy that Constitution. Peace through force we may have; but if we desire a just or a lasting peace, let us look to cooperation and not antagonism.