July 18, 2001
Watching various representatives of the Bush Administration systematically dismantling more than 30 years of international arms agreements brings to mind the 18th Century Irish poem (and hopeful prayer) on the arrogance of Empire: “The winds have scattered, the world’s forgotten, Alexander, Caesar and all who held their sway. Behold, Tara is grass and Troy lieth low. And perchance the English their day will come.”
It did, as it came to Greece, Rome, Parthia, and all great empires, ancient and modern. For three centuries, Rome’s legions marched and ruled where they pleased; for a 100 years the sun never set on British soil. Today, the Italian military is more the butt of jokes than a force which struck fear from Scotland to Nubia, and England slowly drifts toward being a nation of fisherman once again. And when will our time come?
The U.S. presently has some 61 military bases scattered throughout 19 countries. We spend more on weapons and the military than all our allies and enemies put together. We have fleets of ships and aircraft and enough nuclear weapons to erase life from the planet. We can quite literally do almost anything we please. And in terms of international arms agreements, that is exactly what we are doing.
The Bush Administration has already made it clear that it intends to abrogate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty by violating Article VI, which bans the testing or deployment of any anti-missiles system at sea, in the air, or on land. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told the Senate Arms Services Committee July 13 that, with regards to the ABM Treaty, the U.S. is “on a collision course. No one is pretending that what we’re doing is consistent with the treaty. We have got to withdraw from it or replace it.”
Since the ABM Treaty is the cornerstone of the Strategic Arms Reduction treaties (START I and II), we can also pretty much chuck the limit on warheads and missile launchers out the window. This limit was predicated on the fact that no one would build an interceptor system. Build an interceptor system and the gloves are off, as Russian President Vladimir Putin made clear last month.
But throttling the ABM Treaty is only part of what the White House has in mind. Wolfowitz also took aim at the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which has effectively halted the development of a new generation of smaller and more mobile nuclear warheads. Some 161 nations have ratified it, including 31 of the 44 nuclear or nuclear-potential countries. While the U.S. Senate refuses to approve the Treaty, the U.S. has agreed to abide by it. Wolfowitz, however, say the U.S. must “contemplate” a return to nuclear testing. Since the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is based on the fact that no one will test, and hence gain an advantage over an opponent, we can toss out that treaty as well. Not only will other countries acquire nuclear weapons if the Non-Proliferation Treaty bites the dust, but we will live in a world where miniaturized nuclear weapons will be the standard. You won’t need a suitcase to flatten San Francisco, just an overnight bag.
We have already dumped the Kyoto Agreement on global warming, refused to sign the anti-landmine treaty, won’t even consider being part of the International Criminal Court, are balking on an international treaty to trace small arms, and have even starting making noises about getting out the treaty banning chemical and biological warfare.
Won’t this alienate out allies? “Who cares?” says the White House. “Our legions can march where they will. Our gunboats can shell whomever we please. We will only be bound by treaties that serve our interests, and if the wogs don’t like it, we’ll give ‘em a taste of steel or a whiff of grapeshot.” Claudius and Wellington talked like that. It is the vocabulary of empire.
Empire is not a concept most Americans are very comfortable with. But as Chalmers Johnson argues in his recent book on American foreign policy, “Blowback,” it is time “for Americans to consider why we have created an empire—a word we shy away from—and what the consequences may be for the rest of the world and ourselves.”
An immediate consequence of our imperial thinking is that the world is very rapidly going to be a much more dangerous place, not just because of the absence of restraints on nuclear weapons, but the fear that empires always engender in others. This process has already begun. Last month the Group of Five, a coalition of Central Asian nations that formally made up the Soviet Union’s southern flank, invited the People’s Republic of China to join them in a discussion of mutual security issues. Right now the vulnerability of China’s 18 intercontinental ballistic missiles to the American ABM system, plus a beefing up of U.S. forces in the Pacific, is high on China’s worry list. In mid-July, the Army announced the basing of a “rapid strike brigade,” the US’s new fast deployment unit, in Hawaii. The U.S. will create four such units at a cost of $1 billion apiece over the next few years, and two will be deployed in the Pacific basin.
For the time being the U.S. can march the North Atlantic Treaty Organization right up to the borders of Russia. We can tell the world to eat carbon dioxide. We can shatter international arms treaties with impunity and dismiss the outcry at our actions with the conqueror Terrence’s dictum, “To the victor goes the spoils.”
But the world has forgotten Terrence and no longer trembles in the presence of Rome or London. Empires fall, in part, because human beings have an allergy to being ruled over or dictated to, in part because shortsighted acts have a habit of coming back to haunt one. That is why Johnson entitled his book “Blowback,” a term for the unintended consequences of a policy. Hence, the U.S. aids Islamic Mujadaheen in Afghanistan, members of which eventually blow up the World Trade Center and the USS Cole. We create a contra force in Nicaragua, members of which become major players in the international drug trade.
Neither the world nor ourselves can afford the egotism of Empire. The next “winds that scatter” may be of the thermonuclear variety.