Deciphering American Empire: #3


Nemesis, statue dedicated by Ptollanubis. Marble, found in Egypt, 2nd century AD. (Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons)

“Nemesis, the goddess of retribution and vengeance, the punisher of pride and hubris, waits impatiently for her meeting with us.” So ends Chalmers Johnson’s prophetic appraisal of imperial America, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004), p. 312.

Rome is the archetype of America’s imperial hubris, a recycled mythos pursued at the cost of the republic and unending military engagements around the globe.

Language obfuscates America’s imperial project. As Johnson observes, the new Rome represents itself, if at all, as a good, liberal or informal empire instead of “a military juggernaut intent on world domination” (p. 4). The “euphemisms required to justify imperialism” include “lone superpower,” “indispensable nation,” “reluctant sheriff,” “humanitarian intervention,” and “globalization” (pp. 13, 284).

Of course, even a liberal empire is not necessarily a good one, if there is such a thing. Liberal interventionism entails illiberal behaviors, as Christopher Coyne and Abigail Hall-Blanco point out in “Empire State of Mind.” Such a mindset presumes that foreign countries can be redesigned and built by American experts following an ideal blueprint without unintended negative consequences and that the US possesses superior knowledge and subscribes to higher values than other countries. It exercises limited compassion for foreigners and resorts to force to achieve its ends, including torture, long-term incarceration, the killing of civilians (as collateral damage), and other human rights violations, often in partnership with authoritarian regimes. It promotes the growth of a corrupt and wasteful bureaucratic apparatus to run the empire. It discards the rule of law and inhibits critical reflection on imperial overreach.

These illiberal outcomes are among the necessary sorrows of empire. Johnson lists four primary costs of so-called liberal empire: “Militarism and imperialism always bring with them sorrows,” the cumulative impact of which “guarantees that the United States will cease to bear any resemblance to the country once outlined in our Constitution” (p. 284).

What are these four sorrows?

(1) “a state of perpetual war,”

(2) “a loss of democracy and constitutional rights,”

(3) “a system of propaganda, disinformation, and glorification of war, power, and the military legions,” and

(4) “bankruptcy, as we pour our economic resources into ever more grandiose military projects and shortchange the education, health, and safety of our fellow citizens” (p. 285).

The consequences of maintaining the present course are instability and insecurity, a course in which Johnson thinks the country most likely—nearly certainly—will persist. It undermines democracy at home no less than the independence of foreign countries. The present course “is probably irreversible,” he observes, but it can be resisted and “other—better—futures can certainly be imagined” (pp. 12, 285).

In short, we have to be able to imagine a democratic way of life in order to accommodate ourselves to life after empire, for the hubris of empire is headed for a reckoning with the goddess of vengeance.

Nemesis—righteous anger—is remorseless in her punishment of arrogance before the gods. She gives the tragic protagonist the punishment due for evil deeds and extravagant fortune, the punishment needed to rectify imbalances in human affairs. She is a personification of good conscience and respect for law.

Nemesis makes the punishment fit the crime. Constant war, lies, bankruptcy, ignorance, impoverishment, pestilence, loss of freedom and democracy—these are the punishments Johnson foresees for imperial hubris.


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