The Old Cause
by Joseph R. Stromberg

November 21, 2000

Chalmers Johnson on an ‘Ersatz Roman Empire’


One of the few benefits of wasting most of a day in airports is that one can at least catch up on the foreign press, while drinking bad coffee and eating overpriced food. Thus it was that I found an interesting interview with Chalmers Johnson in the German news magazine Der Spiegel.1

Johnson, as some readers will know, recently wrote a critique of US foreign policy called Blowback,2 after a clever CIA term for what the rest of us think of as unintended but not exactly unforeseeable consequences. As a scholar trained in Asian studies and sometime advisor to various US agencies during the late, much-missed Cold War, Professor Johnson knows whereof he speaks.


Early in the interview, Johnson remarks that leaders of both parties now contending for the presidency believe in the same US world mission. The US elite "seeks to extend its might into every corner of the earth" to bring about a particular "world economic system," whatever this costs other countries.3 I will only add that, whatever else this economic world system may be, it can hardly be seen as the logical result of private property, markets, and trade, as such. Notions like neo-mercantilist imperialism come quickly to mind.

Yet every empire has run into trouble, in time. The late Soviet Union fell because of "imperial over-extension," not because of "competition with the USA or an incapacity for reform" (my emphasis). But America – one assumes Johnson means US leaders – has "little talent for change," yet thinks itself "immune to Russia’s fate." Forgetful of historical pattern, US leaders remain "arrogant, overweening, self-confident."


As for the so-called US budget surplus, the US military – "on the road to becoming an autonomous system – would love to spend very dollar of it." The inevitable end of the current economic boom will curtail such ambitions. Johnson believes it is a sign of economic ill health that the US – a country with a developed economy – imports massive amounts of capital as against investing its own savings. In today’s US economy, such savings do not exist.

There are few signs of true American economic renewal. Immigration of talented people into the US may be one. But overall, for Johnson, the outlook is grim.


Asked how such things came to be, Johnson answers that it comes from having "held on to the structures of the Cold War." In East Asia, the US maintains various protectorates, sovereign in name, and "keeps them in line as clients" through market-rigging (my term). He dares to suggest that the Cold War was not just "a policy of containment or a reaction to the Soviet threat" but was also about "the development and maintenance of the US-Imperium, especially in East Asia."

Johnson observes that by the late 1940s the US National Security Council was already discussing "creation of a global capitalist system under US leadership." Here the former state advisor finds himself in agreement with critics like Carl Oglesby, William Appleman Williams, Murray Rothbard, and Noam Chomsky. The Clinton administration simply re-christened the imperial "project" and added the goal of making the world over in their special image of America.


Johnson notes the US preference for euphemisms, such that empire becomes "the free world" or "globalization." The first is wholly lovable, the second inexorable. Such terms actually refer to economic expansion "on US terms and for free trade, as long as the latter benefits us [America]" (my emphasis)" But such a large-scale program "must call forth opposition to a state which keeps up 65 major military strongholds worldwide." I note, to one side, that Johnson might want to add "free trade" to the list of euphemisms on hand in US politics.


Resentful of US meddling, opponents begin to strike back. This is "blowback."

Using "terrorism, the weapon of the weak," self-organized little groups attack under-defended targets belonging to the great power which has harmed them. Such attacks – like that on the USS Cole – take the empire by surprise, since, "typically, world powers have a short memory of things which they have done to other peoples."

It is a matter of reaping what US leaders have sowed, says Johnson. But "our politicians, lulled by absurd wealth, are third class." Thus the US "props up its power with cruise missiles, aircraft carriers and financial manipulations instead of resorting to diplomacy, development aid, and international law." At the heart of this super power "without brains" stands "the most corrupt capital in the western hemisphere." Its disappearance off the earth would hardly be noticed in, say, California.


As for politicians, there is little to hope for from them. Bush "stands for a macho unilateralism." His advisors are unreformed Reaganite Cold Warriors who wish to build an unnecessary missile defense system while needling Russia and China. This would be "extremely dangerous." As for Gore, he manages to represent the best and the worst in US foreign policy, simultaneously.


Pending the inevitable decline of US power as a result of over-extension, US leaders wish to "play the role of an ersatz Rome." But the Pax Romana "was in a certain measure the expression of civilization rather than of empire." Johnson asks, who – "leaving aside rock music fans" – would look for any connection between the US empire and civilization?

This is a good question, as are others to which Johnson has turned his mind. Readers who find my summary of this interview interesting may want to consult Blowback. We have few enough critics of empire as it is. We certainly ought to heed them.


  1. "Spiegel-Gespräch: ‘Die Rolle eines Ersatz-Rom’", Der Spiegel, November 6, 2000, pp. 252-256.
  2. Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (2000).
  3. Phrases or sentences in quotes represent my translations from the interview.

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