The United States is the world’s greatest threat to world peace. That was the opinion of 24 percent of respondents to a global poll conducted by WIN/Gallup International in 2013. Trailing behind the United States was Pakistan with 8 percent, China with 6 percent, and North Korea, Iran, and Israel all tied with 5 percent.
Where does this perception come from? It can’t be Trump, as this poll was conducted years before his ascension to power, though he has surely increased this perception with his bellicose rhetoric and threats. No, this poll was conducted during the years of Obama, a president who was relatively popular abroad compared to his immediate predecessor and successor and from a party supposedly more dovish than the hawkish Republicans.
Many Americans still cling to a mythology about their country being “the leader of the free world,” carrying on the tradition of being “a city upon a hill,” first proclaimed by John Winthrop, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In reality, the United States has an appalling record of violence and aggression dating back to its founding, but especially since the end of World War II, when the United States emerged as the world’s leading superpower.
“We have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population…In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment,” noted George Keenan, one of the primary postwar planners, in State Department policy planning documents in 1948. “Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security.”
This “pattern of relationships” over the course of the Cold War consisted of support for numerous right-wing dictatorships that suppressed the aspirations of the local population for a more just and equitable distribution of wealth, as well as supporting numerous terrorist and insurgent groups against left-leaning governments. The pretext given for U.S. military and covert interventions was to prevent the spread of “communism,” supposedly an evil conspiracy directed from Moscow to dominate the globe and wipe out democracy.
In reality, most of the movements labeled as communist by the United States were largely concerned with achieving independence and democratic control over local resources and were usually represented by the vast majority of each respective country’s population. In its quest to stop communism, the United States was actually waging a war on independence and democracy—in many cases literally overthrowing democratically elected governments—to serve the interests of U.S.-based corporations and banks.
Latin America was particularly devastated by U.S. interventions during the Cold War. In 1954, the Eisenhower administration orchestrated a coup against the democratically elected government of Jacobo Árbenz after he instituted badly needed land reform and other social democratic measures, such as introducing a minimum wage and expanding voter rights. United Fruit, a U.S.-based corporation, was unhappy with the loss of “their” land in Guatemala to Guatemalan peasants and lobbied the U.S. government to overthrow Árbenz.
After the coup, a brutal civil war erupted between the U.S.-backed dictatorship and rebel groups seeking to establish a government that would serve the interests of the poor majority. The Historical Clarification Commission, established at the war’s end, found that U.S.-backed security forces were responsible for more than 90 percent of the atrocities that occurred during the war, which included:
The killing of defenceless children, often by beating them against walls or throwing them alive into pits where the corpses of adults were later thrown; the amputation of limbs; the impaling of victims; the killing of persons by covering them in petrol and burning them alive; the extraction, in the presence of others, of the viscera of victims who were still alive; the confinement of people who had been mortally tortured, in agony for days; the opening of the wombs of pregnant women, and other similarly atrocious acts.
The pattern repeated itself elsewhere in the region: In Cuba, the United States began a campaign of sabotage and economic strangulation after Fidel Castro’s movement took power in 1959 and overthrew the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.
In Brazil, the Johnson administration assisted in overthrowing the democratically elected government of João Goulart in 1964. (“We ought to take every step that we can, be prepared to do everything that we need to do” to get rid of him, as Johnson said.) The administration backed the newly installed right-wing military government with its policies of widespread torture repression.
In Chile, the Nixon administration supported the overthrow of the democratically elected Salvador Allende in 1973, and supported the dictator Augusto Pinochet, who presided over the torture and killing of tens of thousands of Chileans.
Nicaragua and El Salvador were targeted by the particularly savage policies of the Reagan administration. The leftist Sandinistas were elected in 1984 on the basis of popular programs that they instituted after their revolution against the U.S.-backed Somoza dictatorship in 1979, including programs that dramatically expanded access to health care and reduced the illiteracy rate from 50.3 percent to 12.9 percent. The Reagan administration endeavored to punish the Nicaraguan people by funding and arming a right-wing terrorist group known as the Contras, who were “major and systematic violators of the most basic standards of the laws of armed conflict, including by launching indiscriminate attacks on civilians, selectively murdering non-combatants, and mistreating prisoners,” as Human Rights Watch documented. (Reagan considered the Contras “the moral equal of our Founding Fathers.”)
In El Salvador, the Reagan administration provided the Salvadoran government and military forces with more than $4 billion in its war against leftist guerrillas, which killed 75,000 people. The vast majority of atrocities (85 percent) that occurred during the war were committed by U.S.-backed forces, according to the truth and reconciliation commission. In El Mozote, for example, the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion raped and tortured hundreds of people before exterminating everyone and burning the village to the ground.
Other regions of the world were similarly devastated. In the Middle East, the Eisenhower administration overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran because he had nationalized the oil industry, upsetting the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now BP). In Afghanistan, the Carter and Reagan administrations supported the fanatical extremists known as the mujahideen to keep the Soviets bogged down in an “Afghan trap” and destroy Afghanistan’s most progressive government in its history, which had declared equality of women and instituted literacy and health programs.
But perhaps no region was as ruined by U.S. intervention during the Cold War as Indochina — Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The United States was determined to keep the right-wing dictatorship in South Vietnam in power, which ultimately resulted in millions dead. Over the course of the war, the U.S. military dropped 7.5 million tons of bombs on the region, as well as 400,000 tons of napalm and 19 million gallons of herbicides. Beyond the direct devastation these bombings caused, they also aided in the rise of the Khmer Rouge, as the previously marginalized insurgent group gained support from peasants who were angry over the effects of the bombings. They went on to kill a further 1.7 million people in the Cambodian genocide. Decades later, people are still suffering and dying as a result of the war. Tens of thousands of people have been killed or injured since the war’s end from “unexploded ordnance” — bombs that did not explode when initially dropped. Many of the victims are children, who pick up the small, round-shaped munitions known as “cluster bombs” because they believe they are toys. Diseases and birth defects continue to be passed down through the generations as a result of the spraying of Agent Orange and other herbicides.
Interventions since the end of the Cold War have been conducted on some other pretext. Since 9/11, it has often been terrorism. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was justified in part on Iraq’s fictional ties to al-Qaida and its supposed responsibility for 9/11. The invasion and occupation resulted in the deaths of a million Iraqis, as well as spawning the terrorist group ISIS. The interventions in Afghanistan and Libya have been similarly devastating.
The system of American hegemony is maintained in various ways. First, the United States maintains a massive military budget that far surpasses any other country’s on the planet — $611 billion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, more than the next eight highest spenders combined (most of which are U.S. allies anyway) and accounting for more than a third of the total worldwide military spending.
Second, the United States maintains a system of military bases around the globe — a modern empire — that allow the United States to project its power. According to the Defense Department’s Base Structure Report, the United States maintains 587 “sites” — ranging in size from small buildings to sprawling bases with living quarters, gyms, and restaurants — in foreign countries (the total increases to 700 if we include U.S. territories like Puerto Rico and Guam). More than 199,000 military personnel are deployed to these bases abroad. No other country in the world has anything remotely comparable.
Another way the United States dominates the world is through arms exports. The United States exports more weapons to others than any other country, accounting for 33 percent of the world’s total. (Russia is second with 23 percent.) Its chief client is the theocratic dictatorship Saudi Arabia, which has been using American weapons to slaughter thousands of innocent civilians in Yemen.
The U.S. system of global hegemony achieved through military dominance and violence results in horrendous consequences for innocent people worldwide as well as potentially destabilizing the planet in even worse ways. The trillion-dollar nuclear “modernization” program launched by the Obama administration “creates exactly what one would expect to see, if a nuclear-armed state were planning to have the capacity to fight and win a nuclear war by disarming enemies with a surprise first strike,” as analysts for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists point out, causing Russia and other nuclear powers to take countermeasures.
The violence perpetuated by the United States abroad and its support for brutal dictatorships often returns home in the form of terrorism, as Western intelligence agencies and academics have amply documented. “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies,” as the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board noted in a 2004 report: “American actions and the flow of events have elevated the authority of the Jihadi insurgents and tended to ratify their legitimacy among Muslims.”
Given the immense cost of maintaining a modern empire, Americans must ask themselves if this is the moral and wise thing to do. Both major political parties are committed to it, though the Republicans tend to be somewhat more militaristic (the Trump administration being particularly bellicose). The financial cost is obvious, and the massive military budget is one reason Americans lack the basic social services that other comparable countries have, such as a national health system. The network of bases, arms exports, and support for dictatorships wreaks havoc, generates resentment and violence in return, and quite literally increases the risk for human extinction due to the dangerous nuclear modernization programs.
Such issues are usually not on the ballot box. Even Bernie Sanders, the most viable populist candidate to be on the national stage in a century, opted to emphasize mostly domestic issues in his campaign. However, these issues could be on the ballot box if Americans educate themselves on them and demand that they be addressed.