by Chalmers Johnson
(Metropolitan Books, 2006)

Before I give this book a thumbs up with one significant reservation, let me just say that I consider Chalmers Johnson to be an incredibly bright and articulate thinker and speaker. In other words, he’s just the kind of sensible and forward-thinking person that our nation should be paying more attention to in today’s complicated political landscape. Nemesis, the latest book in a series on American Empire which started with Blowback, suffers from inconsistency but still has enough interesting and important ideas that I would in no way encourage anyone to overlook it.

It seems that lately prognostication about an uncertain future has become a popular endeavor among writers and scholars. We regularly hear about the potential impacts of things like peak oil, climate change and external debt and how they could drastically change our society. Johnson’s prognostication deals not with any ecological or monetary threat but rather the ability of militarism to undermine democratic institutions and civil society through the rise of unchecked special interests and authoritarianism. He argues categorically that the United States cannot maintain both its empire and its democracy and at some point will have to choose between the two as Rome and Great Britain did. He notes that Great Britain was able to maintain its democracy by gradually giving up its empire, while Rome did not.

Johnson is a first-rate scholar, and his essay on “Comparative Imperial Pathologies” is definitely worth the price of admission. I must have missed the class on the Roman Empire in school, but Johnson more than makes up for my deficiencies by weaving a compelling tale of Rome’s emperors, politics, and the scholarship and theories that have emerged. His overarching theme is that unrestrained militarism has a devastating impact on any democratic republic, whether it’s ancient Rome or modern United States. He notes that democratic institutions could not survive as Rome’s vast empire expanded along with the professional full-time military of the legion and the special security force guarding the emperor in the capital .

The reservation that I mentioned about Nemesis is that it is essentially one compelling essay surrounded by extra chapters with supporting material. Johnson documents his case that the U.S is indeed an empire with military outposts around the globe ( 737 military bases in 130 countries) and militarization of space. He also reviews the ways that the Bush administration has expanded executive power more than any previous administration. The problem is that I don’t think anyone really needs to be convinced of his basic thesis, and there is nothing ground-breaking or incredibly insightful in the documentation of Bush administration decisions.

The good thing about Johnson’s writing is that it should be compelling to many different types of people across the political spectrum. The sense that entrenched special interests have hijacked the republic and are leading it astray is not necessarily a far left conspiracy theory at this stage of the game. Johnson himself served in the Navy and manages to come across as more scholarly than partisan.In fact, I recently heard Johnson do an interview about the book on a decidedly right-wing talk radio show where he was well received by most callers.
Johnson makes no firm predictions on how the modern-day Caesar, Cicero, Cassius, and Brutus of our republic will fare, though he is clearly of the opinion that any effort to scale back our empire will be difficult. By taking a closer look at the forces at work in American foreign policy and the parallels to other time periods, Johnson at least helps us gain some much needed perspective. So despite the inherent pessimism about our political future, the ideas in this book are well worth studying.

– Brad Johnson