The Danish Peace Academy

Pax Americana?

John Avery, H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen

The September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington were a tragedy in every respect. There was a tragic loss of innocent lives; but perhaps an even greater tragedy was the giant step backwards which the world took in the aftermath – away from the concept of international interdependence, cooperation, democracy, and law which had seemed to be gaining ground; away from universal condemnation of war as an instrument of policy; away from the principle (stated in the United Nations Charter) that no nation has the right to initiate a war; and back to the darkness of militarism, nationalism and enemy images.

Ever since the end of the Cold War, militarists had been finding it difficult to point to enemies to justify the almost unimaginable sums (roughly a trillion dollars, i.e., a million million dollars) that the world spends annually on armies and armaments. September 11 provided them with an answer. Here at last was an enemy!

In the outpouring of sympathy for the United States that followed the September 11 attacks, many countries seemed to accept the concept of a “Pax Americana”. The massive bombings in Afghanistan demonstrated American military ascendancy; and it seemed simplest to allow the United States to run the world.

What is wrong with this? What is wrong with the idea of a “Pax Americana”? In the first place, even if the United States had the resources to play such a role, any world government based exclusively on military power, rather than on globally democratic principles, deserves to be called a tyranny. Furthermore, can any single country be objective in its evaluation of international issues? Certainly, the Islamic world does not feel that American Middle East policy is even-handed. In fact, anger and frustration over what was perceived to be U.S. bias in favour of Israel was the main reason for the September 11 attacks. Finally, “Pax Americana” is a misnomer, since U.S. policy seems to be leading towards war.

In a recent speech to the West Point graduating class, President George W. Bush stated that the United States would not wait to be attacked, but would initiate war against potential enemies. He indicated that 60 countries might fall into that category. Steps are already being taken to prepare the way for an attack on Iraq. Such an attack, if it takes place, may be motivated by the fear that Saddam Hussein’s government will produce nuclear weapons or biological weapons. But will not fear of an American attack cause Iraq to intensify its efforts to produce weapons of mass destruction and to bring them to New York or to Washington secretly by small boat or truck? Iraq would then be in a position to defend itself by threatening to use these devices.

The lesson to be learned from the tragic events of September 11 is that a workable and universally respected system of international law is now a necessity. The terrorist attacks that took place on that date were crimes, not war; and to prevent crimes, law is the proper instrument.

Four years ago, in Rome, representatives from 120 countries signed a treaty establishing the International Criminal Court, with jurisdiction over war crimes and genocide. By Thursday, April 11, 2002, 66 nations had ratified the Rome agreement, 6 more than the 60 needed to make the court permanent. The international community now has an opportunity to see how the court works in practice. If it works well, the next step could be to extend the jurisdiction of the court to cover crimes of terrorism.

It would be hard to overstate the importance of the International Criminal Court. This importance derives from the fact that it enforces international laws acting on individuals rather than on nations. We have seen from numerous examples that sanctions do not work well as a means of enforcing world law. Sanctions punish nations as a whole, even in cases where only the leaders are guilty, and even though the burdens of the sanctions often fall most heavily on the weakest and least guilty of the citizens. It is hard to cite a case where sanctions have produced the desired effect. Usually their effect is to unite the citizens of a country behind the guilty leaders. By contrast, throughout history, laws and courts that act on individuals have shown themselves to be effective. Thus the International Criminal Court represents an extremely important step towards the establishment of an effective system of international law.

Instead of undermining the authority of the United Nations, and instead of eroding the principle that war is unacceptable as an instrument of policy, we need to set up, through the United Nations, a system of anti-terrorist laws – laws which act on individuals and which are effectively enforced by the International Criminal Court.


United Nations Charter,
Chapter 1, Article 2.3
“All members shall settle their disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace, security and justice are not endangered.”
Chapter 1, Article 2.4
“All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”


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