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On Pax Americana
American Peace & Dominance
Our society should be a way of encouraging human possibility and human community. - Clay S. Jenkinson portraying Thomas Jefferson
America is more than a nation constrained by its geographical limitations. America is not just a land mass, it lives and breathes in the ether. America is a compendium of ideas that permeate all other nations. The ideas of freedom, innovation, and ambition are what make America the most powerful and resilient nation ever imagined. America possesses a certain level of exceptionalism, derived from the ideas mentioned above, that should not be sheathed. Rather, the American telos is what propels the world forward.
The concept of Pax Americana has its critics, of course. The concept has also been likened to the glorification of US imperialism. Ah, as we long for the days of Teddy Roosevelt. At its center, Pax Americana relies on the idea that US hegemony is behind the long, peaceful period among North American and European states since 1945.
Pax Romana is the name for a period of harmony which extended throughout the Mediterranean world. Pax Romana began with the reign of Augustus through that of Marcus Aurelius. During this period, the states that made up the Roman Empire did not get into any major wars. Imperial rule provided stability and basic services, as well as a degree of autonomy.
The best revenge is not to be like your enemy. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Pax Britannica was the period in which the British presided over a period of stability which lasted from 1815 to 1914. That period ended with the outbreak of World War I, which was followed by an era of instability which lasted until the end of World War II, when the United States filled up the power vacuum.
It was World War I that truly marked the end of Pax Britannica and the beginning of the end of Europe's geopolitical dominance. The key event was American entry into the war. It was Woodrow Wilson who called the power of the New World "into existence to redress the balance of the Old". American economic and military power was crucial in securing Germany's defeat. Wilson took the United States to war in 1917 with the intent of using American power to impose his vision of international order on both the Germans and the Allies. The peace treaties that ended World War I--the "Versailles system" proved to be flawed, however. Wilson could not persuade his own countrymen to join his cherished League of Nations, and European realpolitik prevailed over his vision of the postwar order.
The Versailles system cracked because of the growing gap between the order it represented and the actual distribution of power in Europe. Even during the 1920s, Germany's latent power raised the prospect that eventually Berlin would renew its bid for continental hegemony. When Adolf Hitler assumed the chancellorship in 1933, he unleashed Germany's military power, suppressed during the 1920s, and ultimately France and Britain lacked the material capacity to enforce the postwar settlement. The Great Depression also exacerbated deep social, class and ideological cleavages that roiled domestic politics throughout Europe.
In East Asia, the Depression served to discredit the liberal foreign and economic policies that Japan had pursued during the 1920s. The expansionist elements of the Japanese army gained sway in Tokyo and pushed their country into military adventurism in Manchuria. In response to the economic dislocation, all great powers, including the United States, abandoned international economic openness and free trade in favor of economic nationalism, protectionism and mercantilism. This is starting to sound familiar, no? History does not repeat, but it sure does rhyme.
World War II reshaped international politics in three fundamental ways. First, it resulted in the political collapse of Europe, which brought down the final curtain on the Eurocentric epoch of international politics. Now an economically prostrate Western Europe was unable to defend itself or revive itself economically without American assistance. Second, the wartime defeats of the British, French and Dutch in Asia - particularly the humiliating 1942 British capitulation in Singapore shattered the myth of European invincibility and thus set in motion a rising nationalist tide that within two decades would result in the liquidation of Europe's colonies in Asia. This laid the foundation for Asia's economic rise that began gathering momentum in the 1970s. Finally, the war created the geopolitical and economic conditions that enabled the United States to construct the postwar international order and establish itself as the world's dominant power, first in the bipolar era of competition with the Soviet Union and later as the globe's sole superpower following the 1991 Soviet collapse.
Thus do we see the emergence of the new world order of 1945, which now represents the Old Order that is under its own global strains. But we also see the long, agonizing death of Pax Britannica, which had maintained relative global stability for a century before succumbing to the fires of the two world wars and the Great Depression. This tells us that periods of global transition can be chaotic, unpredictable, long and bloody. Whether the current transitional phase will unfold with greater smoothness and calm is an open question and one of the great imponderables facing the world today.
Pax Americana was born post WWI, The Great Depression, and WWII. It refers to a period of relative peace and stability that extended throughout the area of American influence. Pax Americana is also a riff of the ancient idea of Pax Romana (Roman peace).
As the United States emerged as the world's leading power, it sought to establish its postwar dominance in the three regions deemed most important to its interests: Western Europe, East Asia and the Middle East/Persian Gulf. It also fostered an open international-trading regime and assumed the role of the global financial system's manager, much as Britain had done in the nineteenth century. The 1944 Bretton Woods agreement established the dollar as the international reserve currency. The World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade fostered international commerce. The United Nations was created, and a network of American-led alliances established, most notably NATO.
It is hard not to look back on the Cold War years as a time of heroic American initiatives. After all, geopolitically, Washington accomplished a remarkable double play: while avoiding great-power war, containment helped bring about the eventual implosion of the Soviet Union from its own internal contradictions. In Europe, American power resolved the German problem, paved the way for Franco-German reconciliation and was the springboard for Western Europe's economic integration.
In Asia, the United States helped rebuild a stable and democratic Japan from the ashes of its World War II defeat. For the trilateral world of Pax Americana centered on the United States, Western Europe and Japan the twenty-five years following World War II marked an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity. These were remarkable accomplishments and are justly celebrated as such.
The Cold War was costly in treasure and in blood. Belief in the universality of American values and ideals was at the heart of U.S. containment strategy during most of the Cold War.
Whatever questions could have been raised about the wisdom of America's Cold War policies faded rapidly after the Soviet Union's collapse, which triggered a wave of euphoric triumphalism in the United States. It was celebrated America's "unipolar moment" and perceived an "end of history" characterized by a decisive triumph of Western-style democracy as an end point in human civic development.
The Decline of The West
During the Cold War's last two decades, the seeds of American decline had already been sown. In a prescient, but premature analysis, President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger believed that the bipolar Cold War system would give way to a pentagonal multipolar system composed of the United States, Soviet Union, Europe, China and Japan.
Nixon also confronted America's declining international financial power in 1971 when he took the dollar off the Bretton Woods gold standard in response to currency pressures. Several books and essays raised questions about the structural, fiscal and economic weaknesses in America that, over time, could nibble away at the foundations of U.S. power. With America's subsequent Cold War triumph and the bursting of Japan's economic bubble Kennedy's thesis was widely dismissed.
Now, in the wake of the 2008 financial and the 2022 ensuing recession, it is clear that "declinists" were right along. The same causes of decline they pointed to are at the center of today's debate about America's economic prospects: too much consumption and not enough savings; persistent trade and current-account deficits; deindustrialization; sluggish economic growth; and chronic federal-budget deficits fueling an ominously rising national debt.
Indeed, looking forward a decade, the two biggest domestic threats to U.S. power are the country's bleak fiscal outlook and deepening doubts about the dollar's future role as the international economy's reserve currency. Economists regard a 100 percent debt-to-GDP ratio as a flashing warning light that a country is at risk of defaulting on its financial obligations. Worse, is the possibility of a "sudden credit event" triggered by foreign investors' loss of confidence in U.S. fiscal probity. In such an event, foreign investors could reduce their purchases of Treasury bonds, which would force the United States to borrow at higher interest rates. This, in turn, would drive up the national debt even more. America's geopolitical preeminence hinges on the dollar's role as reserve currency. If the dollar loses that status, U.S. primacy would be literally unaffordable.
There are reasons to be concerned about the dollar's fate over the next two decades. U.S. political gridlock casts doubt on the nation's ability to address its fiscal woes; China is beginning to internationalize the renminbi (Russia, its ruble), thus laying the foundation for it to challenge the dollar in the future; and history suggests that the dominant international currency is that of the nation with the largest economy.
Leaving aside the fate of the dollar, however, it is clear the United States must address its financial challenge and restore the nation's fiscal health in order to reassure foreign lenders that their investments remain sound. This will require some combination of budget cuts, entitlement reductions, tax increases and interest-rate hikes (we are here in 2022). That, in turn, should curtail the amount of spending available for defense and national security further eroding America's ability to play its traditional, post-World War II global role. This leads one to believe that the US will become more nationalist in the short term as it builds up its manufacturing and natural resource extraction prowess.
Beyond the U.S. financial challenge, the world is percolating with emerging nations bent on exploiting the power shift away from the West and toward states that long have been confined to subordinate status in the global power game. By far the biggest test for the United States will be its relationship with China, which views itself as effecting a restoration of its former glory, before the First Opium War of 1839-1842 and its subsequent "century of humiliation." After all, China and India were the world's two largest economies in 1700, and as late as 1820 China's economy was larger than the combined economies of all of Europe.
The question of why the West emerged as the world's most powerful civilization beginning in the sixteenth century, and thus was able to impose its will on China and India, has been widely debated. Essentially, the answer is firepower. As the late Samuel P. Huntington put it, "The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion . . . but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do."
Certainly, the Chinese have not forgotten. Now Beijing aims to dominate its own East and Southeast Asian backyard, just as a rising America sought to dominate the Western Hemisphere a century and a half ago. The United States and China now are competing for supremacy in East and Southeast Asia. Washington has been the incumbent hegemon there since World War II, and many in the American foreign-policy establishment view China's quest for regional hegemony as a threat that must be resisted.
This contest for regional dominance is fueling escalating tensions and possibly could lead to war. In geopolitics, two great powers cannot simultaneously be hegemonic in the same region. Unless one of them abandons its aspirations, there is a high probability of hostilities. Flashpoints that could spark a Sino-American conflict include the unstable Korean Peninsula; the disputed status of Taiwan; competition for control of oil and other natural resources; and the burgeoning naval rivalry between the two powers.
I have, therefore, chosen this time and this place to discuss a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and the truth is too rarely perceived — yet it is the most important topic on earth: world peace. What kind of peace do I mean? What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children — not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women — not merely peace in our time but peace for all time. - John F. Kennedy
The powerful quote above from JFK is often remembered as a knock on the idea of Pax Americana and the protection is serves. This is a misguided view of what Pax Americana stands for. It is not an idea based on suppression, rather an idea that allows the most amount of people across the globe to flourish. Flourish under the ideals of American power, American influence, and American exceptionalism. America is the greatest empire ever constructed and its ways of excellence need to be spread around the world so that others may also reap the benefits of America’s greatness.
This is not done through fear and military strength, rather it is done through the power of human psychology. The desire to be the best, to obtain power, to leverage prestige. These desires are all held at the individual level as well as the national level. If others around the world internalize the benefits of American exceptionalism they too can reap its benefits.
Perhaps an inversion of one of Rene Girard’s most important insights will help elucidate the point. The phenomenon of The Doubles: where America will in turn improve due to the mimicry of other nations showing Americas its own faults and thus causing it improve (of course this overlooks the possibility of envy and violence arising). If used correctly this can be a powerful tool for constant global improvement and refinement of the ideal of American exceptionalism. If used haphazardly, well, that is what we see now with the decline of the west and the disorganization amongst other global powers. It will take leadership that is strong and intelligent to wield the power of the doubles in the right manner.
"Mimetic doubles" refers to the situation in which rivals become so obsessed with each other that they mirror each other's emotions and actions. The doubles are alike but they mistakenly see a great difference between them. Mimetic doubles are quite dangerous to one another and to others and can be quite self-destructive.- Rene Girard.
Development in its many iterations was born from the needs of the Pax Americana to create reliable and competent compradors, plus viable trading partners in order that its post-1945 empire could thrive. This section of the essay will examine the way the Pax Americana replaced Europe’s formal empires, the reason informal empires need comprador partners, and the difficulties encountered by the Pax Americana with identifying and appointing satisfactory comprador partners. The relationship between this “comprador problem” and the founding of a development industry and aid industry will be unpacked, as will the core assumption underpinning Pax Americana “development.” The differences between Pax Americana and Pax Britannica governance and development will also be examined, as will the continuities and discontinuities between these two varieties of imperialism.
The idea of “development” emerged in the 1950s as one of the consequences of how World War II transformed the world by replacing British global hegemony with the Pax Americana. Before this war European empires (especially the British Empire) straddled the globe, while the US found itself in the position of being a new rising global power which kept finding its opportunities for expanding its trade thwarted by the fact the Europeans had gotten there first. And so, even before America had entered World War II, the US State Department had established working committees charged with conceptualizing how to terminate European imperialism through decolonization, plus how to replace Europe’s formal empires with an American informal empire. After 1945, American power was used to implement this State Department planning such that Europe’s empires were deconstructed and a Pax American trading empire constructed in their place. This shift from formal empire to informal empire is significant because it created conditions that produced the “development” phenomenon. The US had a goal to become the world leader and through persistence and victory achieved said goal.
America is a tune. It must be sung together. - Gerald Stanley Lee
American exceptionalism is, for the purposes of this essay, a political philosophy that the United States, as opposed to the majority of nations, was created based on shared ideology rather than shared history.
American Exceptionalism is a term given to the belief that the United States of America and the American people hold a special place in the world, by offering opportunity and hope for humanity, derived from its unique balance of public and private interests governed by constitutional ideals that are focused on personal and economic freedom. Those who believe in American Exceptionalism argue that there are many ways that the United States clearly differs from the European world from which it emerged.
Historically, the term was defined by Alexis de Tocqueville. "qualitatively different from all other countries," and based on the values of that creed as liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire economics. Not all agree with his principles, especially egalitarianism.
Seymour Martin Lipset observed that the U.S. is based on a shared creed rather, than as most nations, a shared history. He quoted G.K. Chesterton as saying that creed is "set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence." Others, including Samuel Huntington and Gunnar Myrdal, add to that creed democracy, the rule of law, and general "progress."
Elaborating on shared creed versus shared history, he mentioned Winston Churchill's opposition to banning the Communist Party:
Winston Churchill once gave vivid evidence to the difference between a national identity rooted in history and one defined by ideology in objecting to a proposal in 1940 to outlaw the anti-war Communist Party. In a speech in the House of Commons, Churchill said that as far as he knew, the Communist Party was composed of Englishmen and he did not fear an Englishman. In Europe, nationality is related to community, and thus one cannot become un-English or un-Swedish. Being an American, however, is an ideological commitment. It is not a matter of birth. Those who reject American values are un-American.
Exceptionalism seems like a perfectly unexceptional concept—until one asks what it means. Those who use the term will then either offer definite, but usually conflicting, definitions or greet the question with a bewildered stare. Exceptionalism is evidently a far less obvious idea than most suppose. One important dimension of the concept for more detailed treatment: the understanding of exceptionalism as a mission. There is one core understanding of the mission that has been shaped mainly by Puritan religious thought, which is not the whole story. There have instead been different views influenced by different sources, including (besides religion) various philosophical doctrines, applications of scientific theories, and reasoning based on political-historical analysis. The exaggerated emphasis on religion may have begun as an innocent error of scholarly interpretation, but it is being perpetuated today by those seeking, for political purposes, to discredit any possible idea of a political mission in the conduct of foreign affairs.
Liberals (not to be confused with small l classical liberals) have tended to disparage exceptionalism, openly when they dare, more discreetly when they fear a backlash. Liberals would like Americans to think of America as being more “ordinary” and in step with the advanced democracies in the world. In domestic politics, “ordinary” means an expanded welfare state, policies that promote greater income equality. In foreign affairs, it refers to an America that does not always tout itself as the main world power, that is more solicitous of the international community, and that does not proclaim a universal standard of right deriving from the “laws of nature” or “nature’s god” (expressions that hearken back to America’s founding). Although liberals may not say so directly, they want to take America down a notch—and this very sincerely for its own good.
Liberals are anti-exceptionalists, deploring the spiritedness and narrow form of patriotism they see as connected with the concept. They like to proclaim “the myth of American exceptionalism,” pointing out that the doctrine makes it “harder for Americans to understand why others are ... often alarmed by U.S. policies and frequently irritated by what they see as U.S. hypocrisy.” US foreign policy would be “more effective if Americans were less convinced of their own unique virtues and less eager to proclaim them”. America is an idea, not simply a nation that one can point to on a map.
The last best hope of man on earth - Abraham Lincoln depicting America
Conservatives have rallied around exceptionalism, often passionately so. Conservatives want Americans to think of themselves as special, and they take great pride in pointing to how America is unlike other advanced democracies. In domestic affairs, conservatives prefer a more limited government, which they consider to be the cornerstone of liberty; they favor an economy in which incomes reflect market forces, not government decisions.
In foreign affairs, conservatives hold the idea of the nation in high esteem and bristle at the notion of America being governed by diktats of the international community. They regard America as the premier world power and, therefore, necessarily and rightly subject to different rules than other nations. Conservatives are not embarrassed to refer to general concepts of right in the terms used by past American statesmen. “Universal values”, are fine, as long as they are anchored in the Declaration of Independence.
It is unclear who cast the first stone in these exceptional wars—whether it was liberals, who wagered that the term might discredit conservatism, or conservatives, who believed that it could rally Americans. It hardly matters. More important is the question of which side has gained politically from the emergence of this new political word.
The Constellation of world power is changing, and U.S. grand strategy will have to change with it. American elites must come to grips with the fact that the West does not enjoy a predestined supremacy in international politics that is locked into the future for an indeterminate period of time. The Euro-Atlantic world had a long run of global dominance, but it is coming to an end. The future will be more influenced by the West and East.
Pax Americana might be losing its exclusive influence over the world, but the United States can manage this relative decline effectively over the next couple of decades if it first acknowledges the fundamental reality of decline. The problem is that many Americans, particularly among the elites, have embraced the notion of American exceptionalism with such fervor that they can't discern the world transformation occurring before their eyes.
American exceptionalism refers directly to the grant of rights asserted in the Declaration of Independence and that it is a term, which relates directly to our unique assertion of an unprecedented set of rights granted by God.
One should believe in American exceptionalism, just as one believed in British exceptionalism and as one believed in Roman exceptionalism. American’s have a core set of values that are enshrined in its Constitution, in its body of law, in its democratic practices, in its belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional. America will continue to have an extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity. This is what Pax Americana is, the ability for the whole world to thrive in a manner that is unrivaled throughout history. History, as always, is moving forward and the US will need to conserve the emoluments of Pax Americana that are worth taking into the next phase of history, only then can the idea of America continue to better humanity.