Americans rightly love their independence. We chafe when our options appear circumscribed by others and we enter hestitantly into alliances and treaties. In many of America’s conservative enclaves, all you have to do to invoke howls of derision is mention the United Nations. Given our inclination for independence, we have been lucky. For the most part, America’s economic and military might have afforded it a degree of independence (some would call it “exceptionalism”) that few countries enjoy. If Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson is correct, U.S. influence is on the decline [“Farewell to Pax Americana,” 14 December 2006]. Samuelson writes:
“Ever since World War II, the United States has used its military and economic superiority to promote a stable world order that has, on the whole, kept the peace and spread prosperity. But the United States increasingly lacks both the power and the will to play this role. It isn’t just Iraq, though Iraq has been profoundly destabilizing and demoralizing. Many other factors erode U.S. power: China’s rise; probable nuclear proliferation; shrinking support for open trade; higher spending for Social Security and Medicare that squeezes the military; the weakness of traditional U.S. allies — Europe and Japan.”
Samuelson’s column reads like a eulogy for American power and I’ll return to it, but I’d first like to discuss some of the implications of his observation that 2006 represents the tipping point of American power. The most obvious implication is that America will have to return to the diplomatic table in good faith in order to promote objectives it once pursued more independently. America continues to rely more on bilateral agreements than international ones in areas like trade and security. That may change. While it will be a difficult pill for many Americans to swallow, it will be a welcome change to many around the world. Countries want to sit at the same table with America and discuss issues — just look how insistent North Korea has been about getting the U.S. to deal with it bilaterally. The President’s insistence on six-party talks, however, offers a glimpse into how America will have to deal with many challenging issues. Working with others to achieve common goals will not be as painful as some imagine it will be.
Let’s return to Samuelson’s article. As he contemplates the end of Pax Americana, he reflects on what it has meant for the world.
“By objective measures, Pax Americana’s legacy is enormous. Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no nuclear device has been used in anger. In World War II an estimated 60 million people died. Only four subsequent conflicts have had more than a million deaths (the Congo civil war, 3 million; Vietnam, 1.9 million; Korea, 1.3 million; China’s civil war, 1.2 million), reports the Center for International Development and Conflict Management at the University of Maryland. Under the U.S. military umbrella, democracy flourished in Western Europe and Japan. It later spread to South Korea, Eastern Europe and elsewhere. In 1977 there were 89 autocratic regimes in the world and only 35 democracies, the center estimates. In 2005 there were 29 autocracies and 88 democracies. Prosperity has been unprecedented. Historian Angus Maddison tells us that from 1950 to 1998 the world economy expanded by a factor of six. Global trade increased twentyfold. These growth rates were well beyond historical experience. Living standards exploded. Since 1950 average incomes have multiplied about 16 times in South Korea, 11 times in Japan and six times in Spain, reports Maddison. From higher bases, the increases were nearly five times in Germany, four in France and three in the United States.”
Samuelson is not implying that America accomplished all these things on its own. That would not only be inaccurate but hyberbolic. He argues, however, that these achievements were backstopped by American economic and military power.
“It is fatuous to think all this would have occurred spontaneously. Since the Marshall Plan, the United States has been a stabilizing influence — albeit with lapses (the Vietnam War; the inflation of the 1970s; now Iraq). Aside from security, it provided a global currency, the dollar. It championed lower tariffs and global investment, which transferred technology and management skills around the world. It kept its markets open. It’s doubtful that any other major country would have tolerated present U.S. trade deficits (now approaching $800 billion) without imposing pervasive import restrictions.”
Samuelson goes on to lament that Americans learned the wrong lesson from all these achievements.
“To Americans, the lesson of World War II was that to prevent a repetition, the United States had to promote global stability. It had to accept short-term costs and burdens to avoid larger long-term costs and burdens. But the triumphalism following the Cold War fed overconfidence. Pax Americana would continue forever. It was ‘the end of history’ — democracy and free markets would spread. The United States was a ‘hyperpower.’ The flaw in all this theorizing was to mistake strength for power. Statistically, the United States remains the world’s strongest nation. Its economy is the wealthiest, triple the size of Japan’s. Its all-volunteer military is the best trained and most technologically advanced. ‘No other state is building nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, stealth fighters or unmanned aerial vehicles,’ writes Max Boot, author of ‘War Made New.’ The United States has 12 carriers; Britain, the runner-up, has three smaller carriers. The trouble is that strength — measurable and impressive — does not translate directly into power. Power is the ability to get others to do what you want. Here, America is weaker.”
Part of that weakness stems from America’s inclination for independence. We don’t like to get fenced in and others interpret that independence as arrogance. Many see American exceptionalism as bullying and no one likes to be bullied. Shakespeare got it right when he wrote, “O, it is excellent to have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.” [Measure for Measure, II, 2] Samuelson concludes his column this way:
“America won’t retire from the world stage, but how active it will be is unclear. Iraq has reduced its national confidence and credibility. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid spending are already twice defense spending. Generational attitudes are shifting. A poll of 18- to 24-year-olds finds that 72 percent don’t think the United States should take the lead in solving global crises, reports Paul Starobin in National Journal. ‘Today’s 18-year-old college freshman was still in diapers when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989,’ he writes. There’s little memory of the Cold War, let alone World War II. Given the rampant anti-Americanism abroad today, the fading of Pax Americana may inspire much glee. The United States is widely regarded as an arrogant source of instability, blamed for many global woes — from greenhouse gases to Islamic militancy to unpopular globalization. No one can know what will replace Pax Americana, but with time, the people who now celebrate its decline may conclude that its failures were mainly those of good intentions and that its successes were unwisely taken for granted.”
If Samuelson is correct (and I wouldn’t rush to judgment), the decline of Pax Americana will be slow and hopefully graceful. Confidence in and appreciation for American power needs to be restored — that will take leadership and vision. A power vacuum is in no one’s best interests. American power, as highlighted by Samuelson, has made the international system remarkably resilient for over half a century. That resiliency will not last without the underpinning of strength that can only be provided by a trusted power or coalition. We should not lament the end of Pax Americana but work to establish whatever undergirding framework needs to take its place.