by Daniel Sargent Diplomatic History
The most succinct version of my argument goes like this. Continental conquest and early industrialization combined in the mid-twentieth century with the disparate impacts of the Second World War to make the United States exceptional.
Over the twentieth century’s second half, the United States became less exceptional. The modernity America once modeled has diffused. Other societies matched and surpassed American achievements.
Yet our institutional framework for international order continues to reflect a conception of world politics in which the United States predominates. Transnational resources for several decades masked the widening chasm between hegemonic responsibilities and dwindling capacities. They will not perform this bridging function forever. As the global distribution of power capacities continues to shift, the United States appears less and less capable of exercising leadership responsibilities. The advance of globalization, meanwhile, is undermining the domestic social and political bases for U.S. internationalism, sealing the Pax Americana’s fate.
America’s deepening incapacities result, in part, from internal political and, especially, institutional dysfunctionalities. The Pax Americana may have been an elite project, but democratic majorities once rallied to support it. Robust majorities voted in Congress to support Marshall Aid and to ratify the foundational Cold War security treaties. Since the Vietnam War, Americans and their elected representatives wearied of international burdens.
Congress made little effort to revitalize the institutional framework for international order since 1994, when its members grudgingly approved the NAFTA Treaty. Instead, Congress has repeatedly thwarted initiatives that might have reinvigorated the institutional framework for world order. Ratification of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS); participation in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change; and U.S. membership of the International Criminal Court (ICC) created in 1998 all faltered on Capitol Hill.
More recently, bipartisan obstruction torpedoed President Obama’s efforts to conclude trade deals that might have bolstered an international economic order centered on the United States. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would have diminished the likelihood China will reorganize Eurasia’s economies around a new Silk Road. Instead, the United States is ceding the geopolitical field.
In the absence of broad-based domestic support, responsibilities for maintaining our international order devolved onto two American institutions: the presidency and the military. The nation’s armed forces, it can at least be said, handled their increasingly insurmountable responsibilities with honor and professionalism.
The record of the presidency is less consistent. Barack Obama worked to sustain a liberal world order even as he worked to recalibrate the burdens of international responsibility. Yet his predecessor waged a war of choice that confirmed the capacity of decision-makers to exacerbate adverse structural trends. Today the responsibilities of the presidency are in the hands of Donald Trump.
A longtime skeptic of responsibilities, Trump positioned himself in 2016 as the tribune of the Pax Americana’s left-behinds. Defying postwar taboos, he questioned commitments as fundamental as NATO. Should prosperous allies not bear the costs for their own security, Trump asked? Why should Americans build nations overseas when their infrastructure resembled a third-world country? Why defend a liberal international trading order and not the interests of American businesses?
Trump’s questions reverberated with voters across the Pax Americana’s rustbelt. While Trump exaggerates the costs of globalization, his simple-minded caricature resonates with citizens who perceive only the Pax Americana’s burdens—and do not grasp its advantages. What difference does it make, after all, to an unemployed steel worker or to the mother of an opioid addict the U.S. Treasury is able to borrow in its own currency, and at low interest rates?
Ordinary Americans may lack sophisticated understanding of geopolitics, but they grasp the United States is no longer so preeminent as it once was. Back in the 1940s, after all, the United States topped most international indices of social wellbeing, from life expectancy to infant mortality. Today, the United States is hurtling towards the middle of the league, and yet Americans continue to bear disproportionate burdens for the welfare of the world. American carnage, for many of our fellow citizens, is more tangible than American exceptionalism.
Donald Trump’s achievement, such as it is, has been to unravel the Pax Americana’s contradictions and to forge a winning political movement from the results. If we treat Trump as a freak of history —an unwelcome and fluke event whose effects will soon dissipate— we will misunderstand and underestimate him. Our mad king appears to grasp a reality that escaped many of us: an international order centered upon the singular capacities of the United States is today unsustainable.
Improbable as it may sound, Trump may be the world-historical figure of our times. Trump very well may be the superficial and ignorant man he appears to be, but Trump appears to grasp, and evidently yearns to overthrow, the outmoded structures of the post-1945 ancien regime. Contemplate, if you will, the spirit of history on a golf cart, as Hegel might have put it.
Figure 6: The Spirit of History on a Golf Cart?
To put the point somewhat differently: we cannot naturalize the configuration of international order that emerged from the 1940s. That configuration was a function of transient historical circumstances. Should we persist in trying to recreate the Pax Americana, we shall choose a tragic fate: beating on, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, like “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Having identified our preoccupation with the midcentury moment of creation as a source of our present malaise, I will conclude, somewhat counter-intuitively, with a question that nonetheless preoccupies me, as it did my late mentor Ernest May. What useful lessons (if any) can we learn from the history of the Pax Americana? I will offer just three quick suggestions.
We should not celebrate the Pax Americana’s passing. We diplomatic historians are well-practiced at exposing the failures and hypocrisies of American foreign policy. To grasp the stakes of the present moment, we must also contemplate the Pax Americana’s successes.
For seventy years, the United States upheld a stable, peaceful international order while facilitating the diffusion, in an uneven fashion, of modernity.
The results, on balance, have been more positive than negative. Our species is today healthier, wealthier, and more numerous than ever. Rational men and women, as President Obama has observed, would not chose to be born at any other time. For sure, we can —and should— debate the premise an industrial modernity based upon fossil fuels is sustainable at the global scale.
It is not, and our century will have to resolve the adverse ecological consequences of industrial modernity’s diffusion.
But for the Pax Americana, we can say this:
The mid-century United States did not seek to hide the lights of its achievements under a bushel. By encouraging the diffusion of modernity, the American world order served a broader good and, ironically, hastened its own demise.
Second, history reveals no good alternatives to hierarchical international order. Donald Trump may have diagnosed the Pax Americana’s shortcomings, but he has no solutions. His meanderings about a “beautiful vision of a world of strong, sovereign, and independent nations” are as ignorant as they are incoherent.
Nationalism, even in its democratic varieties, has seldom produced the perpetual peace the Enlightenment’s idealists once envisioned. Across history, state systems based upon untrammeled sovereignty have produced more violence and instability than have international systems organized around the institutionalization of hierarchy.
The Pax Americana, in the context of the bipolar schism that followed the Second World War, preserved peace in the international system’s core. For sure, we should not disregard the violence that wreaked the periphery of the Cold War world —and for which both superpowers bear responsibility. But nor should we overlook the remarkable phase of peace among the great powers the Pax Americana upheld and preserved.
If we are returning to a world politics organized around multiple, conflicting centers of power, such as the first half of the twentieth century witnessed, any reasonable reading of history teaches us we should be fearful of what the future may bring.
Third, and final, our best hope may be the reorganization of our international order as a more collaborative institutional framework for hierarchical order.
I will return here to my initial definition of the Pax Americana: A hierarchical configuration of international relations, in which the United States exercises singular responsibilities for order.
The question for the present is whether our international order can be de-centered from the singular power of the United States so its sustenance becomes more collaborative.
History offers some instructive precedents. Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Jimmy Carter all strived in the 1970s to substitute cooperation among the industrial democracies for U.S. predominance. Senator McCain proposed fuller institutional coordination among the world’s liberal democracies. President Obama labored for eight years to wean our international order from its dependence on singular American power —and to revitalize an American society that faltered under the Pax Americana’s burdens.
Visionary leaders made sincere efforts, but we should not underestimate the difficulties ahead. None of these attempts in the end succeeded in producing a meaningful reallocation of responsibilities.
International orders, like other social institutions, are sticky—and prone to produce path dependence. The broad historical panorama suggests that catastrophe is often required to shake existing configurations of order loose —and to permit creative reconstruction. Whether such reinvention can be achieved in the absence of major war is altogether uncertain.
What seems clear to me is this: our young century has found its Napoleon. If some semblance of international order is to be rescued from the present crisis, it may also have to find its Metternich.