Pax Americana? The U.S. Off Its Peak

I remember the atmosphere. It was: ‘Well, here we are on top of the world, and we have arrived at this peak to stay there forever. There is, of course, a thing called history, but history is something unpleasant that happens to other people. We are comfortably outside all of that I am sure.

-British Historian Arnold Toynbee, at Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (1897)

At the United Nations this week, President Obama stumped and pounded the podium on the issue of climate change, underscoring the need for multilateral action by developed and developing countries alike to set emission targets and regulate the use of fossil fuels. Yet Indian and Chinese leaders, among the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases, were not present at the session on climate change. How much weight will the President’s words carry on the global stage? In critical global issues, how many favors can the U.S. expect to call in from friendly states?

On one hand, as argued by prominent thinkers such as Francis Fukuyama in The End of History and the Last Man (1992), global democracy and capitalism are widely agreed upon as the desirable end of government and socioeconomic organization. In addition to the theoretical victory of democracy, successive “waves” of democratization since the middle of the century have made the world a fairer, freer place, as the following graph for the Center for Systemic Peace shows:

Yet even as democracy proliferates, the United States is not necessarily the global standard for democracy. Even Fukuyama argues that the British-American legal tradition does not value the practice and protection of rights as ends in themselves, an attitude essential for building a democratic culture. The American political style is an outlier, including among other factors our support for an aggressive foreign policy involving the use of drone strikes:

The United States may be one of the world’s original and preeminent examples of a free, fair and open society, but neither does the United States lead global public opinion. After all, our closest allies in the coalition against ISIS are composed of minority-dominant authoritarian governments from the Persian Gulf, while more secular democracies like Turkey sit on the sidelines. Perhaps the world has entered the end of a 20-year Pax Americana, not unlike the Pax Romana of the 1st-2nd centuries C.E., in which the Roman Empire was the pinnacle of hard and soft power in the global system. While a democratic order emerges, new intra-state forces and transboundary problems will require new policy solutions which will not place the United States at the center.

Projecting power isn’t what it used to be for states in the 21st century. Remember when the United States and The Soviet Union could wage battles by funneling aid to rival governments and paramilitary groups? Now, as the quick response to Russia in the Ukraine showed, the game between states is different, and it pivots on economic leverage. When historical rivals such as India and China can sign comprehensive economic deals even with an ongoing border dispute, the rules have changed. Can border disputes foretell conflict? Similarly, domestic politics constrain conflict more than ever before, as groups in states such as Germany are targeting arms suppliers at the root. Citizens are active participants in making and keeping peace, and creating nonviolent norms.

Conflict after Pax Americana is not the ideological, military-industrial and geopolitical conflict of the Cold War, but one of inclusion, implementation and culture. Yale Law School professor Amy Chua traced the uneven spread of global democracy and capitalism, and the often violent reactions of citizens and groups left out of the new systems. China wrestles with Uighurs and Tibetans, South Africa still lives with the legacy of apartheid which leaves Africans in squalor in a developed democracy, poor Venezuelans unseated multiple liberal democratic governments to expropriate the wealth and property of the elite, and a wave of radical groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria — literally “Western education is forbidden” — impose a brutal version of fundamentalism in territory they control.

The world now needs plans and policies of inclusion, implementation and respect for culture operating across state boundaries to counter extremist networks and systems of inequality. Bombing ISIS may save Baghdad, but it will actually fuel the ISIS public relations machine and the recruitment of radicalized youth. The world, and the developing world in particular, needs socially responsible corporations, NGOs and local civil society to sow seeds of peace and the rule of law. The heavy hand of military or general foreign government intervention must be replaced with the surgical precision of experts, local residents, women, minorities, the poor and the voiceless. In the words of a U.S. Army Major who served in occupied Iraq, policies and doctrines must fit the “cultural logic” of place and time.

Why is such a new approach important to the United States? Well, to start, what are the interests of the United States in the first place? Foreign policy is pluralistic, “intermestic” and increasingly involves linkages between citizens and organizations across borders. For problems such as a spiraling Ebola Virus crisis, climate change, and stable, sustainable means of promoting democracy and free markets, the new methods of forging policy fit the bill. The state remains a key instrument, but as the post-Cold War Pax Americana wanes and problems spread, the United States government must realize it no longer sits at what Arnold Toynbee called “the peak…outside [history].”

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