Sleepwalking Again: The End of the Pax Americana 1914-2014, Part I

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This is Part I of an excerpt from the Keynote speech delivered at ESIL’s 10th Anniversary Conference, held in Vienna, 4-6 September 2014.  Part II will be published tomorrow. The full version will be published in EJIL in a subsequent issue.

Note: This post has been updated to reflect a later version of the text.

I think it is difficult to contest that the most important State player in world affairs over the last one hundred years – and consistently so over this period — has been the United States of America. WWI – into which, to use Christopher Clark’s justly celebrated book, we Sleepwalked – marks a useful starting point. It is not only the fairly important  role America played in bringing  WWI to an end that signals the beginning of this era but the no less important role it played in shaping the aftermath. Wilson’s 14 points were considered at the time “idealist” by some of the “Old Powers.” But by dismantling the Ottoman Empire through the principle of Self Determination (not at that time a universal legally binding norm) the scene was set for the demise, a mere generation later, of all other colonial empires and the truly decisive reshaping of the balance of power in the second half of the Century. The US played an equally cardinal role in ideating and realizing the United Nations Organization and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the wake of WWII – two lynchpins of our current world order.

That opening gambit to the American century is emblematic of  the entire Pax Americana epoch: American action in the international sphere has frequently been driven by a strong dose of idealism (to be sure sometimes misguided) mixed in with the normal self-interest which is the usual stuff of international relations.

I know that the various schools of ‘Realism’ tend to pooh-pooh any deviation from interest analysis in international relations. Generally speaking I find the emphasis on interest/power as an explanatory device to human affairs, to the exclusion of almost all other motivations, as laughably reductionist in international affairs as it is in other domains of human action. At its extreme it is rooted in a vision which denies in principle the possibility of altruism, a position which makes a mockery of the tragic complexity of the human condition. This is as true, even if to some both counter intuitive and discomforting, in the case of the conduct of American foreign policy.

There may be an irony in using the expression Pax Americana.  These last hundred years have been anything but pacific. In some respects they have seen unprecedented barbarism on a scale hitherto unknown in human history both in kind and degree. In these 100 years we witnessed the Shoah, the Gulags and the “Great Leap Forward” (which alone resulted in a death toll estimated at as much as 45m innocents.) The first decades of the new Century offer no respite with Darfur, Syria and now ISIS where hundreds of its ‘enemies’ – their only crime being their identity – were discovered to have been buried alive.

Normative judgment of American foreign policy tends to be like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. European attitudes are particularly intriguing. You would think that the truly decisive – in the most literal sense of the word — American (and Soviet) role in defeating Germany and its allies and its subsequent role in European reconstruction through the Marshall Plan would be a shared, hugely positive, normative asset. But think again. In the minds of not a few, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, rather than the defeat of the would be Thousand Year Reich have come to symbolize the American contribution to, and moral stance in, WWII. And the US hard Anti-Communist stance during the Cold War is to many the lasting impression of its Post WWII role. This evaluative cleavage persists in relation to all other American ‘interventions’ (or non-interventions) in world affairs from Korea, though Cuba, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq I and Iraq II to list but a few examples. It’s an incredibly long list, for there have been few armed conflicts in the “Pax” Americana era in which the US had no role, direct or indirect.

So what is the normative balance sheet?

The truth, as is often the case, is banal. It’s a continuum, with some shining examples of noble American conduct and some truly ugly instances of the Ugly American notably in Latin America. But in between, the majority of cases are morally complex situations which do not lend themselves to categorical judgment.

[Let me open a rather large parenthesis. Attitudes to America in general can oft serve as a litmus test for a whole range of normative positions. Tell me your views on America and I will tell you what you think of A, B and C. Anti-Americanism (in the ism sense of the word) and especially European Anti Americanism is also hugely interesting and much commented about in the last few decades. In part it is reactive to America: Our reaction to Bush Pere v. Clinton; or Bush fis v. Obama; or Iraq I (and Kosovo) v. Iraq II to give but some examples. In part it is a far deeper, almost ontological state of mind, and certainly an important part of European self-understanding. An appreciable part of European real or alleged distinctiveness (and cultural and moral claimed superiority) is tied up to the sense that we can claim to be ‘unlike America.’ Think how disorienting it would be to our sense of distinctiveness, if Obamacare had really provided for effective and affordable universal healthcare or if America abolished the death penalty et cetera. Is there not at times even a palpable European grim satisfaction when America lives up to its ugly version?

Make no mistake: There are some real and deep differences in the political culture of the two polities: Liberty (understood in complex but also elemental ways) is still the bedrock of the American value system and dignity (understood in complex but also elemental ways) is its European counterpart. Religion plays a fundamentally different role in the two societies. And there is a very meaningful difference which distinguishes European and American political cultures in relation to self-reliance, the spirit of economic entrepreneurship, as well as private philanthropy ( by the rich and the poor alike).  But in other areas, Americans and Europeans view each other through self-serving narratives of each other which oft have little to do with reality. It is most noticeable in the area in which most Europeans think that most differences lie: Social solidarity, the welfare state, the economic safety net and all that. America is actually quite different from the European self-comforting or self-aggrandizing caricature. Spending on Medical care for the young and old and on social security in the USA is by huge margin the biggest item in American public expenditure and the social safety net is far more impressive than the habitual depictions. Sure, I can regale you with horror stories from here till further notice; there is an appreciable underclass and a staggering and unacceptable income differential.  There is no place for any measure of complacency at all – in either polities. But my impression from living years in both polities, being a citizen of both, and from a keen interest in the literature, is that American European differences in this area, in the reality of lives actually lived, is far smaller than often imagined or presented.

Love/hate is not atypical, especially among elites. So many who “suffer” from quite fierce Anti-Americanism are also hugely enamored with various aspects of American culture such as Jazz or Rock (it’s always one or the other, is it not?) American cinema, and even American junk food to judge from the huge success of the likes of MacDonald’s in Europe to give but a few examples. And there is guarded respect even to, quelle horreur, important aspects of American political culture such as its contribution to our political thinking and legal culture of such phenomena as feminism and environmentalism. This hate/love is neither a double standard nor an hypocrisy or even a contradiction. It’s a comprehensible reaction in the face of any reality which is not reducible to caricature.]

Be that as it may, to return to the Pax Americana, there is one sense in which the lexical choice of pax, has been justified. The greatest contribution of America to European post WWII prosperity was not the Marshall Plan. It was the security umbrella which the United States provided once the Iron Curtain was drawn and which allowed Europe to invest so much more in butter than in guns. If one were to seek to define the bedrock, the unstated assumption, of European defense and security thinking, till this very day, it would be the belief that if things got really bad, the American Cavalry would come to the rescue, as it has clamorously in the past. Without this assumption, European investment, in terms of capital and human capital would have had to be, and would have been, appreciably larger than current levels.

A consequence of American dominance resulting in a second foundational plank of European national defense and security strategy was that no State, not even France and the UK, understood themselves as having a Global responsibility to the world which in any appreciable way transcended their national interests. Even the slow and still tortuous emergence of a common European foreign posture has only fleetingly and mostly rhetorically embraced that sense of global responsibility.

Though one could call into question the wisdom or propriety of a whole variety of American actions (some self-lacerating – the American posture towards Cuba is an ongoing folly by the hardest yardstick of American self-interest) there was a sense, in my view largely justified, that America was a guarantor of a kind of stability, through means pacific or bellicose, that made the world on balance a safer place. I know that in substance this is hotly contested by some, but in my view it is hard to contest that this was the prevalent view in Europe and of Europe. In the most primitive sense this was the Pax Americana.


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