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

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This is Part II of an excerpt from the Keynote speech delivered at ESIL’s 10th Anniversary Conference, held in Vienna, 4-6 September 2014.  Part I was published yesterday. 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.

Though one could call into question the wisdom or propriety of a whole variety of American actions of the past century, there was a justified sense that America was a guarantor of a kind of stability. In the most primitive sense this was the Pax Americana.

No more. There are, of course, no sharp temporal lines – an assassination in Sarajevo was a signpost, not a real cause. Still, 2014 is in contention to be judged by history as the watershed period, the culmination of a structural process signaling the demise of the Pax Americana.

We might think that we have been here before: Periods of American economic crisis, isolationism and lack of nerve have come and gone during the last hundred years. But my argument is that the current circumstance is different, at least in two unprecedented (if connected) ways.

First, we are actually not experiencing today American Isolationism and withdrawal, quite the contrary. In some respects we are witnessing heightened American engagement: Resetting relations with Russia, the Turn to Asia, frenetic efforts in the Israel-Palestinian context, direct and indirect activity surrounding events in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab Spring, the pre withdrawal Surge in Iraq and ongoing commitment in Afghanistan and now with ISIS, the determined cultivation of Turkey, vocal diplomacy as regards sanctions against the Ukraine, the TTIP as a strategic asset, constructive and cooperative American involvement in the Trade Facilitation Agreement and a renewed interest in Africa to mention but some aspects of contemporary US foreign engagement.

What is different is the cumulative impression of loss of American constraining power and influence. There is a growing discrepancy between engagement and results. Just go down list: Relations with Russia are at Cold War levels without the containment effect; Chinese bellicose posture vis-à-vis  Japan and in the South China Sea are at a level one would not have imagined a mere decade ago; the US clamorous humiliations (no other word is strong enough) in reigniting the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process and having any impact whatsoever on the bloody Gaza conflagrations; relations with Egypt far more complex than ever before; the collapse in Libya and general American impotence to predict or shape the post Spring events; Iraq in disarray with America scurrying to seek alliances with yesteryear’s enemies in the face of the true Syrian debacle (and a no-one-dare-to-say-what-just-about-everyone-is-thinking: the good-old-days-of-the-secular-Saddam-regime); the American would-be and well deserved dividend in Afghanistan all but written off; a Turkey in which America has lost even the semblance of an ally; the inability of the US to have a united front with the EU on sanctions – it took the Malaysia airline catastrophe to bring Europe around, not American pressure; the TTIP in the doldrums its requiem quietly being composed; the collapse (temporary one hopes) of the Bali Trade Facilitation Agreement (itself a fig leaf to the failed Doha) at the hands of India, American pressure and diplomacy notwithstanding; and America in Africa? How do you spell that in Chinese?

There is a discrete explanation and justification for each of these instances. It would be hard in good faith systematically to posit plausible alternative American actions which would have brought different results in each. But this is truly one of those instances where the whole is quite different from the sum of the parts and where a shift in degree brings about a shift in kind. It is the ‘altogether’ effect which tells the story.

Which brings us to the second factor where the current circumstance is different from the past – the causes for this decline in American constraining and restraing power.

Politics, as usual, comes first and two facets in particular are germane. The first is the typical American public reticence after what are perceived as costly, in blood and treasure, military engagements, especially when their connection to US Security becomes less evident and their success increasingly questionable. There is definitely post Iraq and Afghanistan fatigue. Those who criticized the administration for a weak hand in Syria, for example, woefully overestimated the appetite of the American public for more planes in the air, let alone boots on the ground, anywhere. The vote in the UK (!) Parliament is in this context was watershed event.

The second political factor is more deep seated and impactful than the first. American politics, for at least two Presidential cycles (Bush, Obama) have gravely changed. Cultural cleavages conflate with political (and oft economic) cleavages to produce an unprecedented polarized political environment debilitating generally the functionality of American internal governance, American foreign policy and the capacity of the United States to project credible power. American politics have become visibly dysfunctional. It is, I fear, a non-contingent situation. The internal results of political stasis, for example the repeated brinkmanship which threatened an American technical default on its debt, though not directly related to Foreign Policy, has weakened US credibility and trust in its political institutions. There have been too many instances where the President’s authority vis-à-vis the world has been compromised by the internal political situation.

America’s world role depends for its legitimacy and efficacy on a modicum of consensus and support both at grass roots and political class level. This has tremendously weakened. Many within American have taken to blame Obama. That is, too, a form of escapism. Whatever responsibility might be placed on the office of the President is in my view more effect than cause. The fact that this situation is now aggressively used in domestic American politics is emblematic. For the outside world to point at Obama rather than the deeper structural causes is part of the sleepwalking.

Which brings us to Economics. A robust economy is not only a condition for maintaining and financing the budgetary implications of the Pax Americana, be it in military materiel, strategic foreign aid and the like. It is also, in and of itself, a critical factor in the projection of power. The rot set in during the Reagan administration, which won the Cold War, but at a huge long term strategic cost: Taking the US from being the world largest creditor to being its largest debtor. Make no mistake: America is still the Economic superpower but suffers from a growing structural fiscal weaknesses. Importantly, its relative superior economic position compared to others is rapidly narrowing and on some critical economic indicators it is losing or has already lost its supremacy. Being hugely in debt to one of your major adversaries is just one striking aspect of the decline in constraining power.

In this strategic calculus demographics matter too – at a certain level of development, human capital becomes critical and a manifestation of power. The demographic disparities were always there, China and India were always vastly more populous than the USA but that counted much less when comparing leanly populated developed countries with hugely populated poor, uneducated underdeveloped countries. But as the likes of China, India, Brazil and other are rapidly closing the development gap it is hard to imagine that the huge disparity in population size will not have increasing strategic significance, economic, military and political. American economic prowess was not just a reflection of its impressive productivity. It was also a result of its voracious consumption appetite which fuelled the export related wealth of so many countries around the globe. Here too it is losing its relative advantage as the major export destination for primary goods and increasingly for industrial goods and services as well.

Finally there is moral authority. If indeed, and it is a plausible story, the US ‘won’ the Cold War, it has become, ironically a victim of its success. That very end of the Cold War and the spread of democracy (even if often formal and feeble) has all but eliminated the mantle of the US as a guardian of liberty, democracy and human rights in a largely hostile world. It also enabled at popular and official levels the airing of resentments and criticisms pent up during the Cold War. In the more immediate sense, the combination of the likes of Iraq, aspects of the war on terror such as Rendition, targeted killings and massive American spying on friends and foes without discrimination have created a serious deficit in American moral capital.

This is not exactly a decline of empire story. I do not envisage the United States replicating even remotely the rapid decline of, say, Britain after WWII. Despite its current debilitating political dysfunctionality I am among those who believe that the fundamental political, social and cultural resources of the Americans will enable them to reinvent themselves again as they have done before. They will remain for a long time yet an economic giant and their military might will continue likewise to eclipse all others. This is not the end of the US as a Super Power. And the Americans will react, as they have in the past, with grim determination and valor when they sense their security and vital interests are endangered.  Woe to their enemies in such instances.

It is their role in the world which I think has changed for ever. It is the confluence of the various causes – political, economic, demographic and moral —  mentioned above and a few more which have produced a kind of Perfect Storm, which account for this sea change reduction in American specific gravity compared to others. In an omnibus sense we are witnessing a reduction of American Global Authoritativeness. Like a growing up child, the world, the populations of the world, have discovered that the ‘father figure’ is just not so strong, not so rich, not so right and not so determined. And critically, in a variety of subtle ways, America is discovering that too.

The principal danger of this loss is not that at the moment of truth America will abandon the likes of Poland or Taiwan – though the fact that this possibility is discussed even in the most authoritative corners is in itself part of the phenomenon I am describing. The real danger is that the likelihood of reaching those points of testing American resolve has become more likely. The decline of American Global Authoritativeness invites salami-fashion encroachment on, for want of a better term, Western values and interests by actors large and small with a global destabilizing impact. A slice here, a slice there, each not severe enough to justify pulling the sword out of its sheath, and thus feeding the appetite for more and more slices. And suddenly one finds oneself in a situation where not even a slice, but a mere sliver, a meaningless assassination of a meaningless current day Archduke, is sufficient to ignite a conflagration which at present seems remote and unimaginable. This is the huge cost we all risk for this demise of the Pax Americana. This is not a prediction of things to come, this is a description of things already happening.

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Jens Iverson says

November 6, 2014

This is a very interesting address, and I think the plea towards an active approach towards managing global public order is compelling, regardless of the accuracy of marking 2014 as a moment of grand historical change. It is, of course, very hard to come up with a metric to determine the livelihood of something as ambiguous as "pax americana" (or "hegemony" or "leadership"). One can be left with a series of conflicting gut impressions. For those interested in survey research, some numbers can be found here.
The US comes off surprisingly well. That said, even more troubling than the disturbing dislike of the US in Pakistan and Turkey is the general impression that the US does not listen to other countries.

The focus in the address on the US itself rather than the institutions and instruments that the US has used to amplify its power and values is perhaps overdone (I'm curious to see the full address.) Look at the institutional legacy of the late 1940s. If NATO, the IMF, World Bank, and the UN are collapsing, that would be noteworthy. If the norms contained in the UDHR, Genocide Convention, and Geneva Conventions of 1949 were increasingly rejected, that would be troubling. But that's not the case. I'm hopeful that Europeans (EJIL's main readership, I presume), far from sleepwalking, are increasingly alert to the threats to the international order that Europe relies upon, and will provide their own leadership in addressing these problems. And hopefully the US will do a better job showing "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind."