Farewell to Pax Americana

By Robert J. Samuelson
Thursday, December 14, 2006

With hindsight we may see 2006 as the end of Pax Americana. 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.

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.

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.

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.

Iraq has reminded us that religious and ethnic loyalties dim the appeal of democracy, freedom and materialism. Militarily, "asymmetrical threats" often neutralize conventional advantages, as Boot notes. Iraq has confirmed that, too. If Iran and North Korea become permanent nuclear powers, the U.S. military edge will decline further. Any action against either country would be tempered by the possibility of a nuclear exchange. Worse, other regional powers (Japan, South Korea, Egypt, Saudi Arabia) may decide to go nuclear to have deterrence. A black market in atomic technology would almost inevitably follow -- increasing the odds of terrorists acquiring a bomb.

The end of the Cold War probably reduced, not increased, American power. Without the Soviet threat, Europe and Japan felt less reason to follow U.S. leadership. China's emergence is altering the world balance. In spirit, its economic policies are mercantilist. It subsidizes its exports with an artificially low exchange rate; it is seeking captive oil supplies. China's policies are for China, not a stable world order.

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.


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