Toward a New Pax Americana

Toward a New Pax Americana

A “New Arsenal of Democracy” is needed to secure American power in the twenty-first century.

The Pax Americana that has prevailed over world affairs since the end of World War II is dead, if not actually buried. It must now be replaced. The two remaining questions are: with what and how?

The term “Pax Americana” (American Peace) refers to the international order the United States constructed after World War II and the decades of relative peace and prosperity that followed under the U.S. economic and military leadership of the free world, notwithstanding the context of a Cold War with the threat of the Soviet Union.

Since 1948, that order has proved remarkably resilient and flexible in the face of multiple challenges. These included rapid changes in America’s own economic fortunes and the periodic commitment of America’s formidable military to large-scale wars in Asia (Korea, Vietnam) and the Middle East (Desert Storm, Iraq, Afghanistan)—not to mention the collapse of that order’s principal antagonist, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and the rise of its latest, the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Even in a world that has grown alarmingly more unstable in the past three years, as late as September 2023, a perceptive commentator like Michael Lind could write:

The hierarchical American bloc that was improvised by the US and its allies after the Second World War has proved remarkably resilient, defying repeated predictions that it would collapse from bankruptcy or overextension. The Pax Americana survived the Cold War and the post-Cold War era andat least for nowtoday’s Second Cold War has strengthened rather than weakened America’s informal empire…[T]he Pax Americana in its eighth decade is alive, if not exactly well.

Six months later, however, the evidence mounts that the resilience of the Pax Americana may be greatly exaggerated. Everywhere, we see pro-American alliances faltering, more recently with Israel—once the cornerstone of American Middle East policy—and dangerous anti-American ones growing, particularly the Russia-China-Iran axis, which this author first warned about back in 2015.

What seemed in 2015 a prescient warning has now become a widely understood and well-established geopolitical reality. At the same time, we have seen a new global economic landscape take shape that has been more directly challenging to American dominance than at any time since 1945. Unlike during the Cold War, when the USSR posed a military but not economic threat to America and its allies, China has emerged as both. Similarly, India, the nation destined to become the third-largest economy in the world, has remained an ambiguous partner for America in restabilizing the global order.

At the same time, America’s military seems less and less ready to assume its remaining global responsibilities, as evidenced by its faltering defense industrial base. Instead of acting as globocop, today’s Pentagon is reluctant even to take on the role of local sheriff—as its refusal to take an active role in defending our southern border indicates.

Still, there is no denying that in a deadly and chaotic international environment, America’s leadership of the free world is more imperative than ever. Therefore, if the old Pax Americana has outlived its usefulness, it is essential to consider what comes next.

Ideally, a new version of American leadership that stabilizes the global order, promotes freedom, and protects American national interests emerges from this crisis. In the last two decades of its existence—certainly since 9/11—balancing all three goals became increasingly a challenge for the old Pax Americana. As such, a new Pax Americana may be better than the old, but it will certainly have to be different.

The old Pax Americana rested on two assumptions, both of which are now out of date.

The first was that the U.S. military was strong enough to protect its allies everywhere, from Asia to the Middle East to Europe. After World War II, American statesmen built a complex network of alliances centered on NATO in Europe and a “hub and spoke” alliance with Japan, South Korea, and other nations in East Asia. All of these were sustained by the expectation that the U.S. military would be ready to engage and prevail in any crisis its allies faced, whether singly or collectively, anywhere in the world—including using our nuclear deterrence as a last resort.

The second assumption was that as the driving engine of the world order, the U.S. economy would always be strong enough to sustain the largest military in history. For example, in 1950, the U.S. GDP was greater than the next three countries put together, including the USSR. In 1980, even after a decade of hard times, the U.S. economy was still roughly three times larger than its nearest competitor, Japan, at nearly $3 trillion versus just over $1 trillion.

Today, neither assumption is operative. Instead, China (and soon, India) are geared to be the main drivers of the global economy—and one could argue China already is. Meanwhile, the U.S. military—while still relatively strong in terms of the size of its forces and budget—is increasingly forced to make hard choices between priorities. Faced with the prospect of simultaneous conflicts in Europe and Asia, today’s U.S. military would have to choose between ugly options and disastrous options. Some experts worry whether Washington could respond effectively to one of those scenarios (especially a conflict in the Taiwan Strait), let alone both.

As a recent Brookings Institution study put it:

The U.S. military during the Cold War was generally at least 60 percent larger than it is today; in fact, it was more than twice as large during the Vietnam War. Today, being prepared to fight both China and Russia at the same time would likely require a military 25-50 percent larger than today’s (in rough numbers).

Spending on this scale seems highly unlikely, given today’s political climate and economic realities.

Nonetheless, the post-World War II, American-built liberal order has always been tougher than its critics and opponents expected. It managed to survive multiple wars, humiliations (the Bay of Pigs, the 1973 Oil Embargo, the withdrawal from Saigon in 1975, the Iran hostage crisis in 1979), four decades of a Soviet nuclear threat, 9/11, the COVID-19 Pandemic, and the stewardship of presidents who were incompetent (Jimmy Carter), ineffective (Gerald Ford), in disgrace (Richard Nixon), and overly-complacent (Bill Clinton).

It even survived—and arguably was strengthened—by four years of President Donald Trump, whom critics feared would wreck the world liberal order, but who, in fact, extended American influence in the Middle East with a series of Abraham Accords and by destroying ISIS by force of arms; strengthened our ties to both Japan and Taiwan; revived the Monroe Doctrine by negotiating a more secure southern border with Mexico and Latin American states; and confronted China’s economic and military threat to American primacy, for the first time.

What the Pax Americana could not survive, however, was abject surrender. Despite President Barack Obama’s claims that he rejected a declinist view of American power, his pullout from Iraq and the Middle East in order to execute a much-vaunted but largely non-existent “Pacific pivot,” his acquiescence to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and overseeing eight years of cutbacks in military spending as well as the withdrawal of missile defense from Eastern Europe; opened the “EXIT” doors for an American retreat from world affairs.

The Biden administration has managed to turn retreat into full-scale flight. Its record has been cumulative from its earliest days in office, starting with the abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan. A break with Saudi Arabia followed, frustrating hopes of a new round of Abraham Accord-style agreements between Israel and its neighbors—then, a belated and timid response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, despite multiple warning signs that an attack was imminent. The administration decided on an increasingly passive attitude toward China, including its encroachment on U.S. sovereign territory. Moreover, Biden refused to respond effectively to challenges by Iranian proxies in Syria, Iraq, and the Red Sea and widened the breach with Israel over the conduct of its war against Hamas.

Meanwhile, the China-Russia-Iran axis has grown more influential and bolder, including openly coordinating their revisionist approach to global affairs, as U.S. influence has ebbed. At the same time, public support for a United States strongly engaged in world affairs has also retreated. In Congress, bipartisan support for American leadership in peace and war, supposedly the keystone for our foreign and defense policy for decades under the old Pax Americana, has broken down.

In addition, the Biden administration has thrown away the leverage America’s booming hydrocarbon industry could enjoy in the global energy market by pushing its radical green energy agenda instead to the economic benefit of China—while at the same time allowing Russia to expand its leverage in that same market by selling oil and natural gas to China and India to finance its war in Ukraine. Iran has come to enjoy the same advantage in energy markets through the Biden administration’s failure to enforce the sanctions that the Trump administration initiated, which have been allowed to lapse through inattention.

In short, on every continent, from every political perspective, and in every category of American engagement in the world, the once-powerful Pax Americana looks outdated, overstretched, and even (to some critics) downright provocative. It’s as if we were spoiling for a fight with our adversaries that both of us know we cannot win.