The End of the Pax Americana?

By Michael Lind, Salon - September 29, 2009

Obama has the chance to end our Cold War hangover, and start an era where the U.S. is not the sole global policeman

By Michael Lind

Read more: George W. Bush, Iran, China, Russia, Cold War, Iraq, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Opinion, Michael Lind, Barack Obama

Reuters/Jim Young

President Obama meets Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow in July.

Sept. 29, 2009 | While the economic crisis continues to overshadow other topics, world politics is undergoing rapid and dramatic changes. In areas from national security policy to trade, the Obama administration has repudiated Bush-era precedents significantly, if not rapidly enough for some critics on the left. The pressures on the administration to continue in the path followed by U.S. administrations since the fall of the Berlin Wall are intense, particularly in light of the victory of the hard-liners in Iran and new revelations about Iran's nuclear program. Even so, President Obama in partnership with other world leaders has a genuine opportunity to bring the post-Cold War era to a definitive end and to preside over the greatest reorganization of global politics since the end of World War II.

During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt hoped that the postwar world could be policed by a great power concert or alliance, made up initially of the U.S., Britain and the Soviet Union, along with Nationalist China. Corresponding to FDR's concert-of-power security system would be new global economic institutions that would go beyond setting rules to promoting Keynesian demand management on a global scale in the interest of sustained and shared global growth.

During the Cold War, the U.S. abandoned those plans and improvised a strategy of U.S. hegemony or primacy. America's Cold War hegemony strategy rested on two pillars: dual containment and unilateral free trade. Dual containment meant that the U.S. contained both the Soviet Union and communist China and its conquered, demilitarized allies West Germany and Japan, which could not be allowed to reemerge as independent military powers rather than U.S. satellites. To keep West Germany and Japan as satisfied client-states, the U.S. promised not only to protect their vital security interests but also to practice unilateral free trade, opening its markets to their exports. Throughout the Cold War and beyond, the U.S. turned a blind eye to the aggressive trade policies of its allies, particularly Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and other Asian client-states. They were allowed to protect their domestic markets and subsidize their industries, while enjoying access to American consumers. For half a century the strategic elite in both parties has been willing to sacrifice U.S. industries in order to bribe the other major industrial countries into staying within the U.S. alliance system.

When the Cold War ended, the U.S. could have promoted a version of the FDR-Keynes world order: a great-power concert and international macroeconomic coordination in the interest of sustainable growth. Instead, more out of inertia than by design, the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations sought to keep a version of the Cold War system going indefinitely. Germany, now reunited, and Japan were still U.S. client-states, while Russia and China, though no longer Marxist-Leninist, were still treated as actual or potential threats. The collapse of Soviet power allowed the U.S. to add the Middle East to Europe and East Asia as one of its hegemonic spheres of influence.

Like America's security strategy, America's post-Cold War economic strategy recycled the Cold War policy of unilateral market access. Just as Japan and West Germany had been told to make cars, not Zeros and Panzers, so China was invited to put its energies into producing for the U.S. market instead of building up a rival military machine.

In his 2002 West Point address, George W. Bush made the bargain explicit: "Competition between great nations is inevitable, but armed conflict in our world is not ... America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge ... making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace."

Defenders of U.S. hegemony, a group that includes most of the members of the Democratic as well as Republican foreign policy elites, argue that American primacy is necessary to avert what I think of as the Two Spirals -- the spiral of arms races and the spiral of protectionism. According to what is called "hegemonic stability theory," both world peace and world trade depend on a single overwhelmingly powerful country that provides other nations with the public goods of security, market access and a global reserve currency. If the U.S. were unwilling to sacrifice its soldiers and treasure on behalf of the interests of other nations as well as its own, then the other great powers -- in particular, Germany and Russia in Europe and Japan and China in Asia -- would arm themselves to defend their interests, and mutual suspicion might lead to arms races and regional or global war. And if the U.S. were not willing to sacrifice its own industries to export-oriented countries, other nations might abandon the idea of a global economy and the scramble to lock up markets and raw materials might also lead to regional or global war. The geopolitical parade of horribles invoked by America's foreign-policy establishment always leads back to the same grand marshal -- the next world war, Dubyah Dubyah Three.

Needless to say, this is an extremely pessimistic, if self-serving, view of the world -- only American might and intervention everywhere keep the world from going to hell again the way it did in the 1930s. The hegemonic stability theory suggests that in the interests of global peace and prosperity the U.S. must permanently contain all other great powers, directly or indirectly. By means of bases in Germany, the U.S. prevents Germany from reemerging as a hostile power, even as it contains Russia. By means of bases in Japan, the U.S. prevents Japan from reemerging as a hostile power, even as it contains China. And now by means of bases in Iraq, the U.S. prevents Iraq from reemerging as a hostile power, even as it contains Iran.

The Pax Americana strategy requires its supporters to exaggerate the power and malevolence of the designated enemies of the Pax Americana: Russia, China and Iran. The exaggeration of threats is accomplished in two ways. First, defensive military measures that these nations undertake to deter U.S. attack -- Russia's attempt to intimidate Georgia, China's development of "anti-access" capabilities to reduce the ability of the U.S. to defeat it in a war over Taiwan, and Iran's not-so-disguised attempt to obtain nuclear weapons to deter conventional U.S. or Israeli attacks -- are portrayed by American policymakers and pundits as aggressive. According to this Orwellian double standard, U.S./NATO encirclement of post-Soviet Russia on its borders is alleged to be "defensive," while feeble protest gestures like Russian military flights to Cuba or the bullying of Ukraine are defined as "aggressive" actions that threaten a new Cold War. The knight with the best sword naturally wants to ban the use of shields and armor.

Next page: In my experience, most members of the U.S. foreign policy elite sincerely believe that the alternative to perpetual U.S. world domination is chaos and war

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