Is a 'Pax Americana' possible?
August 14, 2002 8:48 AM   Subscribe

Is a 'Pax Americana' possible? And if it is possible, is it a good thing or a bad thing? It depends on who you ask. And if not the US, then who? Europe has neither the force of arms nor the political cohesiveness. China seems to be the only other contender, but it begs the question: should America even try to mediate world disputes, or intervene when (and only when) our national interests are at stake?
posted by mrmanley (28 comments total)
Francis Fukuyama article on similar subject. Via A&L.
posted by goethean at 8:55 AM on August 14, 2002

The war against terrorism has produced all but unprecedented governmental censorship...

When did this start exactly?
posted by revbrian at 9:14 AM on August 14, 2002

Fukuyama is an idiot.

Has History Restarted
Since September 11?

This just goes to show how fucking ridiculous his first assertion was: that the end of the Soviet Union was the end of History. His arrogance makes me want to vomit, I hope he burns in neocon hell.

Like many Americans, I have been preoccupied since September 11 trying to understand the meaning of this event and how the world has changed as a result of it.

Isn't that precious.

Also, I don't think Pax Americana is at all possible. Things today happen at a much faster rate thanks to technology. Maybe our false pax would last 20 years and not 200. Rome eventually paid the price for its empire, and so will we, if we continue to push for it (as many have openly accepted the idea of world empire and American hegemony, thanks for the legacy Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt!)
posted by insomnyuk at 9:18 AM on August 14, 2002

"Fukuyama is an idiot", well, that is one of the more intelligent rebuttals to an academic thesis I've seen in many moons.

I believe that one interpretation of his "end of history" is that it is the "end of history" as we have been interpreting it since 1648's Treaty of Westphalia.

Nevertheless, there are a great number of flaws in his argument, I just would like it if you would elaborate a bit on that.
posted by tgrundke at 9:31 AM on August 14, 2002

Here is the Robert Kagan piece from Policy Review referenced in the Fukuyama piece. A good read.
posted by mrmanley at 9:41 AM on August 14, 2002

Don't count on China for anything remotely resembling civilization. At least not until the inhuman, monstrous totalitarians are against the wall.
posted by hama7 at 9:55 AM on August 14, 2002

Sorry tgrundke, I just really don't like Fukuyama, and I find his attitude that he can determine the purpose and end of history as extremely arrogant. Who does he think he is? God? Miss Cleo?

Not all academic theses deserve extensive rebuttal, see Peter Singer's idea that parents should be able to kill newborn infants with birth defects up to one month old. Some ideas are so clearly insane they should need no refuting. But sadly, they all do, I guess, so I'll take your bait.

One question before I start: you said
I believe that one interpretation of his "end of history" is that it is the "end of history" as we have been interpreting it since 1648's Treaty of Westphalia.

Do you mean that because at the time the Treaty was so ground breaking that people of the era thought it to be similar to "the end of history"? Just wanted to clarify.

First of all, Fukuyama's assertion is that "the end of history" is reached when a nation accepts Western liberal democracy. He says that this is the natural and ultimate progression of history, and that all nations will eventually fit this mold. This, in my opinion, is patently ludicrous. He declares that Europeans are living on the "end of history" (read the linked article re Fukuyama), ostensibly because they all live in liberal democracies. Well, what happens if and when a liberal democracy cannibalizes itself and its freedoms (the loss of economic freedom in many European countries, for example) or when it collapses, or is overtaken by something else? It is just as capable as any other system at regressing.

Admittedly, he came up with it in response to modernist historians claims (from his words in the article) that all modern societies would 'evolve' into socialism. What happens when a liberal society devolves into a socialist one, or vice versa? Then both sides of the coin are wrong, except that their argument is inane and unprovable, but since we can never know the future, it is also impossible to disprove. Fukuyama can always say: "well, they will eventually evolve into a liberal democracy." The same can be said for fundamentalists who claimed the world would end in 1988, unless you set a specific date, your claim is not testable or disprovable, because for eternity, you can keep claiming that it could happen.

Robert Kagan, in a brilliant recent article in Policy Review,(3) put the current difference between the United States and Europe as follows. The Europeans are the ones who actually believe they are living at the end of history, that is, in a largely peaceful world that to an increasing degree can be governed by law, norms, and international agreements. In this world, power politics and classical realpolitik have become obsolete. Americans, by contrast, think they are still living in history, and need to use traditional power-political means to deal with threats from Iraq, al-Qaeda, and other malign forces. According to Kagan, the Europeans are half right: they have indeed created an end-of-history world for themselves within the European Union, where sovereignty has given way to supranational organisation. What they don’t understand, however, is that the peace and safety of their European bubble is guaranteed ultimately by American military power. Absent that, they themselves would be dragged backwards into history.

It's a long quote, but its worth quoting, because Fukuyama buys wholeheartedly some of Kagan's more silly assumptions.

The notion that Europe needs American military protection is utterly ludicrous, Europe only needs as much military protection as it wants, depending on what they do to anger other nation-states. The suggestion that Americans only know how to use power and belligerence to solve problems is partly true, to his credit. This is a result of America's tradition of dealing with all big conflicts through military action. The statement that we are still "in history" however, is foolish. This bastardization of the word history is really what set me off in the first place.

Fukuyama uses lots of pretty words and theories, but no common sense to figure out the real world, although here's the one kernel of truth I appreciated from his speech:

Unlike most of the old societies of Europe, the United States was founded on the basis of a political idea. There was no American people or nation prior to the founding of the country: national identity is civic rather than religious, cultural, racial or ethnic. There has been only one American regime which, as the world’s oldest continuously existing democracy, is not viewed as a transient political compromise. This means that the country’s political institutions have always been imbued with an almost religious reverence that Europeans, with more ancient sources of identity, find peculiar. The proliferation of American flags across the country in the wake of September 11 is only the most recent manifestation of Americans’ deeply felt patriotism.

I believe this is very true, and bears repeating. Hey, as Aristotle said, even a blind pig finds the occasional acorn. (It was Aristotle right? If I'm wrong, I'm sure riviera will be more than willing to correct me)

the prospect of great wars between great powers had suddenly diminished [at the end of the Cold War].

He states it like its a fact. I for one, am not so optimistic. Talk about a short sighted view of "history."

In conclusion, Fukuyama contends that the U.S. is not quite at the end of history, but is justified because of its current foreign policy situation (which, as he fails to mention, is the consequence of our military interventionism). He doesn't question the power the United States has, or that we should perhaps self-limit. He simply calls for moderation with Europe (to become more co-operative with the international community), who, so enlightened, eschews the use of military force. Ironically, Europe probably wouldn't mind if we were more multilateral and helped tell us where to point our shiny boomsticks next.

disclaimer: it's difficult to critique his essay because I wanted to talk about his 'end of history' theory, which was not the subject of the essay so much as merely highlighting the differences(they seemed obvious enough to me, though most Americans assume everyone is like them) between Europe and the U.S., and trying to square THAT with the notion that they are both part of the West."
posted by insomnyuk at 10:10 AM on August 14, 2002

Don't count on China for anything remotely resembling civilization. At least not until the inhuman, monstrous totalitarians are against the wall.

And then what? 900 million peasants living in peaceful anarchy? A divided China under authoritarian warlords with nuclear weapons? What?

Seriously, is it possible to rule China without being a vicious, imperial-style monster? When most of the people you rule expect a vicious, imperial-style monster?
posted by kablam at 10:29 AM on August 14, 2002

Don't count on Texas for anything remotely resembling civilization. At least not until the inhuman, monstrous totalitarians are against the wall.
posted by adampsyche at 10:31 AM on August 14, 2002

Not all academic theses deserve extensive rebuttal, see Peter Singer's idea that parents should be able to kill newborn infants with birth defects up to one month old. Some ideas are so clearly insane they should need no refuting.

Ah, yes. Singer. A whipping boy for all ideologies.

In fact, very rarely are ideas so insane as to need no refutation.
posted by apostasy at 10:48 AM on August 14, 2002

insomnyuk, I have to disagree. I think the notion that Europe needs American military power is self evident. It needs American power to defend its access to Middle East oil, it needs American naval might to keep the worlds trade routes clear of pirates, it needs America as a stablizing force in East Asia, where Europe has large economic investments, and it absolutely relies on American technology and infrastructure for its own internal intelligence, command and control.
posted by pjgulliver at 11:22 AM on August 14, 2002

Some ideas are so clearly insane they should need no refuting.

I find that idea not only preposterous, but so clearly insane that it needs no refuting.
posted by rushmc at 11:35 AM on August 14, 2002

Thanks rush, I realize now the error of my ways.

(this statement will self-refute in 5 seconds)
posted by insomnyuk at 11:37 AM on August 14, 2002

insomnyuk, you're entitled to your opinion of Fukuyama, but readers should know you've distorted the heart of his argument. Whether it's right or wrong, in the near-term (likely wrong) or the long-term (undetermined), his thesis is most simply stated as this: most states are progressing toward liberal (i.e. free-speech, free-market) capitalist democracy, and when two states are democracies they are quite unlikely to go to war with each other, vanishingly so if they have extensive trade. Instead, they'll solve their differences as the European Union does, through mechanisms like the WTO, through technical formulas and 1200-page trade agreements.

Those interested in judging Fukuyama for themselves should read the original 1989 article The End of History?, which came with a deliberate question mark, before taking insomnyuk's characterizations at face value. It should be taken more as a framework for understanding processes in the post-Cold-War world than as a flat prediction. Certainly he has long regretted the word "history" in the title, since it has so frequently been misunderstood.

And, as I've noted many times before, the Huntington essay the Clash of Civilizations?, again with a deliberate question mark, is the only widely-accepted alternate framework (in IR academia) for this our present era, and certainly backs up at least some of insomnyuk's points.

Post-9/11 it's said we're all Huntingtonians now, but I believe Fukuyama can't be completely discounted. Certainly his is a more optimistic viewpoint in its own way. I wouldn't believe that liberal democracy was the final end of political change, though for the foreseeable future its emphasis on individual liberty has a strong popular pull. Europe's tweak that leans back toward a collective, communitarian democracy -- rather a small difference in the larger scheme of things, but looming large in the minds of some -- could indeed point to evolution "beyond" liberal democracy, or even back towards forms of authoritarian or centralized power. These are all possible roads.

None of this really addresses the Pfaff essay from last winter, though. Clearly no friend of Huntington, he's been on the same talking point since before the Bush administration. Pfaff's worldview can be summarized (from this 1997 precis):

Samuel Huntington's argument that wars in the future will be conflicts of civilization shifts the responsibility for those wars from the realm of human volition and political decision to that of cultural predestination. If we assume that future conflicts will fundamentally be cultural, we must conclude that they will have no solutions. Fortunately, Huntington is wrong, argues William Pfaff, author of The Wrath of Nations, in "The Reality of Human Affairs." "The real conflicts in the world today, and those we will face in the future, have to do with national interests, national expansion, power money commerce territory, oil, history, religious and political ideology, the ambitions of politicians, and the passions of peoples," Pfaff writes. "All of these have solutions."

Quite interestingly, this is a type of left realpolitik, which in essence posits that all states are equally valid (hey, there's that Treaty of Westphalia idea again), and their national interests are the primary motivator of action. These may be managed -- "have solutions" -- in any number of ways. Unfortunately for Pfaff, I don't agree with the fundamental basis of his argumethat all these solutions are acceptable ones to both sides. I do optimistically believe in win-win solutions, whenever such are possible, but I have no illusions that they will always be so. For instance, a resource conflict, perhaps over coltan, may not be resolved equitably. Certainly it might have a "solution", perhaps a trade treaty, perhaps a neo-liberal open-market firstest-with-the-mostest, perhaps a "zone of influence" agreement, perhaps just war. No matter what that solution is, it's entirely possible that one party will feel shorted, and then you're back on the conflict treadmill, perhaps leading to violence. I don't share Pfaff's view that the conflict-managers and mediators of the world can always come up with mutually-acceptable solutions.

This is at the heart of his argument against a Pax Americana, though. Whether it is a deliberate empire or merely a quasi-unilateral hegemony, the American view tends much more toward the idea that not all solutions are manageable, that sometimes preponderance of influence or even force are necessary, and indeed that national interest is not in itself a wrong. Sometimes, as indeed for much of the late 20th century, that national interest has trampled on other interests and "human rights", other times, and these are the ones we prefer to see, that national interest has been in the greater interest towardd the greater good, i.e. in defeating totalitarian regimes both fascist and communist, and spreading democratic principles throughout the world. Which brings us back to Huntington and Fukuyama. But let's bring this down on Pfaff's points about the "end of hegemony?", which is really the sword he's tying to a very thin thread above our heads. If indeed Fukuyama is right, and indeed we do spread democracy as far as the eye can see, that provides a natural WTO-UN-etc. framework for devolving the empire. If Huntington is right, we'll need to regress into broad cultural coalitions, because those cultural fault lines will prevent the spread of liberal democracy and we will be up against non-Western forms of government based on non-Western values (theoretically the West could also split, but let's not get into that). Or if Pfaff is right, all international relations depends on the primacy of the solution-mongers, and the US being still in the grip of a "national idea" is in the business of destroying the basis for their mediations, so we're a threat to their vision of the world -- which is one where even totalitarian governments are legitimate, as long as they don't impinge on other nations' interests and abide by agreements. (This certainly has relevance in the Iraq debate.) Agreements under Fukuyama are entropic; agreements under Huntington are tactical. Agreements under Pfaff, though, are a trump card, static forever after. He actually has more in common with Fukuyama than you'd think. But he completely ignores the idea that we can have a problem with another nation or culture that's unsolvable -- such as a Huntingtonian difference of opinion about how the world, and human liberty, should be organized.

I don't have a great affection for any of these futures, for various reasons. Fukuyama's is the most attractive and optimistic, at one level, but also pessimistic about future prospects of evolution and change. Huntington's currency now is clear, given our conflict with the Islamists (who ultimately believe in a unified Muslim world under shari'a law, with one religious-political leader, the Caliph). For the short term, it's instructive. Pfaff's view, though, has too much faith in, I'm not sure what to call it, because it's not human nature -- indeed, it's a regulatory system that denies human nature.
posted by dhartung at 12:22 PM on August 14, 2002

Sorry for the thread-jacking, mrmanley.
posted by goethean at 1:37 PM on August 14, 2002


Actually, I'm pretty impressed with the responses so far. I expected lots more flames; threads like this often tend to degenerate into a hawks-doves/lefties-righties kind of thing, and I'm glad we avoided that here.
posted by mrmanley at 1:42 PM on August 14, 2002

adampsyche and hama7, I hope neither China nor Texas gain hegemony of the world any time soon.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 2:24 PM on August 14, 2002

"Is a 'Pax Americana' possible?"

yes, not only possible, it already exists.

I think the notion that Europe needs American military power is self evident.

say that to the Gauls, er, French.
posted by clavdivs at 6:09 PM on August 14, 2002

adampsyche, that's a clever little thing you do. You know the using exact same words as the original post, but attempting to subvert the original intent using a kind of postmodern tricky progressive bait-and-switch.

Or we could just call it what it is: childish.

Your perfectly ridiculous, typical-liberal "protect-the criminal-not-the-victim" link would be hilarious were the subject matter not so tragic.

If a murderous immigrant had committed the same crime in China, for example, they probably wouldn't even waste a bullet. they would make him dig a hole, shove him in with quite possibly hundreds of similarly convicted criminals, and pave it over.

Here's what a five second google revealed:

64 executed for drug crimes

Gawd liberals hate that. "Drug use is a disease! These people need help, not prison!" Not in China.

China Human Rights Fact Sheet.

There are thousands more.

If you have something to say, then say it, but I have had enough schoolyard slapstick.
posted by hama7 at 8:42 PM on August 14, 2002

Your perfectly ridiculous, typical-liberal "protect-the criminal-not-the-victim" link would be hilarious were the subject matter not so tragic.

We spell it 't-r-o-l-l', twatfink.
posted by riviera at 2:42 AM on August 15, 2002

riviera: If you want to use schoolyard terms like "twatfink" then who is the troll, hypocrite?

Do you have a rebuttal or something that you'd like to contribute? I thought not.

Keep throwing your babyfood insults from your highchair.
posted by hama7 at 3:24 AM on August 15, 2002

I'd quibble with some of the words, but mostly applaud for insomnyuk.

dhartung: "most states are progressing toward liberal ... capitalist democracy"

Wholly and entirely incorrect. Most states are being forced toward liberal, capitalist democracy. If you stuff a pig into a dress does that mean the pig "progressed" into the dress? If you force Russian citizens to weather neoliberal shock treatments does that mean they are "progressing" to neoliberalism?

This is the point liberals simply wave off because it forces them to confront the idea that people are made to distrust institutions by institutional action, not the other way around. Neo-Cons figure you can just sidestep the problem with enough propagandizing and patriotism call outs.

Fukuyama and Huntington get it all wrong because they lack vision. They refuse to see a world without the USA or a world in which western cultural traits are not ascendant and therefore cannot be ridiculously considered deterministic. Didn't post-structuralism teach these guys anything?

They refuse to look into a possible future just as Romans refused to see a world without a Ceaser, Brits without colonies. Remember what happened after Pax Romana -- the fall of the Roman Empire. After Pax Britannica, the fall of the British Empire. After Pax Americana, the American Empire will fall. The backlash of that fall is what really worries Pfaff.

Pfaff is a patriot. A worrier, but a patriot. He worries that if America is going to either make the mistakes Rome, Russia and Britian -- trying to directly control too much of the globe -- or simply rampage around leaving chaos in its wake. A chaos like Taliban era Afghanistan or post-Hussein power vaccum Iraq spreads -- to Kuwait, to New York, to wherever. Iraq would certainly be overrun by Iran unless a massive American military deterrent is positioned there for years, if not decades. Is the US ready for its military to be stationed in four middle eastern countries? How long could it sustain them? How many American soldiers deaths would the populace accept?

One idea of Western hegemony requires the Mideast to be a fragmented wasteland, ruled by petty dictators and backward religiosos. Governments ruling over vast natural resources or with the ability to extricate itself from the neoliberal financial system, are threats. Threats to the dominance of the system undermine the very credibility of the determinism that buoys it. The Great Game is harder to win with more players.
posted by raaka at 4:20 AM on August 15, 2002

Alternative framework: a Pax Democratica
posted by sheauga at 5:35 AM on August 15, 2002

raaka: I really love your post, and the pig analogy, but I can't for the life of me figure out exactly what you said.
posted by hama7 at 5:56 AM on August 15, 2002

Congratulations hama7 for the most patronising comment of the day.
posted by Summer at 6:30 AM on August 15, 2002

Congratulations hama7 for the most patronising comment of the day.

My hope, Summer, is that if we keep reminding him that he's a pustulent troll, he'll run out of clichéd responses. Judging from his record so far, I'd say he has about half a dozen to go before he starts repeating himself: more than somewhat like an eight-track cartridge, since his standard replies were perhaps original in the 1970s.
posted by riviera at 3:38 PM on August 15, 2002

You're no better, riviera darling.

In fact, astonishingly equivalent, 'twatfink' (Must be a British term...)
posted by evanizer at 8:24 PM on August 16, 2002

Oh, please, evanizer, your high horse is of the kind that gets left at the gates of Troy.
posted by riviera at 12:14 PM on August 17, 2002

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