The road to Pax Americana

July 14, 2003

(The third in a series on Christian hope in an age of Pax Americana).

IN THIS AND THE FOLLOWING TWO W E E K L Y W O R D S , my intention is to:
· inquire how we got from Pax Britannica to Pax Americana;
· investigate the making of a terrorist;
· evaluate the role of Christian hope in world threatened by hopelessness.

‘Pax Americana’ is a phrase frequently used these days to refer to the new world order dominated by American power that emerged from the Cold War. Historians speak of ‘Pax Romana’ as that era when Rome was the world’s sole superpower and thus dictated peace from Spain to Palestine. Britain’s heyday – when ‘Britannia ruled the waves’ and ‘the sun never set on the Empire’ – is also referred to as ‘Pax Britannica’.

This week we ask what gave rise to ‘Pax Americana’. How did this world order come about?

First, let’s address some stereotypes.

Europeans think of Americans as brash and arrogant, talking and dressing loudly, and fond of throwing their weight around. Right? Well, that may be partly true of one or two Americans we know, but certainly not of all. In our more honest moments we admit that most Americans are generous and friendly, positive and self-critical. Besides, most of the bad we know about America we know because Americans have told us – through their Al Pachino films, CNN tv, John Grisham novels, or TIME and Newsweek magazines.

We Europeans tend to dismiss America as young and na√Øve – and forget that it is an older nation state than Germany, Italy, Belgium and many other European nations. It is the oldest extant democracy on earth, the oldest republic and the oldest federal system. ‘Sophisticated’ France, by comparison, has gone through five different republics, two emperors, two monarchies and a puppet regime since this ‘young and na√Øve’ republic began.

By all measures, America is an exceptional nation. The great British apologist G.K.Chesterton called it the only nation in the world founded on a creed. To be an American was not a matter of blood, but of an idea.

America is a nation made up of peoples from all nations. The Economist once wrote: ‘America is an immigrant’s land, open to anyone of any race or culture who accepts the ideas of the European Enlightenment on which it was founded. Provided the ideas remained intact, an America populated with Martians would still be America.’

But that’s not the full story. For, in addition to the Enlightenment idea of individual liberty, the Christian idea of embodying God’s will can be traced to America’s protestant beginnings. John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts, expounded the purpose of this colony in terms of the Sermon on the Mount: “Consider that we shall be as a Citty [sic] upon a hill, the eies [sic] of all people are upon us.”

Already the roots of nationalist exceptionalism, of being superior and different, were evident. Herman Melville, author of ‘Moby Dick’ (and great, great, granduncle of Moby, the singer) wrote: “God has predestined, mankind expects, great things from our race ‚Ķ We are pioneers of the world; the advance guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a new path.”

The motto on the dollar note – ‘e pluribus unum’ (from many, one) – suggests a parallel with the Christian mission: in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek. A certain messianism or ‘Manifest Destiny’ to shape the world in its own image has long been part of the American sense of calling and mission. Like Israel, referred to in Isaiah 49, America was divinely appointed to be a ‘light to the nations’. Woodrow Wilson believed that God planted in Americans the vision of liberty: “‚Ķ I cannot be deprived of the hope that we are chosen, and prominently chosen, to show the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.”

Bismarck once remarked that God seemed to have a special place in his heart for ‘drunkards, idiots and Americans’. What specifically he had in mind, I’m not sure. But clearly her geographical location has been a major advantage for America’s role in the world, especially in the 20th century – wide oceans on either side, benign neighbours to the north and south, and extensive natural resources.

As Australian Owen Harries* explains, American foreign policy can only be understood in terms of tension between the Idealism and Realism. John Quincy Adams, the sixth US president (1824-1828), declared, “America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher of the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

As Secretary of State, Adams had drafted the Monroe Doctrine, the basis of American foreign policy until 1917. This basically declared that America would not interfere in European wars or colonies, and that the American hemisphere was out of bounds to European interference. As a Realist, he believed America should promote democracy by example, not by force.

This was the era of ‘Pax Britannica’, when Britain wielded the world’s biggest stick – her fearsome and unrivalled Royal Navy. While a weaker America tended to eschew power politics and war, extolling instead the virtues of trade and international law, the great European powers often acted as if above international law, grandly playing the game of Machtpolitik.

When Wilson, initially an isolationist, enjoined World War 1, he became an Idealist embarking on a grand crusade to make the world safe for democracy. The League of Nations, guaranteed by the United States, would usher in a new peaceful era of freedom and democracy. Yet Realists in congress refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, and thus to sign a blank cheque to back the League with credible armed force. The League was thus doomed to be merely a toothless forum imposing ineffective sanctions.

Idealism and Realism however reinforced each other during the Cold War following World War 2. Harry Truman articulated the Truman Doctrine in 1947 as follows: “I believe it must be the policy of the US to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures‚Ķ The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms. If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world.” The very real danger of Communism united Realist and Idealist, with Realism keeping Idealism in check, for example, during the Hungarian crisis of 1956.

The sudden and dramatic collapse of communism, however, left the United States the sole superpower. How should it use its new unchallenged clout? Conservative and Realist Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the US ambassador to the UN, proposed America return to being a ‘normal’ nation, an independent nation in a world of independent nations.

Yet Kirkpatrick was dismissed as neo-isolationist. While Europeans talked of cashing in the peace dividend, Americans began to enjoy their new freedom to intervene practically wherever and whenever they chose. Harries suggests they had grown to expect and enjoy leadership more than they realized or acknowledged. For four and a half decades, he argues, a huge foreign policy and security establishment had mushroomed with a vested interest in an activist policy. That establishment was to wax rather than wane in the post-Cold War period.

Harries: “After World War 1, American Idealism and Realism clashed head on. After World War 2, they were in balance. After the third conflict, the Cold War, they have to every considerable extent merged to produce a kind of oxymoron: a crusading realism, Wilsonianism with muscle.”

George Bush Sr proclaimed a New World Order in which “the rule of law supplanted the rule of the jungle‚Ķ in which nations recognized the shared re

sponsibility for freedom and justice… where the strong respect the rights of the weak.” This w
as at first assumed to mean
the end of power politics. The world’s democracies would take multilateral action where necessary, as in Gulf War 1.

And yet as Panama and Kuwait were followed by Somalia and Haiti, and eventually Bosnia and Kosovo, America showed it was fully prepared to act unilaterally if deemed necessary. New computerised technology was outstripping her allies’ capacities and enabling the US to to use force around the world more precisely, with less risk of casualty. The gap between America and Europe widened considerably in the nineties.

The situation of the early days of the republic was now totally upended: America, not Europe, was now more likely to use bombs, rather than contracts and laws, in her international relations. ‘Pax Americana’ was by now well and truly established.

Indeed a great reversal had been wrought by World War 2. Europeans came out of that experience no longer ambitious for military power, but consciously rejecting power politics. Over two centuries of Machtpolitik had only produced regular cycles of war, twice embroiling the whole world. National egoism had to give way to a new order of international integration, making war unthinkable. The European Union was based on a deliberate rejection of force and a new moral consciousness in international affairs.

In ‘Paradise and Power’, one of the most influential contributions on European-American relations written this year, Robert Kagan explains that the miracle of the German lion lying down with the French lamb had been achieved by abandoning power politics in pursuit of ‘paradise’. Confrontation gave way to cooperation and integration. The rule of law replaced the crude interplay of power. European Commission President Romano Prodi declared that by “making a success of integration we are demonstrating to the world that it is possible to create a method for peace.”

The irony, as Kagan points out, is that Europe’s rejection of power politics was possible only because of America’s willingness to man the watchtower to deter others who still believed in power politics. Others… like Osama bin Laden.

September 11 afforded George Junior the occasion to divide the world into two black-and-white categories, with his declaration of war against all terrorist groups: “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” The whole world was embroiled in a global conflict between ‘good and evil’.

The jolt of 9/11 powerfully re-activated America’s sense of mission. Not merely to promote good (i.e. liberty and democracy) by example as ‘a city on a hill’, it was now to crush evil by all the considerable force it could muster. In direct contradiction to President Adams, the mission was now precisely to go abroad ‘in search of monsters to destroy’. ‘Shock and awe’ tactics would be deployed to establish freedom and democracy.

Military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq is now history. Today the Department of Defense supercedes the State Department in dealing with the rest of the world. Further threats have been made against other countries, including nuclear threats against non-nuclear nations. Harries cautions that we should not underestimate the sense of violation and outrage prevailing in Washington, nor American capacity for ruthless action against its perceived violators. In the last five months of World War 2 alone, the US annihilated over 900,000 Japanese civilians in bombing raids, before the two atom bombs incinerated a further 200,000.

But the monsters of terrorism are elusive and shadowy. Harries predicts frustration in the war against a non-traditional foe could lead to serious mistakes, and a mounting global hostility towards America. This, he warned over a year ago, could become the real tragedy of September 11.

These days European diplomats are fond of saying that when you have a hammer you begin to see nails everywhere. Their American colleagues respond that when you don’t have a hammer, you don’t want to see nails anywhere.

So where might this era of ‘Pax Americana’ be leading to?

What makes the world upset with America? And why do people become terrorists?

We’ll look at that next week. And then the following week we’ll ask how we as Christians should respond.

Till then,

Jeff Fountain
*Owen Harries was editor-in-chief of the Washington-based foreign policy journal, The National Interest, 1985-2001. For this W e e k l y W o r d, I have drawn from his lecture on ‘Understanding America’, presented in Sydney, April 2002.

©jeff fountain 2003
may be reproduced with due acknowledgment

Till next week,

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