Pax Americana
Oct 18, 2010

Pax Americana

After centuries of unending cyclical violence in Europe, WW2's end  finally created what is a seemingly enduring peace among western Europe and America. With the rise of American dominance, this peace spread outwards and after the collapse of the SU now consists of effectively all modern 1st world countries. The state violence that occurs now occurs on the periphery of failed and rogue states. It is a "Pax Americana" that dwarfs the Pax Romana of the Roman Empire and likewise still experiences much violence on its periphery. This post investigates this juxtaposition between the peace and the violence in today's world.

In the west, the level of this peace is startling. Within a couple generations, the very idea of two major western states like France and Germany going to war with each other is effectively impossible. While of course the cold war saw many conflicts between the US and the SU, nowadays worldwide big modern states are considered very unlikely to go to war. A repeat of a Sino-Japanese war just isn't going to happen. The reason for this enduring peace among the major states of the world outside Russia and China can be attributed to many factors such as military alliances, economic ties bringing people together, an increase in military technology that makes the deterrent threat of pyrrhic victory too great and simply the modernization of a globalized and integrated world where full out war is neither desirable or possible among major states.  What should be noted is that all of these factors are symbolic of the rise of the American superpower. NATO and the Marshall plan where the beginning of this world order where western Europe was bound economically and militarily close to the US. Having an enormously powerful military (with no less importantly a stable cohort of close allies) creates a powerful disincentive worldwide to engage in war if the US and her allies would be opposed. Likewise, while military power is certainly a large component of the American Empire, its military power is made possible through its economic power. Its economic power however creates many stabilizing forces in that it is forges the kind of international economic ties that bind countries together in peace. Thus while certainly not the exclusive reason, the lasting peace among the modern worlds major states is attributed at least in part to the rise of the American superpower and hence the term "Pax Americana". In as far as there is peace and in as far as it can be attributed to the US superpower, the US can be applauded.


Sadly, the story does not stop here for violence and wars remain common. The key distinction is that they happen on the periphery of the American military, economic, political, cultural and geographic empire. They can loosely be lumped into two categories of areas outside US concern or influence and those that the US has an interest in. For the former this consists of places like Kashmir, Sri Lanka and Sudan. This isn't to say the US has zero influence in these conflicts - they certainly have some which speaks to their power - but for the most part these situations are outside of the US sphere of influence in the various factors listed. Perhaps the most spectacular example is the over five million dead in the second Congo war in Africa which was a region which outside of some limited UN, IMF and mining company influence (these being factors of the world order symbolic of US influence)  was fairly outside of the US sphere.

The other category of wars are those the US has an interest and participation in. Rightly or wrongly, the US has a long and often brutal history of aggression and war in dozens of countries around the world. Today, two major publicly announced wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are on going while conflicts in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Israel/Palestine, Iran, North Korea and many other places are heavily influenced by the US.  The pattern is that these states - many of them rogue or failed - are outside of the cultural, economic, militaristic and other aspects of American influence. They are on the periphery. Iraq is a classic example of a rogue state standing up to US influence and Afghanistan is, while also rogue, principally a failed state. Some of US intervention  is morally justified (ww2),  some is not (Iraq), and some would be justified if there were significant changes in focus and methods (Afghanistan), but looking holistically we conclude that the US must accept some responsibility for the conflicts on the fringe of its empire that it is directly a part of.

Looking at past empires, this pattern repeats itself. There is a trade off between relative internal peace in the center of the empire and much conflict along the periphery. Traditionally, these geographic terms like periphery were completely apt because empires could be defined geographically. The US "empire" is far less a geographic entity than it is a cultural, economic and militaristic entity. Regardless, the central peace versus peripheral violence remains apt when we realize we are extending these terms to the new context.

China and Russia have a certain level of exceptionalism in the sense that they are very distinct and separate powers. Nonetheless, they have moved quite far into the world order in the last several decades for many of the same reasons given above. When we see Russia invade Georgia, this is about as far from US influence in the world as is possible to be and they are utterly powerless to stop it, provide a deterrent for it or even to meaningfully condemn it. Likewise for Chinese military action versus Uyghurs in Xinjiang or the occupation of Tibet. This can actually be seen as a microcosm of this same idea where internally to China there is a pretty profound and enduring peace lasting for decades yet on the periphery in Tibet and Xinjiang one gets these cases of violence.

Finally, one might try to do a sort of violence calculus where one compares the benefit of the peace made possible by the American to the detriment of violence on its periphery. I believe this is the wrong approach. Instead, we should laud the peace and condemn the violence and make every possible step to minimize it. The benefits of the one do not excuse the problems of the other.

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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