The End of Pax Americana?

Published by at 9:02 am under External Affairs

By John Thompson

There are a lot of people who seem cheered by the weakened status of the United States at the moment. They are fools and one can only hope that if their wishes come to pass, they become the first victims of the world that emerges when the Pax Americana ends. Alas, the universe simply isn’t that fair.

Peace is something whose existence we can construe from the occasional absence of war. In European history, between the creation of the modern nation state with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 (which ended the ghastly Thirty Years War) and the final downfall of Napoleon after the battle of Waterloo in 1815, there was scarcely a year without a war going on somewhere on the continent.

Peace is elusive and virtually non-existent in mankind’s more primitive societies; but there have been eras when large destructive wars between nations and empires were relatively absent for long periods of time. We are probably seeing the end of such a period right now.

Of course, peace is never perfect, and maintaining a period of peace can mean – as a part of the intrinsic paradox that so often appears in human affairs – a fair amount of fighting. However, what normally characterizes a large scale Pax is that fighting is either peripheral to a large geographic area or restricted to squabbling between elites. Large scale violent wars with wholesale death and devastation do not appear.

When one talks about big wars, there have been plenty to look at in history with death tolls in the hundreds of thousands. Millions of deaths are not a recent phenomenon either – the Thirty Years War of the early 17th Century seemingly led to 30 million deaths and some German towns had not recovered their pre-war populations until the end of the 19th Century. The Mongols slew millions of people, as did the Muslim invaders of India.

The other way to identify bloody wars in humanity’s sorry saga is to look for major invasions, widespread devastation and lots of recorded battles. The Roman Civil Wars of the 1st Century BC could be characterized this way; as could the Hundred Years War in 14th and 15th Century France.

There have been four periods when such activities were conspicuously absent for several generations over much of the planet. They are the Pax Romana of Imperial Rome, the Pax Mongolica established by the heirs of Genghis Khan, the Pax Britannica of the 19th Century, and the Pax Americana that has existed since roughly the end of the Second World War.

Some might argue that the Islamic World between the death of Mohammed and the start of the Crusades constituted another such Pax, but this was more of an ideal than a reality. One might also argue for the existence of a Pax Iberica for much of Latin America, but major interior wars have never been easy to undertake in South America. Nor were the Spanish really able to secure their colonies from attack.

For the Mediterranean World, the supremacy of Imperial Rome meant three centuries of peace, notwithstanding Rome’s frequent frontier wars on the periphery of its empire. While we remember the Pax Romana, the Pax Mongolica also provided a measure of peace and stability over much of Asia for over a century after the reign of Genghis Khan. This peace was certainly not enjoyed beyond the Mongol Empire, where the sons and grandsons of Genghis’ killers proved just as ruthless as their sires. However, on the steppes themselves, there was order and safety for the first time in centuries.

For 99 years after the downfall of Napoleon, Europe remained more or less peaceful. While there were numerous wars of limited duration and lethality; one of the main factors behind this relative peace was the power of Great Britain, with its great wealth and the Royal Navy. It says much for Pax Britannica that two of the four most lethal wars of this period were internal civil wars – that of the United States and the Taiping Rebellion in China. The American Civil War didn’t even result in a million deaths – unlike the Mfecane formation war of the Zulu realm, or the War of the Triple Alliance against Paraguay (1864-70). The Taiping Rebellion was in a class by itself, killing 20-30 million people before it was over.

Of course, for Britain itself during the time of Pax Britannica, there was scarcely a year in which its armed forces were not engaged in combat somewhere around the world. It would be best to remember that much of the impulse behind the creation of the British Empire was not economic greed, but rather a quest for stability. The British found, as had the Romans, that quelling the unruly troublemakers of Tribe ‘A’ only meant that you had to stay put and govern them. However, this now meant that your new tax-paying and relatively law-abiding subjects of Tribe ‘A’ were now looking to you for protection from Tribe ‘B’ who lived across your newly expanded frontier.

While many people like the idea of clear-cut dates to mark eras or epochs, change in history is gradual. What is clear is that the Pax Britannica was a going concern right up until the start of the First World War; and that Britain was the world’s leading superpower at the start of that war. Four years later, in 1918, this was no longer true; and an interim period began before the United States realized the responsibilities that came with its potentials and strength.

Some years ago, the author charted out the annual fatalities in all the conflicts and instances of political mass murder in the 20th Century, and took the average death toll as a rough measure of stability. The document is long gone, but some impressions remain and re-creating is on a ‘To-do’ list for future projects.

In the first decade of the 20th Century, the average number of deaths from political violence around the world in any given year was around 50,000 people. From 1914 until the death of Joseph Stalin and the dawn of the era of nuclear deterrence in 1954, over three million people died in the average year. Those 40 years saw both World Wars, plus the reigns of Lenin, Stalin, Chiang Gaishek, Hitler and Mao – all prodigious mass murderers (although most of the deaths on Gaishek’s account were through depraved indifference rather than actual homicide).

The establishment of the Pax Americana cannot be given one clear date, though several likely ones emerge. The United States was slow to pick up the responsibilities of a major power in the aftermath of the First World War; but the August 14th 1941 drafting of the Atlantic Charter might be interpreted by some as a ‘changing of the guard’ from an over-weakened Britain to a burgeoning United States. The Atlantic Charter also is the foundation for the framework of international diplomacy and trade that still shape the world.

During the Second World War, the first time the Japanese cabinet discussed accepting unconditional surrender was August 9th, 1945. That was the day after 1.5 million Soviet soldiers crashed into Manchuria, overwhelming the Japanese defences there. The Soviets had plenty of tanks and guns of their own, but their trucks, radios, boots and rations were likely to be American-made. Also on August 9th, the Americans dropped the second product of their massive Manhattan Project on Nagasaki. That same day, a titanic fleet with 20 aircraft carriers and 15 battleships (90% American built and crewed) appeared off the approaches to Tokyo harbor; and 1,022 carrier aircraft raided the city.

It was the massive economic and industrial might of the United States that won the Second World War. In the 63 years since 1945, one of the central facts of the world was that nobody wanted a direct confrontation with the power of the United States. The one nation that viewed itself as an ideological competitor and built up enough military power to match that of the US eventually went broke as a result. The Soviets were simply unable to update the technology of the huge military machine they built up in the 1960s and collapsed when Gorbachev attempted widespread reform.

1954 might be another year to select as the start of the Pax Americana. With Stalin’s death and the consolidation of Mao’s Communist Party dynasty in China, the pace of mass murder in the two most lethal regimes of the 20th Century was dramatically reduced. Moreover, the Korean War — which claimed some 3.5 million lives — had just finished, and there would be no more wars of such magnitude for another ten years. Both the US and the USSR had just tested their first hydrogen bombs, and it was becoming clear that the nuclear stalemate would be in place for the foreseeable future (if we were to have a future at all…)

In any event, whether the Pax Americana began in 1945 or 1954, some things are clear.

First, the world’s population has tripled since The Second World War. There were 2.3 billion people on the planet in 1940. With the abundant food and medicine made possible in the world Churchill and Roosevelt designed, massive population growth was inevitable. According to the UN (an entity which is another result of the Atlantic Charter), we will pass the 6.7 billion mark sometime early in 2009.

Secondly, while mass-murder by government still goes on, there have been no new episodes that claimed over ten million lives since the days of Stalin and Mao. There have been a few murder sprees that have claimed over a million lives. These include the reign of Pol Pot in Cambodia, the Pakistani suppression of Bangladeshi nationalism, plus the ongoing misery of North Korea and the Sudan. But in this more crowded world, mass murder is simply not as common as it was sixty years ago.

State on state warfare, once the normal ‘state’ of affairs, has likewise become exceptionally rare in recent decades. Since the end of the Vietnam War, there have only been two conflicts which have claimed over a million lives. These are the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the almost unremarked-upon multi-party squabble in the Eastern Congo (or Zaire, or whatever it is today), that has caused over five million deaths since 1995.

In October, 2008 there were no state vs. state wars being waged anywhere on the planet… a highly unusual situation when viewed through the prism of the last five hundred years, but not when considered over the last fifty.

We certainly do not live in a world free of political violence. Yet we live in a world that has been almost free of widespread and extremely destructive wars largely because of the potential threat of American military intervention.

A reader might care to consult his own family history in the past 100 years to see the results. In the author’s case, two great uncles died in uniform in the First World War and another great uncle in the Second World War. In the four families of the author’s grandparents, almost all the fit adult males signed up. One uncle flew in anti-submarine patrol aircraft from 1939 onwards, another was in the merchant marine, and a third was an infantryman who landed on D-Day. Yet, despite being in a family where military service has been common since the Second World War, no relative has been to war in 63 years. This would be typical for any family in North America or Western Europe.

There are many families of more recent arrival in our societies who can rightfully say that they came from a homeland at war… but how many have actually seen a real battle? How many have actually participated in such a thing?

The world has seen no battles on the scale of Jena, Waterloo, Sulferino, Gettysburg, the Somme, Verdun, Stalingrad or Okinawa for decades. We’ve had two entire generations of people who haven’t heard what a thousand artillery pieces lined up wheel to wheel can sound like when the barrage begins. Where have great fleets clashed at sea in the last 60 years?

We can’t miss the wars that were never waged and the battles that were never fought. Instead, the limited wars that have occurred in the last few decades are seen as American “imperialism” and the Americans are widely denounced for being belligerent for engaging in conflicts that are – when weighed on the scale of history — minor. This could be seen as preventative medicine, with the patients of the world complaining about its pain and discomfort without reflecting on the illnesses and injuries that are being avoided.

We live in a world three times as crowded as the world of 65 years ago, and yet we experience only a fraction of the warfare and mass murder that successive generations knew. So what if the Pax Americana isn’t perfect, what Pax is? What could possibly replace it? Pax Sinica? Pax Islamica? One wouldn’t know whether to laugh, weep or tremble at either prospect.

Humanity being what we are, major transitions in the international scheme of things are seldom free of war. As the United States weakens, its ability to sustain its military strength will diminish – perhaps radically. A world with the United States so weakened will be a world where war becomes much more common. It would be foolish to predict when, where, how, and who – conflicts do have lives of their own, but one can be certain that such conflicts will soon come.

Of the 2.3 billion people who were alive in 1940, 62 million (2.58%) died in the Second World War. There were 1.79 billion people alive in 1913, and 14.66 million (0.81%) died by the end of 1918. Imagine wars of similar magnitude on a world with 6.7 billion of us: There would be anywhere from 54 to 173 million dead in a few years. This could – all too easily — be the down-payment for the end of America’s military supremacy. The full price would be higher yet.

Those who wish the United States to become weaker, and believe this will bring ‘peace in our time’ are dead wrong… and perhaps some of them will become so literally. Unfortunately, the Universe simply isn’t that just. The cheering section hoping for America to become enfeebled will probably die in their beds … unlike so many others.

MacKenzie Institute Newsletter, Autumn 2008