How Today’s Turmoil Is Eliciting a Wave of Nostalgia for Pax Americana

How Today’s Turmoil Is Eliciting a Wave of Nostalgia for Pax Americana

How Today’s Turmoil Is Eliciting a Wave of Nostalgia for Pax Americana

Yet the notion that the United States ever withdrew from the world is risible.


Terror wracks Israel and Palestine. The Ukraine war grinds on. Azerbaijan routs Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. China flexes its muscles in the South China Sea. A red wave—or at least a pink one—wends through South America. Military dictators take over countries across Africa.

The turmoil has elicited a wave of nostalgia for American hegemony. “These are just a few signs of an unraveling global order,” writes journalist Noah Smith, in a piece cited by The New York Times. “Pax Americana is in an advanced state of decay, if not already fully dead.” The result is increased violence and chaos.

Generally, the argument is accompanied by a call for America to reassert itself. Withdrawal from the world is dangerous. We are still the strongest power in the world. We just have to get our mojo back. Neoconservative Robert Kagan assails “declinists,” arguing that Americans should buck up and understand that it is our responsibility and our burden: “Preserving the present world order requires constant American leadership and constant American commitment.”

The argument makes America—American strength or the lack of it—responsible for the turmoil in the world. Smith argues that the Hamas attack is a “demonstration of America’s decreasing ability to deter conflict throughout the world.” Ross Douthat, resident conservative on the New York Times opinion page, groups Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, each a perceived “outpost of the American empire.” While he allows that Russia, Hamas, and China might want to attack that territory for its own sake, they also do so for the additional “sake of revising the regional or global status quo.” This temerity is a stark contrast to the global order when America functioned, in Smith’s words, as a “global policeman” during the “long peace” after World War II. “If countries sent their armies into other countries, there was always the looming possibility that America and its allies could intervene to stop them—as they did in the Korean War in 1950, the Gulf War of 1991, Bosnia in 1992 in Bosnia, Kosovo in 1999, and so on.”

This shared assumption is reflected in the venomous partisan assaults of our political debate. Republicans argue that Biden’s weakness has emboldened Hamas. Democrats decry Trump’s “isolationist” attacks on American allies, and his effort to withdraw from the world that undermined our credibility.

Only one problem: Virtually every statement in the argument is plainly wrong.

The notion that the United States has withdrawn from the world is risible. Trump’s largely rhetorical posturing changed little. Biden finally got the US out of Afghanistan but has revved up great-power conflict with both China and Russia, sustained our meddling in the Middle East, and dispatched our military to multiple countries, maintaining upwards of 750 military bases across the world, patrolling the seven seas and, increasingly, outer space.

The Long Peace wasn’t all that peaceful for this country. In addition to the terror of nuclear destruction hanging over our heads, the United States has been at war ceaselessly in this century, and throughout the post–World War II period—from Korea, to Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, Serbia, Iraq, Libya, and more. Nor has the US been a beacon of democracy, overthrowing popularly elected governments in Iran, Indonesia, Guatemala, and Chile, while subverting elections from Italy to Ukraine.

Nor has the US ever been so powerful that it could deter violence and exact its will. We haven’t been on the winning side of a war since World War II—Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya are testaments to that. US prowess hasn’t been able to bring peace to the Middle East, or even get Israel to stop expanding the settlements we oppose. Hamas may get support from Iran, but it also is funded by supposed US allies like Qatar where its leaders are located.

Third, as Kagan sometimes comes close to conceding, this global mission hasn’t exactly served as a “foreign policy for the middle class.” America’s global policies savaged manufacturing and hollowed out the middle class, leading to obscene inequality. After Vietnam, the foreign policy establishment made certain that their sons and daughters would not fight in the wars they got us involved in. And now as the existential threat of extreme weather wreaks more and more destruction and death, the US continues to subsidize Big Oil.

In the end, it seems foolish to feel nostalgia for US hegemony when we’re still in the thick of it.

What’s clear is that the establishment consensus is breaking apart. What will come next is up for grabs. Isolationism is not the answer, nor is crackpot neocon or neoliberal interventionism. It may be that the end of US primacy is the best chance to achieve a new common-security foreign policy for our times.

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