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March 31, 2023

Pax Americana: The end or a new edition? (1)

The fact that the global system of states finds itself in the period of ‘Pax Americana’ is frequently mentioned in the international press or in various academic publications on current international relations.

Thus defined is the fact that the U.S. is at the top of the international system of states, that the latter follows rules and has management institutions devised/created with the American interests in mind. Thus, after the Second World War, following the United Nations’ victory over the Axis powers, an international order was established, differentiated from the international system of states.

It is defined as “a stable, structured pattern of relationships among states that involves some combination of parts, ranging from emergent norms to rule-making institutions to international political organizations or regimes” or as a set of rules “governing arrangements between states, including its fundamental rules, principles, and institutions.” The difference between the system of states and the international order resides in the fact that the former could go through several stages within the framework of the same order – in the case of ‘Pax Americana,’ the stage of the Cold War (1948-1991) but also of the ‘unipolar moment’ (1993-2003) – hence the international order equips the system with rules and long-term functioning institutions.

Ever since Barrack Obama’s first presidential term (2008), numerous experts wondered whether we find ourselves in the end stage of ‘Pax Americana.’ In other words, against the backdrop of the large-scale financial-economic crisis that started in 2007, but also against the backdrop of the U.S.’s obvious inability to continue to manage the system of states (the military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were prolonged without clear victory being registered in any of them), and the extraordinary economic growth of China, which was tirelessly advancing toward the summit of the systemic hierarchy, these experts reached the diagnosis that the U.S. has entered a decline of power and the regulations established at the end of the Second World War are being challenged.

Historically, such a period precedes a new systemic war of the hegemonic type, which would settle the competition between the current hegemon (U.S.) and the already mentioned challenger (China). The reaction of most American experts, but also of the political establishment in Washington, was firm: we are still ‘Number 1,’ even voices to the contrary have been heard in the American public opinion and the tendency to give priority to solving domestic problems as a basis for consolidating the prominent global status has grown. In the last year, against the backdrop of the events that have occurred during the first year of the Donald Trump administration, the analyses that outline that a decline in U.S. power is occurring have grown in number, in the context in which other competitors – China, Russia – are geopolitically entering regions from which the U.S. has withdrawn (the Eastern Mediterranean, for example).

Recently, Rand, the famous U.S. research institution, published a report titled Testing the Value of Post-War International Order (authors: Michael J. Mazarr, Ashley L. Rhoades), January 2018, which investigates the current and near future state of the order called ‘Pax Americana.’ Firstly, they proceed to list the traits of the current international order dominated by the U.S., and the cost-benefit advantages of the American hegemon. Based on a close analysis of not only the interests and objectives but also of the capabilities of the U.S., but also those of its main competitors, but also of the dynamic of international relations – dominated by uncertainty in recent years –, the authors draw several significant conclusions. The main conclusion is that the post-war order offers “significant value to U.S. interests and objectives,” especially because “its outcomes strongly support the goals and processes of the U.S. grand strategy.”

In fact, as the authors state, the American grand strategy is not intended to ensure U.S. predominance over allies and the system as a whole, but “to nurture multiple reservoirs of stability and values in the international system beyond the United States as a way of creating a context in which U.S. interests would be safer.” The U.S. geopolitical advantage consists of the fact that “the United States has not been merely another great power: It has been the architect of a system of mutual advantage.”  Through cost-benefit analysis, the authors draw another significant conclusion: “To the extent that the institutions, relationships, norms, and communities of the order have played a necessary role in avoiding even one major negative outcome, the value dwarfs the investments the United States makes in the order.” This conclusion has great practical significance because it outlines the fact that the much-invoked burden sharing, insistently mentioned by the Trump administration, proves to be both an alliance duty and a central objective of any of Washington’s policies. Because this competitive advantage of the U.S. should not be neglected at all: “Others are more likely to support U.S. efforts and less likely to take steps to balance U.S. power — thus potentially saving the United States tens of billions of dollars in additional defense expenditures that would have been necessary had others sought to balance its power more aggressively.” Such an approach is grounded, striking proof of this being the formation of the ‘coalition of the willing’ during various recent events (Afghanistan, Iraq), which brought massive cost saving to the U.S.

The authors outline the U.S.’s outlays to maintain this post-war order – around USD 116-216 billion annually –, while the competitive advantage held by the United States is estimated to be far higher. The costs that the U.S. would have to bear in “what if scenarios” surpass by far several trillion dollars. The significance of these conclusions and of the data used to justify them shows that the U.S. has a fundamental reason to maintain the current global order, applying adjustments where it shows signs of wear and tear. In this context, the authors show the extraordinary importance of prevention, stating that “preventing a single global financial crisis or Iraq-sized conflict, for example, would avoid costs that amount to between 30 and 60 times the annual U.S. outlays for the order.”

Another conclusion of the report pleads in the same sense, namely that “Without the benefits and legitimacy conferred by such an order, vibrant U.S. leadership would likely become financially and strategically unaffordable.” In other words, the U.S. must maintain the current order, and for this it will have to maintain its aforementioned competitive advantages, in whose absence it would enter a decline fuelled by unbearable costs. But should ‘Pax Americana’ remain unchanged?


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