The Decline and Fall of the Pax Americana

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The Pax Americana is the term used to describe the peace supposed to be established in the world by the presence of the power of the United States. The Pax Britannica was a similar description of the supposed order in the world during the 18th and 19th centuries created by British rule in the days of the British Empire. There were, of course, not a few significant wars during these periods, but there was a growing conviction, in the Anglo-American area at least, that a new world order would eventually emerge, where democracy, free trade and human rights would trump tyranny, injustice, corruption, poverty, short-sighted isolationism and endemic chaos and disorder. The shining example of a prosperous, progressive, egalitarian, freedom-loving, caring United States would encourage the new world order, surely guaranteed by the all-powerful military dominance of the benign superpower. Enlightened European states, and especially Britain and Australia, would happily attach their stars to the American wagon. In the process, a considerable amount of ‘Americanisation’ of these countries took place. In 1945 Americanisation was probably good for you.

In the immediate postwar years, a large number of Northern European companies – in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and the United Kingdom – felt the need to ‘Americanise’ in order to emulate the forceful and palpably successful business techniques in production, marketing, sales, budgeting and reporting emanating from the other side of the Atlantic. This trend towards Americanisation (initially financed by the Marshall Plan) has to a great extent remained in place and has served its purpose, not only in the decades of rising production but also in periods of ubiquitous mergers, acquisitions, downsizing and delayering.

Americanisation of business was not restricted to Europe. In the Asia-Pacific zone, Australia is openly Americanised, while Japan, Korea and the Philippines were by no means unaffected. Because the most pressing need of people in war-battered countries was to quickly raise their living standards to an acceptable level, the Americanisation phenomenon was most immediately visible in the areas of industry and commerce. Almost unconsciously, however, many Europeans and some Asians, seduced by the success of the United States, permitted certain American notions and values to influence their lifestyles. Some of these were related to dress, sport, language, music and other forms of entertainment. Other more subtle but enduring influences were in attitudes towards freedom, societal structure, the role of youth and the reaction to government. Thus, what was ever more frequently referred to as the ‘Americanisation’ of Western Europe had, by the early 1950s, become clearly evident in such countries as Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Ireland and Britain – less so in countries such as Italy, Spain, Greece and, particularly France. In the southern hemisphere, Australia followed the trend. Among Asian countries, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand to some extent, embraced elements of American lifestyle with some enthusiasm.

‘Voluntary Americanisation’ remained a feature of ‘free-world’ nations almost till the end of the 20th century, though in the 1990s it began to creak a little, Asian countries, particularly, had been looking for some time at a ‘Japanese model’ which seemed to herald a growing inclination to consider ‘Asianisation’ as an attractive alternative to Americanisation.

But let’s get back to the West. The new century seems to have ushered in a new America. Her allies are increasingly besieged by numerous misgivings. What has gone wrong? Surely the West was content to follow American leadership for another fifty years at least? Galloping technology, promoted by virtually instant access to information, indicated that American civilisation was still racing towards its apex. Is it possible that this civilisation – so wondrously pre-eminent and commanding – has begun to deteriorate before it has reached its peak?

Friendly countries are becoming increasingly uneasy over what seem to be signs of rapid decay. America’s critics, on the other hand, are having a field day. American leadership seems to stagger from one crisis to another. The war in Iraq, costing $600 billion and rising, not to mention 4,000 US deaths, is an unending quagmire. A national budgetary deficit of nearly $1 trillion – and also rising – is an unbelievable statistic for the formerly economically dominant United States. How come that huge American companies, not to mention vast US properties, are being rapidly bought up by Russians, Arabs and Chinese? Surely Americans have it in their power to elect a President of stature able to tackle these catastrophic issues, as well as deal with greedy executives, corrupt corporate governance, iniquitous lawyers, trashy media, incompetent and biased politicians, fast-talking salesmen and economists, unprincipled bankers and complicit accountants? Why are brilliant American intellectuals who aspire to political influence (Averill Harriman, Adlai Stevenson, George Kennan) passed over as presidential candidates in favour of haberdashers, peanut farmers, class B movie stars, soldiers and uneducated oilmen?

Such weighty matters of state, including the habitual US custom of backing wrong horses and tyrants in the political sphere (Batista in Cuba, Pinochet in Chile, Chiang-Kai-shek in post-war China, Marshal Ky in Vietnam, the Saudi Arabian Royal despots in the Middle East, the Shah in Persia, even Saddam Hussein in the Iraq-Iran war) as well as the tarnishing of America’s moral image in Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and other locations, can only be solved by drastic changes in future administrations’ decision-making and judgement.

Yet it is not only these major gaffes and disasters that make America’s friends cringe. At a less consequential level, we are dosed daily with the banal, hackneyed products of Hollywood in the form of fatuous feature films, nonsensical TV contests and chat-shows, facile encapsulated news bulletins, childish interminable ads (‘a short break’), feckless political or religious exhortation, mundane interviews with nonentities – all this ‘entertainment’ fare portraying a rapidly vulgarising, materialistic, time-is-money society dressed uniformly in second-rate T-shirts, ubiquitous jeans, trainers and baseball caps (men and women), washing down McDonald’s hamburgers and hot dogs in huge buns with coca-cola or something fizzier. We are put off by American teenage obesity and loudness in public, by the screaming pop stars, the constant hype and hard sell, by the rhetoric and false promises in the endless primaries, by the overdone security measures at the airports (confiscation of your wife’s Chanel and beauty creams), by the interminable wait on the phone to speak to a real person or book a hotel or rented car with answer-machines. Does the shop assistant really need 5 minutes on the computer to add $10 and $20? What about crime and violence, overcrowded prisons, the anachronistic Death Row, the premature unloading of precious parents into Old Folks’ Homes?

It is not difficult to see, in all this, a society in rapid decline, unable to turn to a 1,000-year-old culture for guidance and discipline. Moreover, America is at the mercy of four ubiquitous myths which forecast her impending doom and collapse. The first is that her society is so soft, spoiled and cosseted, that it lacks the toughness and powers of endurance to enable it to successfully fend off the attacks it will inevitably be subjected to in the 21st century by hardy Russians, Chinese, Muslims and others. The second myth is that the country will bankrupt itself by imprudent debt, overspending and runaway social security costs. Third, the US will soon be overwhelmed by religious fundamentalists. Fourth, the changing demographics will result in racial and ethnic rivalries tearing the state apart. In 2050 whites will be in the minority! So, the end of the American Dream?

Not so fast. Let’s take these forecasts (or myths?) one by one and see if they hold water. In the first case it is true that millions of Americans, middle classes and up, have never known real hardship or deprivation and unquestionably are cosseted by a lifetime of opulence. There are truly many soft, spoiled Americans. But what about the Frontier Spirit? It is not so long ago that a previous generation of Americans conquered a continent in an unbelievably short space of time. The hardy settlers and Pilgrim Fathers pioneered their way 3,000 miles to California, encountering substantial hardship and sacrifice in doing so. By necessity the Frontier engendered a plethora of qualities that became part of the American psyche. These included self-reliance, a rugged individualism, toughness and tenacity, risk-taking, innovation, entrepreneurship, optimism, future-orientation, a sense of mission, democratic instincts, a sense of speed and urgency, thinking big, work ethic, pragmatism, inventiveness and patriotism. These characteristics tend to burgeon forth when things get critical. An American saying is “When the going gets tough, the tough get going”. So much for the first myth.

Second, the country will bankrupt itself some time soon. This is not very likely. If we consider the Iraq war, America spent $626 billion on it in 2007. But US government expenditure at all levels stands at around 30% of GDP. The EU-25 average was 47% in 2005. The sub-prime crisis is sickening, but is of a short-term nature, unlikely to be around in 2020, let alone 2050. Conventional wisdom says that payroll tax revenues will fall short of expenditures for social security in 2041, but this estimate assumes a low rate of productivity of 1.7% for the next 50 years. If productivity grows at the same rate as the historic average of 1945-2008, it will in fact be nearly double that. Again, payroll taxes can always be raised. It is likely that in any case the average wage earner in 2050 will have real term wages at least 60% higher than today’s.

The third myth says that America will soon be overwhelmed by religious fundamentalists. It is true that Americans are far more religious than Europeans, but in the US the long-term trend is nevertheless towards greater secularism. Researchers at the City University of New York tell us that the number of Americans who do not belong to any religious organisation went from 46% in 1990 to 54% in 2000. Then why is ‘God talk’ growing in public life? Bush certainly uses it, but so did Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson and many of the presidents before them. It wins votes. The religious right in America is almost entirely a phenomenon of white southern protestants. It is as much an ethnic and regional movement as a religious one.

The fourth, and last, myth is, on the surface, the most compelling. In 2050 whites will be in the minority and the country will be riven by racial and ethnic disputes. No-one expects the ‘whites’ to give up their privileges without a fierce struggle. But the US census bureau’s headline in 2004 (“Tripling of Hispanic and Asian populations in 50 years; non-Hispanic whites may drop below half of total population”) is very misleading. The myth of the non-white majority is based on treating ‘Hispanic’ as the name of a race. In the 2000 census 48% of Hispanics classified themselves as ‘white’. If we bracket all whites together (Hispanic and non-Hispanic) the combined white population will be 61.8% in 2050. Moreover, the children of mixed marriages (white with Asian) tend to be seen as generic whites, which would bring the white percentage up to 66%. Nor is there any long-term danger of the US being permanently polarised between Anglophones and Spanish speakers. By the third and fourth generations, Hispanics in the US are almost completely Anglophone. In their rate of linguistic assimilation, they resemble the European immigrants of earlier generations. The ‘melting pot’ still works!

After exploding these myths, one still has to deal with the rise of China and India and the supposed shift of power and wealth from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Indian Oceans. But the relative rise of Asia will come at the expense of Europe, whose share of global GDP will decline because of a shrinking population. But all this is relative. In 2050 Europeans will still be much richer in per capita income than the Chinese and Indians. Also, according to Goldman Sachs, the global share of NAFTA in 2050 will be 23%, not much lower than today. The per capita income of the US will be far higher than that in China or India into the 22nd century, if not beyond.

In view of the existing technological gap between the US and other countries, not to mention their persistent productivity growth and unrelenting work ethic, I believe it is dangerous to write off the Americans or forecast their fall any time soon.

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One Response

  1. Guy Cookson says:

    Perhaps the rise of India and China as global powers with real weight will, in the best case scenario, serve to counter America’s worst foreign policy excesses, which they’ve been free to pursue for so many years without sanction.
    The examples provided above (“Batista in Cuba, Pinochet in Chile, Chiang-Kai-shek in post-war China, Marshal Ky in Vietnam, the Saudi Arabian Royal despots in the Middle East, the Shah in Persia, even Saddam Hussein in the Iraq-Iran war… Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib”) really help to shatter the myth of Pax Americana as any kind of global stabilising force for good. It was a force alright, but whether you benefited from it very much depended on whether you happened to live a country with leaders willing to play America’s game by America’s rules.
    They say that history is written by the victors (or is, as Napoleon Bonaparte put it, ‘a lie agreed upon’), but today there are increasing numbers of books and documentaries emerging from Latin America and other places previously shielded from western eyes that catalogue American-backed catastrophes on an almost unimaginable scale. The oppression and slaughter was, in many cases, televised.
    I hope that in this new century America will embrace change rather than try and retain their premier position. I think we all know power corrupts, so having a single superpower is perhaps not the best idea.

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