David Kuhn jumps into the debate on American exceptionalism and comes out in defense of Pax Americana. Just like Sarkozy’s little pep talk to Congress when he was here last year, Kuhn talks fondly about the American role in bringing peace to the world after the Second World War. He notes that under American hegimonic stewardship, there have been no world wars and that the “most ignoble and bloody modern U.S. wars, Korea and Vietnam, [have only] killed 3.2 million.” Far less than the wars of any previous period. And thats pretty impressive, given the improved weaponry and warmaking abilities we now have. The fact that in an age of nuclear weapons and stealth bombers the world has stayed so remarkably stable is indeed impressive and certainly due to America’s steadying involvement.
However, perhaps it is that the Pax Americana applies only to the now fading Westphalian system where states are the major players. I know I’m treading well worn terrirtory here, but Kuhn’s article seems to overlook this. Borders have remained, by and large, quite stable and recognized under the American hegemon, but are we as able to handle other threats? The Taliban and tribal militias in Pakistan don’t appear to be intimidated by our power, and are increasingly posing a serious threat. Certainly not one along the lines of a World War though, and we are almost certain not to see levels of dead that high in any foreseeable conflict. It just goes to point out the limits in the power of Pax Americana.
The overwhelming power balance that led to this era of relative stability among states appears to mean less now. Russia is continuing to stake out a stronger position in its near abroad, and NATO has been unable to push back much. Quite the opposite, NATO has learned that it cannot ignore the will of Russia in its expansion. Economically, we’re seeing smaller countries previously ignored, like Brazil or India, able to hold up free trade negotiations. An ability not seen in the era of GATT.
As any number of much smarter people before me have pointed out, America as a dominant power in the world isn’t going anywhere. But we may have to reinterpret what the restraints and limits of that power are in a changing, and smaller, world. We should be cautious about overstating realities.