Pax Americana in Peril

The Western world has enjoyed 75 years of unprecedented peace & prosperity. Trump has spent the last four years undermining it. And it's not just the US that loses if he wins.

ON MAY 8, 1945, Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies. Victory was declared. The world celebrated. The war in Europe was over.

The Western world has been at peace ever since.

At the time, there was little optimism that the cessation of hostilities would last. After all, the countries of Europe had fought not one but two World Wars in a period that spanned just 31 years. A third global conflict seemed inevitable, especially with the battle lines already drawn. In the years after World War II, the Soviet Union established itself as a superpower, installing authoritarian Communist regimes in the so-called Eastern bloc. “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic,” Winston Churchill famously remarked, “an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” Stalin was a sadistic madman who killed more people than Hitler, and his despotic regime was a constant threat to fire nuclear weapons at London, at Paris, at Washington or New York. And yet, against all odds, and against all historical precedent, this did not come to pass. The only country to deploy the atomic bomb was the United States, in 1945. The only city the Soviets managed to nuke was Chernobyl.

How was this improbable outcome achieved?

In 1947, Great Britain and France signed the Treaty of Dunkirk, establishing a formal alliance in the event of an attack by Germany or the Soviet Union. A year later, the alliance expanded to include Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. These initial pacts formed the basis for the North Atlantic Treaty of April 4, 1949, that brought Portugal, Italy, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland into the alliance, as well as Canada and, crucially, the United States. Thus was NATO formed. By 1952, West Germany, Greece, and Turkey had joined. Between NATO and the Marshall Plan, in which the U.S. invested enormous capital in war-torn nations to get them back on their feet economically—thus avoiding the great financial disorder that was a major cause for the rise of Hitler—the fortunes of the member nations were joined so tightly that internecine war was all but unthinkable.

This is not to say there has been no violence. There have been plenty of uprisings, revolutions, insurgencies, terrorist attacks, and proxy wars these last 75 years. NATO itself has sent troops hither and yon. Even so, the alliance has held.

Not only have none of the member nations fought one another, but Western Europe did not march on the Eastern bloc countries (or vice versa). The West did not want to screw around with its economic growth, while the East was rightly terrified of the military alliance on its Western front. World War III never materialized.

There are many reasons for this. The governments of Western Europe were all democracies—even the ones that still had kings and queens. Thus the citizens of those countries had little incentive to topple their government. In the glory days of communication, diplomacy was at its zenith. Trade was as easy as it had ever been—a boon to commerce. The interdependence of the various national economies meant that there was enormous incentive to keep up the alliance. If the Germans invaded Belgium again, it would mean economic disaster for all of Europe. And, finally, and most importantly, the United States was such a mighty juggernaut—far and away the most powerful nation that ever graced the planet—that no one dared fuck with us.

Add it all up, and you get three quarters of a century and counting of Pax Americana.

I cannot overstate what a historical anomaly this is. The history of Europe is a history of war. Nazi tanks rolled into Poland during the lifetime of millions of human beings who are still with us; plenty of people remember firsthand the bombing of London, the Dutch Hongerwinter, the atrocities of Auschwitz and Dachau. It was just over a century ago that the assassination of one pampered royal set off a clusterfuck of entangling alliances, the causality of which schoolkids (and historians!) still struggle to understand. The Napoleonic Wars upended all of Europe, causing massive hardship. Some historians call the Seven Years’ War of 1756-63 “World War Zero” because of its global scope; Churchill described it as the first world war. Most Americans have never heard of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), but it remains the most devastating conflict in European history in terms of percentage of the population lost; entire villages in Central Europe literally went to the dogs. Heck, France and England once fought a war that went on for a hundred years!

The last time this much of Europe enjoyed this much peace and prosperity for this long was during the apex of the Roman Empire, specifically the reign of the pacifist emperor Antoninus Pius. He died in Anno Domini 161. That was 18 and a half centuries ago.

I understand the argument that the U.S. spends too much on defense. I’ve made those arguments myself, 20 years ago, when I was under the spell of Ralph Nader: “Why do we need such a powerful military when we have no viable enemy?” and so forth. What I didn’t understand back then is that the reason we have no viable enemy is precisely because we spend so much on defense. Having no viable enemy, and thus being free to concentrate on other things, like technology, medicine, art, and fantasy football, is a byproduct of military might. You can’t have one without the other. It was like that in ancient Rome, for Antoninus Pius, an aesthete who never once visited a military base. It’s like that here, today.

We can quibble about the various problems in the world, which are innumerable: climate change, greed, racism, misogyny, the exploitation of labor and the earth by our capitalist system, and so on. We can rightly criticize the government for arming strongmen in Latin America and the Middle East. But none of those problems are going to be redressed if the global peace ends, and the world takes up arms against itself. The Pax Americana is a rare and wonderful thing, a historical blip that is worth preserving at considerable cost.

Vladimir Putin resents the Pax Americana. It makes his country look third-rate by comparison, and his own autocratic regime pathetic. So he’s worked hard to erode the Western alliances that are the foundation of the peace—not by direct force, but by sabotage from within. Brexit, a Russian op, succeeded in extricating Great Britain from the European Union—a critical Kremlin policy goal. Whatever Europe looks like when the Brexit negotiations end, it will be less unified, and therefore less secure, than it was before that catastrophic “leave” vote.

In the United States, meanwhile, Putin’s success has been even greater. He sabotaged the 2016 election, ensuring that his owned property, Donald John Trump, was installed in the White House. It should come as no surprise that “Putin’s puppet,” as Hillary Clinton correctly called him four years ago, has done his best to disrupt the delicate diplomatic balance. He has antagonized and disrespected our NATO allies, as he’s cozied up to dictators. He’s gutted the State Department, so critical to maintaining this peace. He’s denigrated the military. And he’s burned through money. The United States now has a crippling $3.1 trillion federal deficit:

This despite an obdurate unwillingness to spend on covid-19 relief! An incoming Biden Administration will have to contend with a likely recession, as a result of Trump’s disastrous economic policies, and the Second Wave of a global pandemic. The Democrats will do what it takes to solve these problems. But if there is a second Trump term, the president will continue to eviscerate healthcare, deny much-needed relief packages, and manipulate the markets to ensure that his cronies sell before the inevitable crash. Economic hardship, it should be noted, was a key cause of the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis. Trump’s re-election may well lead to World War III.

Trump’s cavalier disregard, if not outright contempt, for a Western world at peace threatens all of us. It’s not just Americans who will suffer from the fallout. His purposeful bungling has made the entire world less safe. How can we focus on climate change, on saving the planet before we destroy it, if we are sick and hungry and at war?

As I type this, hostilities have erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave high in the Caucasus mountains, but within the borders of Azerbaijan, that has been more or less autonomous since 1988. Clashes along the disputed border flared up last month, with casualties on both sides. Armenia is backed by Putin’s Russia, Azerbaijan by Erdogan’s Turkey. If this escalates into a full-scale war, will NATO be compelled to fight on behalf of Turkey, the lone member run by a corrupt dictator? Do we trust Trump to bring the Armenians and the Azeris to the table? What would he even do, if his two BFF dictators were at war? The peaceful resolution of regional conflicts like this are why the world needs both a strong NATO alliance and a functional federal government in Washington.

The Fall of Rome, and the end of the Pax Romana, ushered in the Dark Ages. It took almost a millennium—until the Renaissance—for Europe to begin to recover what was lost, and another 500 years to arrive at the next period of peace. The United States will fall too, someday. The Pax Americana will end. For the good of humanity, and the very planet earth, we must do whatever we can to make it endure a little while longer.

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Photo credit: DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jerry Morrison. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and other members of NATO Ministers of Defense and of Foreign Affairs meet at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Oct. 14, 2010, to give political guidance for the November meeting of Allied Heads of State and Government at the NATO Summit in Lisbon, Portugal.