The Strange Decline of the Pax Americana

When Hamas attacked Israel, Republicans knew whom to blame: President Biden. Donald Trump asserted that the attack wouldn’t have happened if he were still in the White House; Mike Pence, while condemning Trump for praising Hezbollah and Hamas, asserted that Biden was somehow endangering U.S. interests by “projecting weakness.”

Like much of what the American right says these days, these smears were both vile and infantile. No, the U.S. president isn’t like the Green Lantern, able to shape world events through sheer force of will. And Biden has in fact taken remarkably tough positions on foreign affairs, much more so than his predecessor.

More generally, it’s striking how both the far left, which has no significant influence on the Democratic Party, and the far right, which largely runs the G.O.P., are American solipsists. They blame U.S. leaders for everything bad that happens in the world, denying foreigners any agency.

That said, even serious students of international affairs are noting that the world seems to be becoming more dangerous, with many local cold wars turning hot, and suggesting that we may be witnessing the end of the Pax Americana, the long era in which U.S. economic and military dominance limited the potential for wars of conquest.

But why is the Pax Americana in decline?

You might be tempted to engage in economic determinism, saying that the United States has lost influence because it doesn’t dominate the world economy the way it once did. But while there was a big decline in America’s share of world G.D.P. between 1960 and 1980, since then that share hasn’t had a clear downward trend, although it has fluctuated with the foreign exchange value of the dollar.

Indeed, our strong recovery from the Covid recession, combined with the stumbles of some geopolitical rivals, makes U.S. economic dominance look more durable than it has for a long time. Notably, many observers are now suggesting that China’s G.D.P., measured in dollars, may never overtake America’s. (China’s economy is already larger in terms of domestic purchasing power, but this is less relevant for global influence.)

Oh, and despite all the hype about de-dollarization, the U.S. dollar seems, if anything, to be more central to the world economy than ever.

Furthermore, changes in the world economy have arguably given the United States new ways to exercise economic power. The international relations experts Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman recently published “Underground Empire: How America Weaponized the World Economy,” a revelatory book that describes how modern globalization — which creates far more complex forms of interdependence than traditional international trade — has put America “at the heart of an international web of surveillance and control.”

And the Biden administration hasn’t been at all shy about using U.S. power. Aid to Ukraine, while fairly minor relative to the U.S. budget, has been a major factor in frustrating Russian aggression; America has also aggressively deployed both its financial and its technological power to apply sanctions against the Putin regime. In the latest crisis, Israelis, including Benjamin Netanyahu, have praised Biden for his prompt support, which probably explains why Trump has lashed out at a former political ally.

Furthermore, Biden has taken a remarkably hard line on Chinese technology. Where Trump huffed and puffed ineffectually against Chinese trade surpluses (which were never the problem), Biden has imposed sanctions that the Center for Strategic and International Studies calls a “policy of actively strangling large segments of the Chinese technology industry — strangling with an intent to kill.”

If this is “projecting weakness,” what would projecting strength look like?

Yet it seems safe to say that the world no longer trusts U.S. promises, and perhaps no longer fears U.S. threats, the way it used to. The problem, however, isn’t Biden; it’s the party that reflexively attacks him for anything that goes wrong.

Right now America is a superpower without a fully functioning government. Specifically, the House of Representatives has no speaker, so it can’t pass legislation, including bills funding the government and providing aid to U.S. allies. The House is paralyzed because Republican extremists, who have refused to acknowledge Biden’s legitimacy and promoted chaos rather than participating in governance, have turned these tactics on their own party. At this point it’s hard to see how anyone can become speaker without Democratic votes — but even less extreme Republicans refuse to reach across the aisle.

And even if Republicans do somehow manage to elect a speaker, it seems all too likely that whoever gets the job will have to promise the hard right that he will betray Ukraine.

Given this political reality, how much can any nation trust U.S. assurances of support? How can we expect foreign enemies of democracy to fear America when they know that there are powerful forces here that share their disdain?

Yes, the Pax Americana is in decline. But the problem isn’t lack of toughness at the top. It’s the enemy within.

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