At the end of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama declared the “end of history.” The triumph of Capitalism over Communism was the victory of Good over Evil, and the establishment of the new world order under a Pax Americana was inevitable. We all – including Fukuyama himself – now know that history had much to say about its survival. 9/11, the War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise of China as a global economic and military power and now a war on the European mainland have put any such ideas to rest.
The question now is whether the Pax Americana itself remains relevant, and whether it is humanity’s best hope to get itself out of the chaotic conflicts it finds itself in. Characterised and upheld by American military might the world over, the concept is much broader. It is a combination of military, political, economic and social dominance by the United States in a way that theoretically should allow all countries to live and participate in a global system in peace. Neoliberal economics, the proliferation of American media and entertainment and the purported promotion of democracy are central ingredients in the Pax Americana, and the status of a country as a proud participating member in this often rely on how much it aligns with these.
Yet that is still not all the Pax Americana (herein referred to as the Pax) is. The Pax is also maintained by the constant threat of American ‘intervention’ in a country’s politics, whether by invisible machinations behind the curtains, or by the arrival of American boots on its soil (or sand, more often than not). Intervention can come if a country strays from the explicit and implicit principles that maintain the Pax, increasingly so if a country finds itself aligning itself with one of the ‘threats’ to the Pax; most significantly China and Russia. It can come when a country finds itself flirting too closely with socialist and leftist political economy, though this was a much more common occurrence during the Cold War and radically leftist politics has generally declined since then. The ability of the American state to carry out such intervention is maintained domestically through heavy investment in the building of military capacity and ideological narratives, and internationally through ally states in key regions and hundreds of its own military bases, but also financial institutions and intergovernmental bodies founded and funded largely by the United States. The preceding sentence is of course a much simplified explanation…
Though the Pax, for a while, did manage to keep the world from spiralling into major conflict – with the exception of constant American military action against smaller countries and sub-national groups – it has waned in its ability to do so. The increasing economic clout of other countries – especially China and India – has meant that they have grown more independent in their policy choices. The economic and strategic necessity of these countries for the United States and other protectors of the Pax, often but not always in the former’s opposition to and rivalry with each other, has made them increasingly immune to the power of the latter ones to combat them. More and more countries are unwilling to play ball, though the reasons are manifold and as diverse as the group themselves.
One major reason – as touched upon above – is the substantial growth and changes that some developing economies have experienced since the Cold War, especially in just the last two decades. China and India have jumped up in the ranks of global measures of growth and productivity, but they are not alone. Brazil has emerged as a major regional power, and the economies of the Gulf States have increasingly tried to diversify their economic portfolio beyond just oil. The East Asian Tigers of Taiwan and South Korea are legendary amongst the proponents of “good” growth, through the pursuit of neoliberal policy, free markets and trade (though the story is rarely ever so simple).
Each country – or set of countries – interacts differently with the Pax. South Korea and Taiwan remain firmly aligned with the American bloc, despite being economically powerful states. This perhaps stems mainly from both countries’ reliance on American support against existential threats from North Korea and the People’s Republic of China, respectively. The Gulf States also seem content to follow the American lead, though this relationship is more complicated given the United States’ reliance on these oil-producing states to fuel its economic and military might. As such, the Gulf states have a bit more breathing room, and can even differ from the hegemon on some key issues (see more below). Whilst China is the most explicitly opposed state among these to the realm of the Pax, India (and to a lesser extent, Brazil) is perhaps the most complicated case out of these countries.
India’s relations with China are heavily strained, given their economic competition and the sporadic flaring-up of military conflict in the disputed region of Ladakh. It is also keen to court the US and its fellow Western countries for investment in its economic development, posing itself as the alternate to China to become the global hub of offshore manufacturing, as their strategic tensions increase with China. However, India’s economic might also allows it to go against key directives of the Pax, such as its decision to continue trade with Russia following Western sanctions against the latter since its enter to Ukraine in 2022. It faced virtually no pushback.
A second reason is the (perhaps perceived – perhaps real) decline in the Pax’s legitimacy. States, and more importantly, populations, are reluctant to take guidance on matters ranging from economic policy to human rights from nations that they see flouting their self-created international rules and forcing them on others. War and conflict in the Middle East between Palestine and Israel is perhaps where this weakness in the Pax’s dominance has become most visible, and where the Gulf states significantly tend to differ from its objectives, though their response has become less homogenous over time, especially since the normalising of ties between several of them and Israel within the past year.
The declining legitimacy of the Pax has also been seen in the increased diplomatic and international relevance of China, which has become the single-largest foreign investor in the African continent and has also brokered such landmark diplomatic relations as between Saudi Arabia and Iran, longstanding belligerents.
The question now remains; what is the future for the Pax Americana and the current world order? Threatened by internal weaknesses and external pressures, will it be able to persist? Its purported strength in preserving world peace has failed; the special military operation in Ukraine is well into its second year now. Its economic ideology has been on the back-foot since its leading countries have all but gone back to heavy government expenditure and “industrial policy” in the face of both economic shocks such as the COVID-19 pandemic and geopolitical considerations of “decoupling” from China.
But might the Pax still be the – if not best – ‘least-worst’ option? Any attempt to actively dismantle it completely and replace it with an alternative would require nothing short of global war because the United States and its allies seem unwilling to give way otherwise and still retain a military advantage over all other states and groupings thereof. China’s rise, though in opposition to the existing faces of the world order, has not really proposed a direct alternative to it. The power imbalances between states and the strength of one to impose its will would still remain as a salient feature in any China-led ‘Pax’.
With such questions, one rarely comes up with an answer, but more questions. What remains to be seen is how the Pax Americana addresses a world at economic and military war in a way it has not had to in decades, and how it will stand these unprecedented tests.
Taut Bataut – is a researcher and writer that publishes on South Asian geopolitics, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.