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The Past Shows a Pax Americana Would Only Lead to Conflict


By William Pfaff - International Herald Tribune

PARIS - The weakness of the United States today is that it is the last power on earth to think that it has a universal mission. Its foreign policy, and its national sense of self, rest on ideology, that of America as model for society's future.

Until 10 years ago, the Soviet Union also believed itself empowered by a doctrine, Marxism, that revealed the truth about human destiny, and which, faithfully followed, would bring history to its end, with Soviet Russia the leading and exemplary power. (When the U.S.S.R. collapsed, the conclusion drawn in the United States, by Francis Fukuyama, was that the Soviets had been right about history but wrong about which side would win.)

Today's Russia has no illusion about saving mankind. Neither do the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, who now simply scramble to manage the consequences of ideological collapse. Only the United States still believes in a universal mission.

This is a dangerous condition because it leads Americans to act as if America's presumed destiny confers upon it the right to supervise and judge what other nations do and, when necessary, to intervene to punish miscreants or troublemakers.

This, in the long term, is unacceptable to the others. It therefore is an unsustainable policy for the long term and in the meantime inevitably creates resentments and backlash.

Empire or hegemony, a ''Pax Romana'' if you like, is possible when a civilization superior in culture, ideas, vision, organization, technology, resources and raw power rules societies that are its inferiors in one or several of those qualities.

The Pax Britannica rested on Britain's ability, through command of the seas, to extend the essential stability of 19th century Europe's ''long peace'' to the rest of the world, which lacked the economic and military power, technology and organization to challenge Europe.

The inequity of this situation is what launched the Japanese into national reform late in the century, ending with their successful expulsion of Britain from Asian waters in 1941 and 1942, together with all of the other Western powers.

The Pax Americana has no equivalent foundation. In economic and military power the United States is superior to Japan, China, today's Russia and the West European great powers. It is superior to Russia and China in its mobilization and deployment of its resources, and in its technology overall. (Russia is competitive in limited areas of military technology.)

The European Union nations, on the other hand, are America's equal in all of these areas, except in the mobilization of their resources to political and military power, and they are perhaps its superior in some of these qualities.

Hence Pax Americana, like Pax Britannica and Pax Romana, is a limited franchise. Its time will run out, possibly sooner than one might think, since its ''subjects'' include its equals or near-equals.

A basic rule of statesmanship is to accept the inevitable and profit from it, rather that risk defeat by trying to resist what has to happen.

When you have a universalist ideology - a conviction that you have a mission to remake the world - it is extremely hard, indeed a contradiction to your beliefs, to think that you have anyplace to go except still higher. No one contemplates the result of a serious challenge, or plans to anticipate and accommodate it.

Systems of this kind sometimes fall apart from their internal contradictions, as the Soviet Union and Maoism did. Sometimes they are undermined and eventually destroyed by dissent within, to which they no longer can make a creative response. That was the case for the Ottoman and Habsburg empires (although neither thought of itself as a universal model).

Sometimes war is necessary to knock them down. Sometimes they self-destruct. The Pax Romana was established by war and lasted only 200 years, finishing in imperial decline and breakup.

The long peace that for the most part prevailed in great-power Europe from the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15 until 1914, and rested on power balance, was mainly due to the fact that it suited all of the major players.

The wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon, which introduced modern ''democratic'' wars, waged for ideological purposes, had amounted to a secular revival of the wars of religion that had ravaged Europe in the past. The conservative governments which dominated the Congress of Vienna wanted no more of that; they wanted order. The Congress outcome was a lasting order in Europe.

No one power dominated the system, and there was conflict within this ''pluralism'' of power, part of it displaced to the non-European world through colonialism and imperialism. What destroyed the order was technological progress.

World War I was launched by Austria as a small-scale ''punishment'' of Serbia, a weaker power, for nationalist excesses. Other states became involved because of interlocking alliances, but all expected that the war would be short and decisive. It became instead huge and uncontrollable, overturning the European system and striking a devastating blow to Western civilization because armaments and armies had been revolutionized by industrial technology and organization. No one in power had noticed.

All of this is by way of an unsolicited briefing note to Condoleezza Rice and those others who expect to take on foreign policy responsibilities in a new American administration in January. Think about the past when thinking about the future.

[Not to be reproduced without the permission of the author.]