You're not going to like what comes after Pax Americana
Welcome to the jungle.
“I may be right and I may be wrong/ But you’re gonna miss me when I’m gone” — Taj Mahal
Yesterday, as you may have heard, Hamas launched a massive surprise attack on Israel, crossing the border from Gaza and seizing or assaulting towns nearby after a huge rocket bombardment, killing hundreds. Scenes of Hamas soldiers taking Israeli captives into Gaza have proliferated across the internet. Israel has responded by declaring a state of war, and the fighting between the two sides promises to be more destructive and vicious than anything in recent memory.
As many have pointed out already, this attack is probably an attempt to disrupt the possibility of an Israel-Saudi peace deal, which the U.S. has been trying to facilitate. Such a deal — which would be a continuation of the “Abraham Accords” process initiated under Trump —would make it more difficult for Hamas to obtain money from Saudi benefactors; it would also mean that every major Sunni Arab power recognizes the state of Israel, meaning that Hamas’ image as anything other than a client of Shiite Iran would be shattered.
If Hamas succeeds in scuttling an Israel-Saudi deal, it will be a blow to U.S. prestige and to U.S. claims to be a stabilizing, peacemaking influence. But even if an Israel-Saudi deal eventually goes through, this attack is a demonstration of America’s decreasing ability to deter conflict throughout the world.
Nor is this the only recent outbreak of interstate conflict. In recent weeks, Azerbaijan has moved to fully reclaim the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, sending 120,000 ethnic Armenians fleeing for their lives — a massive episode of ethnic cleansing. The main reason for this was Russia’s preoccupation with its Ukraine invasion; Azerbaijan defeated Armenia in a war in 2020 and took formal control of Nagorno-Karabakh, but Russia stepped in and prevented further violence. With Russian power waning, Armenia has tried to rapidly pivot to the U.S., but this was not sufficient to prevent Azerbaijan’s ethnic cleansing.
Meanwhile, Serbia is building up troops on its border with Kosovo, whose independence has been in dispute since the U.S. intervened against Serbia in the 1990s. The U.S. and some of its allies recognize Kosovo as independent from Serbia, but Serbia, Russia, China, and a few other European countries don’t.
These are just a few signs of an unraveling global order. Pax Americana is in an advanced state of decay, if not already fully dead. A fully multipolar world has emerged, and people are belatedly realizing that multipolarity involves quite a bit of chaos.
What was Pax Americana? After the end of the Cold War, deaths from interstate conflicts — countries going to war with each other, imperial conquest, and countries intervening in civil wars — declined dramatically.
Civil wars without substantial foreign intervention are very common, but except for the occasional monster civil war in China or Russia, they don’t tend to kill many people; it’s when countries send their armies to fight beyond their borders that the big waves of destruction usually happen. And for almost 70 years after the end of World War 2, this happened less and less. Historians call this the Long Peace. The lowest level of interstate conflict came from 1989 through 2011, after the collapse of the USSR, when the U.S. became the world’s sole superpower.
Political scientists and historians have many theories for why the Long Peace happened (and there are even a few who think it was just a statistical illusion). Democratic peace theory says that countries fought less because their people brought their leaders under tighter control. Capitalist peace theory says that the spread of global trade and financial links made war less attractive economically; it’s also possible that rich countries are more materially satisfied and thus less likely to fight. The UN and other international organizations may have also tamped down conflict.
But the simplest and most parsimonious explanation for the Long Peace is that American power kept the peace. If countries sent their armies into other countries, there was always the looming possibility that America and its allies could intervene to stop them — as they did in the Korean War in 1950, the Gulf War of 1991, Bosnia in 1992 in Bosnia, Kosovo in 1999, and so on. Soviet power occasionally helped as well, as when the USSR helped India intervene to end the Bangladeshi genocide in 1971. But overall the Soviet Union was a revisionist power that was more likely to start wars than end them, while the U.S. and its allies, being the most powerful bloc, preferred to keep the status quo.
Of course, it’s difficult to draw the line between interventions that prevent conflict and interventions that stir it up. Was the Vietnam War a U.S. attempt to halt a North Vietnamese takeover of South Vietnam, or was it the U.S. intervening in an internal South Vietnamese civil war? The answer depends on your point of view. But note that even the possibility of an intervention that ultimately makes a conflict worse can still serve as a deterrent. If there’s a crazy guy who will go anywhere there’s a fight and start shooting bullets into the crowd, that’s a good reason to avoid starting a fight.
In fact, the outbreak of interstate conflict in the late 60s and early 70s fits the Pax Americana theory quite well. The U.S. was absorbed with the war in Vietnam during those years, and thus had far fewer resources and attention available to intervene in other conflicts. When the cat is away, the mice will play, as they say.
The U.S. thus functioned as a global policeman. The movie Team America: World Police made fun of this idea, but also kind of supported it. As long as the U.S. and its alliances were sitting there waiting to throw their weight into any interstate conflict, there was inherent risk involved in any sort of extraterritorial intervention.
Or so the theory goes, anyway. It’s not easily possible to test the Pax Americana hypothesis empirically, for the same reason that it’s hard to know what causes recessions. American power affected the whole globe, so it’s hard to do a cross-country analysis. And there aren’t that many interstate wars, so data is sparse. Your best bet would probably be to construct some sort of measure of how susceptible a country was to the risk of U.S. intervention — some quantitative definition of a U.S. “sphere of influence” — and then to look at how shocks to America’s intervention capability, like the Vietnam War, differentially affected countries that were more or less subject to U.S. intervention. But the data set would be very small, and there would be a lot to control for, and so I’m not sure how much I’d trust this empirical exercise.
Pax Americana died in stages over the last two decades; people have been writing about its death for a while now, and there were a number of factors that killed it. First there was the Iraq War, which was a clear-cut case of the U.S. starting a major international conflict rather than interceding to stop one. Saddam Hussein was brutal, but after his 1991 defeat he was only brutal within his borders. Yet he was attacked anyway; the U.S. behaved like a revisionist power at a time when it should have been guarding the status quo.
If the U.S. threat of intervention doesn’t depend on whether or not you send your army outside of your borders — if the U.S. might just attack you anyway because they don’t like you — then the incentive to avoid interstate conflict is reduced. Iraq also weakened U.S. appetite for intervention.
At the same time, the U.S. was becoming militarily weaker. The War on Terror reoriented the U.S. military toward counterinsurgency and away from defeating enemy armies. The defense-industrial base was allowed to wither — in 1995, the U.S. could produce about 30 times as many artillery shells as it can now, and China can produce about 200 times as many ships as the U.S. This is a catastrophic loss of hard power, and it means that even a modest diversion of U.S. military resources (like the Ukraine War) can largely remove the threat of U.S. intervention elsewhere.
Finally, a new great-power coalition arose that was capable of matching or exceeding U.S. power. China’s massive growth has given it a manufacturing capacity as great as the entire West combined, meaning that even if we could fix the problems with our defense-industrial base, we’d be outmatched in a protracted one-on-one fight.
(Also, if you’re tempted to say that the U.S. still spends a lot more than China on its military, please remember that this is not actually true; including off-budget spending, China spends almost the same amount as the U.S., and once you take purchasing power differences into account it almost certainly spends more.)
Real or potential conflict with this New Axis, as I’ve been calling it, now basically absorbs all the military attention of the U.S. and its allies. The Ukraine War is tying down almost all of Europe’s military potential and diverting some U.S. resources as well. The threat of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is so huge and catastrophic that it will absorb all of the American military attention and resources that aren’t going to Ukraine — and even that may not be enough to win.
Thus it’s little surprise that the threat of interstate conflict is starting to reemerge in Europe and the surrounding regions. The world is a more ungoverned, lawless place than it was 20 or even 10 years ago. I think Zheng Yongnian of the Chinese University of Hong Kong put it best last year:
“The old order is swiftly disintegrating, and strongman politics is again ascendant among the world’s great powers,” wrote Mr. Zheng of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen. “Countries are brimming with ambition, like tigers eyeing their prey, keen to find every opportunity among the ruins of the old order.”
Like tigers eyeing their prey. The world is starting to revert into a jungle, where the strong prey upon the weak, and where there is a concomitant requirement that every country build up its own strength; if your neighbor is a tiger, you should probably grow some claws of your own. Old scores that had to wait can now be settled. Disputed bits of territory can now be retaken. Natural resources can now be seized. There are many reasons for countries to fight each other, and now one of the biggest reasons not to fight has been removed.
(This doesn’t mean I’m predicting a return to the levels of interstate conflict that prevailed before 1945; democratic peace, capitalist peace, low fertility rates, and other factors will still presumably get a say. But one of the major barriers is now gone.)
Right now Europe, the Middle East, and the Russian periphery are the locus of conflict. But the biggest danger may be in Asia, which is engaging in an unprecedented arms race. Despite Putin’s aggression, it’s in Asia where the rise of China has disrupted the existing balance of power the most severely. Anyone who is under the illusion that Asia is inherently a more peaceful place than Europe or the Middle East should read some history from before 1980.
Anyway, Pax Americana always had an expiration date. If the U.S. had avoided the Iraq War and maintained its defense-industrial base, it could have prolonged its hegemony by about a decade, but ultimately the rising power of China would have ensured the return of the multipolarity that existed before World War 2. In any case, it’s over now, and until and unless a new dominant global coalition of nation-states can be forged — either a Chinese-led global order or some kind of expanded democratic hegemony that includes India and large other developing nations — we’re going to have to re-learn how to live in the jungle.
Over the past two decades it had become fashionable to lambast American hegemony, to speak derisively of “American exceptionalism”, to ridicule America’s self-arrogated function of “world police”, and to yearn for a multipolar world. Well, congratulations, now we have that world. See if you like it better.
Update: Here is a good article by Hal Brands on the end of Pax Americana, and how it relates to various current conflicts around the world. Here is a good article by Paul Poast about how the Ukraine war specifically is weakening America’s ability to deter or deescalate conflicts like the one between Hamas and Israel (though I’d argue that our preparation for a war over Taiwan is also a big factor). Both of these authors, unlike me, are experts in the field of international relations.
Update 2: Here’s some data on deaths from state-based conflicts that includes 2022. It does not look good.