Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Pax Americana--Wither, Whether, Whatever?

Michael Lind posted an extremely annoying piece in Salon on "The End of Pax Americana," suggesting that Obama may finally return the US to its core values. It is annoying for many reasons, so let me just take his assertions and quibble with them. The basic thesis is that after World War II (Lind, like the usual lefties, blames Truman, it seems, as if FDR was an idealist), the US abandoned a concert-of-power security system and instead focused on containment and unilateral free trade. An interesting move as it allows him to blast the US for being too hawkish on foreign policy and too soft on defending the economy.
  • First, the idea that there was a working concert to be abandoned is kind of strange--were Stalin and Mao going to be partners in maintaining peace and protecting the status quo in the world? Depends on whose peace/piece and whose status quo one is considering. While there is much fault to be laid at the US door for various activities during the Cold War, it does take at least two to tango. The Neo-realists have it right that a bipolar system is inevitably going to have a significant amount of confrontation as the two superpowers focus all of their attention on the other.
  • Once you pile on to that basic structural antagonism the conflicting ideologies, the very different political systems (democracy vs. totalitarian), the personalities (again, Stalin and Mao, please), it is hard to imagine a concert of the US, USSR and the PRC managing the world.
  • Second, the piece contains a very strange assertion--that the US bought its alliance partners off with unilateral free trade--serving as an open market but letting the Germans, Japanese and others to protect their own. This twists the tale, I think, as it was not so much bribery as seeking trading partners who had a significant postwar disadvantage--having been utterly destroyed. Yes, these patterns continued, but it also overplays the generosity of the US as it developed (both as a country and the collection of firms) strategies that maximized profit and influence in the world. And again, this ignores other structural dynamics.
  1. While hegemonic stability theory has its problems, the idea that international cooperation involves all kinds of collective action problems where free riding is endemic and one needs either one collective action provider or a small group of them is not that hard to swallow. So, Lind is right that there was toleration of free riding, but that was going to happen if the US wanted a stable international capitalist economy.
  2. Moreover, Kurth would talk about the product cycle (one of my favorite pieces of all-time): that the dynamics of international investment, including the movement of jobs overseas, is a natural part of how things are produced.
  • Third, that with the end of the Cold War, the US could have dumped its old behaviors and returned to a FDR-Keynes world order. Again, this is puzzling since the idea of setting up rules to manage liberal international economic and political systems was quite Keynesian (see Ruggie, Embedded Liberalism). It also ignores that the world is quite path dependent--that the choices we make structure the choices that folks will make in the future. Just as Obama has to face what to do with two unpleasant wars, leaders cannot ignore what they inherit.
  • Fourth, Lind mistakes Hegemonic Stability Theory. It was not so much about guns and lives, but about providing markets of last resort, helping out during exchange crises, providing a stable currency. The security stuff was not really part of HST at all. And as a result, Lind conflates those who observe that leadership in the international economy is necessary with the neo-cons who wanted to maintain American military dominance. Oops.
  • Fifth, he argues that the vision of the world with the threat of World War III is extremely pessimistic. It might be hard to remember now, but in the aftermath of World War II, optimism about international relations was quite scarce, that the war and the Great Depression killed post-WWI idealism. The early days of the Cold War seemed to justify a darker view of International Relations. A recent trip to Berlin and its documentation of the division of the city remind me of the dark days of the Cold War.
  • Sixth, Lind asserts that the Pax Am strategy requires exaggerating the power and malevolence of Russia, China, and Iran. I wonder if he would say the same if he had been living in Eastern Europe last year when the Russians shut off the natural gas and killed more than a few people with this demonstration of its leverage. I do not disagree that these threats are overplayed, but threats they are--you have worry about what countries can do, not what they promise. And the best way to manage such threats might be containment (not rollback a la Bush).
  • Seventh, one can support American leadership in the world, militarily and/or economically, and consider the invasion of Iraq to be a bad idea from the get-go.
  • Eighth, Lind seems wildly optimistic about the ability of countries to cooperate. Check out how well NATO is doing these days in Afgahnistan.
Yes, this kind of piece brings out my inner Neo-Realist--that the structure of international relations shapes outcomes--that competition and conflict are natural, that cooperation is quite hard. Domestic politics also matters, so Lind also underplays how constrained Obama or any leader might be, by domestic interest groups (defense contractors, ethnic lobbies, other concerned parties). And invoking Machiavelli's quote on reform is appropriate here as well--that change is quite difficult as it is risky. And invoking today's lecture, who can focus on the long term when a politician's power rests on short term outcomes?

Lind argues that the American public would not support the provision of public goods, such as peace and economic stability. True, they don't necessarily support paying for such things domestically, either--health care, taxes for education, etc. Part of representative democracy, when it works, is to find ways to do things that are collectively optimal even if they are individually sub-optimal. I think.

Finally, Lind points to various Obama decisions as moves away from Pax Americana. Maybe, or maybe his various policy decisions are driven by a desire to do American leadership more intelligently than his predecessor.

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