Exclusive online content

Pax Americana

By: Michael Auslin
October 23, 2019

or internationalists, institutionalists, and liberals of various sorts, the past two decades have uncomfortably proved the perceptiveness of Samuel Huntington’s 1996 jeremiad The Clash of Civilizations, itself a response to Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 article “The End of History” and subsequent book. Even if civilizations per se are not clashing, that an era of revived great-power competition threatens global stability is largely recognized as the great international relations challenge of this generation.

If liberal ideology misled many observers into misreading the shape of the post-Cold War future, then understanding with clear eyes the threats and challenges of today is the most vital responsibility for those charged with conducting foreign relations. Equally clear-eyed guidebooks are similarly indispensable in determining the best way to prevent today’s competition from turning into tomorrow’s war. In other words, how best to ensure global order? Deepak Lal, an emeritus professor of international development studies at UCLA, offers an implicit answer in War or Peace: The Struggle for World Power. He believes global order must rest on the continued dominance of the Western (read: U.S.)-led “liberal international economic order,” which is underpinned by a modern form of imperialism. The only other likely contender for global hegemony, Lal asserts, is China, with a decidedly un-liberal imperial policy.

Lal is perhaps best known for his 2004 book, In Praise of Empires: Globalization and Order, whose self-explanatory title fit well into the Zeitgeist of a post-9/11 America grappling with how far to go in preventing the recurrence of a similar catastrophe. Lal argued from the perspective of an economist, seeing globalization and economic liberalization as a largely uncontested good. The political structure that best allowed for the “benign process” of globalization, he argued, was empire, whether formal like the Roman or informal like the American. This normative assessment flies in the face of much post-Cold War assertions of the natural path for global society, which are dominated by liberal internationalist prescriptions. As part of a group of scholars who lauded the regularization and harmonization of economic and political relations under empire, Lal wrote convincingly of how the loss of imperial order impoverished and made more dangerous and uncertain the lives of those living under post-imperial conditions.

The first two sections of War or Peace, “Geopolitics” and “Geoeconomics,” are sweeping overviews of the major nations in the world, interweaved with assessments of realism, liberal economics, and the like. Yet, as insightful as they are, these two sections end up reading more like catalogs of historical and recent GDP figures, political movements, regional disputes, etc.—useful, but neither new nor particularly interesting. What’s more, Lal does not really tackle the question of geopolitics, despite that section’s title, in any systematic or rigorous way. (For that, see the essays in the 2017 book The Return of Geopolitics by the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation or Jakub Grygiel’s Great Powers and Geopolitical Change [2007].)

Lal is not seduced by the siren call of constructivists or institutionalists, but given his sympathies for defending the unpopular concept of empire, War or Peace disappointingly fails to grapple with the deeper question of how best to ensure interstate order (see, instead, Charles Maier’s Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors [2006]). Despite his earlier work, in War or Peace Lal doesn’t overtly call for a renewed American liberal democratic imperium, even as he debunks the myth that China will be the world’s dominant power and argues that the United States will remain the one global superpower into the foreseeable future. The result, he seems to suggest, will be an uncertain global system marked by endemic competition, but it is a competition that American liberal democracy must recognize and voluntarily commit to winning.

An engagement with the current nationalism debate would have deepened his argument, as well as offered the occasion for some robust intellectual fireworks. What does Lal make of Yoram Hazony’s argument in The Virtue of Nationalism (2018), for example, that human freedom is suppressed, if not extinguished, by empire and protected by the more localized concerns of the prototypical nation, which is “uninterested in bringing its neighbors under its rule,” as Angelo Codevilla put it in his review (“Defending the Nation,” Winter 2018/19 CRB)? Hazony complicates Lal’s assumption that empire provides the political order even at the local level which best allows for human flourishing under benign economic globalization. Even more directly, he challenges Lal’s belief that empire (“an authority superior to discrete peoples,” in Codevilla’s words) is the best political arrangement for ensuring systemic peace and prosperity. Similarly, Lal’s penultimate chapter, “Flashpoints,” is a simple recounting of international disputes, without more theoretical speculation on whether atomized nations or modern empires are best suited to dealing with such disturbances, let alone the question of how best to achieve systemic order. 

Nor does War or Peace assess the nature of domestic political regimes in terms of ideal or corrupt types. It does track contemporary political trends in major nations, but it does not compare how different regimes successfully or unsuccessfully respond to challenges. It would have been instructive to see how the economist Lal responds to political theorist Patrick Deneen’s claim that liberalism has failed. Deneen’s argument directly challenges Lal’s assumption that neoliberal politico-economic systems are the best suited to produce ever increasing wealth, let alone systemic stability.

Perhaps most noticeably, the manuscript clearly was completed before Donald Trump took office, as he pops up in only scattered references. Yet given Trump’s challenge to Lal’s main beliefs about both economics and international politics, it would have been worthwhile to assess recent policy shifts, as well as to include some of Trump’s early speeches on the international system, such as his July 2017 address in Poland.

Unfortunately, the publication schedule clearly precluded Lal’s being able to respond to subsequent defenses of Trump’s foreign policy, such as Michael Anton’s “The Trump Doctrine” (Foreign Policy, April, 20, 2019), which further tackles questions of nationalism, including in-group/out-group distinctions, and argues that imperialism “crushes natural nationalist feelings,” which globalization similarly does, just in a different guise. Perhaps even more interesting would have been Lal’s reply to Anton’s charge that globalization actually stifles ideas and innovation through homogenization. (On that, the new book on China’s high-tech surveillance state, We Have Been Harmonized, by Kai Strittmatter, may be of grim interest).

The question, of course, is which pathway is best designed to ensure peace and prosperity as well as human flourishing: neoliberal economics paired with expansive military-industrial neoimperialism or a revitalized nationalism leading to more circumscribed foreign policies and some level of reduced global economic exchange?

It is both too pat and too obvious to compare our era with the 1930s or even early 1910s. The slow-rolling salami-slicing tactics of the both the Nazis and Imperial Japanese (and, to a lesser degree, the Italians) in the 1930s eventually led to systemic conflagration; there is no assurance that the actions of China and Russia (and, to a lesser degree, the Iranians) will not reach a similar climax. From that perspective, the role of liberal empire in attempting to shape the international environment prior to the depredations of aggressive and opportunistic states remains vital. Yet it is equally true that Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were inflamed by totalitarian ideologies that presented an existential threat to Western civilization (in Europe) and Asian stability in a degree different from that today exhibited by China and Russia. Revisionist China and revanchist Russia are not (yet) existential threats to Western civilization, even based on their own self-proclaimed national goals, as antithetical as those are to classically liberal policies.

Finding the mean in international security policy is the great challenge. Is the individual nation, absent an “imperial” framework provided by a global American military presence, sufficiently able to resist the encroachments of Beijing and Moscow or the transnational threat of Islamist terrorism or Iranian nuclear weapons? Would not a world without some credible level of American military power and commitment to preventing grievous breaches of international peace be more susceptible to the very undermining of any reliable order? After all, I support the local police in catching a burglar who has robbed my neighbor, even if my house was not a target. Similarly, the intricate structures of political, military, and economic relations that have comprised American “empire” since 1945 have provided certain ultimate guarantees while also enabling Washington to pick and choose where and when it will intervene, often in response to lower-level threats to global order. Would not an America that goes it alone be far less able to protect its interests?

The current arguments against empire redound to the local level, i.e., the suppression of innovation or nationalist feeling, and presume that a largely benign imperial order is impossible, based on the nature of empire. Yet, the American imperium was indeed largely benign, if not necessarily peaceful, and there is every possibility for empire to continue to evolve away from its classical form into something more responsive and flexible, in part by taking advantage of global institutions and mechanisms. In other words, the design is not inherently bad.

So, the real problem must be with the execution of imperial policy, which is what President Trump and others in the anti-internationalist school have been saying. The promiscuous use of American military power since Somalia in 1993 has set a pattern of unnecessary intervention in areas barely tangentially connected to U.S. national interest, while the hesitancy to commit to the full resolution of crises such as extirpating al-Qaeda and the Taliban means that U.S. effort has often been undercut by its own self-imposed limits. Similarly, an ultimately risk-averse America waits too long to try and shape the actions of Russia in Crimea or the Chinese in the South China Sea; it may indeed be the case that neither of those locales are strategically vital to the continued safety and prosperity of the United States, but the unwillingness to accept some level of risk early on almost ensures the necessity of confronting greater risk later, whether because political calculations have changed or because actual security threats can no longer be ignored.

Another failure of American empire has been the way in which the national elite has persistently ignored local-level effects of imperially-protected globalization—the hollowing out of the U.S. industrial heartland, for example. These are unnecessarily self-inflicted wounds. To champion globalization does not automatically mandate disdain for its ground-level effects, nor does it excuse the failure to mitigate those effects in the name of some totemic “global trade order.” Here is where Lal’s arguments for globalization are undercut by the domestic political reality of economic integration.

The conservative movement, then, is left with the need to discover a golden mean between what are generally termed the neocon and paleocon positions. A new synthesis starts from the acceptance that global stability will not automatically take care of itself, but is balanced by a prudential hesitation to intervene everywhere in the name of the “liberal international order.” Such a “middle” conservative position would guard against the unchecked excesses of the order that Lal champions, while similarly preventing a lassitude that assumes that there is little that rises to the level of needing a direct American response. In many ways, the Roman and British empires were structured by such a sensibility; neither attempted to intervene directly everywhere, but each (and particularly the Roman) was ruthless in countering direct threats to its stability.

Such an approach is particularly needed with China, which presents the greatest long-term challenge to American global predominance. China is racked by enormous weaknesses, but the flexibility of its political system has so far allowed it to rebound from numerous failures, and it is prudent to expect it to continue to do so in the near to medium term. It is likely that the next several decades will see further attempts by Beijing to press its advantage in the South China Sea, or through its “One Belt One Road” policy.

Washington cannot try to deflect China at every turn or counter its every move. To do so is self-defeating and surrenders the initiative to Beijing. Rather, continuing to strengthen the military position of the United States in the Indo-Pacific, protect the American worker and company alike, promote fair trade relationships, and create a community of like-minded liberal political interests—in other words, maintain the U.S. “empire”—is the path most likely to protect American interests and maintain its position in Asia and around the world. Yet such an imperium must be prudent, recognizing the limits to its power and that not every nail is in need of being hammered down. In the era of forever war, it is all too easy to demand instant peace. The acme of leadership is balancing the two in a way that protects national interests while preserving national strength. In other words, empire must always be guided by nation, no matter how alluring the vision of an international panacea, whether built on arms or good will.