Pax Americana is gone, now what?

Amidst global turmoil, the U.S. could regain power

War made the United States what it is. In the wake of geopolitical conflict, the country was catapulted into world dominance, but now, the relative stability that emerged following the Second World War is waning. War continues, and the scales of the balance of power are tipping out of the U.S.’s favour.

There is a clear problem, and current events only intensify it. The question is: what can be done?

Pax Americana generally refers to the post-1945 world order when the U.S. emerged as the dominant player in geopolitics. This emergence was followed by a global project that involved America aiding to restore free market democracies in western Europe known as the Marshall Plan.

More importantly, the U.S., unlike the British Empire that preceded it, was interested in working alongside other nations as opposed to acting without concern for other states’ interests. This led to the establishment of the United Nations (UN) and the Bretton Woods Agreement, the latter of which led to the creation of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Despite these initial intentions, the degradation of Pax Americana began with the U.S.’s own policies. After the Second World War, the U.S. maintained various military bases across the world. As of 2021, the number of remaining bases was estimated to be at 750. These bases were either a direct result of the world war or a result of what came after the war, including the containment of Soviet communism and the deterrence of Germany and Japan, which had launched a deliberate attack on the U.S.

This military expansion backed the U.S.’s post-war economic boom. This made the U.S. the most dominant player in global affairs. However, for decades after the war, this dominance was constantly challenged by a rival superpower, the Soviet Union, which fell in 1991, leaving the U.S. without a counterweight in the world order.

Soon after came the age of empire largely associated with the Bush Doctrine, which stressed opposing terrorism. This is because this opposition, one of the U.S.’s most important significant foreign policy measures, came in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

While there has been a global debate about whether the hostilities in Iraq that followed 9/11 were justified or not, the invasion of Iraq created one major problem for the U.S: it delegitimized the U.S.’s foreign policy. The UN Secretary General Kofi Annan clearly stated in 2004, one year into the conflict, that hostilities in Iraq were illegal.

Now, the U.S. was operating outside of the legal parameters that it had helped to create after the Second World War, acting in in its own right and doing so without fear or consequence. The invasion of Iraq not only delegitimized U.S. foreign policy within the global laws-based order, it delegitimized the order itself. If the U.S. was not going to be subject to the moral order that they were responsible for creating, then why should anyone else be?

Today the relative peace seems to be waning with a war in Gaza that threatens to spread across the region, another war in Europe — which some have argued was in fact inspired by the Iraq war — and of course, the threat of a showdown between the U.S. and China over Taiwan, this is where that big question comes in.

The answer is simple. It lies in a return to the rules-based order.

The U.S. ought to return itself to the rules-based order. This would include a reconciliation process with Iraq and joining the International Criminal Court. This would pave a new path to legitimacy both within the UN and the broader international community.

A charismatic foreign policy forged from within the UN might expand the U.S.’s influence in ways not thought to be possible before. Like the Marshall Plan, which came during the post war period, the U.S. could expand its economic development tools across the world through the UN. These policies could soon grow to rival China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

This would be especially crucial in Africa, where other major powers have made headway and the U.S. seems to be lagging, particularly when it comes to its geopolitical rivals like China. New economic partnerships could come out of this as the U.S. begins decoupling from China economically.

As it stands, even the UN’s refugee aid is underfunded and has had little impact on many of the geopolitical issues plaguing the world, ranging from climate change to the alarming number of coup d’états in Africa. All this comes on the back of a global economic crisis that is likely to stay with us for the rest of 2024.

With all these problems boiling up and threatening to disturb the world order, a new approach may be necessary.