National Interest

Toward a New Pax Americana

A “New Arsenal of Democracy” is needed to secure American power in the twenty-first century.

Toward a New Pax Americana
A US Air Force B-52 Stratofortres and other aircraft fly in formation over the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt on February 24, 2024, in the Philippine Sea. (US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Thomas Gooley)

The Pax Americana that has prevailed over world affairs since the end of World War II is dead, if not actually buried. It must now be replaced. The two remaining questions are: with what and how?

The term “Pax Americana” (American Peace) refers to the international order the United States constructed after World War II and the decades of relative peace and prosperity that followed under the U.S. economic and military leadership of the free world, notwithstanding the context of a Cold War with the threat of the Soviet Union.

Since 1948, that order has proved remarkably resilient and flexible in the face of multiple challenges. These included rapid changes in America’s own economic fortunes and the periodic commitment of America’s formidable military to large-scale wars in Asia (Korea, Vietnam) and the Middle East (Desert Storm, Iraq, Afghanistan)—not to mention the collapse of that order’s principal antagonist, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and the rise of its latest, the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Even in a world that has grown alarmingly more unstable in the past three years, as late as September 2023, a perceptive commentator like Michael Lind could write:

The hierarchical American bloc that was improvised by the US and its allies after the Second World War has proved remarkably resilient, defying repeated predictions that it would collapse from bankruptcy or overextension. The Pax Americana survived the Cold War and the post-Cold War era andat least for nowtoday’s Second Cold War has strengthened rather than weakened America’s informal empire…[T]he Pax Americana in its eighth decade is alive, if not exactly well.

Six months later, however, the evidence mounts that the resilience of the Pax Americana may be greatly exaggerated. Everywhere, we see pro-American alliances faltering, more recently with Israel—once the cornerstone of American Middle East policy—and dangerous anti-American ones growing, particularly the Russia-China-Iran axis, which this author first warned about back in 2015.

What seemed in 2015 a prescient warning has now become a widely understood and well-established geopolitical reality. At the same time, we have seen a new global economic landscape take shape that has been more directly challenging to American dominance than at any time since 1945. Unlike during the Cold War, when the USSR posed a military but not economic threat to America and its allies, China has emerged as both. Similarly, India, the nation destined to become the third-largest economy in the world, has remained an ambiguous partner for America in restabilizing the global order.

At the same time, America’s military seems less and less ready to assume its remaining global responsibilities, as evidenced by its faltering defense industrial base. Instead of acting as globocop, today’s Pentagon is reluctant even to take on the role of local sheriff—as its refusal to take an active role in defending our southern border indicates.

Still, there is no denying that in a deadly and chaotic international environment, America’s leadership of the free world is more imperative than ever. Therefore, if the old Pax Americana has outlived its usefulness, it is essential to consider what comes next.

Ideally, a new version of American leadership that stabilizes the global order, promotes freedom, and protects American national interests emerges from this crisis. In the last two decades of its existence—certainly since 9/11—balancing all three goals became increasingly a challenge for the old Pax Americana. As such, a new Pax Americana may be better than the old, but it will certainly have to be different.

The old Pax Americana rested on two assumptions, both of which are now out of date.

The first was that the U.S. military was strong enough to protect its allies everywhere, from Asia to the Middle East to Europe. After World War II, American statesmen built a complex network of alliances centered on NATO in Europe and a “hub and spoke” alliance with Japan, South Korea, and other nations in East Asia. All of these were sustained by the expectation that the U.S. military would be ready to engage and prevail in any crisis its allies faced, whether singly or collectively, anywhere in the world—including using our nuclear deterrence as a last resort.

The second assumption was that as the driving engine of the world order, the U.S. economy would always be strong enough to sustain the largest military in history. For example, in 1950, the U.S. GDP was greater than the next three countries put together, including the USSR. In 1980, even after a decade of hard times, the U.S. economy was still roughly three times larger than its nearest competitor, Japan, at nearly $3 trillion versus just over $1 trillion.

Today, neither assumption is operative. Instead, China (and soon, India) are geared to be the main drivers of the global economy—and one could argue China already is. Meanwhile, the U.S. military—while still relatively strong in terms of the size of its forces and budget—is increasingly forced to make hard choices between priorities. Faced with the prospect of simultaneous conflicts in Europe and Asia, today’s U.S. military would have to choose between ugly options and disastrous options. Some experts worry whether Washington could respond effectively to one of those scenarios (especially a conflict in the Taiwan Strait), let alone both.

As a recent Brookings Institution study put it:

The U.S. military during the Cold War was generally at least 60 percent larger than it is today; in fact, it was more than twice as large during the Vietnam War. Today, being prepared to fight both China and Russia at the same time would likely require a military 25-50 percent larger than today’s (in rough numbers).

Spending on this scale seems highly unlikely, given today’s political climate and economic realities.

Nonetheless, the post-World War II, American-built liberal order has always been tougher than its critics and opponents expected. It managed to survive multiple wars, humiliations (the Bay of Pigs, the 1973 Oil Embargo, the withdrawal from Saigon in 1975, the Iran hostage crisis in 1979), four decades of a Soviet nuclear threat, 9/11, the COVID-19 Pandemic, and the stewardship of presidents who were incompetent (Jimmy Carter), ineffective (Gerald Ford), in disgrace (Richard Nixon), and overly-complacent (Bill Clinton).

It even survived—and arguably was strengthened—by four years of President Donald Trump, whom critics feared would wreck the world liberal order, but who, in fact, extended American influence in the Middle East with a series of Abraham Accords and by destroying ISIS by force of arms; strengthened our ties to both Japan and Taiwan; revived the Monroe Doctrine by negotiating a more secure southern border with Mexico and Latin American states; and confronted China’s economic and military threat to American primacy, for the first time.

What the Pax Americana could not survive, however, was abject surrender. Despite President Barack Obama’s claims that he rejected a declinist view of American power, his pullout from Iraq and the Middle East in order to execute a much-vaunted but largely non-existent “Pacific pivot,” his acquiescence to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and overseeing eight years of cutbacks in military spending as well as the withdrawal of missile defense from Eastern Europe; opened the “EXIT” doors for an American retreat from world affairs.

The Biden administration has managed to turn retreat into full-scale flight. Its record has been cumulative from its earliest days in office, starting with the abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan. A break with Saudi Arabia followed, frustrating hopes of a new round of Abraham Accord-style agreements between Israel and its neighbors—then, a belated and timid response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, despite multiple warning signs that an attack was imminent. The administration decided on an increasingly passive attitude toward China, including its encroachment on U.S. sovereign territory. Moreover, Biden refused to respond effectively to challenges by Iranian proxies in Syria, Iraq, and the Red Sea and widened the breach with Israel over the conduct of its war against Hamas.

Meanwhile, the China-Russia-Iran axis has grown more influential and bolder, including openly coordinating their revisionist approach to global affairs, as U.S. influence has ebbed. At the same time, public support for a United States strongly engaged in world affairs has also retreated. In Congress, bipartisan support for American leadership in peace and war, supposedly the keystone for our foreign and defense policy for decades under the old Pax Americana, has broken down.

In addition, the Biden administration has thrown away the leverage America’s booming hydrocarbon industry could enjoy in the global energy market by pushing its radical green energy agenda instead to the economic benefit of China—while at the same time allowing Russia to expand its leverage in that same market by selling oil and natural gas to China and India to finance its war in Ukraine. Iran has come to enjoy the same advantage in energy markets through the Biden administration’s failure to enforce the sanctions that the Trump administration initiated, which have been allowed to lapse through inattention.

In short, on every continent, from every political perspective, and in every category of American engagement in the world, the once-powerful Pax Americana looks outdated, overstretched, and even (to some critics) downright provocative. It’s as if we were spoiling for a fight with our adversaries that both of us know we cannot win.

So, if the post-war liberal order that America built is passing away, what can we expect to take its place?

Four possible paths forward present themselves—each with its advantages and virtues as well as dangers and weaknesses.

The first is that we continue in the direction we are already headed toward the post-American world Fareed Zakaria envisaged in his 2011 bestselling book, The Post-American World. While Zakaria insisted that this world would not be the result of America’s decline but instead “the rise of the rest” (a theme echoed by President Obama in his discussion of world affairs), he acknowledged that the days of America’s unquestioned primacy in world affairs were over. However, he also acknowledged that a post-American world would pose “a new diplomatic challenge for America,” as pointed out in an interview with Ian Bremmer, requiring the United States to act as “more of a catalyst and broker than hegemon and arbiter….Let’s hope we’re up to it.”

Instead of the vibrant world order that Zakaria envisages, America’s slide into second-class power status has brought about a profoundly chaotic world scene as China emerges as the global bully. While Wall Street and others see a lucrative future in playing to China’s economic and strategic dominance, in the long term, the United States’ singular remaining economic advantage, our innovative edge (which China seeks to emulate and replace), is bound to erode steadily, as DEI and ESG cultural agendas play directly into Beijing’s hands. At the same time, as the U.S. ability to project power steadily diminishes in the Indo-Pacific and Middle East, other countries will be bound to look to Beijing and Moscow as more reliable allies.

Meanwhile, an open and chaotic southern border has become an ugly symbol of what the new post-nationalist America will really look like, instead of the hopeful picture Zakaria and others had forecast.

The second pathway has gained popularity in Republican circles, namely a “Fortress America” approach toward securing our border but also cutting back on our traditional global commitments, including even withdrawing from NATO. This is Trump’s America First policy on steroids, as expressed by public figures like Tucker Carlson and epitomized by members of the House Freedom Caucus. It has triggered a growing unwillingness among GOP lawmakers to support Ukraine in its war with Russia. Some have even cast doubt about the priority of aiding Israel versus securing the southern border. The very fact that these are seen as mutually exclusive options is a measure of the Fortress America mindset but also the erosion of Pax Americana as an issue where politics “stops at the water’s edge.”

If this pathway proves successful over the long term, it will mean a strategic posture focused more on hemispheric defense, starting with securing the southern border and defeating the Mexican drug cartels. Like the post-American version, however, this will mean largely abandoning the rest of the field to China and possibly Russia, especially in Eastern Europe (ironically the most active hub of NATO in the wake of the Ukraine invasion) and Central Asia.

On the bright side, an America First agenda could mean a stronger domestic economy, one protected by anti-Chinese tariffs and various Made In America initiatives meant to reduce dependence on Chinese manufacturing and supply chains. It will also be committed to strengthening energy independence and rebuilding our defense industrial base—a cornerstone of the old Pax Americana.

But inevitably, a strategic retreat of this kind means losing out to China with traditional trading partners as European capitals and New Delhi adjust to a world order dominated by Beijing rather than Washington—one in which our own military may adopt a rigid Maginot Line-style defensive strategy rather than the confident flexible response that characterized its Pax Americana predecessor.

The third pathway would be an updated and refurbished version of the old Pax Americana, a “Cold War 2.0” approach to today’s geopolitical challenges much favored by many foreign policy experts, including in the Republican Party. It envisages reviving old commitments in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia together with a robust China containment strategy modeled on the strategy adopted to deal with Soviet power during the Cold War. It is also undaunted by the prospect of having to face Russia and China at the same time—a nightmare scenario for its America First rival.

However, like its America First counterpart (with whom it sharply disagrees when it comes to supporting Ukraine and possibly Taiwan and even Israel), the Cold War 2.0 approach would vigorously seek to reduce dependence on the Chinese economy and supply chains, especially those affecting our defense industrial base. It would also promote American energy dominance both for domestic reasons and as economic leverage in strengthening allies and weakening foes, especially depriving Russia and Iran of markets for their oil and natural gas.

Overall, however, the dynamics of the Cold War 2.0 model rest squarely on the original Cold War model, as adapted and adjusted for a series of Cold War-like confrontations versus China and its new allies. Like the original Pax Americana, it will demand an increased investment of government money and resources and expanded strategic commitments that the American public was willing to accept in the aftermath of World War II but may not want to undertake in today’s more somber economic and fiscal climate.

There may be, however, a fourth path available, one that essentially involves turning the original Pax Americana formula inside out.

Instead of American arms, productivity, and instrumentalities flowing outward to sustain and support allies and the global economy, the new Pax Americana relies on achieving a proper balance between American interests and those of our democratic allies in order to generate a more stable and equitable global system and confront the current and future threat from the Beijing-Moscow-Tehran axis.

This involves 1) boosting U.S. economic strength through reshoring and restoring our manufacturing and industrial base and 2) using U.S. technological innovation—which has been the critical source of our economic leadership—as the point of the spear in our military leadership in arming ourselves and allies, from AI and unmanned aircraft systems to cybersecurity and space exploration.

As noted in a previous National Interest article, there are many possibilities for such a “New Arsenal of Democracies,” i.e., a global network of countries and companies cooperating on developing the key components of future defense systems. According to a 2022 study done by Global Finance magazine, the United States and its fellow democracies—key players in a future arsenal of democracies—occupy eighteen of the top twenty slots of the world’s most advanced tech countries (the exceptions being the United Arab Emirates, a U.S. partner, and Hong Kong). China hovers around the thirty-second slot on the list, while Russia and Iran don’t even score.

Using the recent AUKUS model for trilateral and multilateral government-to-government agreements for advanced weapons systems, the next step in this high-tech alliance would be facilitating direct company-to-company co-development contracts that allow American, European, and Asian corporations to advance the high-tech frontier as part of a collective defense strategy.

Even further, a new arsenal of democracies can address one of the important sticking points in American relations with allies, i.e., measuring an ally’s contribution to the common defense burden by tracking its defense budget as a percentage of GDP. Instead, the contribution of German, French, Italian, and Japanese firms to specific programs can become the new metric for defense burden—sharing within NATO and beyond, as well as being a more accurate measure of who contributes what to the defense of democracy around the world, and global peace and stability.

As for the second component of a new Pax Americana—reshoring and restoring the U.S. manufacturing and industrial base—Claremont Institute fellow David Goldman has pointed out that America’s wealth, as well as its financial stability, all depend extensively on its technological leadership.

If, however, China assumes leadership in the critical areas of future economic growth—AI and the manipulation of metadata—then the result could be disastrous for the United States and the rest of the democratic world. As Goldman states:

The United States now imports almost $600 billion a year of Chinese goods, 25% more than in January 2018 when President Trump imposed punitive tariffs. That’s equal to about a quarter of US manufacturing GDP. Far from de-coupling from China, a widespread proposal during the COVID-19 pandemic, the US has coupled itself to China more closely than ever.

Such a scenario is not sustainable, either for the future of the U.S. economy or for the future of the liberal, U.S.-led world order. On the other hand, if the United States can once again become a master of its economic domain and bring its penchant for innovation forward into the next economic era, a properly reshored U.S. economy will serve as a firm base for a new Pax Americana.

A roadmap for rebuilding the industrial base involves certain vital reforms. One of those means establishing tax and regulatory conditions that foster manufacturing, as opposed to a tax regime that favors software-heavy Silicon Valley and its imitators.

It means providing government subsidies to a handful of mission-critical industries (for example, semiconductors) whose onshore operations are vital to national defense and economic security while encouraging World War II-style public-private partnerships to accelerate productivity within the other sectors of our defense industrial base.

In that regard, an industrial strategy means shifting more of the defense budget to support innovative weapon systems that push the frontiers of physics and digital technology, like quantum computing and cryptography, directed energy, and artificial intelligence, without neglecting the need for adequate stockpiles of conventional weapons—a dual purpose defense industrial strategy that the Arsenal of Democracies model facilitates and expands.

Finally, restoring economic strength via our manufacturing and industrial base starts with the one manufacturing sector today that the United States still dominates, namely energy.

While both the America First and the Cold War 2.0 models see the economic benefits of a robust domestic energy industry—including nuclear power—the new Pax America also sees it as a decisive instrument for the Arsenal of Democracies, in binding together the United States and its allies to shape the global energy, and therefore economic, future (in contrast to the post-American World model, which looks to the Green New Deal to accomplish the same aim).

In fact, by pursuing a national energy policy that serves both national security and grand strategic goals, the United States can leverage its fracking revolution over the past two decades into an offset edge for the New Pax Americana not so different from the one its industrial base provided for the original Pax America.

The pieces for shaping a new Pax Americana anchored by the U.S. economy and military are already in place. Five steps can work to draw them together into a coherent working whole.

First, we need to reinforce our existing alliances with the high-tech, democratic nations in NATO and East Asia, along with Israel, through a broad Arsenal of Democracies strategy centered on crucial defense technologies. In the long run, this is a race in which China can’t seriously compete, let alone Russia and Iran, once the United States and its allies focus their productive muscle and innovative energies, including dominating the next Great Commons, namely space.

Second, a new Pax Americana requires a robust reshoring manufacturing strategy, from microchips to space satellites, while also viewing American energy independence as a strategic as well as economic asset.

This must include a renewed focus on nuclear power and investment in future Green R&D to gain a strategic leap ahead of China, the current beneficiary of our present-minded green energy policies that favor solar panels and electric cars.

Third, a new Pax Americana demands a U.S. military that is still second to none but has refocused its strategic priorities and its industrial base for capacity-building, as well as readiness and capability projection. While the earlier Pax Americana was focused mainly on the Soviet threat and a Europe-First strategy left over from World War Two, the New Pax Americana must be focused instead on an Asia-First strategy that clearly identifies China as the main threat and most dangerous component in the New Axis, both militarily and politically.

In that regard, the fourth step requires a new political strategy, one that explains to the democratic nations’ public what a world dominated by China would really look like. The original objectives of the old Pax Americana—to preserve democracy and promote free markets—became so taken for granted that its heirs forgot to renew and upgrade it when it was needed.

That time is now. The example of Hong Kong and China’s human rights record at home should dispel any illusions about the fate that Taiwan, Japan, and other allies in East Asia face under Chinese hegemony.

And not just in East Asia. A question Richard Nixon once posed to critics as well as friends of America was, as relayed by Kissinger, “What other nation in the world would you like to have in the position of preeminent power?” Then, the answer was clear: who would prefer a world dominated by the Soviet Union rather than the United States? We should be posing the same question to friends and neutrals today. Would they would prefer absorption in a Pax Sinica or a partnership in the new Pax Americana?

A safe bet is that most would prefer a stable and prosperous global order built around and sustained by a technologically advanced Arsenal of Democracies or, in the happy Abbasid phrase, “a garden protected by our spears.” Such a garden would also cultivate democratic values and free market principles, which are the true guarantors of not only freedom and prosperity but also security.

To quote Richard Nixon once more, “An unparalleled opportunity has been placed in America’s hands. Never has there been a time when hope was more justified—or when complacency was more dangerous.” It would be wrong to think that a New Pax Americana will rest on the foundations of the old. But it would also be wrong to waste an opportunity to “think anew and act anew” (to quote another American president) before events overwhelm the possibility of reform and change.

Read in the National Interest.