NEW YORK – The post-1945 order constructed by the US in Europe and East Asia has been fraying at the edges for some time now. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement has only hastened its unraveling.
For the first time since the early years of General Charles de Gaulle’s presidency in France, a major Western leader – German Chancellor Angela Merkel – has stated openly that Europe can no longer rely on US leadership. This might seem ironic, coming from a German and a confirmed Atlanticist, but it is actually fitting, because Germany, in its transformation from a murderous dictatorship into a peaceful liberal democracy, needed the US more than any country.
Perhaps we should be sanguine about the gradual end of Pax Americana. No imperial system lasts forever. An international order that made complete sense when the world was emerging from the ruins of World War II, only to enter a long Cold War between two nuclear superpowers, may no longer be adequate, and may stand in the way of better arrangements.
NATO’s purpose, in the blunt phrase of its first secretary general, Lord Hastings Ismay, was to “keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.” But Germany no longer needs to be kept “down,” and there is some debate whether Russia should have been kept “out” after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And Trump is right about one thing, even if he expresses it crudely: Europe, as well as Japan, has become too dependent on American military power.
This dependence on the US for collective security does not make American allies exactly into colonies. And the US is not formally an imperial power. But aspects of a common late imperial dilemma are visible in both East Asia and Western Europe today. If the US were to give up its leadership role too quickly, chaos might follow and less benign powers might jump into the vacuum. But if the US-led system remains in place for too long, it will prevent American dependencies from taking more responsibility for their security.
When imperial arrangements are dissolved, violence often results. The Armenian genocide accompanied the demise of Ottoman power. Murderous anti-Semitism and radical nationalism followed the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Something similar happened when Josip Broz Tito’s little Balkan empire of Yugoslavia fell apart. More than a million Hindus and Muslims lost their lives in horrific sectarian violence when the British Raj left a partitioned country to its devices.
This is not an argument in favor of imperialism. But the age of Trump should make us ready to face the consequences once the US-led post-1945 order comes to an end. American leadership has obviously been a flawed enterprise, resulting in unnecessary wars, and the support of too many unsavory allies in the struggle with Communism. But there have been many positive factors, too. Western Europe, Japan, and even, belatedly, South Korea and Taiwan, were able to become free and prosperous under the protection of the US.
Despite the excesses of anti-Communism, US dominance has also acted as a brake on ideological extremism. Neither Communism, nor variations of fascism, or indeed radical nationalism, had much of a chance to develop in Europe under Pax Americana. Recent elections in the Netherlands and France suggest that Trump may be serving as a deterrent, rather than a boost, to populist extremism in Europe. But if the populist wave were to become bigger and more brutal, there is nobody in Washington now to discourage it.
In Japan, dependence on the US, and anxiety about Communism, has marginalized the left and kept a conservative party more or less permanently in power. But the extremes of Japanese revanchism were also kept in check. This may no longer be so easy, once the US is no longer seen as a reliable protector and fear of China turns into a panic.
Unlike some of her predecessors as Chancellor, Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, is wary of Russia’s strategic designs. There is no doubt that Russia and China will benefit, at least in the short term, from America’s abdication of leadership. Some people are not too bothered by this. Russia is closer to Berlin or even Paris than Washington or New York. There is a great deal of money to be made by cozying up to the Russian and Chinese regimes (as the US president knows only too well). And the chance that either Russia or China would invade NATO countries or Japan might be slim.
But there will be a price to pay for increased vulnerability to Chinese and Russian encroachments. No matter how irksome American dominance might have been, or how much people deplored some of the destructive wars that the US unleashed, criticism of US policies, presidents, and even cultural practices was not only permissible, but seen as a healthy sign of liberal democracy. This was one of the “common values” that held the West together.
The same will not be true in a world dominated by China. Criticism will quickly lead to repercussions, especially in the economic sphere. Hollywood studios are already censoring the content of movies expected to make money in the Chinese market. Western news media, eager to maintain access to Moscow or Beijing, will be under increasing pressure to be careful about what they print or broadcast. This will hurt our own societies, which are built on the principles of openness and freedom of expression.
So even if the end of Pax Americana does not result in military invasions, or world wars, we should ready ourselves for a time when we might recall the American Empire with fond nostalgia.