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Twilight of Pax Americana

Since the end of WWII, the world has depended on the United States for stability. But with American military and economic dominance waning, capitalism and global security are threatened.

September 29, 2009|Christopher Layne and Benjamin Schwarz | Christopher Layne is a professor of government at Texas A&M and a consultant to the National Intelligence Council. Benjamin Schwarz is literary and national editor of the Atlantic.

The international order that emerged after World War II has rightly been termed the Pax Americana; it's a Washington-led arrangement that has maintained political stability and promoted an open global economic system. Today, however, the Pax Americana is withering, thanks to what the National Intelligence Council in a recent report described as a "global shift in relative wealth and economic power without precedent in modern history" -- a shift that has accelerated enormously as a result of the economic crisis of 2007-2009.

At the heart of this geopolitical sea change is China's robust economic growth. Not because Beijing will necessarily threaten American interests but because a newly powerful China by necessity means a relative decline in American power, the very foundation of the postwar international order. These developments remind us that changes in the global balance of power can be sudden and discontinuous rather than gradual and evolutionary.

The Great Recession isn't the cause of Washington's ebbing relative power. But it has quickened trends that already had been eating away at the edifice of U.S. economic supremacy. Looking ahead, the health of the U.S. economy is threatened by a gathering fiscal storm: exploding federal deficits that could ignite runaway inflation and undermine the dollar. To avoid these perils, the U.S. will face wrenching choices.

The Obama administration and the Federal Reserve have adopted policies that have dramatically increased both the supply of dollars circulating in the U.S. economy and the federal budget deficit, which both the Brookings Institution and the Congressional Budget Office estimate will exceed $1 trillion every year for at least the next decade. In the short run, these policies were no doubt necessary; nevertheless, in the long term, they will almost certainly boomerang. Add that to the persistent U.S. current account deficit, the enormous unfunded liabilities for entitlement programs and the cost of two ongoing wars, and you can see that America's long-term fiscal stability is in jeopardy. As the CBO says: "Even if the recovery occurs as projected and stimulus bill is allowed to expire, the country will face the highest debt/GDP ratio in 50 years and an increasingly unsustainable and urgent fiscal problem." This spells trouble ahead for the dollar.

The financial privileges conferred on the U.S. by the dollar's unchallenged reserve currency status -- its role as the primary form of payment for international trade and financial transactions -- have underpinned the preeminent geopolitical role of the United States in international politics since the end of World War II. But already the shadow of the coming fiscal crisis has prompted its main creditors, China and Japan, to worry that in coming years the dollar will depreciate in value. China has been increasingly vocal in calling for the dollar's replacement by a new reserve currency. And Yukio Hatoyama, Japan's new prime minister, favors Asian economic integration and a single Asian currency as substitutes for eroding U.S. financial and economic power.

Going forward, to defend the dollar, Washington will need to control inflation through some combination of budget cuts, tax increases and interest rate hikes. Given that the last two options would choke off renewed growth, the least unpalatable choice is to reduce federal spending. This will mean radically scaling back defense expenditures, because discretionary nondefense spending accounts for only about 20% of annual federal outlays. This in turn will mean a radical diminution of America's overseas military commitments, transforming both geopolitics and the international economy.

Since 1945, the Pax Americana has made international economic interdependence and globalization possible. Whereas all states benefit absolutely in an open international economy, some states benefit more than others. In the normal course of world politics, the relative distribution of power, not the pursuit of absolute economic gains, is a country's principal concern, and this discourages economic interdependence. In their efforts to ensure a distribution of power in their favor and at the expense of their actual or potential rivals, states pursue autarkic policies -- those designed to maximize national self-sufficiency -- practicing capitalism only within their borders or among countries in a trading bloc.

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