Last week, I was chatting with a Frenchman who recalled shining Nazis' shoes as a little boy for scraps during World War II. He told me, with a smile, of running home to his mother after he had earned a few pieces of bread. To him, America is still the liberator. But he added, "People forget."
At the same time I was having this conversation, President Obama was touring Europe with a tone of atonement about him. Obama inherited a nation severed from its elevated post-war stature. And so it was fitting that Obama's first diplomatic tour from London to Baghdad was consumed with the public relations effort to revitalize brand USA. He appeared the statesman, brokering a small deal with the heads of state of China and France. He put forward a magnificent image, on no occasion more than when visiting a Turkish mosque and not forgetting to remove his shoes. But in Obama's effort to bridle the impression of American hubris he also hinted at the decline of the nation itself.
Not since the inception of Pax Americana has U.S. power been so challenged as it has in recent months. Shortly after the mid September stock market crash, German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck declared the United States will "lose its financial superpower status." More recently, China's central bank chief Zhou Xiaochuan called for the replacement of the dollar as the world's reserve currency. At the G-20 summit British Prime Minister Gordon Brown declared that the "old Washington consensus is over."
It was the New York Times that captured the G-20 as heralding a super power at sunset. "Gone are the days, from Pax Britannica to Pax Americana, when Britain and the United States made the rules that others followed." Obama's own words partly inspired this declaration.
"If there's just Roosevelt and Churchill sitting in a room with a brandy, that's an easier negotiation," Obama said before the international press core in London. "But that's not the world we live in, and it shouldn't be the world that we live in. And so, you know, that's not a loss for America."
So it was that the president discussed American post-war power in the past tense, not at the G-7 but at the G-20. The term "world powers," as opposed to "world power," was revived in this most precarious of American moments.
Later that week at the NATO summit in Strasbourg, France, the president was asked if he subscribed to American exceptionalism.
"I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism," Obama replied.
Of course, if all are exceptional then none are exceptional.
American exceptionalism was taken too far in recent years. "If we're an arrogant nation they'll view us that way, but if we're a humble nation they'll respect us," George W. Bush said during the 2000 campaign. But humble W became "bring them on" Bush. And Obama was elected to, in so many respects, be what Bush was not.
Obama seems, however, less the redemptive president than the contrite commander, noting the passing of Pax Americana as "not a loss for America."
The end of Pax Americana surely would be a loss. It would surrender the nation's defining sense of mission, rooted in men from James Monroe to John Winthrop. It would portend the loss of our wealth and way of life. And indeed, in time, much of the world would rue that loss.
Last year, the National Intelligence Council completed a report on 2025, foretelling an era that where the "United States will remain the single most powerful country but will be less dominant. Shrinking economic and military capabilities may force the U.S. into a difficult set of tradeoffs" amid "the decay of international institutions, climate change, and the geopolitics of energy." It noted, "rather than emulating Western models of political and economic development, more countries may be attracted to China's alternative development model."
Alternative development model is a gentle euphemism for the fruitful marriage of capitalism and repression. The economic crisis has certainly exposed the weaknesses in Anglo-American economics. But if Britain's Brown is right and the Washington consensus is over, what is to replace it?
China may be emulated. But expect no Beijing consensus. As James Fallows recently wrote, "No other nation that could build roads, airports, and industrial parks as modern as China's could impose so repressive a political regime."
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once observed, "When the Chinese students cried and died for democracy in Tiananmen Square, they brought with them not representations of Confucius or Buddha but a model of the Statue of Liberty."
Huddled masses yearning to breathe free are not traveling to China. Indeed, China seems to have a reckoning brewing with its impoverished masses. On the world stage, China sells arms to Sudan and just this past week, with Russia, stalled UN Security Council measures to press North Korea away from brinkmanship.
If this is to be the Chinese century, as some contend, the Middle Kingdom has not yet found its sense of outward mission. Only last year, the Chinese navy took part in its first operation beyond the Pacific and this was to protect Chinese vessels from pirates in the waters off Somalia. America's pledge of freedom has often been undercut by its effort to secure power. China is focused on power alone.
For all the American misuses of power in the name of liberty, ever since the Marshall Plan, American prosperity has driven world prosperity. This is the reason why the American economic crisis was so rapidly exported abroad.
Yet the upside of Pax Americana is rarely highlighted. Between 1976 and 2006, the number of "free" nations more than doubled, from 42 to 90, while nations "not free" fell from 68 to 45, according to Freedom House. There are 123 democratic countries today, compared to, give or take, 22 in 1950. One Australian government report found that between 1972 and 2006, 67 dictatorships had fallen. Half the world's population was in poverty in 1950. Today, about a fifth of the world remains impoverished.
The world's progress during Pax Americana is no accident. The United States could do more. But between 1946 and 2000, in constant year 2000 dollars, the United States gave about $1.5 trillion in foreign aid--that 50-year total, even while excluding billions in private annual aid, likely dwarfs all other nations. A success story of post-war U.S. aid, Japan, is now a top government donor.
The American motto abroad, if one can be found over the past century, could be summed up in Woodrow Wilson's pledge that "the world must be made safe for democracy." That was how an American president believed he had to frame the Great War in order to get American boys to save French and British boys. At the peak of Great Britain's power, its mission was to "make the world British."
It's the gap between American ideals and some of its actions that has long been the nation's undoing. Yet it's worth noting that the cold war never went hot.
There have been no world wars since Pax Americana's inception at the conclusion of World War II. The most ignoble and bloody modern U.S. wars, Korea and Vietnam, killed 3.2 million. That's millions less than the wars of countless empires of old, from the Mongol Conquests, to the Islamic Conquests of Timur, to the Napoleonic Wars to the tens of millions dead in World War I and the tens of millions more during the world's sequel.
The debacle in Iraq may remain fresh in the world's mind but stability, like Coca Cola, has also been a U.S. export. The very notion of American imperialism has long been ridiculous on its face. The United States only briefly flirted with imperialism around the fin de siècle, with the meager grab of Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam.
The American empire was most possible following World War II. The sun had set on the British empire. America was the only nuclear power. Its coffers constituted roughly half of the world's economy. But while Joseph Stalin was moving to repress much of Eastern Europe the Untied States moved to create the United Nations, which would inevitably undermine any effort at global dominance.
Today, the United States still constitutes one-quarter of the world's economy. It has the best universities, the most well funded research and development and a military budget larger than the next twenty nations combined.
Japan and South Korea do not depend upon China to pressure Kim Jong Il. Israel and many regional Arab powers, ever so quietly, are not relying on Russia or Europe to help contain Iran's nuclear program. It is not China or the European Union that developing nations look to for a dramatic increase in consumption to reboot the world's economy. It is, as it long has been, the United States.
Yet diplomatic chatter is inebriated with the idea of U.S. decline. We've seen this before. As Josef Joffe once noted, Paul Kennedy's "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers" predicated the dusk of American power only four years before the Soviet Union fell and the United States became the world's sole super power.
That moment of singular world power has passed. But Pax Americana has not. And that, as the Frenchman recalled and the president appeared to forget, is a good thing.