The Future of the Pax Americana

WHILE READING George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years I was reminded of a scene in Jacques Perrin’s spellbinding 2002 documentary, Travelling Birds. Having flown halfway around the world, a small, injured bird seeks refuge on an empty beach, only to discover that the shore is not so empty after all. The camera first discloses a single crab, eyes bulging greedily on the ends of their stalks. Encircled by an ever-increasing number of ravenous crustaceans, the grounded bird vainly looks to the sky for help. In the last shot of the sequence our bird has vanished under a virtual mountain of creepy-crawly legs and claws. This grim sequence from Travelling Birds is an apt metaphor for the way The Next 100 Years views the deadly reality of international relations. 

Friedman’s particular take on geopolitics suggests that because the United States controls both the Atlantic Ocean gateway to its east and the Pacific to its west, Uncle Sam is protected from predators like no other country in the world. For instance, al Qaeda’s furtive, limited and (so far) unrepeated attack on New York exemplifies not American vulnerability but its matchless ascendancy in any US–jihadist war. Domination ofthe great oceans, argues Friedman, gave the United States its edge against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, since Washington could always contain Moscow’s empire but the reverse was never true. 

Not that the matter of supremacy (or hegemony) on the island continent of Eurasia is unimportant. In fact, Friedman suggests that America’s military adventures in Europe and Asia are less informed by straight-out ideology (democracy versus despotism, for instance) than a hard-bitten determination to ensure no single nation or alliance of powers upsets any pre-existing equilibrium.

Thus, America’s battle against the Soviet Union in the second half of the twentieth century was more about curtailing a new Russian empire than fighting communism.Therefore, the fall of communism in Russia in 1991 does not in itself rule out another stoush between the Kremlin and Washington, because their differences are geopolitical—and that hasn’t changed. Accordingly, in The Next 100 Years Friedman has a mini-Cold War pencilled in for the 2020s; a conflict that won’t turn out any more favourably for the Russians than it did for them first time around. For starters, they no longer control central Europe and are increasingly suffering from a catastrophic population decline.

Official explanations for America’s foreign initiatives often seem trite, even hypocritical. If the USA believes in democracy enough to overthrow a despot like Saddam Hussein, how about a little action in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe? Moreover, what was the USA doing back in the 1980s providing military assistance for Saddam against the Iranians? And where was the hue and cry when Saddam gassed whole villages of Kurdish Iraqis? No wonder the Butcher of Baghdad thought he could get away with annexing Kuwait in 1990. Even a child can see that US foreign policy over the years has only sometimes corresponded with the notion of “fighting for democracy”.

The sharp discrepancy between word and deed has allowed commentators like Noam Chomsky to make a career out of exposing the “real” reason for America’s foreign policy. Chomsky is often on strong ground when mocking the “fighting for democracy” rationalisation, but his version of events is often no less unsatisfactory. The model through which Chomsky views the world leads him to identify all American foreign endeavours as “imperialist” and all things anti-American as “progressive”, including for a period in the 1970s the genocidal Pol Pot. A genuine social scientist would have taken the opportunity back then to revise his fundamental assumptions about the world, but this has not been the case for either Chomsky or the acolytes who have followed in his wake. When Michael Moore, in Fahrenheit 911, offers non-existent oil pipelines as the reason for US intervention in Afghanistan it’s obvious these neo-Marxist guys are only guessing.

The one thing about which Friedman and Chomsky would doubtless agree is that an (almost invisible) grand strategy informs the foreign policy of every US administration. According to Friedman, an American president will seek, whenever possible, to prevent any single nation or alliance accruing greater influence in the world and upsetting the on-going balance of power. Sentiment rarely comes into it.

Many argue that America’s one “good” war occurred when the USA intervened on the side of the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany. Friedman is far more clear-eyed; making the case that Roosevelt went to war against Hitler for very much the same reason Wilson declared war on the Kaiser in the First World War—to prevent Germany dominating Europe. Realpolitik rather than ideology was at play. America was no pal of the Soviet Union but helped to sustain Stalin’s regime during the Second World War in order to check German expansionism. My enemy’s enemy is my enemy.

Almost a half a century later the USA was providing the same kind of clandestine military assistance for the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan, only this time to thwart the Soviet Union. A couple of decades later, there’s Uncle Sam taking down the Mujahadeen (that is, al Qaeda in Iraq) by way of an alliance with the tribesmen of Iraq’s Anbar province, often referred to as the Awakening. America’s commitment to the Awakening, if we adopt Friedman’s logic, is strictly provisional and entirely contingent on its usefulness to the US-backed government in Baghdad.

In strict geopolitical terms, Bush’s intervention in Iraq has been entirely successful, since the mostly-moderate Arab Shia regime in Baghdad is at odds with both its Sunni Arab neighbours, including Saudi Arabia, and its non-Arab Shia neighbour, Iran. Let’s not forget that al Qaeda’s great ambition was to unite the Muslim world around a new caliphate (the last caliphate being the Ottoman empire, which collapsed at the end of the First World War) but after years of American military intervention, the Muslim world is now more divided, and further from the creation of a caliphate, than ever. “The strong horse”, to borrow Osama bin Laden’s terminology, is not al Qaeda. The United States of America is the strong horse.

An alliance with the United States is always provisional and set within the wider context that nobody else on the planet is allowed to get above their station, including the teenage Somali “coastguards” President Obama ordered whacked because they challenged the US navy’s domination of the world’s oceans. In fact, if Friedman’s emphasis on the primacy of geopolitical constraints is accurate, then Obama’s foreign policy will turn out to be not dissimilar to a Republican one.

During the 2008 election campaign Obama taunted John McCain with the suggestion that another Republican in the White House would be tantamount to four more years of George W. Bush. The irony, of course, is that as things stand it is difficult to see how Obama’s policy in Iraq over the next four years will be very different from that of a McCain administration. Significantly, Obama is no longer a critic of the Patriot Act, and has changed his position on military tribunals for enemy combatants. We are now supposed to accept that in the past when Obama condemned the trial of enemy combatants by military tribunals, his disapproval was aimed not at military tribunals per se but at the Bush administration’s misuse of them.

The new Democratic administration might no longer be waging “the global war on terror” but its “overseas contingency operations” have already seen an increasing number of US Predator missiles raining down on Taliban and al Qaeda sites in Pakistan. Will Obama allow Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fraudulent regime to obtain nuclear weapons capability and destroy the current balance of power in the Middle East that leaves no local power in ascendancy? Obama hammering Iran might come as a rude shock to those who believe Obama is the first post-American president, but such an eventuality would make perfect sense in terms of Friedman’s analysis. Contrariwise, if Obama fails to deal with the problem satisfactorily, come January 2013 he will not only be the first post-American president, he will be a post-president.

There are those who argue the American Age is now on the wane. For them The Next 100 Years provides little solace. Friedman unceremoniously dismisses the Next Big Contenders. Brazil might remain a major player in South America but thanks to various geographical constraints will never be anything more than that; India, as ever, won’t be able to project its power north of the Himalayas; and so long as China chooses to embrace economic dynamism its current unity is doomed to shatter as it falls prey to Japan’s predatory financial machinations, just as it did during the earlier decades of the twentieth century. The Land of the Rising Sun, on the other hand, has no such problems with national unity and will in time challenge America’s ascendancy in the Pacific.

In Friedman’s view the only other nation capable of challenging the Pax Americana will be Turkey, and to meet this challenge America will get behind a loose alliance of Poland and like-minded countries stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic (the Baltic states, the Czech Republic, Romania, Croatia, and so on). Here, according to The Next 100 Years, we have the ingredients for the Third World War.

Friedman is provocatively specific: 2050 is to be the starting date for the next world conflagration. The Polish alliance, with American assistance of course, will eventually see the Turks off, just as the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth turned back the Turks at the gates of Vienna in 1683. Turkey’s future Pacific ally, Japan, will fare no better in its stoush with the USA than it did in the Second World War. For the only long-term threat to the Pax Americana, Friedman proffers “Mexifornia”, but even that won’t eventuate in a showdown until 2080 and might well end with another victory for the indefatigable Yankees.

One criticism of all this conjecture is that it often seems less like futurology and more like déjà vu, with the past essentially repeating itself in one new guise or another. Friedman would doubtless argue that that was the point of geopolitical constraints, since they automatically lock countries (and political leaders) into relatively pre-determined objectives due to the causal links between geography and the projection of political power.

What of Australia? We are rarely mentioned in The Next 100 Years, because in the grand scheme of geopolitics we amount to little more than “Hawaii South”. The Japanese attacked both Australia and Hawaii during the Second World War. Thanks to America, neither finished up in any great danger of being occupied. Some complain that there was no sentiment behind the USA’s defence of Australia, that the relocation of General MacArthur’s army here in early 1942 was no more than a means to an end—to secure a US base in the South Pacific in order to prosecute more effectively the war against Japan. That might be so, but then all that fine sentiment between Australia and the Mother Country didn’t bring Britain to our assistance at the most critical moment in our history. Without the United States in the equation Australia would have ended up as a member state (or at least compliant ally) of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Yes, America is aggressive—it’s in its DNA, says Friedman—and yet there are worse forces at work in this world. When the hapless bird in Jacques Perrin’s documentary looked to the sky, how grateful he would have been to see an eagle swooping down to rescue him.


Daryl McCann teaches history in South Australia.

He has written several novels for young adults.

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