In an op-ed in the Washington Post Robert Samuelson bids a mournful farewell to the Pax Americana:
With hindsight we may see 2006 as the end of Pax Americana. Ever since World War II, the United States has used its military and economic superiority to promote a stable world order that has, on the whole, kept the peace and spread prosperity. But the United States increasingly lacks both the power and the will to play this role. It isn’t just Iraq, though Iraq has been profoundly destabilizing and demoralizing. Many other factors erode U.S. power: China’s rise; probable nuclear proliferation; shrinking support for open trade; higher spending for Social Security and Medicare that squeezes the military; the weakness of traditional U.S. allies — Europe and Japan.
In some of the commentary there’s been a little quibbling about Samuelson’s terminology. May I offer a way of thinking about the interrelationships of “strength” (the term that Samuelson uses), will, and power? It’s a little equation I’ve written about before:
Power = Capability X Interest X Will
By power we’re talking about hard power, the ability to compel others to do what you want. A “push” force. Capability is what Samuelson is referring to as “strength” and, clearly, America’s capability both in military and economic terms is as strong or stronger than ever. Interest means the stake that one has in the outcome. Will, obviously, is the determination—motivated by the interest—to achieve an outcome.
Capability, strength, has both interest and will as multipliers. If either interest or will fade to zero in any given operation, then regardless of capability we won’t have the power to achieve the outcome (you can’t think of it as “the desired outcome” because, if will fades to zero, you don’t desire it).
I can’t be quite as lugubrious as either Samuelson or some of those who’ve posted on the ebbing of U. S. power in this particular sense because there are other means to see that things come out the way we might want. What I mean by this is Joseph Nye’s “soft power”—influencing behavior by cultural or ideological means. Having people want what you want. A “pull” force.
My recommendation is that we should stick to our knitting and do what we do best: grow, prosper, build things, create things, and be happy. I’m not much concerned about the rise of China or India or that leftist populist crackpots like Hugo Chavez are gaining in power in Latin America. I’m confident that American soft power, bolstered by judicious and sparing use of hard power when it’s necessary, will ensure that the outcome will be good for us and for the world.
I’m not saying that we should be complacent—far from it. I’m saying that we should devote more of our efforts to spreading prosperity and, as people realize that liberal democratic societies are a more effective means for realizing that prosperity, they’ll long for that and want to adopt those means themselves.
May such a Pax Americana last a thousand years!