When Globalization Fails

The Rise and Fall of Pax Americana, James Macdonald, Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Within the United States politicians often debate whether America can or should be “the world’s policeman,” stamping out conflicts around the globe to help make the world safe for liberal democracy and transnational capitalism. In “When Globalization Fails: The Rise and Fall of Pax Americana,” James Macdonald takes it for granted that the United States has been occupying such a role since the end of World War II and argues that America’s economic and military dominance has made the world a safer place, helping to boost global prosperity and prevent a third world war.

For Macdonald, global affairs are primarily defined by resource control. The best way to maintain global peace is through a system of free international trade combined with a benign hegemon that uses its economic and military predominance to forestall conflicts.

Throughout much of the nineteenth century, Great Britain filled this role, at least to an extent—enhancing global trade through tariff reduction and by using its navy to police shipping routes—assisted by the major continental powers’ semi-unification as the “Concert of Europe.” This system preserved a tenuous peace for several decades, but, by the end of the century, the Great Powers were turning toward protectionist economic policies and were building up global empires (as well as militaries) to protect their imperialist holdings. The result was a competitive, multipolar world in which nations were attempting to attain economic and military dominance, while at the same time becoming increasingly economically interdependent. This set the stage for the First World War.

In the interwar period, the nations of the world, and particularly the United States, gravitated toward isolationism. This put Germany in an especially unstable position, and Hitler sought to overcome this by creating a vast contiguous land empire in Eurasia, leading to World War II. After the war, rather than isolate the losers, the U.S. integrated Germany and Japan into the global economy. Over the next several decades, the West enjoyed peace and prosperity, which the United States protected with the predominance of its military power. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, attained economic self-sufficiency and thus largely isolated itself from the rest of the world.

Shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it seemed as if the entire world might be united under a system of free trade and informal, though universally recognized, policing by the U.S. But now, Macdonald argues, we are coming very close to becoming a competitive, multipolar world, much like in the late nineteenth century. China, which does not recognize the legitimacy of Pax Americana, and Russia, which has become increasingly isolationist, have pulled the balance of power away from the U.S. If these powers start producing regional power blocs, the result could be another world war.

Macdonald’s book is elegantly argued and offers much to think about. He is particularly adept at drawing important historical parallels and in demonstrating the root causes of complex geopolitical forces. However, in his focus on a particular kind of global order, Macdonald ends up seeming overly sanguine about the brutalities that persisted throughout the era of Pax Americana. In many cases, these brutalities were encouraged, or at least tacitly endorsed, by the United States, such as the U.S.-backed Chilean coup or the brutal Suharto regime in Indonesia. So, in many parts of the world, “Pax Americana” has perhaps not always seemed so much better than the alternative.