Sunday, August 25, 2013

A pox on all of your paxi

History is replete with violence between and within states (in the sense of defined societies ruled by governments, of one form or another). We can go back to the Warring States era in Chinese History, to the age of Alexander the Great in the Mediterranean to the unification of Upper and Lower and Egypt, and before. While such conflicts can be attributed to a variety of apparent and specific causes, there remains a background reality to all of them: the control of resources as a means of obtaining/maintaining power. Because resources--of all sorts--are always limited with respect to a given time and place, some amount of conflict is inevitable of course, though it can manifest in a variety of ways, not all of them overtly violent. And for those that are violent, such activity need not always rise to civil war, war between states, much less world war.

Yet, it a rare to find extended periods of time wherein one of the three kinds of war is not taking place in the world at large or even within an extended sphere of influence. Why? Because such extended periods are--like it or not--a consequence of power being disproportionately held by one state, as compared to many others.

The first such period one is liable to think of is the so-called Pax Romana, a two hundred year period of relative peace throughout the Mediterranean world, extending well into Western Europe as well, beginning during the reign of Augustus and ending with the death of Marcus Aurelius. The peace of this period--which led to increased economic activity, population growth, a growth in the arts, and the like--was most definitely an enforced peace, however. It depended on the threat of Rome's military might. And in that regard, there was violence, as Augustus and his successors were quick to squash any unrest or even potential unrest.

After the Pax Romana came to an end (which was followed by the collapse of the Roman Empire, eventually), there were various other periods of extended peace in more limited regions of the world (and to be fair, at the same time as the Pax Romana, there was also the Pax Sinica in China). But for many centuries, none were so extensive as the Pax Romana.

Then came the Pax Britannica of the nineteenth century. For about one hundred years (1814-1914), the British Empire was the unquestioned Sovereign of the Seas, as its navy was without equal in all of the world. As such, it was largely in control of most international commerce. Built on the twin pillars of British colonialism and the Industrial Revolution, the Pax Britannica was a period that saw the accumulation of massive wealth by both the Crown and private citizens in Great Britain. Many thought it would last forever, if not longer, and saw it as evidence of British superiority in all things. Almost everyone in the West is familiar with the period, thanks to its glorification in literature and the arts. Perhaps the most memorable summary of this is found in a song from Mary Poppins, of all things:

A portion of the lyrics:
It's grand to be an Englishman in 1910
King Edward's on the throne
It's the Age of Men
I'm the lord of my castle
The sovereign, the liege
I treat my subjects, servants, children, wife
With a firm but gentle hand
Noblesse oblige...

The period, however, was still akin to the Pax Romana insofar as there was still violence. But while some ferocious conflicts took place on land, those that began within reach of British sea power were put down quickly, sometimes by the mere threat of British intervention. However, the rise of Germany--with its own massive program of industrialization--and of the United States, as New York began to supplant London as the financial capital of the world, signaled the end of the Pax Britannica, a terribly violent and bloody end via World War I and World War II which also ended the British Empire, for all intents and purposes.

Most recently, there is the Pax Americana, a term used by different people to signify various periods both before and after World War II to be sure, but one which I think should be applied to the years from about 1950 to about now (hopefully longer). Used by many pejoratively--including JFK in 1963--and objected to by others because of the existence of the Soviets, hindsight now affords us the ability to see the period more clearly, wherein it very much follows the pattern of the previous two periods discussed.

True enough, the world has not been free from violence at all in this period. And the threat of nuclear destruction has hung over all of it. Yet, American power checked the dreams of Soviet leaders and enforced the boundaries of states--many of theme arbitrary--throughout the world. There were protracted wars in Korea and Vietnam to be sure, but the ultimate consequences for being on the "other side," no matter who supposedly "won" became clear. And the supposed other superpower--the Soviet Union--was really no such thing, as the wealth and power of the United States increased exponentially, while the Soviets struggled to maintain a facade of success until it all came crashing down around them with the fall of the Wall.

Taking all of this in context, one has to ask what Kennedy was talking about in 1963, on what basis did he believe the Pax Americana was something that needed to be opposed from within. A portion of his words from the linked-to speech (the Commencement Address at American University):
I have, therefore, chosen this time and place to discuss a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and the truth too rarely perceived. And that is the most important topic on earth: peace. What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children -- not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace in all time.

I speak of peace because of the new face of war. Total war makes no sense in an age where great powers can maintain large and relatively invulnerable nuclear forces and refuse to surrender without resort to those forces. It makes no sense in an age where a single nuclear weapon contains almost ten times the explosive force delivered by all the allied air forces in the Second World War. It makes no sense in an age when the deadly poisons produced by a nuclear exchange would be carried by wind and water and soil and seed to the far corners of the globe and to generations yet unborn.

Today the expenditure of billions of dollars every year on weapons acquired for the purpose of making sure we never need them is essential to the keeping of peace. But surely the acquisition of such idle stockpiles -- which can only destroy and never create -- is not the only, much less the most efficient, means of assuring peace. I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary, rational end of rational men. I realize the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war, and frequently the words of the pursuers fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task.

Some say that it is useless to speak of peace or world law or world disarmament, and that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. I hope they do. I believe we can help them do it. But I also believe that we must reexamine our own attitudes, as individuals and as a Nation, for our attitude is as essential as theirs. And every graduate of this school, every thoughtful citizen who despairs of war and wishes to bring peace, should begin by looking inward, by examining his own attitude towards the possibilities of peace, towards the Soviet Union, towards the course of the cold war and towards freedom and peace here at home.

First examine our attitude towards peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it is unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade; therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man's reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable, and we believe they can do it again. I am not referring to the absolute, infinite concept of universal peace and good will of which some fantasies and fanatics dream. I do not deny the value of hopes and dreams but we merely invite discouragement and incredulity by making that our only and immediate goal.

Let us focus instead on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions -- on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned. There is no single, simple key to this peace; no grand or magic formula to be adopted by one or two powers. Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process -- a way of solving problems.

With such a peace, there will still be quarrels and conflicting interests, as there are within families and nations. World peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbor, it requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement. And history teaches us that enmities between nations, as between individuals, do not last forever. However fixed our likes and dislikes may seem, the tide of time and events will often bring surprising changes in the relations between nations and neighbors. So let us persevere. Peace need not be impracticable, and war need not be inevitable. By defining our goal more clearly, by making it seem more manageable and less remote, we can help all people to see it, to draw hope from it, and to move irresistibly towards it.
This speech is often described as one of the great speeches in American history. And indeed, the rhetoric is beautiful and compelling. But is there any validity whatsoever in such a vision? I'll put it bluntly: can there be extended peace based on the idea of mutual respect between states, wherein all are treated as equals? Immanuel Kant offered similar sentiments in his 1795 essay "Perpetual Peace." And he at least offered basic criteria for such a peace, such as arguing that "the Civil Constitution of Every State Should Be Republican." But even with such caveats, it is still a dream. Because as I noted in the beginning of this essay, resources have never been and will never be unlimited. Conflict will ensue between and within states as a matter of course. Some will have more resources than others, even when they deign to share those resources.

I think it clear that the best we--mankind--can ever hope for is a series of Paxi, if you will, periods of relative peace enforced by states that become less interested in political and violent conquest than in creating and accumulating wealth. This is the model of the Pax Romana, the Pax Britannica, and the Pax Americana. It was enough for each state in each period to maintain its position in the balance of power, so as to allow its citizenry and culture to flourish. Within such frameworks, other states were and are free to grow as well (though certainly in more limited ways) and provided that they concern themselves with the pursuit of prosperity (or even if they don't), their own internals matter little, so long ass those internals don't upset the larger picture.

It's understandable, of course, that there will always be pushback in such scenarios: who wants to be forced into a subservient role? And ultimately, no matter what, such pushback will eventually lead to large-scale change, violent and destructive change more often that not. But that's the real hand mankind has been dealt, has always had to play. Supposing there is a way out is a fool's goal.

Yet here were are, with the Pax Americana seemingly coming to an end, and what do we find? The return of Kennedy's navel-gazing, self-defeating vision from the current Administration. Caroline Glick capably summarizes this vision, with respect to the Middle East in general and Turkey in particular:
Using the same elitist sensibilities that cause him to blame American "arrogance" for the world's troubles, and embrace radical Islam as a positive force, Obama has applied conflict resolution techniques developed by professors in ivory towers to real world conflicts that cannot be resolved peacefully.

Obama believed he could use the US's close relationships with Israel and Turkey to bring about a rapprochement between the former allies. But he was wrong. The Turkish-Israeli alliance ended because Erdogan is a virulent Jew-hater who seeks Israel's destruction, not because of a misunderstanding.

Obama forced Israel to apologize for defending itself against Turkish aggression, believing that Erdogan would then reinstate full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. Instead, Erdogan continued his assault on Israel, most recently accusing it of organizing the military coup in Egypt and the anti- Erdogan street protests in Turkey.

As for Egypt, as with Syria, Obama's foreign policy vision for the US has left Washington with no options for improving the situation on the ground or for securing its own strategic interests. To advance his goal of empowering the Muslim Brotherhood, Obama pushed the Egyptian military to overthrow the regime of US ally Hosni Mubarak and so paved the way for elections that brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power...

Under Obama, America has made itself worse than irrelevant. In country after country, it has become dangerous to be a US ally. The world as a whole is a much more dangerous place as a consequence.
Whatever problems and injustices created by the Pax Americana (and the other Paxi), they are most assuredly better than a world in flames. The goal, in my humble opinion, should have always been to extend the Pax Americana for as long as possible (especially with respect to elected leaders of the nation), not to bring it to an end in service to the pangs of liberal guilt that so often manifest themselves among those unable to see the big picture, among those with no sense of history, among those whose minds are clouded by Utopian visions.

The question is, is the Pax Americana over? Is this the beginning of the end? If so, it is instructive--and tragic--to note how this end is being engineered from within, by and large, as opposed to it coming from without.

For what it's worth, the root of "Pax" is the Roman goddess of peace of the same name. She was a very minor figure--not even a goddess--in Roman mythology until the reign of Augustus. He raised her status to that of goddess and heavily promoted a cult of worship for her, mostly as a means of keeping the literal peace...

Cheers, all.


  1. A couple of comments:
    I disagree that the wars are always (or even mainly) about resources -- in my opinion, most of them aren't or haven't been for a while.

    I assume you don't count Jewish revolts (and others) against the Romans as wars :-) They lasted several years and required significant forces to put down.

    I think much of the relative calm in Europe during the Pax Brittanica has a lot to do with much of Europe bled dry during the Napoleonic wars. I might be wrong, though.

    Walter Russel Mead and Adam Garfunkel at The American Interest have great series of posts on both the Egyptian ad the Syrian situation. I think much of the problems in American attitudes stem from "solutionism" -- i.e. assuming there is always a solution or that some outcome defined as "good" is achievable. And then it becomes an either/or proposition and the prior interventions are seen as failures, because they failed to achieve total resolution. At the moment, both the Republican and the Democrat approach to foreign policy is a bunch of bs. Sometimes things can't work out or can't be solved, and it shouldn't be an anathema for US to seek its interests, even if they mean maintaining the status quo or managing some conflicts rather than resolving them.

  2. P.S. I don't like Glick. She sometimes goes too far in her conclusions, even though some of her pieces have insights. I much prefer people like Martin Kramer, Walter Russel Mead, Adam Garfinkle and Barry Rubin even though I disagree with them sometimes.

  3. Well, I'd argue--marxist historian that I am--that even when it's not about resources, it's actually about resources...

    As to the Pax Britannica's relative calm, it was again limited to those regions wherein Britain had economic concerns, by and large (i.e. trade routes on or near water). The Franco-Prussian War occurred during the Pax, after all (as did the smaller Austro-Prussian War; damn those Prussians!).