End of the Pax Americana?

Fonzy Shazam summarizes a talk by Tyler Cowen.

1. Globalization will decline.
2. There is a myth of the rational autocrat.
3. “Fortress (North) America” will see a continuation of the current stagnating trend.

To me, this sounds as if the underlying theme is the end of Pax Americana. Imagine a world in which irrational autocrats launch wars, and the U.S. is unable/unwilling to stop them. Global trade will decline, and the U.S. will see little economic progress, in part because our progress relies on increased globalization. I cannot tell which way the causal arrows run–from American stagnation to American weakness to an inability to contain armed conflict, or the other way around. In fact, the prospect of increased armed conflict is something that I am imputing–it may not factor into Tyler’s forecast at all.

I have been reading George Friedman’s Flashpoints. One theme that struck me was the way that Europe changed in 1914-1918 from being accustomed to civilization to being accustomed to barbarism. He argues that World War I desensitized people to barbarism, and this in turn made possible Soviet and Nazi atrocities. So far, I have only read the historical parts of the book, not any discussion of the present situation or future scenarios.

On a related note, what should we make of the fact that in response to the murder of one of its citizens, the United States is less forceful than Jordan? Your choices include:

a) Jordan currently has more forceful leadership than the U.S.
b) In fighting ISIS, the United States has a strategy that is more nuanced and will ultimately be more successful.
c) The United States is wisely playing down the significance of terrorism in order to save its resources for dealing with bigger threats.
d) The United States in fact does not have the military capability to defeat ISIS, and attempting a decisively forceful response would only expose that fact.

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23 Responses to End of the Pax Americana?

  1. Jeff R. says:

    f)Proximity matters. The US government, as well as its citizenry, are not prepared to expend significant resources fighting ISIS because, at least for the present, ISIS represents a neglible danger to Americans who take the trivial precaution of not traveling to Syria or Iraq. Jordan’s proximity to Syria puts Jordanians in an entirely different position.

    • collin says:

      g) Not all proximity but the similarities in culture matter here as well. Jordan may be more effective than the US in their media fight because they are not True Outsiders to the Middle East. (In reality, it is smart for the US to let Middle East get more glory here. Look how George Bush Mission Accomplish poster went 10 years ago?)

  2. Adrian Ratnapala says:

    Ok, the public response of American people and politicians is much more muted than in Jordan, but what does that mean in military terms? As far as I know, Jordan and America are both playing modest but substantial roles as part of a coalition that only hopes to win slowly.

  3. Sam says:

    e) Jordan’s forceful response is a bit of military posturing that is only possible due to its diplomatic ties with the United States and a convergence of strategic interests. In isolation, Jordan would be subject to more severe constraints and would have been unable to respond in this way.

  4. sam says:

    e) The US is fighting a proxy war against ISIS in which American-trained Jordanians using American-built weapons bought with American military aid dollars and supported using American military logistics attack targets chosen through the use of American intelligence assets.

    This allows the American superiority technological, economic, surveillance, training, and logistics to be brought to bear against ISIS, without all the unpleasant domestic and foreign political consequences of having actual front-line American combat troops.

    All the casualties will be Jordanian, all the blowback will be Jordanian, and none of the audiences on Al-Jazeera or CNN will be the wiser.

    • triclops says:

      I think you have oversimplified a bit here, but your point is essentially correct. And tragically under acknowledged.

  5. Andrew' says:

    “Bombing them back to the stone age” may be backfiring. Maybe the left/neocon overlap of bombing the uncivilized in order to give them democracy and access to world markets/aid is losing some of it’s fun as the barbarism imposed by military intervention leads to the J-curve of more short-to-medium-term barbarism.

    • Andrew' says:

      Oh, not to mention a beheading or two doesn’t justify spying on US citizens and seizing their assets.

  6. Tom DeMeo says:

    Progress relies on increased globalization only if increased globalization is the most efficient pattern. For manufacturing, the advantages of cheap labor (or quality labor) are already beginning to melt away. Shipping goods halfway around the world might not be the best way twenty years from now.

  7. Bryan Willman says:

    e1 – what Sam said
    e2 – the president is seeking an AUMF change the details of which I have not seen but we might expect it to allow “limited” ground war and essentially arbitrary air war against ISIS. Quite possibly wherever ISIS may found on Earth outside the 1st world. (The Italians will get testy if we use a predator drone on ISIS in Italy, the Yemeni’s will be equaly testing about a drone strike in Yemn, but their complaints have no real impact.)

    So Jordan, with explicit and implicit US backing conducts a few raids in response to a barbaric tragedy. The US, probably soon with explicit congressional approval, plans to wipe out ISIS with an extended air war.

    Being the first to retaliate for an atrocity is perhaps not as important to being “the winner” …. assuming you know what “winner” means…

  8. Lord says:

    Or is this about economics rather than military power. The world becomes flatter with more distributed local production with more replication and relatively little increase in specialization. More stasis and less change, providing more stability but less progress and convergence rather than advancement, leaving autocrats less to work on or with. Less planning, more serendipity, less anticipation, more randomness, the present more certain, the future less.

  9. collin says:

    Global trade will decline, and the U.S. will see little economic progress, in part because our progress relies on increased globalization.

    Why would less global trade slow US economic progress? It will create more jobs and evidently increase wages. Look at the increase in oil drilling in the US which has been one of the biggest reasons for the fall of imports. Also, many offices are ‘on-shoring’ office jobs from India (Not all backroom function mind you) because their is limitations to off-shore reporting and hours, and US wages are more competitive. (Also most low end office jobs is the company minor league for talent.) I am saying less global trade is good long run, but the US to rebalance the economy might need less trade the next 10 years.

    • 8 says:

      The U.S. is one of the world’s largest arms exporters and its capital markets will remain a haven. From the standpoint of relative economics and relative power, both the U.S. government, and lower-middle classes in the U.S., would benefit from a more dangerous world that forces its wealthy, and the wealthy abroad, to invest more in physically secure investments.

  10. E. Harding says:

    a) is the best answer, but I think it’s obvious the U.S. is not fighting ISIS. As a wise man said,
    “When there’s a will to fail, obstacles can be found.”
    Maybe a few Kurds and Syrian rebels are. But not the U.S.

  11. William Gadea says:

    “On a related note, what should we make of the fact that in response to the murder of one of its citizens, the United States is less forceful than Jordan?”

    The US has unleashed more than 2,000 bombing sorties against ISIL. Has Jordan flown more?

  12. Dan Carroll says:

    a – ISIS represents more of a existential threat to Jordan, so their public/media response is greater. The fact that the US has unleashed more firepower is a function of the fact that the US has more firepower to unleash.
    b – The US strategy is necessarily more nuanced, since we are not invading. Whether it will be successful remains to be seen.
    c – Yes. ISIS does not represent an existential threat to the US. The US over-reaction to terrorism is in part to prevent public panic. Playing down the threat may in fact represent a better option then invasion, which is unlikely to succeed in preventing future terrorist attacks.
    d – No. The US does in fact have the resources to directly defeat ISIS. It just doesn’t choose to deploy its resources in that fashion, instead pursuing a proxy war and containment/attrition strategy.

    The retreat from globalization is mostly a cultural response to the economic destabilization brought about by the financial crisis. Globalization is unpopular culturally, even though the economic benefits have been clearly demonstrated. The problem with globalization is providing a stable monetary and financial framework designed for it, rather than the current hodgepodge mostly attuned to local and national priorities.

  13. Larry says:

    Jordan reacted viscerally to the atrocity, like we did after 911. They do see ISIS as a threat, but that doesn’t explain the immediate reaction.

    The world economy continues to go through explosive change. (China’s economy is now as large as the US. Within 10-15 years, they’ll build another economy of the same size. The consequences of that will be massive, but unpredictable.) Globalization has probably peaked in the US, and parts of Europe. The next generation of production will be far more localized, because automation will eliminate much of the remaining labor from the equation. Business climate will then dominate investment decisions.

    The US strategy such as it is is to grind away at the head choppers while trying to avoid conflating them with the rest of the Muslims. It isn’t working.

    Ex al-Sisi, Muslim leaders have failed to step up and call for a revolution in Islamic affairs, which is the only way to end this. The stoning, hand-chopping, crushing of women, martyrdom, etc., have all got to go. That will not happen until some kind of new leader arises (a Muslim Luther). Not in prospect. Until then, the Islamic world will continue to spin into chaos. Much worse is yet to come. I don’t think it will spread beyond Africa, the Arabs and the arc from Iran to Pakistan. If I’m wrong, Europe is the next to burn.

  14. jk says:

    Maybe to say that the US is not fighting ISIS is oversimplifying the matter, one can make the case that this is a Sunni-Shia battle that the US does not want to insert itself in again as it did (or created) so recklessly in Iraq.
    The Jordanian response is minor from a military perspective because I wonder what targeting intelligence they used and what did they actually destroy at this point? All the low hanging fruit targets of obvious convoys, obvious caches of weaponry/supplies, and obvious groupings of ISIS personnel are gone from the quantity and precision US sorties.

    There may be an unquantifiable but fleeting moral victory for the Jordanian population. Also, the munitions that Jordan uses despite using the F16 platform are not the “smart” laser/gps guided bombs. There are various reasons why they do not have such technology and I am willing to bet Israel is one of them.

    I think the US public is tired of bearing the brunt of costs of being the globo-cop. With the shocking realization that the US is subsidizing the defense costs of richer nations while bearing the costs of potential blowback. The endless adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan did not help the case of globo-policing/indefinite nation building either.

    Those that have been outside of US borders and see the beautiful, well maintained, non-collapsing infrastructure of most of Europe, many parts of Asia, and the richer parts of the Middle East may cause cognitive dissonance in an American so used to thinking about how “rich” they are relative to the world only to find out that is not the case.

    Globalization is a vague term but its power is that it cannot be contained, to deny it is to completely wall yourself off. Which is impossible. Globalization will continue to find ways around “existential threats” or other over-hyped threats. Any classical “liberal economist” should now that there are markets to satiate that are not even dreamed up of yet.

  15. ElamBend says:

    ISIS is more of a threat to Jordan than to the US. Plus, the Jordanian ruling structure is more brittle. The pilot that was killed belonged to an important (non-Palestinian) tribe that has long supported the Hashemite political structure. That, plus the basis upon which a king’s moral power is based, required a vigorous response (the breakdown in talks and killing were a personal affront to the king and if he didn’t respond forcefully, he’d look weak and lose moral authority).
    All a completely different dynamic than for US.

  16. ww says:

    Terrorism primarily, if not only, results from the terrorism victim nation having occupied–or merely maintained military resources in–another nation or region with which the terrorists have some affiliation or affection, or to which they have a loyalty.

    EVERY instance in the historical record indicates this to be the case, yet we learn not.

    • Arnold Kling says:

      A couple of counter-examples come to mind.

      1. We occupied Germany after the second World War, and we did not suffer terrorist attacks as a result.

      2. As far as I know, Denmark is not an occupier.

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