“Pax Americana” always struck me as a somewhat misleading description of the postwar dispensation that the United States brought to the world, for two reasons. The first is its implied equivalence with earlier empires. It seems to me that the special fascination, and special benefit to the world, of American internationalism is precisely that it is not imperial. The British were in India for two hundred years; but we are rattled by overseas entanglements that last two hundred months, and even two hundred days. The United States has been a global power, an intrusive global power, but it has not been an empire; which is to say, it has been a new kind of global power, its commercial interests notwithstanding. The taxonomy needs a new term. American activism abroad has often been owed more to ideas than to interests, which is why our foreign policy regularly frightens the “realists” among us, who would in fact prefer that we behave more like a corporation with an army.
The second flaw in the metaphor of “Pax Americana” is that the American dispensation has not always been characterized by pax. We must be clear about this. Often the peace has come after war, and often the war has been a just war, which established more decent political conditions for the peace. This does not mean that we are “the cops of the world”. We have never been anything remotely like that. We intervene fitfully, infrequently, and less than our principles and the welfare of oppressed people demand. But sometimes we do use military force for purposes of democratization and rescue, and this should be a source of American pride. Among the least noticed facts of our era is that almost all of these interventions of democratization and rescue have been undertaken for the sake of Muslims, in southern Europe and the Middle East and Central Asia. We have not been making war on Muslims, we have been making war for Muslims.
In the Obama years, however, we have been content – more precisely, he has been content – to let Muslims languish in dictatorial and even genocidal circumstances, even as he piously proclaims his friendship for Muslim peoples. Rescue has fallen, or been banished, from the inventory of American purposes abroad. “Never again” are now the phoniest words this President utters. The Syrian catastrophe, in which Assad has perpetrated atrocities that dwarf many times over anything that Qaddafi was preparing to perpetrate in Libya, has exposed the heartlessness of Obama’s foreign policy. His contribution to the American record in this new age of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity is a stronger American stomach, a thicker American skin. We must be, he believes, less easily moved. But of course the reasons for the United States to intervene on behalf of the Syrian opposition have very little to do with emotionalism. There are huge principles and huge interests at stake in the question of Syrian rescue. Heartlessness in this case is not only unsentimental, it is also unintelligent.
Obama’s indifference to the imperative of rescue, to the tradition of rescue, was first revealed in June 2009, when he left the valiant protesters in Iran to their fate; and the rest of the chronicle of passivity is well-known. Libya is not the rule, it is the exception; and no sooner did the Libyan dictator draw his last breath than we were gone and “the light footprint” governed our policy again. (I regard “the light footprint” as one of the causes of Christopher Stevens’ death in Benghazi.) It is important to understand that the war in Iraq is not the preferred model of a policy of rescue. Indeed, in some instances, rescue does not require the deployment of American soldiers at all, because rebels and dissidents are already busy rescuing themselves, and all that they need from us is assistance. It is certainly not “adventurism” or imperialism to help an oppressed society help itself. Moreover, in many of these crises, we would not be the first outside power to intervene, were we to intervene. The Assad butchery, for example, is already being supported by Iran and Russia. The consequence of an American intervention would be only a fairer fight, and the creation of American allies in a viciously contested state in one of the most strategically significant places in the world.
The fact that America has been freakishly insulated – by its geography, by its power – from the savageries of war and atrocity means only that we have a greater responsibility to exercise our historical imaginations in the formulation of our attitudes towards the rest of the world. Americans do not need rescuing, and so we need to imagine what it is like to need rescuing. Instead our president teaches us to be satisfied with the parochialism of our good fortune.