James Chace

In the 1960s my friend Ronald Steel wrote a book called Pax Americana. He was ahead of his time. Vietnam proved there was no such American peace; and the old oil crises of the 1970s–coupled with America’s profligate spending policies, leading to what Paul Kennedy called “imperial overstretch”–demonstrated the limits of any American imperium. But Steel was surely right in the long run. By the end of this century of total war, America enjoys power such as no other great power has ever enjoyed. Even Britain in the 19th century, while an imperial power overseas, was wary of challenging the continental powers of Germany and France. America, like Britain, does indeed have worldwide interests, if not colonies. But we have bases around the globe, navies that patrol the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and the Mediterranean Sea. We have about the same number of aircraft carrier battle groups as we did during World War II, when we were seriously challenged by the Japanese navy.

But what is our role today? It is not to contain a direct threat to American interests, as was the case with the Soviet Union. Instead, as is evident from the bombing last August of targets in Afghanistan and Sudan in retaliation for the bombing of American embassies in East Africa, the United States seems to be engaged in an effort to put the world to rights.

Speaking from the Oval Office last night, Clinton said that the mission of our raids was to “protect the national interests of the United States and indeed the interests of people throughout the Middle East and around the world.” That sounds like Pax Americana to me. It echoes George Bush’s hope for a new world order in which the United States, along with other members of the U.N. Security Council, would create “a world where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle.” On the eve of Bush’s Gulf War against Saddam Hussein, he wrote in his diary, “Our role as a world leader will once again be reaffirmed, but if we compromise and if we fail, we would be reduced to total impotence, and that is not going to happen.”

Clinton seems to have accepted the rhetoric–indeed, the core beliefs–of Bush’s foreign policy. Viewing America as “the indispensable nation,” the Clinton administration sees its task as trying to manage the post-Cold War world in the often thankless pursuit of stability.

Toward Iraq, the rain of missiles probably spells the end of any U.N. efforts to oversee and inspect Saddam Hussein’s buildup of weapons of mass destruction. It’s hard to imagine that Saddam will ever allow inspectors back in. So what does he do? I suspect it means a long-term policy of containment in the Middle East. More bombings of Iraq in the future. New sanctions. The virtual collapse of any broad allied front in the U.N. Security Council. Russia will try to define a foreign policy that challenges America’s, but Moscow is so dependent on American support of international financial institutions that it would be severely crippled in trying to promote a policy of confrontation with Washington. For China, this will simply confirm the Chinese leadership’s efforts to curb American hegemony and will doubtless solidify China’s efforts to seek closer relations with Russia, a replay in a paler way of the Chinese-Soviet alliance of the 1950s. The French will try to encourage their European partners to push ahead with an all-European defense force and a unified European foreign policy and, to some degree, they will probably succeed, especially in defining a European military component. But no European nation really wants to spend as much on defense as the United States does, with a defense budget for this fiscal year of about $270 billion, which, ironically, we can afford–at least as long as we don’t want to cut the defense budget to help save Social Security or extend medical benefits to all our citizens.

On this gray, cold New York morning, a day that signals the end of this seemingly endless Indian summer, it is hard for me to feel any compassion for Saddam, or to come up with a better response than military retaliation for his unwillingness to keep his word and allow U.N. inspectors to do their work. On the other hand, it will confirm the belief of most of those in the foreign policy establishment that preserving and perpetuating American hegemony is the best policy for the 21st century. Unfortunately, history shows us that other nations combine against the predominant power that tries to exert its will on others. Can America be an exception to history? I very much doubt it. The Age of Anxiety is surely upon us.