The dusk of Pax AmericanaIt has been unnerving watching the loss of American prestige during the past six months. While it’s tempting to attribute the decline to Trump, that would be unfair. Millions of Americans voted him in as a non-politician to throw Molotov cocktails at the U.S. establishment.
Since his election, following the Trump presidency has been exhausting. It may be because we are observing the chaos marking the denouement of Pax Americana. No doubt, older Britons may be empathetic should they recall what happened to their country following World War II. It is beyond disappointing. It is shocking.
Back in the 1980s, I experienced what may have been a dress rehearsal for today. I was working in southern California for Japanese corporations. Japanese product quality, manufactured at unbelievable efficiencies with inventory controls, humbled American companies. Japanese investors made major acquisitions of some of America’s proudest assets, such as 51 percent of Rockefeller Center. Everyone seemed to be studying Japanese management.
After a decade of humiliation, American business professionals reformed their processes to match and sometimes surpass Japanese performance. From the 1990s, inefficiencies in Japanese decision-making and risk adversity started to take their tolls on Japan, resulting in its two lost decades.
That was a close call for America. In fact, things got even better with the end of the Cold War. America was left standing alone as the only superpower — a status that went to many Americans’ heads.
At the same time, there was insufficient attention paid to problems festering at home. Namely, the Baby Boomers who had enjoyed a relatively free ride on their parents’ investments in the economy began moving from their rebellious counterculture to favoring libertarian attitudes of small government with fewer taxes.
Americans consistently neglected to reinvest in infrastructure, such as education or interstate freeways, resulting in a drop in efficiencies. Some of the problem of undereducated youth with few employment opportunities was addressed by the all-voluntary U.S. military. The net result was America upgraded its armed forces to becoming the finest military anywhere. The all-volunteer army unintentionally served as a discontent pressure valve while emboldening politicians to look at America’s military as invincible.
This post Cold War paradigm came tumbling down on 9/11. America declared terrorists not to be organized criminals but a new kind of national enemy. The never-ending War on Terror was launched. By going after a small number of Islamic criminals, America implicitly acknowledged al-Qaeda and similar groups as pseudo-nations. This only further validated and drew attention to the extremist ideologies.
The War on Terror became a tragic exercise of trillions of dollars spent on never-ending Whack-a-Mole. America’s friends, adversaries and neutral parties observed and assessed America’s strengths, weaknesses and perspectives.
Last November, Americans elected a non-politician who promised to make their country great again. Millions of American voters, frustrated by their politicians ignoring major problems of wealth inequality, wage stagnation, inadequate employment and the end of the American Dream voted for Donald Trump. He routinely defied common logic as a candidate and he continues to believe that he alone can solve America’s problems, even if it’s unclear how he can do so.
Today, Kim Jong-un rapidly develops his ICBM technology. So far, Trump’s Chinese diplomacy has been a bust. The White House comes across as overly mesmerized about its 2017 election at the expense of adequately focusing on foreign affairs. The State Department has been largely hollowed out with many ambassadorships not even nominated. Many senior subject-matter experts have been fired. The President appears to take Putin’s word more credibly than advice from U.S. intelligence agencies. And the rest of the world watches.
According to Pew Research’s June 26 opinion survey, globally Trump has a 22 percent confidence rating compared to Obama’s 65 percent score. According to this survey of 37 countries, people around the world are increasingly finding America less relevant in their lives. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin rank higher than Trump in global confidence. Among Americans, Germany’s Angela Merkel scores almost twice as high as Trump.
According to Pew, America’s global standing has slipped from an almost two-thirds favorability rating to slightly less than half during this past six months. Often foreigners criticize America’s government yet remain positive about America’s principles and ideals. Like many frustrated Americans who wonder if the American Dream is over, many of these people now harbor doubts about Pax Americana.
Still, it’s not too late to write off Pax Americana. The United States still has the world’s largest economy and military. Its global cultural and intellectual leadership is still in place. But it is currently saddled by a government that has doubts about climate change, hesitates to embrace evolution, hosts a national legislature incapable of significant legislation and ruled by an administration better at dismantling than building.
Short term, Washington must rearrange its priorities. America needs to reinvest in its physical and human infrastructure while reaffirming its global commitments. Longer term, Americans need to better talk to each other. Senior politicians have a role, but ultimately it’s up to Americans to come together and offer the rest of the world a better example. Nothing lasts forever, including America’s leadership. If Americans fail to understand their own peril, Pax Americana could end sooner than expected.
*The author is the owner of Onsite Studios, publisher of Korean Economic Reader, and author of two books on doing business in Korea.