“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.