In the article “Pax Americana”: The United States and the Transformation of the 20th Century’s Global Order, Professor Patrick O. Cohrs, from the University of Florence, provides a re-appraisal of the role of the United States in the transformations of the 20th century’s global order. According to his argument, this order was not a neo-imperial “Pax Americana” nor an “empire by invitation,” but the transatlantic peace order, an extraordinary cornerstone of the global international system consolidated in the second half of that century. His innovative contribution to the understanding of this period of transatlantic relations was published in RBPI Volume 61, Number 2 (2018).
Regarding his article and also contemporary issues involving the United States hegemony, world order and transatlantic relations, Professor Cohrs was interviewed by Bruna Bosi Moreira, PhD candidate at the Institute of International Relations of the University of Brasilia.
Your article innovates in advancing an alternative interpretation on the United States’ hegemonic role after World War II, especially related to the European context and the consolidation of the “Pax Atlantica”. How do you assess the transatlantic relation nowadays, considering both a context of challenges for the European Union and an “America First” foreign policy?
I think we have indeed entered a decisive phase in the history of transatlantic relations. After 1989 it at first seemed possible to consolidate and even extend a Euro-Atlantic community for the post-Cold War era. But now there is a very real danger that the kind of “Pax Atlantica” that was built up in the aftermath of the 20th century’s three defining catastrophes – two world wars and an immensely destructive Great Depression – could not just corrode but actually disintegrate. In turn, this would have grave global consequences both in the short and in the long term, setting back any attempts to create something approaching a legitimate rules-based world order for the 21st century that would deserve that name. While it would take major – and concerted – efforts to halt, let alone to reverse this process, Trump’s egomaniac “America First” pursuits, instrumentalisation of nationalist and populist sentiments and blatant disregard for the values, norms and rules that, however imperfectly, used to characterise the Atlantic community obviously do exactly the opposite. For now, the American hegemon that used to play a vital role in creating and strengthening the Euro-Atlantic system as a “first among equals” thus has become the most destructive
At the same time, while facing the challenge to emancipate themselves in terms of providing order and security on their own continent the states and societies that make up the European Union are in many respects deeply divided, and aspirations like Macron’s to reform and revitalise the Union are bound to be frustrated as long as those divisions cannot be overcome – and, in particular, German political leaders are prepared to offer more substantial support. Yet one could perhaps also argue that things have to get really bad before they can get better – and that only very deep crises can prompt real, substantive learning processes and put those who desire to salvage and reconstitute an Atlantic Order for the 21st century in the position to take decisive steps towards this end.
You mention Roosevelt’s idea of “One World” was based on the conception that the integrative Pax Americana, by engaging all states in an open and liberal order, would bring hostile powers to gravitate to the US model. This idea has perpetuated in successive administrations, even after Pax Americana. Nevertheless, Trump’s foreign policy does not seem to be willing to engage nowadays challengers such as China. How do you think this change in behavior affects US hegemony?
Indeed, Trump’s brutally short-sighted caricature of “Realpolitik” and his lack of willingness or ability to pursue any coherent strategies to engage other major powers, notably China, mark a violent departure from US conceptions and approaches that have been prevalent since Roosevelt’s days. And all of this undoubtedly corrodes US hegemony – just as much as his unpredictability, pandering to “America First” notions and, above all, neglect of America’s long-term allies. Such irresponsibility has serious consequences. Any future attempts to return to a constructive engagement of China, or Russia, from a position of strength – and to counter “might trumps right” policies and violations of long-standing international norms – will be made much harder. This will pose very serious challenges for Trump’s eventual successors.
You finish your article by mentioning the unfulfilled expectations that arose after 1991 regarding a unipolar moment that would enable the US to build “an ‘American world order’ for the 21st century”. You attribute that to the legacy of Cold War imperialism and renewed imperial inclinations. How do you evaluate this imperial legacy nowadays?
For a time, it appeared as though at least some US decision-makers made serious efforts to draw consequences from the problems caused by an imperial legacy whose roots reach far beyond the period of the Cold War – all the way back to the “Imperial Republic’s” expansion in the 19th century. Key actors, especially in the administrations of George Bush Senior and Clinton, were quite determined to avoid the unilateral and neo-imperialist temptations that arose from the United States’ unprecedented preeminence in the aftermath of the Cold War. Yet advances in this direction – to act as a benevolent hegemon in preserving and expanding a cooperative, rules-based international system – were clearly all too often still limited to the OECD sphere, to relations with European states and selected East Asian partners like Japan. While the American push for a neo-liberal deregulation and globalisation agenda affected all states and societies in an ever more tightly interconnected world, neo-conservative and other forms of imperialist thinking came to gain a commanding influence at key junctures, notably in the context of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Obama clearly sought to steer the United States away from such pursuits and back towards a more constructive leadership role.
By contrast, Trump’s actions can be seen as an all but absurd revival and escalation of some of the most damaging elements of the United States’ deeper imperialist legacy: disregard for international commitments, institutions and alliances under the banner of “America First”; and neo-imperialist unilateralism and deal-making, particularly with autocratic counterparts, whenever he wants to assert what he regards as American or merely his personal interests.
As I said earlier, even in the best-case scenario it will be an immense task and will require a lot of mutual political will and acumen to rescue and rebuild what is left of the 20th century’s “Pax Atlantica”. And while the Europeans have to do their part it will be impossible to achieve this without a different, renewed American leadership, which in turn would require profound political reforms in the United States – and a reckoning process that even a society that is less polarised than that of the “Trump era” would find extremely difficult and painful.
Read the article
Cohrs, Patrick O.. (2018). “Pax Americana”: the United States and the transformation of the 20th century’s global order. Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, 61(2), e002. Epub November 29, 2018.https://dx.doi.org/10.1590/0034-7329201800202
About the authors
Patrick O. Cohrs is Professor of International History at the University of Florence. Before coming to Florence he was a Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, an Alistair Horne Fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford, and taught as Associate Professor of History and International Relations at Yale University. He is the author of The Unfinished Peace after World War I (Cambridge University Press, 2008).
Bruna Bosi Moreira is a PhD Candidate at Institute of International Relations at University of Brasilia and member of the editorial team of RBPI.
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