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Origins of Pax Americana: Inside Out

By Michael Goldfarb

The origins of Pax Americana are very clear to me: a discussion of America as Empire in the garden of a pleasant if over-priced restaurant in Cambridge, MA in the summer of 2000. I was with friends from the Kennedy School, one an American who had been on a fellowship in Oxford, at approximately the same time Bill Clinton was there. The other was an English woman who had followed the flow of academics from the U.K. to the greener professional pastures of America.

My American friend and I were arguing that our nation was now an empire. Our English colleague disputed the idea. Her point, well taken, was that while America may be a lone superpower, there were no administrative structures of empire in place, so the U.S. was not an imperial state. Our point was that no crisis in the world was sorted out without direct American engagement and that the WTO and the other international financial institutions were American administrative organs by proxy.

Additional Links:
American Management Theory - McCarley Assocs.
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It was a heady conversation for happier times - before September the 11th put a new urgency into discussions of the nature of American power and how best to use it.

Of course, I didn't start thinking of the U.S. as an empire fit to be mentioned in the same breath as the great empires of history from Rome to Britain in that jubilant summer. I had my first inklings of it long before, 32 years ago, to be precise, when I had my first extended taste of living abroad.

You have to spend time overseas to appreciate the full force of American power. This appreciation often begins with seeing something that doesn't quite fit in the local gestalt, an American object or person occupying a place you would actually expect to be filled by a native.

In the summer of 1970 a couple of incidents started me thinking.

July 1970 Frankfurt, Germany. I am traveling with a friend around Europe and we are trying to reregister a VW van purchased in Amsterdam for 35 dollars from some American guys headed home. Frankfurt was not yet the city of skyscrapers it has become. Those foundations had been poured but the streetscape was just halfway between reconstruction and the obliteration of the War.

At a red light an American Army jeep pulls up with a bunch of G.I.'s. We keep driving around the city trying to find the Department of Motor Vehicles or the German equivalent and at every red light there are jeeps with American soldiers. It seems like there are more jeeps than police cars, more American soldiers on the streets than German policemen. The war was over a quarter of a century ago. Surely the ratio of American G.I.'s to German cops should be skewed in favor of the Germans. We are long past the point of occupation and pacification. The phrase "Roman Legionnaires" goes through my brain as another jeep passes us.

I look at my friend. "This is weird."

"Yes, it is," he replies.

September 1970, Isle of Wight, UK. One year after Woodstock, a massive music festival is held on the Isle known to young Americans, if it's known at all, from the lyrics of the Beatles' song "When I'm 64." Earlier in the summer the documentary Woodstock had come out and everyone of a certain age wanted to be part of the experience. At one point during John Sebastian's set the crowd starts chanting "Woodstock! Woodstock!"

Sebastian gently remonstrates saying Woodstock was its own thing and this crowd is going to create its own thing. Wrong, John. This crowd doesn't want to create its own thing. It wants the American thing. This crowd wants to experience Woodstock, not some European knock-off. And, come to think of it, when almost all the performers are Yanks (including Jimi Hendrix, playing what would turn out to be his last gig) how could it be anything other than an American thing?

It may have been easier in those days to spy American things: soldiers or musicians, in unusual places. International commerce hadn't reduced the world to a single market. We barely knew one another. England was an exotic place (if it's possible for a country with such a miserable climate to be considered exotic). I was frequently the first American many of my English friends had ever met.

America was not a constant presence in young English lives. America was a place known from the movies, not TV. There was no daily dose of American sitcom, hospital drama and detective show coming through the box into the living room. News traveled fast but not instantaneously so news footage from America did not make up vast chunks of British news broadcasts.

But now... Maybe it's harder to see American power where it didn't used to be. Because today America, in its military, economic and cultural manifestations is such a presence in daily life here and in the rest of Europe that it is unusual in the local gestalt to find something that isn't tinged by it.

In Britain this is more pronounced. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher did everything in her considerable power to steer Britain away from the European Union and make it more like America. Prime Minister Tony Blair, more pro-EU than Lady Thatcher nevertheless has pursued a diplomatic policy that positions Britain as a bridge head between the U.S. and the continent.

Culturally, British television, a by-word for quality in the U.S., has surrendered itself to America. Commercial stations engage in extraordinary bidding wars for the rights to transmit Friends and The Simpsons (not to mention the unmentionable Jerry Springer who also hosts programs that originate here). This leaves them with much less money to spend on home grown productions.

The publicly funded BBC has entered into a series of deals with American commercial broadcasters that have fundamentally altered the tone of its work. Many BBC documentaries now sound like Discovery Channel documentaries because the Bethesda-based broadcaster pays for them.

With so much American influence there's a theme in conversation here that goes: how much more American can we become? Are we the 51st State? In fact there's even a book called 51st State. Letters to the editors of newspapers are written demanding that Britons be given the right to vote in American elections. The tone is ironic but the point made is this: the decisions made by the American president can have a greater impact on British lives than the decisions made by the Prime Minister.

But those are just personal impressions. The insights of anecdotal experience are the fuel more for literature than serious factual debate. So here are some facts recalled from my professional experience. I spent most of the 1990's covering many aspects of America's increasing might; call it imperial or just imperious.

I covered a war in Bosnia, a country whose borders are circumscribed by the boundaries of the European Union and Nato. 200,000 people, almost all of them civilians would be butchered and a further 2,000,000 displaced. Yet those organizations as well the U.N. were incapable of ending the slaughter until the U.S. became aggressively involved, covertly arming the Croats and Muslims enabling them to roll back the Serbs and then taking over the diplomacy, forcing the warring parties to reach their imperfect peace at Dayton.

I covered the long, tortuous political process in Northern Ireland that led to The Good Friday Agreement. I know that without the Clinton Administration's willingness to sanitize Sinn Fein by granting Gerry Adams a visa in 1994 that process would have collapsed. If there were no White House back channel that Northern Irish politicians who couldn't meet in public used to communicate with one another the process would have collapsed. If Clinton had not telephoned Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble on Good Friday and urged him to take the last step, the process would have collapsed.

I covered the evolution of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs into the World Trade Organization, a bulwark of globalization that insures the world's business is done America's way

Those are facts and they point to a power that is subtle and unprecedented.

When I returned to America in 1999 for my first extended visit in almost 15 years I was amazed at how few of my fellow citizens actually had an inkling of any of this. Perhaps that's why, the following year, at that supper under the stars the idea for Pax Americana took shape.

Here's a final anecdote. A few months after my meal in Cambridge I was back in Bosnia staying on an American base not far from Tuzla. It was an extraordinary place. It was laid out with a precision quite at odds to any other military installation I had ever visited in the country.

One night during the war I stayed with a unit of British soldiers. They were bivouacked in an old high school, making do with what they could find. Eagle base was not about making do. It was about bringing the U.S. to Bosnia and imposing it on the troubled earth where the troops were deployed.

The compound's topography had been graded and roads laid out. The buildings were all pre-fabbed in America. There was a military uniformity to the whole set up. Everything from recreation facilities to the mess hall could have been found on any American base from Fort Bragg to the Philippines. Outside the gates, was a barbarian country that even five years after the Dayton Accords could slide back to civil war. Inside the gates was the cocoon of America.

I found myself thinking of Rome. When the legions marched they always built stockades where they stopped for the night. They were uniform in their design. I thought of the remnants of classic Roman forts which can be found all over Western Europe. I thought of an archaeologist 2,000 years from now gently sifting dirt and finding the outlines of the foundations of the various barracks, offices and mess halls of Eagle Base. I imagined the archaeologist sending calcified bits of excrement back to the lab to analyze what the American soldiers ate.

And, just as in the summer of 1970, when I looked at a group of young soldiers walking back from the gym brought over from America, their bodies pumped up into that distinctly American shape: all bulky muscle, no sinew, the word Roman Legionnaires went through my brain. This time it did not seem weird to make that comparison.


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