Ferguson and the Decline of Pax Americana

School_Begins_1-25-1899For the last 70 years, the United States has held itself as the epitome of national morality and human rights, and has used its military might to prescribe to the international community what each country should aspire to. However, it suddenly finds itself in a credibility crisis–all because of a town most Americans, let alone the world had never heard of until August 9, 2014.

tumblr_nfm9xltuQN1shiv3ro1_1280The facade of America as a nation of liberty and equality has been broken, in the most humiliating way, at a time when the American government endeavors the world to follow its lead on international predicaments such as Israel-Palestine, tensions with Russia over eastern Europe, and more recently the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Thanks to a global financial crisis and a world of nations that has turned inward, the US struggles to get help from its allies. The rise of China has the American government and citizenry fearing our time as the world’s sole superpower is ending. So a situation like Ferguson, which displays the true nature of American hypocrisy couldn’t have happened at a more inopportune time.

Ferguson has revealed the sharp racial divide that still haunts American society to the world, prompting widespread anger at the continuous cycle of institutional racism at home and damaging American credibility abroad. Footage of police beating, arresting and attacking mostly peaceful protesters with tear gas broadcast all over the world, leading national governments, citizenries and the United Nations alike to question how the US can criticize other countries when clearly, we have our own internal problems.

995069_10152575678655935_1853866743208737653_nOther groups, notably Palestinians, who experience the same injustices as African-Americans, draw parallels and reach out in solidarity from one oppressed group to another, even offering tips to Ferguson protesters fleeing tear gas on Twitter.

ferguson-palestineNews media in countries with friendly bilateral ties to the US, including Canada, Britain, France and Germany highlight and even criticize the US for its seemingly never ending problem with race. Not surprisingly, world leaders frustrated with the US react with schadenfreude, for example Russia, China, Iran and others. Like the US, these countries have internal problems but they’re not wrong for criticizing the US for brutalizing its own citizens while preaching to the world about liberty, justice and equality.

How exactly this will affect American Foreign Policy going forward remains to be seen. But one thing is clear, the days of the US holding the moral high ground are in serious jeopardy if not completely over. 2014 has been a year of resistance to governmental power, from Ukraine, to Hong Kong, to Thailand, to Gaza and now to the United States. A Human Right Watch researcher remarks “our world is melding into a single military regime.”

American Foreign Policy in 1914 and 100 years later

An eternal historian, my mind instinctually looks to the past to analyze global affairs in the present.  As President Obama walks a fine line between pursuing American interests abroad and tending to domestic issues, it is becoming clear that Americans have little interest in foreign affairs.  For one between the economy, voting rights and other issues, many Americans feel there is enough going on at home that needs attention.  But also, after more than a decade of two fruitless wars abroad that did nothing except damage the United States’ image, many Americans have simply lost the desire to use American power to solve the world’s problems.  In December 2013 the Pew Research Center reported that 52% of Americans believed the country should remain out of global affairs.

Yet international crises keep manifesting themselves.  Tensions between Russia and Ukraine still has Europe on edge over what Vladimir Putin will do next and China’s continued rise has its neighbors apprehensive, particularly over the disputed islands in the South China Sea, and the list goes on. But that does not change American apathy toward events outside our borders.  In March of this year, at the height of the Crimea-Ukraine-Russia crisis, Pew reported that while 29% of Americans thought the government should take a hard stance on Russia, 56% did not want the United States to get too involved in the situation.

This is eerily similar to American foreign policy a century ago in 1914.  After a brief attempt early in the 20th century to create an overseas American empire similar to the empires of Europe, the United States retreated inward and remained so when the Hapsburg heir was assassinated.  In fact, most Americans had no idea of the tensions in Europe at the time.  In both world wars, the United States refused to involve itself until American lives were at stake.

A century later, talks of a third world war slowly grow with every new crisis.  But Americans remain focused internally while other countries fear the future of international relations if America removes itself from the global stage.  In its May 3rd issue, the Economist highlighted that American hesitance to intervene militarily has our allies on edge amid fear that American enemies are emboldened.  The United States is no longer the world’s policemen as it was in the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed.  But Americans not caring about the world’s affairs unless it directly threatens us is nothing new.  Even in the beginning years of American nationhood, there was no foreign appetite.

More than that, America can no longer get away with what it did before.  Not only are other countries rising for their share of the geopolitical pie but America simply does not have the money to fund a long-term military campaign.  American military might is still at the top but even that is slipping albeit slowly and other countries are catching up.

American leaders will deny the country is in decline but as a historian, I will not ignore the parallels.  In the early 20th century, Britain, which controlled 25% of the world’s population and the world’s most powerful navy, was insecure of its status as a global power after Queen Victoria’s death and an unsuccessful South African war which left it politically isolated in Europe.  Similarly, in late 2013 Pew reported that 53% of Americans see the country less powerful and less important than it was 10 years ago.  In truth, the world is becoming more multipolar, also similar to 1914.

Indeed this is the cycle of history.  World powers never remain world powers forever.