The Fall of the Pax
It’s about a week and a half after the election as I write this. Full disclosure: I voted for Clinton, at least partially because of what I am about to transcribe here. I also predicted the rise and victory of Trump and won some money off of it. (PredictIt, in particular, was offering good odds just after the primaries, but some of my left-leaning friends were also bullish on Clinton and willing to cover other bets.)
I live in a blue enclave, so a lot of people I know think Trump will be a disaster. Other people I know think he’s going to do a great job, or are at least willing to give him a chance about it now that he’s President.
I am firmly in the disaster category, but not for the same reasons that most people I know are. I hear a lot of complaints about his domestic program, and I agree with most of those complaints. But I do feel, perhaps naively, that the Senate will be able to filibuster most of the more odious parts of his agenda.
Where I think Trump could do the most damage is on the foreign policy front, where he has almost no checks and balances on his power. Constitutionally, the President is the commander-in-chief of the American military and has wide latitude with regards to America’s negotiations with other nations. But Trump doesn’t seem to be very well informed, nor does he appear to be listening when people talk to him. And his actions on this front will result in real consequences for the entire world.
For most of Donald Trump’s supporters, his desire to take a wrecking ball to the current international order is a major plus. American Greatness, a website created specifically by pro-Trump conservatives to support Trump, describes it in this way:
[T]he Left (and most establishment Republicans) love the international institutions that FDR ushered in. Trump is categorically opposed to relying on these solutions. Rather than depend on international institutions that routinely take advantage of the United States, or that seek greater antagonism with nuclear powers such as Russia, Trump wants to assert greater American control over the process. This explains why he favors better, direct relations with serious American competitors, such as Russia and China. It is not because he is a Russian sleeper agent, as the Left suggested during the campaign (and that the FBI later proved was a false accusation). It’s not that Trump is clueless on foreign policy, as his opponents suggested throughout the campaign. Rather, he recognizes that the current order — the current Leftist regime in America — is harming us.
Trump’s foreign policy, then, would be one of greater bilateral relations with powers like Russia and China. It would be one that, I believe, reinvigorates America’s ailing diplomatic functions. It would also be one that seeks to move foreign affairs out of the stuffy moralism of the United Nations and into the cold realism of traditional power politics. In other words, Trump is in the process of undoing the FDR-created foreign policy framework. He is, therefore, returning America back to the concepts and beliefs that governed it prior to FDR’s reign.
These two paragraphs are, for the most part, true. There is a reasonable case to be made that the world is more or less free-riding on American power and trusting us to keep the peace. Trump isn’t a sleeper agent for Russia or anything like it. What Trump is is a reactionary, and on this subject, like most subjects, he wants to turn back the clock to an earlier and potentially happier time, when America was great again (in his opinion). He’s also a deal-maker and thinks he can get the best deals for America by going it alone, or at least sometimes exercising the option to go it alone. There’s business-related reasons to think this, I am sure. Leverage and such. Don’t close your options off. All that.
The problem is twofold: 1) that the times prior to the current international order weren’t quite so happy as some people are remembering, and 2) that Trump’s experience as a real estate developer and reality TV show star does not translate well to foreign power relations in the 21st century.
It has been a very long time, indeed past most of our lifetimes, since there has been a war between Great Powers, and this is entirely because of the international institutions set up post-World War II and America’s role in those institutions, those same institutions Trump and his supporters are eager to undermine and dismantle.
The name for this period that we are currently living in has been referred to as the Long Peace, a time made possible by the Pax Americana. Wars still happen, of course, but the kinds of wars that are destructive on a continental or global scale do not occur because other Great Powers do not want to get involved in a conflict with the United States of America. Nobody wants to start a war they are probably going to lose. And while asymmetrical warfare can still fight the US Army to a standstill, Great Powers don’t fight other Great Powers via asymmetrical warfare (such warfare being useful only in defense, not in a war of conquest). Great Powers fight with conventional armies. And the United States military is the best military in the world in this respect.
To describe the Pax Americana in one sentence: We are at (relative) peace because America is the defender of the current global order, and nobody thinks they have a good chance at defeating America in a conventional war.
The commitments America makes to its current allies, in other words, coupled with America’s tremendous military strength, are what have kept Great Powers and nuclear-armed states from going to war with one another.
Don’t believe it? Look at the list of European wars from 1815–1945, and again from 1945-present. (I choose 1815 as the starting point because it was in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars that the global framework Donald Trump is trying to go back to was last active.)
Here are the European wars involving at least two Great Powers from 1815–1945.
- 1823 French invasion of Spain
- 1828–1829 Russo-Turkish War
- 1853–1856 Crimean War
- 1866 Austro-Prussian War
- 1870–1871 Franco-Prussian War
- 1877–1878 Russo-Turkish War
- 1914–1918 World War I
- 1939–1945 World War II
This is where I would provide a list of wars involving at least two Great Powers from 1945-present, except that there aren’t any. It is true that we fought numerous proxy wars during the Cold War, but the armed forces of Great Powers never came into direct conflict during that period.
This is made possible by the Pax Americana — America’s role in the existing world order, specifically as part of NATO.
NATO’s role in peace
NATO — the “North Atlantic Treaty Organization”- was originally created in the late 1940s as a response to World War II and as a way of heading off Soviet aggression. When initially formed, most of the member nations were part of what we consider “the West”: the UK, France, West Germany, and Italy being among them. After the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO expanded its membership to include several former Warsaw Pact signatories, and Germany reunited.
The current alliance consists of nearly all of Europe, with only a few exceptions. (One of the exceptions, unfortunately for them, is Ukraine; we’ll get to them in a minute.) Article 5 of NATO declares that an attack on one member state is an attack on them all, and will be treated accordingly. This means, essentially, that any attack on one of NATO’s member states is an attack on the United States of America.
This provides a powerful deterrent to war for potential regional hegemons who seek to annex their neighbors, and is the main reason that no wars between Great Powers have broken out in the last seventy-plus years. (America’s commitments to Japan and South Korea are most of the other side of that coin.)
Trump, however, has questioned America’s commitment to NATO, saying, essentially, that America will only come to the rescue of NATO powers that have “fulfilled their obligations to us” — i.e. paid enough money to the alliance. Trump has recently attempted to walk this back, but people aren’t buying it. More importantly, Vladimir Putin, the President of the Russian Federation, might not buy it.
After a period of post-collapse slumber and recovery that has been the transition from the USSR to the Russian Federation, Russia found itself in possession of a large military with a low per-capita GDP (relatively poor citizenry), a reasonable nominal GDP (money in the budget to spend on war), and a populace eager for a return to imperial glories.
This is a recipe for military expansion, and Russia has obliged. In the last eight years Russia has invaded Georgia, and in the wake of that war, broke off two republics from Georgia so that Russia could expand their sphere of influence. More recently, they have annexed the Crimea from Ukraine and continue to fight a proxy war in Eastern Ukraine.
Putin’s approval rating is around 80%, with 55% of those polled agreeing with the statement “Russia is on the right track”.
Russia is currently eyeing the Baltic States and, much as it did with the Crimea, has a casus belli: a city of mostly ethnic Russians within Estonia’s borders. NATO has been mobilizing in response. Kaliningrad, a Russian oblast (province) in between the Baltic States and Poland, is poised to be a flashpoint of conflict with both Russia and NATO having significant forces in and around it; Russia has recently deployed nuclear weapons to the region.
This is straight-up Great Power games — realpolitik annexation, land trading, and military buildups in the best colonial pre-World War style. Naturally, Russia would like to continue this and acquire some more territory. It’s safe to say that the countries around Russia that would be the targets of Russian expansion would prefer Russia be contained.
But as long as America stands firm with NATO, Russia knows it’s nearing the end of what it can do militarily. And thus Trump’s words questioning the integrity of NATO were music to Putin’s ears, prompting Russia to take action to help bring his election about.
Putin is betting that he can out-maneuver Trump’s America, taking advantage of his vacillation, inexperience, and general foreign policy positions to pursue his interests in Europe. As Putin is a former member of the KGB, and a veteran of foreign policy and realpolitik, I suspect he’s made a good bet by putting his thumb on the scale for the real estate mogul. In a normal presidential transition, the party establishment might help overcome Trump’s inexperience, but Trump is not looking beyond his inner circle for cabinet members. The thought of Rudy Giuliani, a former mayor who has never even negotiated an agreement with a city-state, as the Secretary of State for the United States of America has got to have Putin licking his chops.
Aggressive expansionist powers, like Russia, want to acquire territory, through negotiation if possible, but by force if not. They probe for weaknesses in their opponents, exploit gaps in their defenses. The various byplays in Eastern Ukraine over the last two years were all part of this, as Russia tested the waters of how much it could participate and how far it could go. They’re still doing this. Putin looks at Ukraine as Russia’s, as it was back in the days of the old Empire. He’s playing the old game, and he’d like Trump to play it with him.
Why you should care, even if you’re an American
It should be possible for America to stay out of it, especially with Trump the master deal-maker at the helm, right? He’ll probably come to some perfectly reasonable settlement with Putin, tell him as far as he’s concerned it’s A-OK if Russia moves into Narva, which after all has a large majority Russian population. If the rest of NATO doesn’t agree? You don’t have to worry about us, Russia. America gets to look like a big man, Russia owes us a favor now, and we won’t get into a war. Win-win, right? Probably Trump gets some other concession, too, maybe several, get him to look like a big winner. After all, Estonia isn’t even America’s. We’ll basically have given away something for nothing.
Put aside for the moment the odious realpolitik of all that, the “Hitler in the Sudetenland” comparisons, and morals and whatnot.
Actually, don’t put that aside. It’s important to what might come next: France, Germany, and the UK don’t stand by and let it happen. They’ve all seen this before. Germany has been this before. They know what happens when you appease aggressive expansionist powers. And Article 5 of NATO, to which all three of these nations are signatory, clearly states that an attack on one member, such as Estonia, is an attack on them all.
America and Russia will have struck a deal, but nothing is going to make the other signatories of NATO abide by it. Russian tanks will roll into Narva, NATO minus America will mobilize in response, and there will be war.
And again, putting aside for the moment that the last time all of these countries got into a war together, it resulted in the deadliest conflict in history — well hey, at least it isn’t us, right? This time we’ll stay out of it.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite so simple. Three of those four countries have nuclear weapons. I grew up during the Cold War and remember all the dire predictions of nuclear winter and general apocalypse back in the day, should a nuclear war ever break out. Turns out they ran the simulations again not too long ago and got the same dismal results from just a small nuclear exchange that I remember from my elementary school days. I’m pretty sure Trump doesn’t understand this. Real estate, no doubt, is not filled with examples where if you make a deal with one party and screw others, the other screwed parties can make the globe untenable for life as we know it.
I think it’s possible, even likely, that the Western powers accept defeat in that war before they use nukes. But if Russia is losing, I think they are much more likely to use nukes to deter NATO from further battles, especially if NATO decides to advance into them. If Russia uses nukes, France or the UK will retaliate. And that’ll be that.
Multiple hypotheticals are precisely the problem
This is of course but one of many scenarios. The President of France is currently sporting the lowest approval rating in French history and may not be able to fulfill their treaty obligations by entering what is likely to be an unpopular war. The UK is in the process of negotiating a messy divorce with the Continent and might think twice about going to war with a resurgent Russia if America suddenly leaves them in the lurch.
That leaves Germany, and Merkel is tired. She will want to defend the Baltics, but she spent a great deal of political capital on the refugee crisis in Europe. And the German public opposes going to war with Russia more than either the British or French public. Not to mention that the German military is quite small. Economically Germany is a powerhouse, but they are not ready for a Great Power war.
Which leaves Russia annexing the Baltics, and crisis over. Russia has won, but no war has been fought. And we can have peace for our time.
But at this point the Pax is done. America will have stated its willingness to stand aside and let Great Powers swallow smaller ones for the right price. That is the entry into a large number of other hypothetical scenarios. China will want to make its own deals with Trump, who has in turn expressed his own willingness to make deals with China. Why should it not be allowed at that point to pursue its own interests? Maybe Duterte was just seeing the writing on the wall when he re-aligned the Philippines towards China.
You can negotiate and negotiate and negotiate, and give more of the world away for your own power, get some good deals for America, there’s surely some concessions to be wrung out there. Probably those expanding will someday be satisfied with their hegemonies and stop, and at that point we’ll have reached a new era of peace, with three great powers balanced against each other, possibly fighting proxy wars in far off continents to determine other matters of state without risk to their main populace. I’m pretty sure I read about that kind of scenario somewhere before.
Or at some point, possibly, you get two Great Powers fighting against each other — maybe Russia and China decide at some point during their expansion that their worst enemies are each other — and you’re back to the nuclear winter scenario.
Or maybe the US and Russia come to joint accommodations through US-Russian cooperation in Syria and get comfortable with bullying NATO to allow the Baltic States and Ukraine into giving Russia their Russian-speaking cities and provinces. That might segue into either the Three Great Power scenario if China is included, or the nuclear-winter scenario when China gets fed up with being hemmed in or what’s left of NATO finally gets tired of being pushed around.
Or maybe there’s a loophole in some agreement that gets made that ostensibly will bring peace, some sly clause that Putin rolls his tanks through into Narva, and Trump objects in the most strenuous of fashions but oh-what-can-we-do-now? Because once those troops march over the Estonian border only war will get them out. It doesn’t even take a calculated effort, just a misunderstanding, or a feigned misunderstanding. A miscalculation, a Putin thinking he can get away with something that was a bridge too far for Trump after all, but it’s too late to go back now. Such a scenario certainly wouldn’t be unique — we’ve seen before how a relatively small incident can spark a global conflict. And you’re back to the paragraphs above.
Notice I haven’t even talked about North Korea, a nuclear armed country with a notoriously unpredictable leader, and the possible interactions that could occur when that unpredictable leader meets someone who can’t resist retaliating against his detractors even at three in the morning.
There’s lots of other scenarios that could happen. Most of them are probably even good, or at least much less gloomy than the ones I describe here. I’m not meaning to say that every scenario ends in nuclear winter or a tenuous authoritarian peace, far from it. Probably most scenarios don’t. But some of them do, and the ones that do are now much more plausible. And this is why I say “the chances of things not turning out OK for us or for anyone else is much higher right now than it has been in our lifetimes”. The chances of a nuclear winter were so close to zero as to be effectively zero as recently as November 7, 2016. Now the chances for a nuclear winter scenario are decidedly non-zero. My gut-feeling tells me they’re closer to one chance in six in my lifetime, just because there’s so many possible scenarios now (even if those individual scenarios are low probability) that devolve into that outcome in the next forty or fifty years. That isn’t a huge probability, but keep in mind that most people didn’t think Brexit would happen and even the best data analysts didn’t give Trump more than a 28% chance on election day. (Trump’s own team didn’t give him better than one in five.) For that matter, Vegas was giving the Cubs 10–1 against to win the World Series at the start of the 2016 season. Low probability events happen all the time. And we may be about to find out how dangerous the world can be when we relinquish our current role in its defense.
Nothing to be done about it now
This is where I’m supposed to tell people “what to do about it”, at least that’s the accepted structure for think pieces like this one. But I’m pretty fatalistic about this. It’s a done deal at this point. Our fates are in the hands of a man who didn’t realize being President would be so much work. It’s possible someone convinces him against his inclinations that he needs to stand firm with NATO against Russia’s territorial ambitions for the good of world stability. We can certainly hope. There’s surely deals to be found that don’t give away Narva or the Donbass. Maybe Russia isn’t as interested in imperial expansion as they’re signifying and would be satisfied with lesser things.
It’s also tempting to think of a best-case long-term scenario where America slowly shoulders less and less of the burden of the Pax Americana and transfers it to other countries, leaving the burden to them while maintaining the peace. The problem with that scenario is inherent in why the Pax is the Pax Americana: America is the one power in the world that nobody thinks they can defeat in a war. Once it devolves to a true alliance system with multiple powers that have comparable militaries, it will become increasingly unstable. Member states of alliances will find excuses to pursue their own agendas. Re-alignments will begin to occur more rapidly as states look, quite naturally, to their own interests. A myriad of potential scenarios will again unfold, and some of those scenarios will lead to events similar to those described above. I think in a multipolar world with several nuclear-armed states, the chances of a nuclear exchange rise exponentially.
In the short term though, America probably comes out OK should we withdraw. One thing you definitely shouldn’t do if you are an American citizen is move somewhere else. The US and Canada are going to be the safest countries in the world for a long, long time. (They probably were already, but their lead over the others is going to expand by an order of magnitude if the Pax falls.) Global instability means that a lot of weird things might happen. I can’t possibly envision all but a small fraction of them. And to be clear, I really hope none of the worst stuff I’m talking about here comes to pass, and that we get the considerably higher probability event of soldiering on as a species indefinitely, albeit in a more uncertain world.
It’ll be a more interesting world, too, so there’s that, I suppose.