Rethinking the Pax Americana

 /  Jan. 7, 2024, 4 p.m.

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President Joe Biden speaks with Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi at the G20 summit

For the foreseeable future, the world is bipolar. The United States and China are embroiled in a soft and hard power struggle, both pushing to expand their respective spheres of influence. There have been numerous recent diplomatic clashes between the two powers, including a Chinese spy balloon floating over the continental U.S. for almost a week, freely gathering sensitive information above U.S. soil, and numerous close encounters between U.S. and Chinese fighter jets above international waters, which could’ve potentially sparked a worldwide diplomatic crisis. 

In the past decade, Xi Jinping has revamped Chinese economic and military policy and turned China into an apt competitor for the U.S., especially by expanding infrastructure and gaining economic influence in Africa and Southeast Asia. They’ve also exponentially scaled up their military, with their military budget growing an average of 10 percent annually from 2000 to 2016, and rapid technological gains—including the development of a new long-range bomber plane and first domestically produced aircraft carrier—by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), according to a 2019 report from the Defense Intelligence Agency. 

In the past, the Pax Americana has meant peace in the Western world because of the cultural influence, military strength and economic power of the United States. However, in the face of the rapid growth of an ideological rival, this longtime foreign policy position may not be tenable without some major strategic changes. President Biden must adapt his foreign policy accordingly, and rethink what a new Pax Americana could look like in the future. As a staunch defender of democracy, Biden has rightly pushed hard to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty in the face of Russia’s invasion and war of aggression, and he has signaled his personal desire to see Taiwan remain an independent democracy in the face of China’s interests, amongst other ideological positions. 

However, it is clear that simply supporting democratic ideals and allying oneself with other ideologically-aligned Western states will not be enough to preserve any semblance of the Pax Americana in the long run. The European Union has shown itself to be a fractious bloc where conflicting interests prevent strong unilateral diplomatic efforts and long-term commitment to a specific foreign policy position. Other democracies, such as Canada, have not shown themselves to be important players consistently on the global diplomatic stage. 

Therefore, Biden and the U.S. must be willing to look beyond Western democracies and see which regional power players it may be worth aligning with for the future. For starters, Saudi Arabia is a valuable potential geopolitical ally in a region fraught with complex tensions and violence. While it is true that Riyadh remains a monarchy—with Mohamed Bin Salman (MBS) as the Crown Prince—a system of governance at odds with American values, MBS has ushered in a wide range of progressive social changes, such as being “more religiously moderate, more respectful of women, more tolerant of all faiths, more economically diversified and more welcoming of dissenting opinions,” according to Thomas Friedman of The New York Times. 

Flagrant crimes and human rights violations such as the brutal MBS-sanctioned murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi should not be overlooked by Biden and the U.S.. If the relationship with Riyadh is handled poorly, Biden risks losing American credibility on the global stage as a proponent of democracy and the American experiment. However, it is possible to both acknowledge these transgressions and also recognize the leaps and bounds in social progress made under MBS, focusing on the generally positive direction Riyadh is taking. It would be a grave mistake to let past transgressions impede a good opportunity to strengthen ties with a regional ally. Having strong ties with a country and criticizing its policies and past errors are not mutually exclusive, and Biden should continue to strengthen ties with countries like Saudi Arabia while also making it clear that the U.S. will not tolerate continued human rights abuses and other violent crimes perpetrated by the government. 

As Riyadh moves in a more liberal direction socially, it also has much to offer the U.S. in terms of soft power and regional clout in the Middle East. In large part thanks to MBS’ reforms like the revamping of the education system and the drastic scaling-up of the information economy, as well as the profits of behemoth state oil company Aramco, Riyadh has eclipsed Cairo as the leading Arab power. Therefore, other Arab countries are likely to follow Riyadh’s lead on regional geopolitical and national social issues, and Saudi Arabia can take on a more prominent role in regional diplomacy. Strong ties with Riyadh can also create a better relationship with the OPEC oil cartel, and strengthen the U.S.’s energy security in the face of potential aggression by China in the future. 

This newfound importance is exemplified in the attempted normalization of ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, mediated by the U.S., in which Riyadh would have received concessions such as a defense pact with the U.S., assistance in developing a civilian nuclear program, and perhaps most importantly, visible progress from Israel towards a permanent two-state solution, according to Al Jazeera.  

Unfortunately, due to Hamas’s terrorist attacks and the escalating situation in Gaza, this deal has been seriously derailed and may have become impossible. However, despite the failure to sign a pact, the significant progress previously made on the deal exemplifies how the U.S., by allying itself with countries beyond the established allies, can advocate for its ideological interests and make progress on foreign policy priorities that were previously deemed impossible. Continuing to reaffirm our strong relationship with Saudi Arabia could enable more peace and stability in the Middle East and reframe the U.S. as a peacemaker rather than a troublemaker in the region. 

In addition to Saudi Arabia, another useful country to strengthen ties with as Biden rethinks his foreign policy approach is India. India’s relationship with China has been fraught as of late, as exemplified by the continual tensions and violent flare-ups at the Sino-Indian border. Biden can leverage the U.S. and India’s shared alignment against China to deepen ties. Additionally, as the world’s largest democracy and, according to the World Bank, the country with the second largest economic growth out of the G20 countries, India is an ally that makes ideological and economic sense. S&P Global reporting shows that India has been investing heavily in manufacturing through Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ policy—notably attracting companies such as Apple looking to diversify and de-risk away from China—as well as continuing to invest in their services and information industry. As in Saudi Arabia, there are reproachable policies enacted by Modi such as the continued purchases of cheap Russian crude oil, the continued promotion of Hindu ethnonationalism—and the subsequent marginalization of Indian Muslims—and the backsliding of free speech and the free press. Despite these faults, Biden must recognize India’s importance as an emerging economy and regional power player and, rather than block it out completely, attempt to strengthen ties. 

Biden has already begun this work, having invited Modi to the White House, signed defense cooperation deals that strengthen the Quad and co-developed major defense systems, according to the Department of Defense. The U.S. can also leverage recent tensions regarding the Sino-Indian border and Chinese belligerence towards India to pivot New Delhi further towards the U.S. sphere of influence. Despite Modi’s rhetoric of non-alignment, it is clear that Biden has an opportunity to further strengthen defense and manufacturing ties with India and bring them further into the democratic fold. 

Having an ally such as India strengthens the U.S. position in the Indo-Pacific. Adding another militarily capable ally in addition to the Philippines, Japan and Australia in the region could further dissuade China from incursions outside their territorial waters in the South China Sea, which has been problematic in recent years. 

In addition to befriending upcoming global powers like Riyadh and New Delhi, Biden could also look to mend ties with various island nations elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific. This work has also already started, with the U.S. opening embassies in Pacific island nations such as the Cook Islands and Niue, as reported by VOA News. It is essential to continue reaching out to other island nations such as Vanuatu and Kiribati—where the U.S. intends to open embassies in the future— and leverage our purchasing power to help these nations with existential threats like lack of infrastructure to fight climate change, in return for a stronger diplomatic presence in the Pacific to counter China’s efforts. 

This is particularly salient as China has been stepping military efforts in the Indo-Pacific, building military bases on the Spratly and Paracel Islands as reported by the WSJ, as well as upgrading and docking warships at the Ream Naval Base in Cambodia, as reported by CNN. China has also conducted aggressive patrols of the South China Sea, exemplified by recent incidents such as the blinding of a Filipino ship crew via military-grade laser beam, as reported by NBC. With the help of Pacific island nations, Biden and the U.S. can expand military presence in the region to deter aggressive Chinese behavior, as well as build military outposts in critical locations to avoid being geographically boxed out by China. 

Biden shouldn’t finger-wag at these countries and excessively push the norms of liberal democracy upon countries that don’t want it, as too often was the mistake of the U.S. under past administrations. It is more than enough to be willing to establish relations and nudge these countries in the more socially progressive direction whilst fostering diplomatic ties, rather than foisting an American point of view and ideology upon the rest of the world. 

The Pax Americana of the past, where the U.S. was content to unilaterally dictate the world order, has come to an end. A great power competition with China is a threat to the established world order and the norms-based diplomatic relations we now know. In response, the U.S. must recognize the newfound importance of regional spheres of influence and regional powers and act accordingly. Such actions should include strategic alliances with emerging powers that  can help ensure a future where liberal democracy and rules-based international order are still relevant, and democratic ideological priorities remain front and center on the global stage. 

The image featured in this article is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0 Generic License. No changes were made to the original image, which was taken by Adam Schultz and can be found here


Gabriel Landrein


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