What the “A Tale of Two Empires” series has somewhat overlooked—amid the brutality and totalitarianism that came along with Rome’s unparalleled power at the height of the empire—is the widely heralded Pax Romana. This is the name given to the roughly two-century period, from the empire’s establishment by Augustus to the late second century CE, characterized by relative peace and stability in the ancient world.
Pax Romana and Pax Britannica
The earliest recorded use of the term Pax Romana—”Roman peace”—was midway through the first century CE but it is believed to have been invoked even in the time of Augustus. “Peace” is used in a relative sense, of course: there were still a number of wars and uprisings throughout this period, but compared to the tumult that the people of antiquity were accustomed to dealing with, the consolidation of imperial power by Rome did lead to a greater measure of stability and security.
Many contemporary historians and writers refer to America’s postwar hegemony of the last seventy years or so as the Pax Americana. It speaks to the striking similarities between the U.S. and Ancient Rome, or at least the perception thereof. This phenomenon is also referred to, in a general sense, as simply pax imperium or pax imperia, essentially meaning “peace through hegemony.”
The ostensible American Empire supplanted the British Empire, which presided over its own Pax Britannica, naturally, from the 19th century up to about the First World War. (Note how the British and we Americans have such a cultural affinity for aligning ourselves with the Latin-Roman historical precedent.) This philosophical kinship with and connection to Rome carries a moral appeal encapsulated within the concept of Pax Romana. The advancements and contributions to civilization the British made, like the Romans before them, lent them authority—the authority to determine how the world ought to be ruled. “Pax imperium” is a claim to moral as well as military might.
By playing the leading role in shaping the post-WWII political and economic order of the world, the U.S. also inherited this responsibility (held by the Romans and British before them) for maintaining security and stability around the globe. At least, insofar as it served their own interests.
Of course, such moral appeals historically require a military presence that can back it up. In all three eras of pax imperium, other states or empires may have been hegemonic in a particular region, but the imperial nations (Rome, Britain, America) were the only world powers with the naval supremacy and, through strategic alliances, the general martial capacity to enforce their own notion of peace and international order.
One feature that was largely absent in Rome but binds the British and American concept of pax imperium is the distinctly modern idea of free markets. It emerged as a more or less agreed-upon principle after the Congress of Vienna, which in 1815 essentially “reset” the balance of power in Western Europe—and thereby much of the rest of the world—following the Napoleonic Wars. Both the British and American claims to being a virtuous empire rest upon the use (or threat) of military coercion for the insistent promotion of open markets and free trade abroad—again, to the extent it served their particular geopolitical interests.¹
The Declinist Position
When an empire’s dominance is seen as virtuous from this perspective, it impacts how the people of said empire see themselves and their enemies—and how their allies and enemies, in turn, view them. Any disruption to the world’s security or its economic order might be considered a failing of the empire’s claims of virtue. Between unpopular wars and financial crises, there have been many of these kinds of disruptions over the past 16 years. In certain ways, America’s standing with the rest of the world is progressively losing clout.
There’s ample evidence that the U.S.-led global order that has existed since the end of World War II (and accelerated since the collapse of the Soviet Union) is beginning to break down. China and India, the world’s two most populous countries, continue to grow in influence and economic strength—often at the expense of the U.S. or its allies. Moreover, the bonds between America and her partners in Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East are becoming strained.
One is reminded of the experience of Great Britain as its imperial dominance eventually came to a close. Amid the tensions and disarray that preceded World War I, Spenser Wilkinson, military correspondent for the U.K.’s Financial Times, declared with lament, “We have no friends, and no nation loves us.”
There is an unavoidable consequence of being a dominant global power: as much as one may wish that the “sun never sets” on an empire, it will eventually recede as conditions around the world change in unforeseen ways. In other words, economic and military advantages, even those vested into international coalitions, are unlikely to last forever.
For these reasons and more, the U.S. intelligence community is increasingly wary of a looming end to the American Era. Intelligence expert Chris Layne, writing in 2012, confronts the realities facing the U.S. geopolitically:
“The Constellation of world power is changing, and U.S. grand strategy will have to change with it. American elites must come to grips with the fact that the West does not enjoy a predestined supremacy in international politics that is locked into the future for an indeterminate period of time.”
“Further, there is a critical linkage between a great power’s military and economic standing, on the one hand, and its prestige, soft power and agenda-setting capacity, on the other. As the hard-power foundations of Pax Americana erode, so too will the U.S. capacity to shape the international order through influence, example and largesse.”
One of Layne’s important points is that America’s role as superpower is not unique within the tradition of Rome, Britain, and the broader notion of “the West” in that no single competing power will be able to replace it. He surmises that as American influence in the world gradually wanes, Russia and China will surely rush to fill the void. Chaos and fragmentation followed Rome’s decline; the British Empire declined while Germany, Japan, and the United States ascended. Similarly, rather than a unipolar world order, America’s future decline would probably be succeeded by a multipolar order, as well.
Even in the absence of a clear-cut contender to unseat the United States as a global power, it increasingly looks like we are in an historical moment—right now—of American decline relative to its rivals. The “beginning of the end,” if you like.
Just in light of the recent transition of power in the U.S. government, headlines across the mainstream media have loudly bemoaned the apparent end of Pax Americana:
New York Times Opinion: “Pax Americana Is Over”
Wall Street Journal: “Bring Back Pax Americana”
LA Times Op-ed: “Will Trump be the end of the Pax Americana?”
There is no doubt that sentiment in the country is shifting toward isolationism and protectionism. The new administration in the White House is projecting a much more transactional foreign policy, placing domestic concerns above maintaining the rest of the de facto empire. The alarm of political pundits notwithstanding, the end of Pax Americana and decline of American hegemony don’t necessarily spell ruin at home. (Although it is difficult for post-WWII generations to imagine a state of affairs where, for instance, America’s Navy is no longer a “Global Force for Good,” emphasis mine.) The larger concern is what a world without the United States serving as guarantor of stability and security would look like. What adjustments might the citizens of democratic nations have to make? Who benefits? Who loses?
- Christopher Layne, “The End of Pax Americana: How Western Decline Became Inevitable.” The Atlantic. 26 Apr 2012. Layne’s chronicling of the transition from, and comparison between, the Pax Britannica world order and subsequent U.S. hegemony is especially illuminating.