top of page

Putting into Perspective: USA's 'Kungflu' Mastery

Guest Opinion

Mike McQuade for The Atlantic

It was not very long ago that I read about American hegemony in my Class 12th Political Science textbook. As I was going through news regarding the havoc wrecked by the “Wuhan Virus” or the “Kung Flu” on the world in general and the hegemon in particular, it all came rambling back to me. Hegemony was originally used to denote the preponderant position of Athens vis-à-vis the other city states of Greece. A nation can be called a hegemon because of its political clout, economic prowess, cultural strength and military superiority. US, it seems, is the perfect hegemon. But even as we were studying this in our classrooms, something entirely different was going on the outside. Trump’s leitmotif of ‘America First’ signalled an entirely incongruent reality.

As the virus spreads its foothold in the North American continent with much more conviction than anywhere else, it has left one of the best healthcare systems in the world reeling under its tremendous weight. USA accounts for one-fifth of the world’s 5.5 million cases and around 2,50,000 deaths. Covid-19 could kill as many Americans this winter as the Germans and Japanese did during World War 2. January in America is predicted to be especially grim, according to forecasts by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation(IMHE), echoing the warnings of Dr. Anthony Fauci and other top U.S. infectious disease experts who have repeatedly urged Americans to mask-up and be more vigilant about social distancing with the holiday season fast approaching.

Seeing that America can’t even hold its own torch this time, it is nearly impossible to see it as a torchbearer willing or even able of showing other countries the light at the end of this dark tunnel that the entire world seems to have entered without much notice. A case in point is South Korea. The first case in both the countries was discovered on the same day. But apart from that, the two countries don’t have any similarities in their battles against coronavirus. The trajectory of cases is also vastly different, to say the least.

The shutdowns due to the coronavirus have now affected a majority of the roughly 21 million jobs US employers have added since recovery from the financial crisis started in 2010. Around 16 million people have filed for unemployment claims in the past few weeks in the US. According to international organizations, mature economies, like those of America and Europe, will be more affected by this shock.

These profound developments force us to ponder upon the direction in which the international system is headed, and the role that will be played by The United States Of America in this period of tumultuous change.

Whether we admit it or not, we have been living in a period of unprecedented peace and low levels of violence. This is not new though. Everywhere and every time in world history, when there has been one centre of power, there has been peace, trade has flourished and people have prospered. The Pax Romana was said to have been a miracle because prior to it there hadn’t been peace for several centuries. The conquests of Genghis Khan and his successors effectively connected the Western world with the Eastern world, bringing the Silk Road under the sole rule of the Mongol Empire. During Pax Mongolica, it was commonly said that "a maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm". Pax Britannica was the period during which the British Empire became the global hegemonic power and adopted the role of a "global policeman". Britain's Royal Navy controlled most of the key maritime trade routes and enjoyed unchallenged sea power.

As the Second World War ended with the Allies emerging victorious, the US escaped relatively unscathed from its tremendously devastating effects. The US couldn’t abdicate from it’s role as the global hegemon as it had done after the First World War, and neither did it want to. The formulation of organisations like UN put the US at the epicentre of the international system, and the sundry Bretton Woods’ organisations made dollar the global reserve currency. With a ubiquitous, firepower presence, unlimited financial resources at disposal, and a magnetic ideological and cultural appeal which was hard to resist, America moved quickly to cement its place as the top dog. The only challenge that American superiority faced was the Soviet idea that presented a façade of an egalitarian society, hiding behind it a fledgling, struggling and dissenting political and economic structure. From the ruins of the erstwhile Soviet Union emerged a hyperpower with unparalleled capacity to influence events anywhere and everywhere in a highly globalised, unipolar world.

This Pax Americana was not and is not a period of complete peace, but relative peace. In these terms it is similar to Pax Romana. Wars and battles continue to occur, but in general the human civilization is prospering in military, agriculture, trade, and manufacturing.

John F. Kennedy encapsulated the nature of this peace in these beautiful, but perhaps too utopian words: What kind of peace do I mean? What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children--not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women--not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.”

However, Kennedy was optimistic to the extent of being called a Panglossian by some of his contemporaries. But we can’t blame him for it. It’s a mistake made often. All too often do our minds make the mistake of perceiving the current superpower to be all powerful perpetually. But hegemony never lasts forever and a hegemon doesn’t last forever. History has been a witness to it. As Christopher Layne summarised in his work on America decline, “History also tells us that although at its height hegemony seems formidable, it does not last forever. To the contrary, balance of power politics over time reduces the relative power of the hegemon. In 1660, France under Louis XIV was unchallenged; by 1713, England, Habsburg Austria and Russia were contesting French power. In 1860, the high noon of the Victorian period, Pax Britannica looked secure forever. By 1910, it was clear that Germany, Japan and the US had emerged as contenders to British power. Thus, twenty years from now, another great power, or may be a coalition of great powers could well emerge just as US capabilities are declining in relative terms.”

Whenever there is a change of guard, things always get messy and mostly bloody. As the sun was finally setting upon the British Empire, the First World war broke out. Decline of Pax Britannica was an important cause of it. During the interwar years, no nation or state exercised international influence, and this proved to be a major reason for the Great Depression, which ultimately led to the Second World War.

The erosion of Pax Americana could have similar consequences. Some experts say that the coronavirus pandemic could be the Chernobyl-type moment for America. Even before the outbreak, China was waging a trade war with America. Now, China is trying to play nice by giving aid and equipment wherever needed in the world. Although China is ascending fast the ladder of global power, it still isn’t ready to supplant the US as the sole superpower of the 21st century. Countries like Japan and South Korea also wield immense influence in the form of soft and structural power, but no one is ready to assume America’s mantle still. Thus, while we aren’t sure about what will happen after this, the one thing that we can be sure about is the commencement of a period of change. Saying that the New World Order hailed by US President George H.W. Bush, after the UN mandated liberation of Kuwait from Iraq by force, will undergo massive change, will be a gross understatement.

As for what will happen to America, we can’t be sure. But combine the inward-looking and hypernationalist rhetoric of the Trump administration with his ability to spin a narrative hiding his government’s lackadaisical response by playing blame game with China, and we get the perfect recipe for increasing nationalist and protectionist emotions among the masses. Even after Trump leaves the White House (and we are not sure he will), Trumpism is here to stay. Will America, almost exactly a century after it entered the global polity throwing its isolationist policy to the bin by entering the Great War, withdraw from the world and end the era of American imperialism? Interestingly, history provides us with an intriguing déjà vu. One of the major reasons behind the unwinding of the Pax Mongolica was the outbreak of the Black Death in Asia. Will Pax Americana end in the same way? This remains to be seen.