August is the month Columbus in 1492 set sail for America and the Pilgrims set forth in 1620 on the Mayflower. Optimistically, “…August hangs at the very top of the summer…like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel” (Natalie Babbitt).
August is also known historically for conflict. August is the time Caesar invaded Britain (55 BC), the British captured Washington DC centuries later (1814), the start of World War I (1914), the Battle of Britain (1940), the dropping of two atom bombs (1945), the building of the Berlin Wall (1961), and our entrance into Vietnam (1964).
On August 28 (476 AD), Rome also fell. But August need not be part of our wholesale appetite today for statistical pies. The important fact may be our position on the Ferris wheel. History could be a dead end, but a Ferris wheel at the top implies direction – fall back, and it doesn’t look good; swing forward, and it’s dicey.
At a House Armed Services Committee hearing January 31, General David Petraeus spoke on the 70-year order of world peace known as Pax Americana. “Americans should not take the current international order for granted,” he noted: “It did not will itself into existence. We created it. Likewise,” he added, “It is not naturally self-sustaining. We have sustained it. If we stop doing so, it will fray and, eventually, collapse.”
What is this order? Starting at the end of World War II, Pax Americana funded the Marshall Plan, helped fashion a long period of growth by rebuilding Europe and Japan, supported free trade through the robust spread of world commerce, and promoted the gradual decolonization of the Third World.
But today, the world is a more dangerous place. North Korea is a 2017 August hotspot. Then, there’s Iran. The Middle East stays unstable, and ISIS is afoot. Russia presses for Empire, China for regional solidarity. Venezuela is chaotic. Brexit still threatens the European Union. The trade winds are tougher.
America’s brilliant recovery leadership after World War II is perceived globally still as among our greatest achievements – and gifts to civilization. And the recent UN Security Resolution on North Korea is another slice of rare unity of action. But neither now are the norm.
Because the international order is set in time with arrangements frozen since 1945, the health of the global order is today mixed. The Trump presidency is the consequence more than cause of our post Cold War foreign policy. It’s becoming apparent our direction in foreign policy is not as wise or successful as the evidence shows. Many also feel the need for our future international participation to align more germanely to the priorities of American citizens.
So it seems worth keeping two things in mind. The world needs to get beyond relying on autopilot since 1945. Things change with time. Although visionary relationships 70 years ago are now messy, nations like people spend a lifetime becoming something they were not when they started out. Fortunately virtues do not depend on systems. Systems in the end don’t matter. Over time, something other than rates of success or failure must underscore, write, and renew world pacts.
Let us also remember that American founding ideals – liberty, law, order, principle – are yet the most generous force the world has known among nations. So as the nation most blessed to have “set sail,” they must shine more amply. The international order General Petraeus credits us with creating and sustaining is a tie, which cannot collapse. The Public Square clearly contends we have a responsibility to secure the world’s proverbial balance on the “highest seat of the Ferris wheel.”