Peace, War, and the American Empire (Annual Hamilton Debate)

Uncategorized, Weekly Debates

Image Caption: The sun, setting on the American Empire.

September 25, 2016

Philodemic Room

As the Georgetown alumni returned back to the Hilltop for Homecoming Weekend, the Philodemic Society gathered together for its annual Hamilton debate to debate “Resolved: Pax Americana is worth the costs.” On the affirmation was Mr. Farooq Tirmizi (SFS ’07) of Pakistan, and on the negation was Mr. Martin Skold (SFS ’05, MSFS ’09) of Wisconsin. Presiding over the debate was Chancellor Randal Drew (COL ’10).

Mr. Tirmizi, opening the debate by encouraging floor speakers to consider both internal and external costs of Pax Americana, began with a detailed economic analysis. The economic cost of Pax Americana is the cost of maintenance for the United States military, which is ultimately only about $180 billion higher per year than would be expected if the United States were not the world’s peacekeeper. Yet from this $180 billion investment, the United States reaps enormous rewards, both as financial windfalls from the U.S. dollar’s role as the world currency and from the protection of global trade. From a human lives standpoint, Pax Americana has had extraordinary benefits: the number of deaths from violent conflict has fallen from 22,000 per 100,000 deaths during the interwar period to an all-time low of only 1.4 per 100,000 total deaths. Finally, we must consider the way which America has behaved as hegemon: the United States has been the first anti-colonial hegemon, and global peace has proved conducive for the expansion of rights both at home and abroad.

Rising to the dais, Mr. Skold presented two arguments. First, there is no Pax Americana, at least not in the form in which Mr. Tirmizi has presented it. Wars have become rarer not because of the United States but rather because of systemic changes that have made armed conflict unprofitable. For example: a shift in the global economy from industry to services has made the conquest of new territory for resource reserves unnecessary for economic development. To the extent that America has been highly involved in the global stage, the costs have been enormous. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have cost $150 billion per year, have enabled massive violence against Iraqi citizens, has made the United States vulnerable internationally, and has resulted in extreme domestic polarization. The United States should not base its legacy on some imagined role of benevolent hegemon; rather, the United States’ legacy is in the fact that, as Tocqueville said, we are a nation of connectors which has overseen the greatest period of economic integration in human history.

Ms. Christina Goodlander (SFS ’07) immediately responded to her husband’s comments by pointing out that even if Pax Americana does not exist, its existence is nevertheless conceptually accepted throughout the world. If the world sees the United States as a leader, responded Sergeant Annie Ludtke (MSB ’18), then we ought to lead by example; but if only perfect examples are worthy of leadership, then no country is ever justified in intervening anywhere, fumed Mr. Micah Musser (COL ’19). Mr. Garrett Hinck (SFS ’18) argued that Pax Americana, as a sustained effort to counter communism, is less a peaceful world order than a prelude to a war that never happened, although as Mr. Joseph Laposata (COL ’16) wryly observed, peace IS wars that never happen (and who but the U.S. has the capabilities to lead the world away from war?). President Asha Thanki (COL ’17) questioned Mr. Laposata’s assessment of the U.S.’s global influence, pointing out that American authority is constantly questioned abroad. But the world does look to us! argued Mr. Peter Hamilton (COL ’20), stating that the United States is defined by its values, which it should strive to implement within the global system.

Mr. Itua Uduebo (SFS ’17) was less convinced of the importance of American values, stating that Pax Americana is not part of the American Dream; it is the rest of the world’s nightmare. It would be strange for the rest of the world to have nightmares about the most stable period of international relations in history, retorted Mr. Aiden Poling (COL ’20), because Pax Americana has resulted in a system of nuclear weapons that keep the world safe through deterrence. Mr. Daniel Ernst (COL ’18) argued that the United States should seek to address its own failings before attempting to fix the rest of the world.

As the debate increasingly became mired in moral quandary, Chancellor Andrew Rugg (COL ’09) reminded the Society that in order to dismiss Pax Americana, the negation must propose an alternative international order. Ms. Janelle Spira (COL ’17) responded that we could at the very least expect the United States to be more careful in the manner in which it exercises its authority, as historically we have become a nation of invaders. Chancellor Randal Drew (COL ’10) continued Chancellor Rugg’s line of criticism and argued that the negation has become fixated on war: what about the other aspects of Pax Americana, such as the establishment of international standards for human rights or fair trade? Ms. Symone Wilson (COL ’19), returning to war and morality, argued that American values are built on hate, fear, bigotry, and slavery. Rising as the third Chancellor in a row for the affirmation, Chancellor Michael Whelan (COL ’16) argued that until something can replace it, we should fault America not for intervening abroad, but rather for not doing it frequently enough (as we failed to do in the case of the Rwandan Genocide). Mr. Ali Shahbaz (COL ’20) posited that the negation entirely rests on the fact that Pax Americana has resulted in a few deaths—yet this argument must trump everything else!

Mr. Jawad Pullin (COL ’18) reiterated the affirmation’s position that Pax Americana is more than its military. After all, wasn’t it the newfound role of global hegemon that forced the United States to serious consider its own moral problems—thus finally addressing the issue of Civil Rights in the 1950s? But Mr. Jonathan Marrow (COL ’18) fired back that even a successful invasion of another country for a “good” reason carries philosophical costs and promotes moral degradation. Ms. Oster, standing up for her country, responded that America’s unique and constant striving towards an ideal makes it the perfect candidate to preserve global peace. Mr. Joshua Donovan (COL ’13) responded to Ms. Oster by pointing out that the United States strives for self-improvement at home yet imposes its values abroad; in fact, the true alternative to Pax Americana is the empowering of indigenous societies to chart their own courses. To bring the floor speeches to a close, Ms. Rachel Greene (SFS ’17) summarized the affirmation’s arguments by stating that the world would be a more violent place without Pax Americana.

As he returned to the stand, Mr. Skold pointed out that, even as hegemon, the United States has not devoted itself to genuinely improving the lives of the global populace: “Pax Americana is morally equivalent to throwing pennies at a homeless person without bothering to know their name.” The United States faces no credible threats internationally (even Putin is encumbered with a decrepit military and failing oil futures), and yet it still manages to consistently enable bad actors through its foreign policy. Returning to his original point, Mr. Skold argued that America’s true legacy is not the Pax Americana, but rather our role in building an interconnected world.

Mr. Tirmizi articulated three arguments from the negation and responded to them in turn. First, “can’t we all just get along?” Answer: no. Next point. “Isn’t Pax Americana truly hypocritical, considering America’s moral failings at home?” Perhaps, but if the United States recognizes itself as an eternally unfinished product, then the negation is implying that it should permanently cede all rights to have any influence on the international stage in order to avoid appearing hypocritical. Third, and most troubling, “what if Pax Americana doesn’t truly exist?” To this, Mr. Tirmizi pointed to the economic stability of the world, a stability which is absent where the U.S. military is not present to uphold it. Finally, Mr. Tirmizi pointed out that the United States can empower indigenous actors struggling against oppressive regimes far more easily than the indigenous actors themselves can achieve. In short, complicated as it may be, Pax American has been an enormous force for good in the world.

With a vote of 14 affirming, 1 abstaining, and 16 negating, this resolution was negated. In a fitting turn of events, the alumni chose to award the Hamilton Medal to Mr. Peter Hamilton. Congrats to Mr. Hamilton, and a hearty thanks to all the alumni who returned to their old stomping grounds for this debate!


Micah Musser

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