The End of Pax Americana; what will follow?

A review of Clyde Sanger, Malcolm MacDonald, Bringing an End to Empire, McGill-Queen’s Press, 1995.

A chance reading of Malay and Thai history brought me to this biography of Malcolm MacDonald (1901-1981), son of British Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. Malcolm’s career as MP, cabinet minister and diplomat covered not only the winding down of the British Empire but influenced many of the measures taken in SE Asia, the Middle East, especially Palestine (Israel and Jordan), parts of Africa, Canada and Ireland. This makes him one of the most knowledgeable participants in the end of empire. Clyde Sanger has done a remarkable and informative job of documenting MacDonald’s professional and personal life. The two are intertwined as is often the case.

This biography, as well as any other I have read (a few it must be admitted) allows the reader to appreciate how the empire ended, and whether it did or what replaced it. The book gives the reader a glimpse of the empire during this period, what caused the changes and what emerged in its place, which is what we live with today.

A  global tour shows developments in several colonies and dominions. The Middle East is one of the most interesting where MacDonald negotiated the conditions in Palestine which is now Israel, Palestine and the neighbouring countries.  As Colonial Secretary MacDonald wrote (from Constant Surprise, pp. 161,165, of Macdonald’s unpublished biography) :

“By the summer of 1938 the situation in Palestine was appalling. The quarrel between the Arabs and the Jews there had reached a vicious stage; and the problem was made more complex by the fact that the former were supported by all the nearby independent Arab nations and the latter were supported by the influential Jewish communities and their powerful friends in Great Britain, the United States and elsewhere…”

Eighty years later, has anything changed? One thing is that there are many more people living in this area.

Malcolm MacDonald was British High Commissioner to Canada 1941-46, liaised closely with Prime Minister Mackenzie King, whom he had known since before the war, as well as with some of Canada’s distinguished diplomats and senior civil servants. At that time, domestic and foreign policy was conducted on a more personal basis, and MacDonald’s relationship with British politicians and officials from his earlier times allowed him to influence Canada’s domestic and foreign policy, and to alert British politicians to the likely reaction of Canada to measures flowing from London.

Malcolm MacDonald was a part of the ending of Pax Britannica which lasted from the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 to 1914. It was followed with a 31 year gap by the Pax Americana in 1945, which now appears to be weakening. In the former period, Britain was seen to be the dominant world power, while in the latter it has been the US. When the ending comes, it happens quickly. In earlier times, there was a Pax Romana which too ended.

Today, the signs are writings dealing with America in decline (a number of recent books have decline in the title). America in Retreat by Bret Stephens is a thorough discussion of weaknesses displayed by the current US administration, and argues that the US should be more assertive with regards to the Middle East, the Ukraine, China, Europe and Africa. Elsewhere, the retiring Economist editor (Jan.31, 2015) paints a depressing picture of the US, “…Washington remains synonomous with gridlock.”  And “The only way to feel good about American democracy is to set it beside Brussels. Woefully unaccountable and ineffective……”

Jon Stewart in the Daily Show provides a comedic take on US issues which are of serious concern to domestic and world politics. It has become an important way of presenting and influencing political issues. A related sign of global change is the weakening of the Washington consensus which proclaimed that democracy and capitalism would liberate the world. Francis Fukuyama, a proponent of this after 1989 is revising his views in his latest book, Political Order and Political Decay, where a reviewer summarises Fukuyama’s views that “…. unless liberal democracies can somehow manage to reform themselves and combat institutional decay, history will end not with a bang but with a resounding whimper.”



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