A Lesson in Humility: Ambassador Freeman’s Crumbling of the Pax Americana

If a man’s career represents his life story, Ambassador Chas Freeman’s tells a tale of success, excitement, and — not surprisingly — diplomacy. Having held positions such as the US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, and President Nixon’s principal interpreter during his 1972 trip to China, Ambassador Freeman has partaken in more than his fair share of historic international events. But it was not these experiences alone that resonated with the audience this past Wednesday, February 4, when the Ambassador delivered the first of a three-part lecture series on the future of the United States’ role in global affairs. Rather, “The Crumbling of the Pax Americana”— the ominous title of Ambassador Freeman’s speech — drew both its public intrigue and political oomph from its bold thesis: The United States is in the middle of a crisis, one that few people are willing to recognize. The United States is no longer the world’s greatest power. The influence of competing global leaders such as China and the nations of the European Union, and internal issues like crumbling infrastructure and a costly, ineffective health care system are increasingly challenging it. However, while the crisis the Ambassador depicted was both complex and compelling, his argument fell short of its full potential. For the American exceptionalism identified as the ultimate source of its shortcomings remained subtly, but assuredly, present in his own speech. Ambassador Freeman called for a lesson in humility in order to accurately assess the full extent of the United States’ dire situation. The same assessment supposedly at the heart of America’s adjustment to reality, however, was then deemed the first step in a mission to bring American dominance back.

The Ambassador methodically and successfully portrayed a nation over-reliant on its use of force, overconfident in its abilities, and overwhelmed by the plethora of unintended shortcomings and consequences. He described the process through which American military power, once almost more of a logistical facet, has morphed into the core of the national identity. This over-reliance comes at a grave cost, what Ambassador Freeman calls the United States’ “moral authority.” He explained that while “the military power of the United States is universally acknowledged, our moral authority, our reputation for considering the interests … of allies, partners, and friends, and our luster as a just society with aspirations to continuing self-improvement have all taken hits.” In short, Ambassador Freeman depicted an America that is characterized by both failing credibility abroad and increasing frustration at home. This lack of credibility, he argued, has been catalyzed by our own inability to shape the international system. The most compelling facets of this militaristic reality were conveyed through his own experiences: Ambassador Freeman recounted an international community in which American diplomats were “hopelessly outclassed.” Diplomacy in the United States often took the form of unprepared and uncooperative foreign service, with officials unwilling to approach the international political order with a methodology other than belligerence.

The Crumbling of the Pax Americana depicts a world damaged by the failures of the United States to act intelligently and justly abroad. Yet, it concludes that the reasons for these failures reside in policy, not in the actor or the potential dangers of a hegemonic system.

Using well-selected statistics and illuminating policy examples from both inside and outside the United States, Ambassador Freeman crafted a nuanced diagnosis of the American crisis: militarization masked by pride and exceptionalism. While many have mistaken the lack of direct challenges to American might as a telltale sign of supremacy, Ambassador Freeman revealed it to be merely a distraction. The United States continues to boss its way around, distracting itself from the fact that the international balance of power is shifting, and it is not expected to emerge on top. The Ambassador focused the impending crisis the United States faces on both its failures to compete internationally and its potential inability to survive domestically. It was in these moments that the true extent of the consequences of America’s militarization becomes clear. Whether it was the United States’ impending — if not already present — loss of economic dominance to China or the World Health Organization’s ranking of United States’ health care as the 37th best in the world, Ambassador Freeman shone in his complex, informed view of the international system. He seemingly embodied the same multifaceted awareness and prioritization that the US appears to be lacking. He then turned to pressing domestic issues, expressing concern over the widening socioeconomic gap and diminishing social mobility that are also masked by military might and unfaltering “democracy promotion” abroad.

However, it was not in the diagnosis, but in the solution that the lecture fell short. The Crumbling of the Pax Americana depicts a world damaged by the failures of the United States to act intelligently and justly abroad. Yet, it concludes that the reasons for these failures reside in policy, not in the actor or the potential dangers of a hegemonic system. It was in the Ambassador’s call for American humility that he in fact revealed the exceptionalism of his own policies. He argued that for the United States “to play a comparable role in shaping the world of the future to our advantage, Americans must regain an accurate perception of ourselves,” but conceded the point only in order to launch a spirited pitch to begin the process of reclaiming American supremacy. Ambassador Freeman spoke of a future in which the United States has recovered its internal stability, reestablished its moral authority, and developed the techniques to implement its agenda abroad effectively. But these goals, while at first glance sensible and just, miss the point entirely and diminish the value of calling out American exceptionalism in the first place. The Ambassador ended his lecture by raising the question of whether the United States would be able to reclaim its international leadership role through reform and a lesson in humility. And while this final question was intended to function as a temporary pause in the lecture series, it also revealed the possible permanence of the cycle of American exceptionalism.