Patrick O. Cohrs: “Pax Americana” and 20th-Century International Order

Abstract für die Konferenz Das 20. Jahrhundert und der Erste Weltkrieg 

This paper seeks to re-appraise the transformation of America’s global role and its influence on the transformation of international order during the century that “began” with World War I. To this end, it focuses on a re-appraisal of US aspirations for a “Pax Americana” and their impact on the formation of what it interprets as an unprecedented peace system whose contours first emerged after 1918 but which would only be consolidated after 1945: the 20th century’s transatlantic peace order. Essentially, the paper analyses these aspirations as successive attempts – made by principal policymakers, yet also unofficial actors who influenced US policies – to draw lessons from two world wars and the frustration of previous bids to create a “new world order”, above all the failure of Wilson’s quest to make the world “safe for democracy”. And it aims to show that they can be understood as ever more ambitious designs to construct a novel international system in which the newly pre-eminent power essentially came to act, not as an “American empire” but rather as a liberal hegemon, a “first among equals”.

Yet my analysis also uses the focus on the transatlantic sphere in order to highlight important distinctions between American conceptions and behaviour vis-à-vis (western) Europe and the superpower’s distinctly more hierarchical and often neo-imperialist approaches both to “global order” and to other regions of the world in the era of the global cold war. In critical respects, such approaches marked US conduct in East Asia. They clearly prevailed in relations with Latin America. And they came to characterise US ambitions to extend an “American peace” to the “Third World”, especially in the transformative decade of the 1960s.

Patrick O. Cohrs is Assistant Professor of History at Yale. He is the author of The Unfinished Peace after World War I: America, Britain and the Stabilisation of Europe, 1919-1932 (Cambridge University Press, 2006). Professor Cohrs is currently working on an international history of the “Pax Americana”.