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GLOBAL TRADE ENVOY: During the American occupation of Japan after World War II, Gen. Douglas MacArthur(pictured, in sunglasses) oversaw the creation of export-oriented industries in the war-ravaged country.

Power of Consumption

How we Americans spent ourselves into ruin—but saved the world

By David Brin

I FEEL IT IS past time that something must be said in defense of Pax Americana.

Sure, that phrase fell into disrepute during the era of neoconservative misrule, which left the United States far worse off by every clear metric of national health. While steering the American ship of state toward too many rocks to count, fellows like Richard Cheney, Richard Perle, Kenneth Adelman and their ilk kept proclaiming imperial triumphalism to the world, extolling an America invested with a perpetual right to planetwide dominance, based upon inherent qualities that were said to be unaffected by any objective-world considerations, like budgets or geography; world opinion or the end of the Cold War; science or technology; rationality or morality; or the physical well-being of our troops.

Indeed, the only factor that they felt might undermine America's manifestly destined and eternal pre-eminence might be a failure of will, should the wimpy liberals ever have their way. But if led with a firm-jawed will to overcome all obstacles, America could stay on top indefinitely, with all the privileges of governing world affairs and few of the responsibilities or cares.

Sure, it has been proper to oppose the policies of such deeply delusional men, who unambiguously brought ruin to the very things they claimed to hold dear. Capitalism, freedom, fiscal and national health, as well as U.S. influence in the world all plummeted under their rule.

Yet, something is very wrong with the unselective manner in which folks on the other side have allowed the neocons to define the argument. It is an unfortunate habit of the left to assume that any vocal and assertive appreciation of the American contribution to human civilization must be inherently fascist. This reflexive self-loathing has given (unnecessarily) a huge weapon to the right, allowing them to retain millions of supporters who might otherwise have abandoned them.

By abrogating the natural human phenomenon of patriotic pride, these fools on the left have allowed guys like Sean Hannity to claim love of country as a sole monopoly of the right! If they get away with pushing simplistic "greatest nation ever" rants and portray themselves as the implicit opposite of homeland-hating liberals, that gift comes gratis from the left. Moreover, there is another reason for liberals to re-examine this reflex and to find good—and even great—things to proclaim about America. Because, without any doubt, America deserves it. Yes, there definitely were crimes committed during our time on top. But find and name a powerful nation, in all of human history, that wasn't far worse. In fact, the net effects of Pax Americana have been generally positive, compared against every single previous era in human history.

This can be proved, with an example that has spanned an entire lifespan.

Mr. Wu Jianmin, a professor at China Foreign Affairs University and chairman of the Shanghai Centre of International Studies, is a smart fellow whose observations about merit close attention. In a recent edition of the online journal The Globalist, Wu Jianmin's brief appraisal of "A Chinese Perspective on a Changing World" was insightful, but it typically misplaced credit for the Asian economic miracle. "After the Second World War, things started to change. Japan was the first to rise in Asia. We Asians are grateful to Japan for inventing this export-oriented development model, which helped initiate the process of Asia's rise."

In fact, with due respect for their industriousness, ingenuity and determination, the Japanese invented no such thing. The initiators of export-driven world development were two military and diplomatic leaders of Pax Americana at its very peak: George Marshall, who was secretary of state under President Harry Truman, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, during his time as military governor of Japan, in the ravaged aftermath of the Second World War.

Marshall crafted a historically unprecedented, receptively open trade policy called "countermercantilism." MacArthur vigorously pushed the creation of Japanese export-oriented industries. Instead of doing what all other victorious conquerors had done—looting the defeated enemy—Marshall, MacArthur and Truman lifted their prostrate foe, first with direct aid. And then, over the longer term, with trade.

I am not downplaying the importance of Japanese, Korean, Malaysian, Chinese and Indian efforts to uplift themselves through the hard work of hundreds of millions who labored in sweatshops making toys and clothes for U.S. consumers. Without any doubt, those workers were far more heroic and directly responsible for the last six decades of world development than American consumers, pushing overflowing carts through Wal-Mart.

Nevertheless, those consumers—plus the trade policies that made Wal-Mart possible—all played crucial roles in this process that lifted billions of people out of grinding, hopeless poverty. Moreover, it now seems long past time to realize how unique this was, in the sad litany of human history.

The Thing About Empires

Let's step back a little. If you scan recorded accounts, you'll find that most people lived in either a period of imperium or a period of chaos. A lot of the empires were brutal and stultifying, and I am not defending most of them. Still, cities didn't burn that often when the empire maintained order. Most people could work, trade and raise their families in safety, under the imperial peace, or "pax."

That doesn't mean the empires were wise. Often, they behaved in smug and tyrannical ways that laid seeds for their own destruction.

Whenever a nation became overwhelmingly strong, it tended to forge trade networks that favored home industries and capital inflows, at the expense of those living in dependent areas. The Romans did this, insisting that rivers of gold stream into the imperial city. So did the Hellenists, Persians, Moguls and every Chinese dynasty. This kind of behavior, by Pax Brittanica, was one of the chief complaints of both John Hancock and Gandhi.

In fact, there has been only one top nation that ever avoided the habit, and that was the United States. Upon finding itself the dominant power at the end of World War II., the United States had the opportunity to impose its own vision of international trade. And it did.

At this crucial moment, something special happened. At the behest of Marshall and his advisers, America became the first power in history to deliberately establish countermercantilist commerce flows. Nations crippled by war or mismanagement were allowed to maintain tariffs, keeping out American goods, while sending shiploads from their factories to the United States. Each administration since Marshall's time, regardless of political party, has abided by this compact—to such a degree that the world's peoples now simply take it for granted!

Of course, more than pure altruism may have been involved. Democrat Harry Truman and Republican Dwight Eisenhower both saw trade as a tonic to unite world peoples against Soviet expansionism.

Nevertheless, if you doubt that countermercantilism also had an altruistic motive, remember that this unprecedented regime was instituted by the author of the renowned Marshall Plan—an endeavor that rings in human memory as an archetype of generosity. Unfortunately, while recipients of the Marshall Plan's direct aid could immediately see beneficial results, the effects of other parts of the program were slower in coming. What this amounted to, however, was the greatest aid-and-uplift program in human history. A prodigious transfer of wealth from the United States to Europe, Asia and Latin America. A program that consisted of Americans buying loads of things they did not really need.

Does anyone deserve moral credit for this staggeringly successful "aid program"? Perhaps not the American consumers, who went on a reckless holiday, spending themselves into debt.

Moreover, as the author of a book called Earth, I'd be remiss not to mention that all of this consumption-driven growth came about at considerable cost to our planet. For all our sakes, the process of ending human poverty needs to get a lot more efficient.

Nevertheless, if credit is being given to the Japanese for inventing this export-oriented development model, then I think it is time for some historical perspective. This view of the present situation may feel satisfying, but it is wholly inaccurate. Moreover, it could lead to serious mistakes.

Even if America is exhausted from having spent its way from world dominance into a chasm of debt, the United States does have something to show for it the last six decades. A world saved. Billions of human beings lifted out of poverty. That task, far more prodigious than defeating fascism and communism or going to the moon, ought to be viewed with a little respect.

This should be contemplated as other nations consider their time ahead as one of potential triumph. If they become the next great "pax," will they start their era with acts of farsighted wisdom, the way Marshall and Truman did?

In some parallel world, the U.S. after World War II followed every other empire and imposed mercantilist trade patterns. That version of the U.S. would have no debt today. Our factories would be humming and the country would be swimming in gold. But the amount of hope and prosperity in the world would be far less, ruined by the same self-centered, short-sighted greed that eventually brought down empires in Greece, Persia, Rome, China, Britain and so on.

Also, by this point, every American youth would be serving in armies of occupation, and the entire world would by now be simmering, plotting for the downfall of the Evil Empire. That is the way the old pattern was written. But it is not how this "pax" was run.

Instead, the greater part of the world was saved from poverty by the same force that rescued it from fascistic imperialism and communism. Yes, America's era of uplifting the globe by propelling export-driven growth must be over. And having performed this task, it cannot expect any credit or thanks.

But that is OK. We certainly do not need to be thanked. It simply is done. And soon it will be time for someone else to start buying, for a change. The products, the services and especially the ideas.

And just watch. America will be happy to sell.

David Brin is the author of bestselling novels like 'Earth,' 'The Postman' and 'Kiln People.' His nonfiction book 'The Transparent Society' won the American Library Association's Freedom of Speech Award.

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