The present continuance of institutions such as the EU, NATO, UN, and others suggests that the world goes on exactly as before. In fact, these alphabet organizations are becoming shadows of their former selves, more trouble to end than to allow to grow irrelevant. The conditions that created them after the end of World War II, and subsequently sustained them even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, no longer really exist.
The once grand bipartisan visions of American diplomats such as Dean Acheson, George Kennan, George Marshall and others long ago more than fulfilled their enlightened promises. The U.S. in 1945, unlike in 1918, rightly stayed engaged in Europe after another world war. America helped to rebuild what the old Axis powers had destroyed in Asia and Europe.
At great cost, and at times in both folly and wisdom, the U.S. and its allies faced down 300 Soviet and Warsaw Pact divisions. America contained communist aggression through messy surrogate wars, avoided a nuclear exchange, bankrupted an evil communist empire, and gave Eastern Europe and much of Asia the opportunity for self-determination. New postwar protocols enforced by the U.S. Navy made the idea of global free trade, commerce, travel, and communications a reality in a way never seen since the early Roman Empire.
The original postwar order was recalibrated after 1989, as the Soviet Union vanished and the United States became the world’s sole superpower. On the eve of the First Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush, in a September 11, 1990 address to Congress introduced “the new world order” (the 9/11 date would prove eerie). The Bush administration’s ideal was an American-led, global, and ecumenical community founded on shared devotion to perpetual peace, and pledged to democratic nation-building.
The 1990s were certainly heady times. A year after the fall of the wall, Germany was reunited. A UN-sanctioned global coalition in 1991 forced Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. Francis Fukuyama published The End of History in 1992, suggesting that all the ancient political, economics and military controversies of the past were coalescing into a Western, and mostly American, consensus that was sweeping the globe.
The ensuing world confluence might well make war and other age-old calamities obsolete. The transformation of the once loosely organized and pragmatic European Common Market into a utopian European Union was institutionalized by the Maastricht Treaty of 1993. Fossilized European notions such as borders and nationalism would supposedly give way to a continental-wide shared currency, citizenship, and identity.
For a while these utopian ambitions seemed attainable. America, under the guise of NATO multilateral action, bombed Slobadan Milosevic out of power in 2000. Calm seemed to return to the Balkans at the price of less than 10 American combat deaths. The UN grandly declared no-fly zones in Iraq to stymie a resurgent Saddam Hussein.
President Bill Clinton ushered in a supposedly lasting Middle East peace with the allegedly re-invented old terrorist Yasser Arafat in 1993 at Oslo. Palestinians and Israelis would live side-by-side in adjoining independent nations. Wars would soon give way to economic prosperity that in turn would render their ancient differences obsolete.
Boris Yeltsin’s post-Soviet Russia seemed on the preordained pathway to Western-style consumer capitalism and constitutional government. Hosts of Western intellectuals, academics, and “investors” swarmed into Russia to help speed the inevitable process along.
The former Warsaw Pact nations went from Russian satellites to NATO partners as magnanimous Western statesmen talked glibly of welcoming in Russia to the alliance as well. The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 were considered only a temporary setback for Chinese democracy. Certainly, the commercial arc of retiring reformist Chinese strongman Deng Xiaoping would ultimately bend toward the moral embrace of American ideas like constitutional government and unfettered expression. Everyone just knew that democracy followed capitalism, as day did night.
Western intellectuals bragged of “soft power”. They went so far as to suggest that the moral superiority of Europe’s democratic socialism and its economic clout, fueled by state-aided industries, had overshadowed calcified American ideas of unfettered free enterprise, carrier battle groups, and the resort to military force.
In short, never had the Western world seemed so self-satisfied. The brief calm from 1989 to 2001 was often compared to the legendary 96 years of the so-called “Five Good Emperors” of imperial Rome, the Nerva–Antonine dynasty that the historian Edward Gibbon had canonized as “the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous”. In the absence of a cold war, and global chaos, the only crisis that the West seemed to be worried about was “Y2K”, a fanciful notion of a worldwide, computer shutdown at the start of the new millennium. Globalization had delivered 2 billion people out of poverty.
Then the mirage blew away on September 11, 2001, with terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, followed by messy wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, the spread of radical Islamic terrorism, the 2008 global financial meltdown and decade-long anemic recovery, institutionalized near-zero interest rates and stagnant economic growth, and massive waves of illegal immigration across the Mediterranean into Europe and freely across the U.S. southern border. There were more wars in the Middle East between Israel and a coalition of Hamas, Hezbollah and radical Islamists. Russia made a mockery of the Obama administration reset-button outreach. It annexed the Crimea, absorbed Eastern Ukraine, and in 2012 went back into the Middle East to adjudicate events after a hiatus of nearly 40 years. North Korea ended up with nuclear missiles pointed at Portland and San Francisco.
The United States increasingly found itself isolated and unable to control much of anything. The Obama administration had declared its lethargy a preplanned “lead from behind” new strategy, and contextualized American indifference through the so-called apology tour and the postmodern Cairo Speech of 2009. Certainly, all the old postwar referents were now either impotent or irrelevant.
An increasingly anti-democratic and anti-American European Union started to resemble a neo-Napoleonic “Continental System,” with Germany now playing the imperious role of 19th-century France. Indeed, the EU was soon drawn and quartered. Southern nations resented what they saw as a Prussian financial diktat. Eastern European nations of the EU balked at Berlin’s orders to open their borders to illegal immigrants arriving from the Middle East. The United Kingdom fought Germany over the conditions of Brexit. Its elites soon learned why the people of England wanted free from the German-controlled league.
But it was in the United States that the erosion of the costly postwar order of adjudicating commerce and keeping the peace proved most controversial. An increasing number of Americans no longer bought into the accepted wisdom that an omnipotent, omnipresent U.S., could always easily afford, for the supposed greater good, to underwrite free, but not fair, global trade, police the world, and subsidize the trajectories of new nations into the world democratic community.
In truth, globalization had hollowed out the American interior and created two nations, one of elite coastal corridors where enormous profits accrued from global markets, outsourcing, and offshoring, juxtaposed with a red-state, deindustrialized interior where any muscular job that could be xeroxed abroad more cheaply, eventually was.
Wars were fought at great cost in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, but not won—and often waged at the expense of those Americans often dubbed “losers”. Most NATO members followed Germany’s lead and reneged on their defense spending commitments, despite their greater proximity to the dangers of a resurgent Russia and radical Islam.
Germany itself ran up a $65-billion trade surplus with the U.S. It warped global trade with the world’s largest account surplus, insisted on asymmetrical tariffs in its trade with the US and usually polled the most anti-American nation in Europe—all in the era when the century-old, proverbial “German problem” of Europe was supposedly a long-distant nightmare.
In sum, by 2016 Americans saw the postwar order as a sort of a naked global emperor, about whom all were ordered to lie that he was splendidly clothed.
Then came along the abrasive Donald Trump, who screamed that it was all pretense. What was the worth to America of a postwar order with a $20 trillion national debt, huge trade deficits, and soldiers deployed expensively all over the world—especially when Detroit of 2016 looked like Hiroshima in 1945, and the Hiroshima of today like the Detroit of 1945.
Without regard to the Council on Foreign Relations, the Brookings Institution, or Ivy League government departments, Trump abruptly pulled out of the multilateral Iran Deal. He quit the Paris Climate Accord, bragging that U.S. natural gas did far more in reducing global emissions than the redistributive dreams of Davos grandees. He took up Sarah Palin’s reductive call to “drill, baby, drill,” as the U.S., now the world largest producer of natural gas and oil, made OPEC seem irrelevant.
Trump jawboned NATO members to pony up their long promised, but even longer delinquent, dues—or else. He renegotiated NAFTA and asked why Mexico City had sent 11 to 20 million of its poorest citizens illegally across the border, ran up a $71 billion trade surplus, and garnered $30 billion in remittances from the U.S.
Trump moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, declared the Palestinians no longer refugees after 70 years and thus no more in need of U.S. largess. Likewise, he dissolved US participation with the International Criminal Court, and questioned why the U.S. subsidized a UN that so often derided America.
Both the U.S. and global establishments screamed that Trump had destroyed an ossified postwar order. In its place, Trump’s advisors talked of “principled realism”, a sort of don’t-tread-on-me Jacksonism that did not seek wars, but, if forced, would win them. In a world of multilateral bureaucracies, Trump adopted the of spirit of the Roman general Sulla: allies would find in the U.S. “no better friend”, as enemies learned there was “no worse enemy”. Both trade and war would be now adjudicated through bilateral relations, not international organizations.
In sum, the late 20-century global order of grand illusions had long ago gone comatose, but only now has been taken off life support.
What is next?
Perhaps in the 21st century we are returning to the old 19th-century notions of balance of power, reciprocal trade, bilateral alliances, and military deterrence in keeping the peace rather than soft power and UN resolutions.
Trump is blamed for ending the postwar order. But all he did was bury its corpse—very loudly and bigly.