On February 5, AD 62, a strong earthquake struck near Pompeii, Italy, splitting roads, toppling buildings, and shattering statues. Worse would follow. Just over 17 1/2 years later, Mount Vesuvius erupted explosively. Its devastating pyroclastic flows buried Pompeii under up to 20 feet of ash. It was not until 1748 that Pompeii was rediscovered.
That earthquake might have been a precursor of the bigger catastrophe to follow. Similarly, the Trump Administration’s push into protectionism, its increasingly shabby treatment of longstanding allies, and its seeming preference for authoritarian regimes, might be a sharp foreshock that heralds the future destruction of the international order that the United States helped construct after World War II.
In an essay published in 1968 in the Brookings Institution’s “Agenda for a Nation,” Henry Kissinger observed:
Whenever the participants in the international system change, a period of profound dislocation is inevitable. They can change because new states enter the political system, or because there is a change in values as to what constitutes legitimate rule, or, finally, because of the reduction in influence of some traditional units.
In this case, the “traditional” unit is the United States. The United States was indispensable in constructing the existing world order. It contributed mightily by creating the NATO alliance; bringing to fruition the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT); establishing multilateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), United Nations (UN), and World Bank; and, financing European and Asian reconstruction. It steadfastly safeguarded the free world against the rising Soviet challenge of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. It then helped engineer a peaceful conclusion to the Cold War during the late 1980s into the early 1990s.
The world order was a liberal rules-based one. It was anchored in principles including national sovereignty, self-determination of peoples, equal rights, rule of law, free markets and trade. This world order allowed for a peaceful, prosperous, and stable Europe to rise out of the ashes of World War II. It opened the door for the East Asian “miracle” where Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and other states rapidly moved from underdeveloped to advanced economic status. Global poverty was slashed. Life expectancies rose. The standard of living improved.
Today, the world is changing. The multi-polar world that succeeded the bi-polarity of the Cold War is now showing hints that it could give way to tri-polarity where China, Russia, and the United States stand above the world’s other powers. In such a world, no single state among those three great powers could defeat the combination of any of other two states.
An important question concerns whether tri-polarity would be an enduring feature or whether it would be fleeting. If temporary, it could yield to the more familiar multi-polarity that has existed since the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648. However, it could also give way to uni-polarity where a single nation achieves a position close to preeminence. The United States held such a position at the end of World War II.
The United States remains the most liberal of those three states. Under the Trump Administration’s “America First” agenda, it is acting as if it were exhausted. Practically everywhere one looks, it is retreating from the world stage. It is failing to invest in researching and developing the cutting edge technologies of tomorrow. It is neglecting its structural fiscal imbalances. Its Congress is largely dysfunctional. All of those factors are reducing its strategic flexibility.
Russia is arguably the most illiberal of those three countries. Its combination of historic insecurity, a persecution complex, and revanchist desires makes it potentially the most destabilizing of the three. A gradually declining population and the shattering experience of the Soviet Union’s disintegration have added to its anguish and anxiety. Those factors have nurtured its aggressive distrustful approach to foreign policy. Already, Russia has engaged in a short-lived war with Georgia in 2008, seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 while carving out a Russian-dominated statelet in eastern Ukraine, and rebuilt a meaningful military presence in the Mideast.
China remains in possible pursuit of superpower status. The combination of an economy that will likely become the world’s largest within a decade (or two, at most), enormous population, rapid gains in educational attainment, and large and growing investments in artificial intelligence and space-related technologies positions it for possible qualitative technological breakthroughs. Those breakthroughs could enable it to become the world’s foremost military power.
Is the American-constructed world order destined to disappear as has happened to past world orders? Much will depend on how the United States chooses to engage the world, especially its allies, while its options still remain a matter of choice.
If it succumbs to the short-sighted soloist temptations of nationalist populism, its efforts to sustain that order could prove futile. It might even choose to abandon that order altogether as it turns ever more inward.
A different outcome is attainable. Nations such as those that comprise the European Union, along with Canada, Mexico, Israel, Japan, South Korea, among others, share America’s traditional commitment to economic and political freedom. Those shared values allow them to amplify American economic, military, and political power. So long as the United States views these countries as partners not rivals, the post-World War II order will hold. Genuine and sustained commitment is required.
As the Cold War was nearing a historic turning point, President Ronald Reagan addressed the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France on May 8, 1985. He told the European Parliament:
I want to reaffirm to the people of Europe the constancy of the American purpose. We were at your side through two great wars; we have been at your side through 40 years of a sometimes painful peace. We’re at your side today, because, like you, we have not veered from the ideals of the West—the ideals of freedom, liberty, and peace. Let no one—no one—doubt our purpose.
Amidst petty American-led rhetoric of “unfair” trade, outmoded notions that the trade balance is the overriding metric by which the nation’s relationships should be measured, boastful claims that Mexico will “pay for” a needless border wall, and the imposition of harmful tariffs, both the nation’s allies and its rivals have compelling reason to question “the constancy of American purpose” invoked by Reagan. They have increasing reason to “doubt” America’s purpose.
The emerging strains in America’s strategic relationships can still be reversed. The accumulating loss of trust can still be healed. The United States can still resume the generous and far-sighted policies on which the current world order was built.
If so, that world order will be renewed and strengthened. If not, the Trump Administration’s shift in foreign policy could prove to be the foreshock of the destruction of that world order at some point in the future with only the timing uncertain. There is no guarantee that a new world order will be liberal, free, and prosperous.