by James A Russell
Donald Trump’s election represents another nail in the coffin of the post-World War II global order that saw a unified West anchor the international system with its centrist domestic political consensus, free trade, and collective security arrangements to help prevent the outbreak of war between the developed states.
This great epoch of modern history is ending. The question is: what will take its place?
The West has been slowly disassembling before us over the last 25 years, undone by generational change and the re-emergence of fractious domestic politics that have sapped the strength, commitment, and will of governments on both sides of the Atlantic to jointly pursue their common interests and ideals. In its place the West is now divided, consumed by self-doubt and xenophobia, all imbued by an overarching sense of strategic drift.
The election of Trump reveals very little about the man that wasn’t already known. He has wandered the country for the last 18 months spewing his message of hate and discontent with little regard for the constitution for government institutions. More important, however, is what his election says about the state of the republic he will lead. It reveals a country that has all but abandoned the ideals that carried it through World War II and the Cold War. Quiet authority, confidence, optimism about the future, and the ability to lead at home and abroad has been replaced by sclerotic fear, loathing, and a trigger-happy intolerance.
The Cold War Order
The United States fought World War II to save the world from National Socialism and its racist ideology. Following the war, the United States helped rebuild the European democracies and set up the collective defense organization to resist the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union. The United States saved the world from both these alternatives that beckoned the international system toward a future of death, anarchy, and chaos. To be sure, there were many bloody bumps along the way in North Korea and the misguided war in Vietnam. But following these wars, the West coalesced once more around its central mission of deterrence and facing down the Soviet threat in Europe and around the world.
The heart of the West’s strength in the Cold War was the shared belief that time was on its side. Europe and the United States believed in the inherent strength of their political and economic systems that spawned healthy, tolerant, and prosperous centrist multi-party democracies. As Cold War architect George Kennan famously reminded us: the Soviet Union would eventually collapse due to its internal weaknesses and contradictions. All we had to do was display strategic patience. That confidence, born of strength and shared purpose, is now a distant memory on both sides of the Atlantic.
The first phase of this disassembling occurred in Europe. When the wall came down in 1989, Europe slowly but surely disarmed and figured it could rely on the United States to watch its back. All seemed well in the prosperous 1990s as Europeans enjoyed the Cold War peace dividend.
After September 11
Then came the September 11 attacks and America’s failed, expensive wars to re-engineer Afghanistan and Iraq. As the wars unfolded, it became apparent the Europeans could make only token contributions in the field, having given up on the idea of large standing armies. America’s now quarter-century of war in and around Iraq became its new strategic raison-d’etre, replacing the Cold War as its unifying strategic principle. But the worst was yet to come for them.
While Europe enjoyed the fruits of its labors in the 1990s and foolishly agreed with the US on the need to expand the NATO alliance, Putin emerged in Russia with his own revanchist agenda. As the relationship with Russia soured, Europe still declined to rearm and figured the United States would bail it out—despite the drawdown of America’s troops on the continent. Russia’s submarines, airplanes, and ships once more began probing Europe’s relatively weak defenses.
Meanwhile, as Europe’s platoons and companies wandered aimlessly around the dusty trails of Afghanistan, the unraveling of the Middle East gathered momentum. Already under pressure from their slow recovery from the 2009 financial meltdown, the continent’s democracies began to lose a sense of unity. Refugees from Libya and Syria flooded into Europe, and the continent experienced a series of attacks by resurgent Islamic terrorists. The old fascism returned in new forms.
Perhaps most important, the UK Brexit voted fractured the fragile European strategic and political partnership. Voters in UK had forgotten why the European Union had been created in the first place—to prevent the outbreak of wars between the countries on the continent. With that assumption no longer binding Britain to Europe, the exit was a European version of Trump’s wall to stop Middle Eastern refugees from coming across the channel.
As in Europe, domestic politics in the US continued to unravel as income inequality and the flood of special interest money distorted America’s democracy beyond all recognition. Thousands had been left behind in the digital age riches of the 1990s, and rural America descended to Third World status with crumbling infrastructure, inadequate education, and no health care. The implacable Republican war against the federal government and the Obama administration undermined the country at home and abroad, sapping America’s energy and will to continue stitching together what remained of the West. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got audiences before both houses of Congress, while European leaders—once pillars of the great Western partnership—came and went from Washington like visitors in the night. Asia reemerged as an important new theater, with the much publicized “pivot” to Asia and the now failed attempt to extricate America from the Middle East.
The ascendance of Trump reflects America’s abandonment of the West and the post-World War II order. The election revealed America’s underlying weaknesses that are now on display for the world to see, just as Europe’s new generation of fascists reveal dark links to a hitherto forgotten past. In America, a message of racial, ethnic, and religious intolerance fueled the rise of Trump and made America’s quiet Cold War confidence seem like a distant memory.
With the West undone on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s not clear what if anything will take its place. Instead, Putin is threatening war in the Baltic while fighting one in Ukraine. His hackers gleefully manipulate America’s fractured domestic politics. In Asia, China bosses around its neighbors as the new regional sheriff. At home, the president-elect promises to build walls to keep out Mexicans and Muslims while tearing up America’s global trade agreements.
The post-World War II order had a good run—over half a century. But it’s over. The world is entering a new and darker future where war between the developed states is back on the table. Fascism is spreading like cancer in the Western democracies as its disaffected populaces look for scapegoats. The implosion of the Middle East and Africa is just beginning with unsettled political arguments fueling the wars that will not end anytime soon.
We should all fear what happens next.
Photo by John LeGear via Flickr.