The Liberal, Postwar ‘Order’ Is Dying—and That’s a Good Thing
Decades of unchallenged pre-eminence have left Americans fearful of change but also greatly in need of it.
Very curious to watch Donald Trump’s inauguration last week. These rituals are always heavy on signifiers and light on substance, as they are supposed to be, but Trump’s confirmation as our 45th president was an extreme case. I was especially interested to see whether the media’s cartoon rendering of reality during the campaign season would carry over once he moved into the White House. It will, as is already clear. We are treated to a preposterous rendering of Barack Obama’s virtues, and we are in for yet more exorbitant accounts of Trump’s shortcomings. Press reports this time around may be to journalism what graphic novels are to literature—filled with stick figures and stock imagery, wanting in all complexity.
Let’s be clear: There is plenty to brace for and defend as Donald Trump assumes the presidency. All those who marched in cities and towns across the planet last weekend did so with justification. But simplifications of the kind that our orthodox-liberal media foist upon us will not do. The obsessions with taste and style they encourage amount to schoolyard crudities when put against all that Americans ought to be concerned with. Contempt as a unifying principle, a thought that people who ought to know better now suggest, is unbecoming all around and holds no promise. The world and our moment, a moment of historical significance, whiz by. If you want to talk about resistance, the first thing to resist is blindness to events vastly more consequential than crowd counts and braggadocio.
“With the election of Donald Trump, the old world of the 20th century is finally over,” Frank-Walter Steinmeier wrote in Bild am Sonntag, the German tabloid, last Sunday. This is a very large assertion, not to be ignored. The German foreign minister, a Social Democrat in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s across-the-aisle coalition, is a curious figure. Since taking office in late 2013, he has consistently, if occasionally, voiced objections to American hegemony in global affairs. Read the sentence again: Steinmeier makes his observation with subtly plain relief.
Should we Americans share Steinmeier’s apparent sense of anticipation for the end of something and the beginning of something else? This is our question.
President Trump has faced unceasing resistance from the Pentagon, NATO, and the national security apparatus ever since he proposed a renewed détente with Russia. He has made clear his disapproval of Washington’s “regime change” policies on many occasions. Trump has been preoccupied with the sacrifice of American jobs to corporate-written, corporate-indulgent trade accords for more than two decades, according to people who have followed him over the years. He may or may not succeed in doing much to remedy this abuse of the American working class, but that is a separate conversation. On Monday he formally killed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Obama’s breathtakingly anti-democratic framework for radical deregulation. (Let us dispense with the fiction that the TPP was a trade deal; it was nothing of the kind).
Another way to pose the same question as above: What do we think of Trump’s positions on these issues? It is past time we all ask ourselves.
I wrote of the disgrace of our reigning Russophobia in a previous column. Nobody in Washington seems to have much to say just yet about “regime change,” but they will in due course. You are not encouraged to applaud the demise of the TPP for the devastating impact it would have had on employment, product safety, drug prices, the environment, Internet freedom, the democratic process, and much else. It reflected “a more complex corporate calculus,” as The New York Times preciously put it in Tuesday’s edition. One is absolutely certain it did.
These are all fronts in a conflict. It is between those defending the “liberal order,” as it is called, and those who propose either to alter it in significant aspects or to replace it. There is no precedent for this in my lifetime. One question at a time, it will be our responsibility to stand on one side or the other. No, Mama didn’t say there’d be days like this.
“How the world will look tomorrow is not settled,” Steinmeier wrote in his opinion-page piece. It is perfectly true, of course. And an excellent prospect, in my view. Any promise of change that purports to guarantee certainty cannot come to much. Sixty-odd years of more or less unchallenged pre-eminence have left most Americans fearful of change but also greatly in need of it. It has left our leadership incapable of it. Liberalism has grown illiberal—we know this now—and its order lies before us as a perilous disorder.
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The customary phrase is “the post-1945 order,” referring to the American-dominated Western alliance and the institutions—the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade—set up to provide a multilateral frame for it. Scores of nations came into being, for this was the “independence era” too. When President Truman and Dean Acheson, his secretary of state, declared the Cold War official in 1947, the world divided into two: There was liberal democracy, and there was the Communist bloc. Note, however: this account must be bracketed with “supposedly.”
The post-1945 order was never so orderly, in truth. Many nations elected to remain neutral in the East-West conflict, making a third category. The four “Ns,” as I call them—Nehru, Nasser, Nkrumah, Nyerere—all led nonaligned nations, or did until Washington alienated them. So did Mossadegh, Sukarno, Arbenz, Lumumba, Ho, and many others. Since nonalignment was unacceptable to the United States, to say nothing of the socialist bloc as an alternative, coups—more than 30 US-cultivated, by accepted counts—became a common feature of the post-1945 order. The multilaterals turned out to be instruments for the imposition, usually by coercion, of neoliberal economic structures. As to the UN, I count the corruption of the ideal it represented one of the century’s great tragedies.
The post-1945 order is what is now at issue. But we are again stuck with “supposedly,” for the post-1945 order, such as it was, gave way to the post–Cold War order after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. American triumphalism triumphed in the early 1990s, our “end of history” moment. Washington renamed coups as “regime changes” and observed no constraints whatsoever in conducting them. No pretense of abiding by international law remained, as the 2003 invasion of Iraq made plain. Deregulation, privatization, the wholesale dismantling of public-sector enterprises, the elimination of basic subsidies: The multilaterals made these and other such conditions mandatory in their country programs. “Savage capitalism,” the Argentines took to calling it in the 1990s. At Treasury and State, sanctions against uncooperative nations became à la mode.
Unfortunately for Francis Fukuyama et al., American triumphalism coincided with the dramatic emergence of numerous non-Western poles of power, notably China, Russia, India, and Iran. The history that had (again, supposedly) just ended turned out to be turning its wheel, as anyone with an understanding of how the world works could have foreseen. As a defining feature of the 21st century, this was inevitable, in my view. Not to be missed is the extent to which Washington’s persistent hubris and intolerance has come to turn natural affinities into economic and, vaguely for the time being, even strategic alliances: Russia-China, Russia-Iran, China-Iran, and so on. China’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is frontally intended as a reply to the TPP, just as the Beijing-sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is a response to the conditionality embedded in the multilaterals’ country programs.
Those who think the Obama presidency did anything other than worsen the global disorder just described may benefit from some blunt language. Barack Obama backed neo-Nazis in Ukraine to precipitate a coup intended to be to America’s advantage. In Syria he supported radical Islamists to induce yet another “regime change”—a precise repeat of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s foolhardy gambit in Afghanistan. Obama allowed his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, to oversee the dispatch of Libya into chaos. His drone attacks, determined on the basis of an assassination list reviewed weekly, require no comment as to their legality or, indeed, decency. In my estimation, his most consequential legacies on the foreign side will be the wholly unnecessary animus toward Russia and China he has induced. This list is partial, but I add one more entry: Obama passed up a hundred opportunities to bring order to the 21st century by forging new relationships through which the United States could begin leaving the “post-1945 order” and its later offspring behind.
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Can we count on Donald Trump to do what Obama did not?
What a question.
In another context, the editors of this magazine observed during last year’s political season that Trump was an odd, unfortunate messenger who nonetheless bore a few important truths. So it is in the case of US foreign policy. There are questions on the table now that Obama never dared go near.
Given that these remain questions for the time being, most world leaders appear to be more anxious than anticipatory as to what Trump’s foreign policy will look like in practice. I seriously doubt he or his people think in terms of disrupting “the old world of the 20th century,” in Steinmeier’s phrase, but they may, even if they do not intend to. I greatly favor the prospect. Many world leaders will not agree, and this you will read in the American press, but I do not think the matter is so easily disposed of.
As of the much-noted interview Trump gave The Times of London and Bild two weekends ago, Trump remains on the record favoring a renovated relationship with Russia based on shared interests. One must stand with him on this point without qualification. Many Europeans, weary of confrontation and the damage that sanctions have done them as well as Russia, will too. Of equal interest are stirrings, notably among the Germans, to the effect that Trump’s assumption of office marks the moment they should find an independent voice of their own. Only those with a taste for disappointment will expect a Gaullist streak to appear in the Continent’s capitals: The Europeans have shuffled their feet on this point for decades. But Steinmeier, who mentioned an “equal partnership” with Trump’s America, is far from alone.
There is so far less promise across the Pacific. Given that the TPP was always intended primarily as a strategic device to isolate China, Beijing will be quietly pleased to read its obituary. But Trump and his secretary of state, the just-confirmed Rex Tillerson, do not appear to know what time it is in Asia. Telling the world’s second-largest economy, soon to be largest, that it has no place policing the sea lanes off its shores is, open-and-shut, an unwise policy. The Sino-American relationship has a lot of moving parts: the dense economic interdependence, the diplomacy on Taiwan, the strategic balance in the Pacific, the islands in the East and South China Seas, and North Korea. Add to this that Washington has been short of good Asianists for decades, and the very best one can do is wait to see while hoping that Trump, Tillerson, or Defense Secretary James Mattis avoid accidental calamities.
A final question worth watching. There is no reversing the remarkable pace at which non-Western powers, as noted, are forging and deepening ties on the basis of mutual respect and shared interests in economic cooperation, investment, and so on. This is among the most fascinating features of our time: Trump or no Trump, the non-West is superseding the post–Cold War order before our eyes. But the tilt of Trump’s foreign policies, if he gets them at all right, has the potential to dissipate the anti-American dimension this phenomenon is accumulating. It would give the United States a place among the century’s emerging powers that is not now assured.
Dropping “regime change” as an established policy option would, by itself, take Trump in the right direction. Nobody other than Israel, Britain, and sometimes France has any taste for it and the incessant manufacture of disorder that goes with it. Various nations, not least Russia and China, are required to worry that they may be next. This is one reason Ukraine and Syria are historically significant: Russia has put Washington on notice that there will be no more coups without vigorous military responses.
Is the new president listening as the rest of the world speaks?