by Bruce Thornton
Strong American leadership puts the world in shock.
Donald Trump left the G7 meeting early to head for Singapore and meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. He left behind a disgruntled gaggle of Lilliputian states who have grown accustomed to U.S. leaders accepting the institutional ropes binding the world’s greatest power, and now are shocked and angry that an American leader is putting America’s interests first.
We don’t know how Trump’s high-stakes negotiating on trade and tariffs will turn out, or whether the American people can take any economic pain that may attend the correction of trade imbalances that have tended to favor our partners and rivals at the expense of our own economy. But we have long needed to concentrate our partners’ minds on the wisdom of changing their assumption that the United States will put itself second in order to uphold the “postwar world order” that frequently camouflages the subordination of our interests to theirs.
This “global order” is made up of the transnational institutions built on the rubble of two World Wars. The most important include the UN, NATO, the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and the G7 group of the world’s richest economies representing 62% of global wealth, a total of $262 trillion. These multinational groups are supposed to keep the global peace, and manage the globalized economy so that it runs smoothly and equitably.
This network of institutions, however, rests on some dubious ideas. One particularly tenacious one is that the old balance of power among sovereign nations failed, leading to the 20th century’s spectacular carnage. Nations that look first to their parochial interests and distinct identities threaten the global unification and “harmony of interests” that can better create and protect prosperity, democracy, human rights, and peace.
Thus nations must cede some of their sovereignty and subordinate their interests to those of the larger “global village” or “international community” and its supranational institutions and rules. This collectivization and centralization of global order will increase prosperity and prevent the costly conflicts and wars that inhibit trade and damage the civilizational infrastructure and human resources upon which an increasingly interconnected global trade depend. Mercantilism, economic autarky, and colonial and imperial exploitation all eventually become bad for business and lead to violent conflict. Finally, the “global order” aims to prevent this destructive cycle by promoting the political freedom that facilitates and fosters market freedom––provided that the market is subject to transnational institutions and regulations.
This idealism has put down deep bipartisan roots in our foreign policy ideology. Woodrow Wilson made it the justification for our intervention in World War I. In his 1917 speech asking Congress for a declaration of war against Germany, Wilson said that the war’s lofty aim was “to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power,” for “peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations.” Thus “the world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty.”
Even World War II and the Cold War couldn’t discredit this stubborn idealism. As the Soviet Union was disintegrating in 1991, George H.W. Bush spoke of “a new world order where diverse nations are drawn together in common cause to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind––peace and security, freedom, and the rule of law.” After 9/11 his son met the jihadists’ gruesome assertion of a 14-century-old alternative to that “new world order” with the same idealism about what he called a “single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise,” for “these values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society.” U.S. foreign policy should strive “to extend the benefits of freedom across the globe. We will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world.”
And Barack Obama endorsed the same foundation of American foreign policy in his remarks about the short-lived “Arab Spring” revolts, which America supported because “we recognized our own beliefs in the aspirations of men and women who took to the streets” of Arab capitals, and “our support for democracy put us on the side of the people.” Why? Because “Freedom and self-determination are not unique to one culture. These are not simply American values or Western values––they are universal values.”
Next, modern sovereign nations are founded on a particular identity, each the creation of different cultures, customs, mores, languages, traditions, religions, and historical memories. As the travails of the fragmenting EU show, these markers of identity are stubborn and deeply engrained in people’s lives. This incoherence between national particularity and transnational unity quickly became obvious in the Twenties after the Versailles Treaty created the League of Nations at the same time it sanctioned the principle of ethnic and national sovereignty and self-determination. The League failed for the same reason the UN fails: in the end, national self-interests, which necessarily must collide with each other, will make the institution the tool of the more powerful members, as we see today with the EU, which has become the mechanism for a German economic empire.
This fact similarly explains the incoherence of today’s “global community” made up of these varied, often irreconcilable national differences that still drive the behavior of nations. The institutions of this global community, then, are the products not of shared values or customs but of treaties, which each member state signs because it serves its national interests, and each can abandon, as Britain has the EU, whenever the treaty no longer benefits them.
Finally, the argument that this global order must be protected because it has kept the peace in Europe ever since World War II is dubious. The notion that the ruined states of Europe might have slipped back into war if not for NATO or the Common Market is preposterous. They had neither the material means nor the will to fight after their thirty-year orgy of mutual destruction. And NATO did not keep the Soviet bear out of East Germany–– the U.S.’s 40,000 nuclear warheads, and an average of half a million U.S. troops deployed on foreign soil, did. Without those deployments the whole postwar “global order” would have been still-born.
So too with the increase in global wealth attributed to the “postwar order.” America’s raw economic power demonstrated during the war, and its contributions to rebuilding Europe’s economy after it––all protected by America’s military power and willingness to police the growing global economy––account for that spectacular growth in global wealth. The rules and institutions that followed of course contributed, but they were the effects of America’s military and economic power.
Which brings us to Trump’s recent assertion of our right as a sovereign nation to participate in this global order and follow its rules only if doing so contributes to furthering our interests. Legitimizing the specious idealism behind which our partners and allies have tended to their interests often at the expense of ours should not be a priority. Particularly since for years the G7 nations have grown wealthy under the umbrella of our military power, the expense of which we have mostly borne, thus in effect subsidizing the G7 economies. It was American military might that countered and eventually dismantled the communist threat during the Cold War. And today its battle carrier groups, intelligence satellites, nuclear-armed submarines, and cruise missiles make the U.S. the global sheriff protecting the global shopkeepers and the movement of their goods. That rich countries like Canada and Germany spend a bit more than 1% of GDP on their militaries, and then scold us for seeking to correct unfair tariffs and trade policies, is shameful.
Despite the hysteria of Trump’s critics, no one wants to dismantle or hinder global free trade, but to make it truly free and fair. The dudgeon of the Europeans over Trump’s attempts to negotiate, in his unique bumptious style, some corrections of our trade relations reflects their anxiety over losing those advantages.
The institutions like the G7 that manage and sustain those policies detrimental to our interests have been like the ropes the Lilliputians used to bind Gulliver until they could figure out how to exploit the giant to serve their own aims. Trump has started snapping the ropes and showing the world we’re no longer the “weak, pitiful giant” who subordinates our own interests to those of some mythic “global community.”
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.
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