(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Is President Donald Trump on the path to destroying the international system the U.S. created after World War II?
Since Trump blew up the G-7 summit, launching a flurry of insults at America’s closest allies on his way to flattering North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un, there has been no shortage of pessimists warning that this postwar system is veering toward ultimate collapse, and even that we have reached the "death knell of America as a great power."
At such times, it often pays to take a longer, more historical view. And in this case, the past reminds us how resilient the international system Trump is disrupting has traditionally been — but also how unique and mutually reinforcing the strains on that system are today.
Defenders of America’s post-World War II foreign policy (and I count myself among them) often portray the last seven decades as a golden age of peace, prosperity and stability. And by any reasonable comparison, the postwar era has been precisely that.
The U.S. and its friends built alliances and favorable balances of power that restrained aggressors and ushered in perhaps the longest period of great-power peace in modern history. The open international economy anchored by Washington produced unprecedented domestic and global prosperity. Human rights and democracy spread more widely than ever before.
Yet even amid all this progress, the postwar system has been tested nearly since the day it was created.
U.S. alliances have been riven by serious, bitter disputes, from the Suez crisis in the 1950s (when the U.S. waged economic warfare against Britain and France to force them to back down from their ill-conceived invasion of Egypt), to the Iraq War in 2003.
The global economic order has repeatedly been shaken, from the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system of international finance and the oil shocks in the 1970s, to the trade tensions of the 1980s, to the global financial crisis of 2008.
International peace and stability have been comparatively plentiful since World War II, but there have been moments, such as the major Soviet military buildup and third-world offensive of the 1970s, when it seemed that aggressive authoritarian powers were gaining the upper hand. On the whole, the postwar order has been remarkably successful, but it has suffered its share of traumas.
In some ways, this history is cause for comfort today. The fact that the postwar order has survived and even thrived amid such disruptions reminds us that it has historically proved quite resilient. U.S. alliances, for instance, have built deeply institutionalized cooperation that can weather leader-to-leader hostility. The international economic system has proved flexible enough to overcome crises and adapt in the face of unforeseen challenges.
We can see these sources of resilience at work today. Day-to-day security cooperation with the NATO allies remains strong, despite the trade tensions and frequently confrontational atmospherics. The U.S. is now abdicating international economic leadership, but other countries are trying to pick up the mantle by pursuing free-trade agreements such as an EU-Japan trade pact and the scaled down, 11-member Trans-Pacific Partnership.
It is tempting to hope, then, that the postwar system will come through the Trump era just as it has come through previous periods of uncertainty. Yet a longer-term perspective also reminds us just how unprecedented situation is today.
For one thing, the American-led order has never seen an American president like Trump. Richard Nixon may have complained about America’s allies as deadbeats, and leaders from Harry Truman onward were often frustrated with the unequal financial and manpower burdens the U.S. had to bear.
But those leaders were all fundamentally committed to preserving the system because they also understood that the U.S. derived such massive benefits from the global peace, prosperity and stability it provided.
Trump, however, is cut from a very different cloth.
The reason he can so cavalierly resort to protectionism and risk trade wars, the reason he can so gratuitously troll U.S. allies, is that he simply does not believe that losing those allies and wrecking an open global trading system would harm American interests. He believes, rather, that this would liberate Washington to pursue its interests more ruthlessly, to cut deals with longtime adversaries while extorting more concessions from longtime allies.
He is almost certainly wrong that this approach would, in fact, benefit the U.S. over the long term, as I argued at length in my recent book. But that doesn’t make his beliefs any less sincere. The leader of the free world does not appear to believe that the free world is worth preserving: This challenge is unlike any other the postwar system has faced.
Its effects are multiplied by a second source of instability, which would have existed even had Trump never become president. Regardless of who was elected president in 2016, the postwar system would have been entering another crossroads, as global power dynamics shift and geopolitical pressures multiply.
Two ambitious authoritarian powers — a resurgent Russia and a rising China — are vying for greater influence and testing American power in crucial regions of the globe. The Middle East is in chaos as a result of the competition between Iran and its Sunni adversaries, the activities of violent extremists, and widespread breakdowns of political stability.
Authoritarianism is on the march, as dictators fortify themselves against domestic dissent and democracies struggle to meet their citizens’ expectations amid disorienting change. And in the wake of the Iraq War and the worldwide financial crisis, the global balance appears to be tilting away from the longtime defenders of the international order.
In many ways, this concrete power shift is often overstated: The U.S. maintains a significant lead in economic and military power over any adversary, and that lead grows far larger still when America’s allies are added to the mix.
Nonetheless, America’s ability to preserve the arrangements it has maintained for so many years is coming under greater doubt, just as Trump simultaneously casts doubt on Washington’s willingness to do so. It is this combination — the threat from within and the threats from without — that seem likely to prove so dangerous and destabilizing.
This is why the 2020 election is already shaping up to be so fatefully consequential. If Trump is defeated by a candidate who strongly affirms the traditional U.S. global role, and who works to repair the damage to America’s alliances and the global trading system, then Washington and its allies will have a fighting chance at upholding the postwar order despite all the challenges it faces.
But if Trump is reelected, or if he is followed by someone who also feels the global system America created is now working against it, then much of the world will conclude that the U.S. is taking itself out of the global order game just as that game is reaching its crucial moment.
That conclusion, in turn, could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as allies start to hedge their bets, adversaries are empowered, and the strains on the system intensify. The global order that America built can probably survive — albeit at great price — a four-year American sabbatical. But a leaderless order under pressure won’t endure forever.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.