This piece is appearing in newspapers in my very red congressional District, VA-06. January, 2018.
For the entire history of human civilization, the international system has been a particularly dangerous part of the human world. It is an arena in which all human societies have faced each other with no enforceable order to govern their interactions. Such anarchy makes a struggle for power virtually inevitable. The result, equally inevitably, is the constant danger of war.
Many of the nightmares of history grow out of that circumstance.
One result of this chronic danger is that people have learned the profound value of a stable order in that international system. If things become destabilized, the resulting disorder opens the door to all kinds of destructive possibilities. So wisdom has taught: “Let’s keep things in place, lest things fall apart.”
This is why the American achievement in the years following World War II – the creation of a stable and constructive international order — might be America’s most glorious accomplishment.
Despite the Cold War’s dividing the world into dangerously competing camps, American leaders put together — within the vast camp led by the United States — an international order that served not only American interests, but the entire “free world” very well.
(Among the institutions fostered by American leadership were the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the United Nations, NATO and other mutual security organizations in other regions.)
Within the political, economic, and security systems that the United States helped to create, the war-ravaged nations of Western Europe enjoyed a level of freedom, prosperity, and security beyond anything seen before in their history. Our former enemies in Japan and West Germany were enabled to become democratic and to greatly exceed their former economic health.
(And under the American nuclear umbrella, other non-communist nations of Asia like South Korea and Taiwan were also ultimately able to become more democratic as well as prosperous.)
Stability is especially in the interest of the power that is already dominant – in this case, the United States – but as the enlightened order created by American leadership ushered in a kind of golden era in much of the world, the United States was held in high esteem.
Until recent years, presidents of both parties have shared more or less equally in making the United States the world’s “indispensable nation,” leading in the maintenance of the international order, and thus enhancing the prestige of the U.S. in the world.
The tale was not one of uninterrupted American glory. Presidents of both parties also contributed to setbacks in America’s standing.
One such blow was from the war in Vietnam –initiated by a Democratic President (LBJ) and compounded by a Republican one (Nixon). But nonetheless the U.S. remained the unquestioned “leader of the free world.”
Later, some of the early neo-Cold-War policies of President Reagan strained our major alliances, but Reagan’s eventual successful partnership with Soviet Premier Gorbachev in bringing the Cold War to a peaceful end – on American terms — was a major accomplishment that burnished American world leadership.
An especially impressive use of the instruments of the international order was by the first President Bush – a Republican — in the deft way he assembled a global coalition to reverse the attempt by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to annex Kuwait through an unprovoked invasion.
As the twentieth century concluded, it seemed that the world had the opportunity, under American leadership, to develop the international order still further.
But instead, now we see this international order coming apart, with potential consequences whose destructiveness should not be understated.
Just as U.S. leadership gets much of the credit for putting that order together, so also does American leadership gets much of the blame for how that order is deteriorating.
If one were to prepare a graph of America’s standing in the world through the end of the 20th century, one would see considerable continuity at a high level. But in this century, that graph would show two unprecedented plunges in America’s standing.
The first came with President George W. Bush’s launching of the Iraq war under false pretenses and against the clearly stated will of the international community.
It would be hard to overstate the impact on the international order of having the world’s leading nation, and architect of that order, disregard international law and launch a war because “the world’s only superpower” could do whatever it chose.
Under W, our allies went from having roughly 2/3 of their citizens regarding the United States favorably, as a bulwark of world peace, to a reversal where 2/3 regarded the United States unfavorably, as a threat to peace.
That had never happened before.
When Barack Obama assumed the presidency, America’s standing revived: in Germany, for example 86% of the people expressed confidence in the U.S. president; in France it was 84%.
But then came Trump, and those figures have plummeted to 11% and 14% respectively.
In other words, America’s leadership of the free world since World War II has dramatically plunged but twice, and these two times have been under the two most recent Republican presidents.
(If we knew nothing else but what is shown by such a graph of America’s standing in the world, we would have strong grounds for suspecting that something had gone wrong with the Republican Party since the time of Reagan and the first Bush.)
The decline in U.S. standing and the deterioration of the international order go hand in hand.
First, Trump’s rejection of the international system that American leaders so splendidly achieved erodes America’s standing. As when President Trump
- Went out of his way to withhold our long-standing commitment to mutual defense with our NATO allies, after having derided that important alliance.
- Withdrew from the Paris Climate accord, making the United States now the only nation in the world not signed on to this humanity-wide step to meet this immensely important global challenge.
- Undercut the American role as a mediator of Middle East peace by breaking with decades of American policy to leave the status of Jerusalem for the Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate.
- Offended nations around the world with his recent crude and racist dismissal of dozens of countries.
But as America ceases to be respected as the world’s “indispensable nation,” that creates a vacuum in the international system. That vacuum can be filled by various players (among them Putin’s Russia) far more hungry for power than respectful of the need for stability and order in the international system—a stability on which all the world’s people depend for their security, and potentially for their very lives.
Andy Schmookler was the 2012 Democratic candidate for Congress in VA-06, and is the author of the website “A Better Human Story” at https://abetterhumanstory.org/