Is the Past Prologue?

I write this essay on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, unable to be commemorated by the war’s few survivors due to the Covid-19 pandemic. How has the world changed since the end of World War II seventy-five years ago? How has it changed since the Cold War’s denouement? Are we at risk today of unlearning the war’s legacy, the necessity to balance internationalism with democratic norms at home? These are the main themes of Paul Miller’s essay about the nature of the international system at the current moment and the similarities to the 1930s.

I would like to push back a little on Miller’s past as prologue concerns about the nature of the international system then and now. But first, here is Miller’s conclusion to his provocative essay:

World War II started when preexisting national grievances met economic catastrophe, which in turn led to ideological radicalization, the rise of nationalism and authoritarianism, and eventually international aggression—all enabled by the vacuum of global leadership by liberal powers. Read that sentence again and note how eerily it describes the world in 2020. We are at risk of remembering World War II by fighting its sequel, teaching the war’s lessons by reviving them, and remembering its mistakes by recommitting them. Unless we take drastic action, we will commemorate the end of the Second World War by replicating its path to it.

When one looks generally at the common themes between then and now, there are surface similarities. Nationalism has been on the rise in the western world; global trade and interchange is at a standstill due to Covid-19; unemployment is at the highest since the Great Depression; growing authoritarianism is a threat to western democracy; and the world has exacerbated the rise of communist China to great power status with the ability to extend its military abroad in Asia and in the Indian Ocean.

All the contemporary events certainly mimic the 1930s. But there are a few things missing from the comparative equation in Miller’s essay. The trend worldwide in the aftermath of Versailles and the failure to produce a peace which established norms for all parties, and instead imposed a Carthaginian peace on a defeated Germany. The victory of Bolshevism and the establishment of the Soviet Union—and legitimate fears of communism’s spread outside of Russia—led to the emergence of nationalist and fascist movements in eastern and central Europe. The failure to ensure a democratic world produced a 75 Years War, one that encompassed World War II and the Cold War. This was a murderous era of totalitarian governments, led by the USSR, Germany, Japan, and their clients—backed by significant industrial and military production—wreaking havoc on the world. World War II may have killed as many as 50-70 million people; communist governments killed over 100 million in the 20th century. There is nothing comparable today.

What we have today—all around the world—is a backlash against an international system which has produced global norms at the expense of national economic goals. The United States in its unipolar moment in the 1990s, threw away the victory it sustained in the 75 Years War against communism and fascism, and instead embraced the role of global policeman, of enforcer of international order and democracy. The results have been disastrous in national treasure and in disdain for the elites worldwide who helped propagate this new world order.

For a longer period, the United States also threw away its industrial and manufacturing hegemony which produced victory in World War II. Our trade policy going back to the 1950s was predicated on an open and liberal world order, dedicated to free trade, eschewing tariffs, and the protection of domestic industries in favor of alliances and treaties devoted to allow access to American markets. Japan and the European Common Market gorged their appetites on industrial manufacturing at the expense of American workers, reaching a crisis by the 1970s as American car companies could no longer innovate, steel manufacturers saw their dominance weakened by cheaper manufactured steel from abroad (South Korea and Japan, initially), and western dependence on foreign oil led to the energy crisis and dependence on Middle Eastern oil (and involvement in Middle Eastern politics and wars). We rebuilt our former foes, made them equal to the task of competition with our economy, subsidized their welfare states, and lost our industrial and manufacturing industries to developing countries and to West Germany and Japan.

In a perfect free market world, that is the way the ball bounces; it is the creative destruction on which capitalism depends. But it had costs, not only at home, but in our foreign policy as well. The endless Middle Eastern wars which Donald Trump wants to wind down cost thousands of American lives and trillions in economic treasure. The fracking boom at home has made the need for regional involvement there less important, but still we hear calls to continue our presence in the region. And Trump has, at times, been inconsistent by hiring John Bolton as national security advisor and by beating the drums for war against Iran.

China’s rise came at our expense. Global elites from all parties felt that they could help promote democratization in China by allowing unimpeded access to western markets. But Chinese leaders stole some major American manufacturing sectors (furniture comes to mind) but robbed the nation of intellectual property. The communist leadership also actually governed as communists (or, as fascists which seems a better fit in terminology). This benefitted western companies who could secure cheaper labor (and even unpaid labor). It helped the bottom line of hedge funds and Wall Street investment banks, but did little for the average American, except to provide the cheap consumables from China sold at their local Wal Mart. The result after twenty years of global kowtowing to the Chinese? Xi Jinping, whose goals are to build the “China Dream,” and whose economic and military strengthening of China to get there by the century mark of communist rule in China, will lead to conflict with the West. After Covid-19 and the machinations of China in their handling of the virus, at least the world is wising up a bit to China’s growing dominance. Better to balance against regimes like China than to kowtow.

Now, to be fair, Miller is critical of this new liberal internationalism because it does not come equipped with the respect for power that was the basis for Allied victory in World War II and the Cold War. “As I have written elsewhere,” he notes, “democracy is a better idea than fascism, but the liberal international order does not exist because it is a better idea. It exists because the democratic power built bigger and better guns, killed millions of fascists, overthrew fascist government, tried and hanged fascist leaders, and liberated or coercively democratized former fascist countries.” Instead, Miller sees thousands of public policy and international relations graduates from premier institutions “blinded by the naivete and functional pacifism of their liberal internationalist education, marching straight towards the cliff of disarmament and irrelevance.”

The bigger concern for liberty should be the growth of government power which comes out of every crisis, and the national debt will be one of the biggest problems facing our efforts to revive the economy.

Yet, Miller winds up embracing a hard-edged liberal internationalism because “after World War II—and again after the Cold War—the United States led the free world in putting its collective stamp on world order.” He continues, “recognizing that does not require us to endorse all the naivete and utopianism of the liberal internationalists. It only requires us to marry a commitment to liberal ideas as our polestar to a prudent and pragmatic appreciation for the inescapable role hard power must always play in human politics.” Or, what? Into the abyss of major war? History repeating itself as if it is the 1930s all over again? History never works so neatly in spite of the adage of history repeating itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.

As I said at the outset, a return to the interwar years and the descent into major war is highly unlikely. For all the blather about nationalism and the Make America Great Again rhetoric, Trump has not moved us out of any military alliance. Has he weakened it with his rhetoric? Maybe. But as we have witnessed since World War II, there is no reason that rich nations in Europe should get a free ride for their defense on the American taxpayer while their citizens enjoy lavish welfare state benefits as a result. On trade, Trump’s tariffs are hardly Smoot-Hawley, the highest tariffs in US history, and it produced two agreements with China, and with Mexico and Canada. The trade policies seem positional, not foundational. They are about a better deal, a laudable goal, rather than isolating our market from world trade. Our policy now should look to the developing nations in Asia, as well as Japan and Australia and Taiwan.

The current economic collapse, rivalling now the unemployment of the Great Depression of the 1930s, is more ominous potentially depending on how long it takes to revert back to the norm which existed before March 2020 and the government shutdowns of the economy. But even that should not produce the misery of the depression decade, nor should it produce a retraction on the scale of the 1930s. America continues to be the leader in defense production. No isolationist movement exists on the scale of the 1930s, and it is doubtful that one will develop. Trump is no Gerald Nye or Charles Lindbergh. In fact, this economic shutdown has revealed the need to infuse dormant productive capacities: Americans need to manufacture their own medicines and other priority items necessary to protect our people and to make sure we are the leaders in these developments and not China. The bigger concern for liberty should be the growth of government power which comes out of every crisis, and the national debt will be one of the biggest problems facing our efforts to revive the economy.

So, where does this leave us 75 years after the end of World War II? Remarkably better off than the world was in 1919, or in 1939. In spite of the rise of nationalism, and even with the limited authoritarianism that nationalism has produced in Europe (Hungarian president Viktor Orban comes to mind), there is no power structure remaining in Europe capable of repeating what Germany did twice in the first half of the 20th century. China is the only power capable of challenging the global hegemony of the West and they are still some years away from doing that—and the Chinese have their own problems to deal with both internally, and now, externally. Miller is correct that some of this is worrisome but the parallels between then and now are dissimilar. What we have is a natural backlash against a global economic order which has produced safety and security for elites, and economic insecurity for the majority of Americans. It is time to address those concerns and take a turn away from the liberal internationalism responsible for it, being careful to balance the concerns of our population with those of the world.