The postwar ‘we’

U.S. Secretary of State Edward Stettinius Jr. presides over the United Nations Conference in San Francisco on June 26, 1945.

It is telling that Peter Ford’s cover story on America’s retreat from global leadership appears so close to the 75th anniversary of America’s arrival on the world stage as its premier actor: the unconditional surrender of imperial Japan on Aug. 15, 1945. 

There was no question then that U.S. military and economic power were unsurpassed. America was depleted, but – thanks to its geography – astonishingly unscathed. Its economic powerhouse had been awakened. It was the last great power standing tall.

Two months later, the United States was instrumental in founding the United Nations, initially footing 40% of its annual budget. Three years after that, Congress passed an aid package for war-torn Europe so generous that its name became shorthand for a massive – and massively effective – government program. The Marshall Plan’s breathtaking price tag was $12 billion, the equivalent of nearly $130 billion in today’s dollars. 

The founding of NATO followed one year later.

Many books have been written and many more will be about how and why that postwar era of American leadership in the world slowed and then abruptly seemed to shift into reverse in recent years. It has yet to be seen what comes next, for both America and the world. 

Which brings us back to Peter’s cover story. The Monitor’s global affairs correspondent, based in Paris, explores what has happened to America’s leadership and how the rest of the world is coping with the vacuum left by the U.S. Look at the list of international trade, arms control, and environmental agreements America has announced it will exit, along with global health and court systems.

Nations in Europe and the Pacific are scrambling, forming small-bore trade alliances, even a barter group to try to keep the Iran nuclear pact alive in the face of U.S. sanctions. Many American cities and corporations have pledged to abide by the Paris Agreement on climate, despite the Trump administration’s rejection of it. 

But who can fill the global role the U.S. seems to be abandoning? 

Peter’s sources point to either the European Union or China. The problem, says Yascha Mounk, who teaches international relations at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is that “China does not want to, and Europe is not able to” play the role that America has played. Stay tuned.

There’s much more to say about the character of the post-postwar era we’re entering. Peter’s story is part of a major Monitor series titled “Navigating uncertainty: The search for global bearings.” The articles have been appearing in the Monitor Daily; a few have been featured in the Monitor Weekly as well. Included have been stories on the rise of China, the roots of Russia’s distrust of the West, democracy under siege, climate change, and the rise of “compassionate capitalism.” We are now at work on the series’ final installment, which will appear later this year.

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