But in 1945, the world did change. In the wake of two of the deadliest wars in human history, with tens of millions killed and much of Europe and Asia physically devastated, the United States tried to build a new international system. It created institutions, rules and norms that would encourage countries to solve their differences peaceably — through negotiations rather than war. It forged a system in which trade and commerce would expand the world economy so that a rising tide could lift all boats. It set up mechanisms to manage global problems that no one country could solve. And it emphasized basic human rights so that there were stronger moral and legal prohibitions against dehumanizing policies such as those that led to the Holocaust.
It didn’t work perfectly. The Soviet Union and its allies rejected many of these ideas from the start. Many developing nations adopted only some parts of the system. But Western Europe, Canada and the United States did, in fact, become an amazing zone of peace and economic, political and military cooperation. Certainly there was competition among nations, but it was managed peacefully and always with the aim of greater growth, more freedom and improved human rights.
The “West” that emerged is, in historical terms, a miracle. Europe, which had torn itself apart for hundreds of years because of the “elemental nature” of international competition, was now competing only to create better jobs and more growth, not to annex countries and subjugate populations.
This zone of peace grew over the years, first encompassing Japan and South Korea, and later a few countries in Latin America. It was always in competition and conflict with the Soviet bloc, in traditional geopolitical ways. Then in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and large parts of the world gravitated toward this open international order.
At the heart of the system was the United States, which had tried to create such an enterprise after World War I but failed. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, learning from those mistakes, advanced a new set of ideas as World War II was drawing to a close. This time, it worked.
Since then, every president of either party has recognized that the United States has created something unique that is a break from centuries of “elemental” international conflict. In the past two-and-a-half decades, it has tried to help incorporate hundreds of millions of people, from Mexico to Ukraine, who want to be part of this liberal — meaning free — international order.
From the start of his political career, Trump has seemed unaware of this history and ignorant of these accomplishments. He has consistently been dismissive of the United States’ closest political, economic and moral allies. He speaks admiringly of strongmen such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte but critically of almost every democratic leader of Europe.
The consequences of Trump’s stance and his actions are difficult to foresee. They might result in the slow erosion of the liberal international order. They might mean the rise of a new, not-so-liberal order, championed by China and India, both of them mercantilist and nationalist countries.
But they could also result, in the long run, in the strengthening of this order, perhaps by the reemergence of Europe. Trump has brought the continent’s countries together in a way that even Putin could not. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Europe must look out for itself and, as if to underscore that fact, the same week welcomed the prime minister of India and the premier of China. French President Emmanuel Macron upheld Western interests and values face to face with Putin, in just the way an American president would have done in the past.
Trump might not cause the end of the Western world, but he could end the United States’ role at its center.