In the 1940s, after two world wars and a depression, Western policymakers decided enough was enough. Unless international politics changed in some fundamental way, humanity itself might not survive much longer.
A strain of liberal idealism had been integral to U.S. identity from the American founding onward, but now power could be put behind principle. Woodrow Wilson had fought “to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power and to set up amongst the really free and self-governed peoples of the world such a concert of purpose and of action as will henceforth ensure the observance of those principles.” Keeping his goals while noting his failures, the next generation tried again with a revised strategy, and this time they succeeded. The result became known as the postwar liberal international order.
The founders of the order embraced cooperation with like-minded powers, rejecting isolationism and casting themselves as player-managers of an ever-expanding team. They bailed out the United Kingdom, liberated France, rehabilitated Germany and Japan, bound themselves to Canada and Mexico, and more. And for seven decades, the allies were fruitful, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty.
Then arose up a new king who knew not Joseph.
Perhaps no group has been more flummoxed by the Trump era than U.S. allies, who awoke last November to find Washington no longer interested in playing the game, let alone managing the team. Having spent more than half a century believing American promises of open-ended support and basing their identity and essential national policies on it, the major U.S. allies couldn’t return easily to a self-help system, even if they wanted to—which none of them do.
We asked leading experts on France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, Canada, and Mexico to report on how these countries are grappling with the challenges of the Trump era. These countries spent the first few months of the Trump administration in shock, then gradually realized they had to accommodate to the new reality somehow—at least for a while. So for now they watch, and wait, and hope the fever passes soon. This is their story.
The United States has dominated the world for generations now. Like a Carnegie or a Rockefeller or a Gates, it has legitimized its extraordinary position by making clear to all that it sees life as a positive-sum game—one in which American power is used to benefit not just Americans but also all those around the world willing to play by the rules, living and trading peacefully with one another. U.S. allies know that better than anybody, which is why they signed on to the order in the first place. Unfortunately, Washington itself seems to have forgotten.