“The United States is confronted with a condition in the world which is at direct variance with the assumptions upon which [our foreign] policies were predicated,” wrote a State Department official. “Instead of unity among the great powers . . . there is complete disunity.” The secretary of state concluded that the Russians were “doing everything possible to achieve a complete breakdown.” The president called for unilateral action to counter U.S. adversaries. “If we falter in our leadership,” he told Congress, “[we will] surely endanger the welfare of this nation.”
These precise words were spoken in 1947, by Russia specialist Chip Bohlen, Secretary of State George C. Marshall, and President Harry S. Truman. But they are being echoed today by a new U.S. administration, heralding another era of great-power competition in which adversaries jostle for global influence. “After being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century,” the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy proclaimed, “great power competition returned.” The strategies of Truman and Trump, however, could not be more different.
Seventy-one years ago, in the wake of World War II, the onset of a dangerous new great-power competition led American policymakers to accept the need for intervention abroad to protect U.S. security and prosperity. The centerpiece of their strategy was to create strong, independent, democratic allies in western Europe and Asia capable of resisting authoritarian threats and temptations. The United States could thereby protect its own economic and security interests without having to rely on its military.
That vision was sustained through the Cold War and after, over successive administrations, Democratic and Republican—until the present one. The Trump administration is now at war with itself over the meaning of the president’s “America first” slogan and its consistency with this vision, and the outcome will determine whether the postwar liberal order survives or whether a new Hobbesian struggle takes its place—a struggle in which the United States would merely be first among equally self-interested brutes. The tragic irony is
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