President Donald Trump’s recent speech at the U.N. General Assembly was deeply disturbing. When he announced that the United States rejects globalism and affirms patriotism, he rejected the world order that was defined in the ashes of World War II and the Holocaust, a world order established to prevent future catastrophes through global cooperation. He proclaimed, instead, allegiance to isolationism and nativism.
Day-after pundits pointed out parallels to the rhetoric of fascists in the 1930s. The results of recent elections not only in the United States but throughout Europe do, indeed, show increasingly strong support for ultra-right-wing political parties supported by neo-Nazis, anti-immigrationists, isolationists, and xenophobes.
What did that post-World War II order look like?
Creating stability in 1944
In 1944, in the small New Hampshire town of Bretton Woods, the U.S. and our wartime ally the UK led a meeting to establish a postwar economic order, with the full expectation that the Allies would eventually win the war. The goal was to create financial stability that could prevent massive economic collapses like the Great Depression that precipitated World War II.
At this historic meeting, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank took shape. The U.S. had a real leadership role, and under a “gentleman’s agreement” from those meetings, the World Bank head and International Monetary Fund deputy head are always U.S. citizens.
America was the only major Western country that had not been decimated by the war. Indeed, U.S. factories had reached unimagined capacity in military production. That manufacturing achievement subsequently turned to peacetime production, creating American global economic hegemony that had previously belonged to the UK, Germany, and France, which were war-torn and in ruins.
America’s postwar global leadership was cemented not only economically but diplomatically.
U.S. diplomatic leadership in ’41
The United Nations came about through U.S. diplomatic leadership in 1941, before the U.S. entered the war as a combatant. President Franklin Roosevelt met with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the Atlantic Conference. Roosevelt suggested the name “United Nations” for an entity that could work to maintain peace around the world. The governments of the U.S., the Soviet Union, the UK, and China formalized the Atlantic Charter proposals in 1942, and in June 1945, in San Francisco, the U.N. Charter was signed. At the first official U.N. meeting in 1946, it was decided that the organization would be located in New York City, where the headquarters continues today.
The U.S. role was a dominant one, and the four original founding nations, with the addition of France, became permanent members of the U.N.’s most important body, the Security Council.
On the military front, the U.S. was a leader in founding NATO, the 29-country military alliance of North American and European nations. The supreme commander of NATO has always been an American.
A shift in U.S. policies and role
Our global diplomatic presence, and our support for peace and multilateralism, has shifted. Today the U.S.:
- is the only country in the world that has not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.
- is one of six countries in the world that has not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (the others: Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Palau, and Tonga).
- is one of only 18 countries that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
- pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement designed to counter China’s growing economic dominance in the Pacific region.
- pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement, to the great consternation of Western allies.
- has not ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the world’s most important permanent tribunal, although 123 other nations, including all of Western Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, have done so.
- is the only country in the world that is not part of the Paris Climate Accord.
- is involved in brutal proxy wars in Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan, with no end in sight.
We’re not leaders, or even followers, in protecting the planet; standing up for and with women, children, and the disabled; prosecuting perpetrators of the worst crimes on the planet; or taking a stand for peace. We’re allowing unbridled capitalism to triumph over democracy, and instead of a war on poverty; we wage war on the poor. We no longer cherish upward mobility; we create ever more entitlements for the top 1 percent. We don’t value freedom of the press, the diversity that built Silicon Valley, the virtue of e pluribus unum.
Instead, we have a leader who views a free press as the “enemy of the people,” our diverse population as threatening and ready to commit acts of terrorism, and our melting pot as one that must be remade so only whites can rise to the top.
Where does this leave us?
Scholars suggest that the golden era known as Pax Americana, our period from 1945 to the present when we flourished, is behind us. They say that we must rely, instead, on a position of “offshore balancing,” depending on relations with key allies around the world. But those relations are eroding – or already gone. Our dialogue with once-strong-partner Mexico is increasingly hostile; the administration’s posture toward NATO and our European allies is negative; and the president labels African countries as “shitholes,” while China invests billions of dollars annually in soft diplomacy throughout that continent.
Our future is uncertain. It demands a realistic assessment of our role in the world and what that means for us at home. We must embrace the aspirational values that made us great: democracy, freedom, opportunity. We are weakening the democratic world order, something that Vladimir Putin has long hoped to achieve – and we are doing it for him. Trump was laughed at during his speech at the U.N., but his speech was no laughing matter. We are losing not only our stature in the world; we are losing our morality and our humanity.
Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide.
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