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The U.S. Empire Didn’t Begin In 1945

POW/MIA Flag Flies Atop the White House
A POW/MIA flag flies atop the White House Friday, Nov. 8, 2019, a day after President Donald J. Trump signed S. 693 the National POW/MIA Flag Act Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks)

If one were to rank turning points in history in order of their contemporary relevance there is little doubt 1945 would be a contender for the top spot. Some might argue 1989, others 2001, still others 1917, but 1945 ushered in both the atomic age, and the freshly war-ploughed ground into which the principal institutions of today’s international order were planted. Both these events symbolised and gave effect to American power in a manner not equalled until Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon in 1969, which reaffirmed it. A mood of triumphalism accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that has been tempered by difficulties since, but the US is still the gravitational centre of the global order even if familiarity has nurtured a measure of contempt internationally, not to mention self-loathing at home.

It has therefore become fashionable to describe this era as one of ‘American empire’, as if the mere fact of US power granted them a form of sovereignty over the bowed ranks of middle powers themselves corralled into an alliance against communism somewhat against their will. A few turtlenecked professors in the 1960s suggested that it was not so much America that had won as it was ‘capitalism’ or what later became known as ‘neoliberalism’ or even ‘neoliberal capitalism’. Rarely was it questioned, by the right or the left that the US was the top dog, just like the UK was before them.

There was, however, another turning point, less obvious and often derided by the cynical, which was simply the effort made by the US to establish a global order not entirely premised on its own national self-interest. No other power in history had ever seriously attempted this save the US under Woodrow Wilson at the end of the First World War. Yet as is well known the US Congress refused to ratify US membership and the League of Nations was left to France and the UK to prop up, while continuing their imperial carve up as before. To put it more bluntly, while the US did indeed become the greatest global power at the end of World War II, it was by no means similar to the great powers that preceded it. Moreover, the US was explicit in attempting to establish a new world order under the United Nations, supported by the US ideologically, economically and technologically; free from war, oppression and poverty.

A Question of Interests:

This important difference in approach between the US as a hegemon and its predecessor–the UK–as imperial power can be found in the way they each assessed their interests. The British ran a commercial empire that had to generate a direct economic return, either through preferential access to commodities or simple revenues generated by customs and duties. It had started as a series of regional trading companies, and remained broadly organised around commercial concessions of one kind or another.  The main point being that, for all the pomp and peacock feathers, the British Empire was a business, from which rent was extracted.

The US dominated post-war world was not like this at all. For example, the US had no captive markets and did not control tariffs for subject states. It did establish the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) which was a commitment to confer Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status mutually among all signatories. The US did seek markets for its vast export potential but found the shattered European economies were not exactly crying out for washing machines while food was still being rationed. Eventually the US settled on Marshall Plan Aid as a fund for industrial reconstruction and this became a pattern; develop the economies of your allies and the benefits will eventually become mutual. The subsequent economic narrative centres on the rapidly developing European economies returning enormous value to the US economy through growth, trade and lucrative investments over time. This may be true, though it is so not easy to demonstrate, but if it is true, then the US only benefited to the extent that the supposed subject states successfully developed and become wealthy themselves.

What is certainly true is that empires cost money, and lots of it. Fortunately the enormous productive surplus of the post-war US economy supported large military expenditures that made it seem as if the US was at least comparable to an empire. The same surplus, of course, not only re-industrialised Europe, but built roads around America and the world, institutionalised state institutions like schools, and funded the space race. The same surplus also underwrote aid programmes and soft loans to friendly governments around the world. Which is, to be clear, not the way a traditional empire works. The US economy, however, was hugely productive across both industry and agriculture and was highly innovative at the same time. It was therefore easily able to cover the costs of international political stability and defence from communism that the US underwrote. Indeed, their deep productivity was an engine of growth for all allied states regardless. This shouldn’t, however, be mistaken for a return on investment.

The United Nations Brought Accountability To Power:

The fact of US post-war power has led many to see the continuity between a British imperial system and the US backed Bretton Woods order, even seeing the Atlantic Treaty in 1941 as marking the point at which the baton of global leadership was passed from the tired old lion to the young and vigorous eagle. The British journalist Christopher Hitchens used to refer to this period as the United States taking on ‘the receivership’ of the now bankrupt British Empire. Accordingly, many see the Bretton Woods organisations and the UN as mere extensions of US power, little more than a disguise for imperial domination. That, however, is to discount both the nature of US post war statesmanship, and the workings of the organisations they created, not to mention the curious question that if the British couldn’t make empire pay, who’s to say anyone could? For although the US was certainly the anchor power for the Western alliance and the UN institutions, those institutions were established to bring a measure of accountability to political power, including to the US itself. They did not remit surplus, nor even pay for themselves.

It may not be a fashionable opinion, and of course it’s often convenient to ignore, but the US was at the centre of all 20th Century efforts to institutionalise the ideas of peace, national independence, and economic development, and these efforts were principally normative not economic. From the League of Nations with Woodrow Wilson as guiding spirit, to the establishment of the UN and the Bretton Woods organisations, which levelled the playing field and facilitated economic growth, the US role was indispensable. Both of these efforts undermined the idea and the legitimacy of empire precisely because empire was seen as exploitative and unjust. Which in turn led directly to decolonisation by the European powers as they were obliged to accept this argument. Less formally, Kennedy’s promise to ‘bear any burden’ all the way to Reagan’s expansive challenge to the crumbling Soviet empire were highly normative appeals, and ushered in a world where George HW Bush promised to establish a New World Order (NWO) that was simply the natural end point of this golden thread of normative reasoning going all the way back to Woodrow Wilson of a more moral, more peaceful more harmonious world. So the continuity is not to be found in a succession of different powers dictating global terms one after the other, but in the rather grand and exceptional tradition of American ideas about trade, liberty and self determination which emerged in 1919 and has held sway since 1945.

Since the Berlin Wall fell and opened up the renewed possibility for this more harmonious world to emerge, the US has faced a different set of challenges, which it has conceived of as continuing to manage a set of global institutions reinforcing the familiar norms of trade and peaceful development. Increasingly, however, it has been criticised for sidelining the imperative for collective agreement at the UN, especially in the wake of the Iraq intervention in 2003. Aside, however, from the obvious consequences of this particular intervention in Iraq and the wider Middle East, there have also been concerted efforts to displace the US as the ‘indispensable nation’ by setting up separate fora and institutions no longer beholden to the established order of the IMF the World Bank and the WTO. No country has been more active in this regard than China, which is now seen by many as displacing the institutional prevalence of the US, weakening US influence in the many subsidiary UN bodies, and most recently seeming to muzzle the WHO, leading President Trump to suspend US membership.

With Less Accountability, Comes More Power:

It is easy to see why many regard these moves as backwards steps for the US. Not only do they mark a reversal of many decades of institutional centrality, they appear also to weaken the very institutions through which many assume the US has exercised its global hegemony in its own interests. If however, you believe that in seeking to restrain power through international organisations, the US has also naturally facilitated restraints on its own power through accountability, then it may be the conventional wisdom is wrong. Heretical as it may seem the slow displacement of the US from the institutions they established may not only prevent those institutions from holding challenger states like China and Russia to account, but is also now likely to facilitate the reassertion of US primacy, though under fewer restraints.

What, for example, will happen to a poor state in need of capital to help it through a balance of payments crisis, if the US says no at the IMF? The crisis  will simply worsen. What if the WTO no longer provides the central arbitration mechanism in world trade? The market power of the largest importer (the US) rises. Lastly if the World Bank will not provide funds for major infrastructure projects, the borrower can always pay market rates elsewhere, just as they did in former times under imperial authority, earning handsome profits for investors. Naturally, American foreign policy wonks have always seen the role of the US as setting standards and being the generous benefactor, but the extent to which the US has earned any kind of return from this largesse is not at all clear, and is increasingly in question under President Trump, who not unreasonably wonders where the interests of the US taxpayer really lie.

The more interesting question, however, whatever the internal US debate about its role in the world, is why other states imagine there is something to gain from displacing the US? Clearly Russia and China have sought opportunities to silence criticism and have carefully stacked various UN bodies with clients who can be relied upon to say the right thing, or more likely, say nothing. But these bodies are there to allow small states a voice, and the US has always tolerated them doing so. Now it appears new and powerful states wish to use these institutions to their own advantage, making further US cooperation seem anachronistic and pointless. But this also silences small states with exactly the sorts of conditional demands that the US never really made.

The New World Order is Dead, Long Live the American World Order!

The irony is that if the US shrugs off its association with the UN and starts to act more unilaterally, it will find itself behaving more like a traditional imperial power, not less. It will also find that it retains a huge amount of allies around the world, who may prefer the old order to remain intact, but aren’t going to break with the US completely, not least because the US remains vastly influential, productive, dynamic, technologically innovative, and–importantly–strong. It may no longer be the ‘indispensable nation’ of its own imagination, but nor is it going anywhere. It is reassessing its priorities, which will inevitably oblige others to do the same.

Thinking back to the year 1945 reminds us of a shattered world slowly piecing itself back together with the direct assistance of the US, resolved to pursue a new approach to settling disputes between states based no longer on pure power but on some measure of justice. It may seem like it was always a false hope, but few were prepared to give up on it for a long time. The last serious iteration of this sentiment was embodied by President George HW Bush, himself a surviving combatant from the war that ended in 1945, and apparently called to service by God in consequence of his own near death in combat in that very year. Sad to say that the post war US mission to create a better world probably ended in the sands of Iraq under the command of his own son George W. Bush, and since then the confusion of the US governing elite has been apparent to those honest enough to admit it.

With the end of George HW Bush’s New World Order, which was really just a restatement of FDR’s, Truman’s, Eisenhower’s and Kennedy’s vision of a benign liberator holding up the sky for the free peoples of the earth to shelter under, we will not see the rise of another power to succeed them. Instead we are more likely to see a less restrained and more conditional US return to a familiar pattern of quasi imperial behaviour.  Instead of a ‘New World Order’ we will see a truly American world order in which international institutions will become less important than bilateral relations with Washington DC. Therefore in seeking to displace to US from its central position in the institutional order, competitor states have unwittingly liberated the US to react more assertively than they would have in the past. They are going to discover that although they didn’t like American exceptionalism, they will like American un-exceptionalism even less.

Douglas Bulloch, a new 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and is an international relations scholar based in Hong Kong. 

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Douglas Bulloch is a Former Fellow at the London School of Economics and a Contributing Editor for 19FortyFive.