When Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was once asked to reflect on the forces that shaped the 20th century, he responded with a simple observation. “Take a look at our present world,” he wrote. It is “manifestly not Adolf Hitler’s world. His thousand-year Reich turned out to have a brief and bloody run of a dozen years. It is not Joseph Stalin’s world. That ghastly world self-destructed before our eyes. Nor is it Winston Churchill’s world. Empire and all its glories have long since vanished into history. The world we live in today is Franklin Roosevelt’s world.”
To the generation that was born and raised in the wake of the Second World War, long used to the multilateral economic and security structures that form the basis of what is referred to as the “liberal international order,” Schlesinger’s observations may not seem especially perceptive. But to the generation coming of age in era of Donald J. Trump and Brexit, the lessons gleaned from the twin crises of the Great Depression and World War II—lessons that propelled the United States into a position of global leadership—may not be so readily apparent.
This lack of historical perspective carries great risks—especially for the United States. For in spite of what the current occupant of the White House might have us believe, with his incessant calls to place “America first,” the rules-based multilateral system that emerged under FDR’s leadership during the Second World War was never perceived as a threat to American sovereignty or security. On the contrary, after nearly two decades of depression and war, international cooperation was viewed as a means to strengthen American security.
During the last few months of his life, FDR was never quite sure that the American people would embrace this vision. He devoted every ounce of his diminishing energy to try to bring what he often referred to as “the structure of peace” into being. The foundations for this effort began all the way back in January 1941, with his call for the establishment of a world based on four fundamental human freedoms—freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear, “everywhere in the world.” Eight months later he would help craft the Atlantic Charter, with its object of securing for all people “improved labor standards, economic advancement and social security” within the confines of a new organization dedicated to the maintenance of world peace—eventually called the United Nations.
Thanks to the First Amendment of our constitution, Americans are well versed in the importance of freedoms of speech and religion. But the notion that American security was tied to freedom from want and fear was a novel concept; yet one that most Americans who bore witness to the rise of fascism in Europe and Asia in the decade before the war readily understood. As FDR once put it, “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that…necessitous men are not free men. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff with which dictatorships are made.” Viewed from this perspective, America’s so-called “isolationism” of the 1930s—which can more accurately be defined as unilateralism—was clearly a failed policy; a naive and dangerous attempt to go it alone in a modern industrialized world that had long since left the 18th century agrarian idyll of the founding fathers behind.