Every week, often more than once a week, there’s another article in the major media or in foreign-policy publications about the demise of the post–World War II Anglo-American world order. These analyses typically single out the transatlantic alliance between the United States and Europe―two of the world’s largest economies―for special concern and anxiety as the underpinning of this world order. Not surprisingly, President Trump’s wildly fluctuating comments on NATO (despite the fact that he is expanding it), his unprecedented rudeness to European leaders, and his friendliness with Vladimir Putin at the Helsinki summit have all added to the angst.
The basic story behind this moaning and melancholy is that US leaders put together a “rules-based” system based on “open markets” and democracy (the two are sometimes seen as synonymous) that has fostered prosperity and relative stability. The United States was the only sizable industrial economy to emerge not only unscathed but doubled in size following the war. While others might have taken advantage of this unrivaled power for their own gain, the story goes, America’s beneficent rulers constructed a world order for the good of everyone. Trump is seen as a threat to its continued existence.
This assessment of the postwar world order leaves out some 3 million dead Vietnamese and half a million dead in Indonesia, who might question the beneficence of this system if it had not killed them. A million dead Iraqis, if they could be heard, would probably also raise objections about whether US dominance has been in the interests of all. And there are hundreds of millions of people in Latin America, Africa, and other parts of Asia who suffered for decades under US-backed dictatorships, as well as US-sponsored wars. Much of the violent dysfunctionality in these countries today is a direct result of these interventions, as well as continuing US influence.
In fact, as I write this now, the US military is directly involved in a war that has deliberately produced what the UN has called the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, in Yemen. That war has pushed more than 8 million people to the brink of starvation, created the worst outbreak of cholera in modern history, and killed thousands of civilians in bombing raids. Washington is providing midair refueling to the Saudi and UAE bombers, intelligence, targeting assistance, on-the-ground military personnel, and more―constrained only by growing opposition in Congress.
But let us ignore these inconvenient truths for a moment, as almost all of these analyses do, and look at the present situation.
In fact, the transatlantic alliance is much stronger than most of these analysts recognize. This is mainly because it is not just an alliance of democratic governments with shared values, but also one of the rich countries of the world―their ruling elites, that is―against the poor and middle-income countries of the world.
The rules of the World Trade Organization, to which 164 countries are bound, were written by US and European corporations. The WTO’s most significant achievement since its creation in 1995 was to increase US-style patent protection throughout the world, leading to the death of millions of poor people who cannot get access to essential medicines. After years of struggle, some of these rules were rewritten, but much damage remains. The WTO’s rules on agriculture also greatly disadvantage developing countries and seek to prohibit governments from subsidizing domestic production for domestic consumption to feed people who are badly malnourished, for example in India. WTO rules also make it much more difficult for developing countries to employ the industrial policies that high-income countries like the United States used to get where they are today.
The International Monetary Fund, an organization that has 189 member countries, is run by the United States and Europe. In fact, for most of the world outside of Europe, the US Treasury Department is in charge. The World Bank, which by custom since 1946 has to have an American as its president, is also controlled by Washington and its allies, and cooperates with the IMF in promoting and imposing economic policies that Washington favors. These policies are often not in the interest of developing countries, as one would expect from organizations that are not accountable to low- and middle-income countries, or to any electorate.
These are the institutions of global governance that exercise power in the world, other than the UN Security Council, where the transatlantic alliance must share veto power with Russia and China. The IMF, for most of the past half-century, has been the most important avenue of US influence over low- and middle-income countries. It has sat at the top of a creditors’ cartel, where countries that did not agree to IMF conditions would not get loans from other multilateral lenders (e.g., the World Bank) and sometimes not even from the private sector. This cartel lost influence in most middle-income countries in the first decade of the 21st century, but it has been coming back (e.g., in Argentina), and it still maintains its creditors’ cartel in poor countries.
European leaders are quite angry about the Trump administration’s unilateral abrogation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the negotiated agreement with Iran that had put an end to the threat that it would develop nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future. Europe clearly has much more of a security risk stemming from Middle East turmoil, which is worsened by Trump’s threatened war with Iran; not to mention all the political problems that have been created by the refugee inflow that was primarily a result of US intervention there. But what did they do about it, after their anxious pleading with Trump failed to move him? Nothing, because these leaders―quite apart from the people of Europe, who have been screwed royally since the Great Recession―need their beloved partner in crime.
The United States is the gendarme of the rich countries’ global economic and political order. This is partly because Washington did not suffer the destruction that Europe did in the world wars, and partly because Europeans have developed welfare states that do not allow for the fantastically wasteful military spending that maintains 800 US military bases around the globe.
But Washington’s weapons of mass and ordinary destruction are by no means its whole arsenal. The “exorbitant privilege” of being able to print the world’s most important currency, which makes up 60 percent of global reserves held by central banks, is another. When Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008 and the world financial crisis hit, the Federal Reserve arranged currency swaps for its European partners to make sure they didn’t suffer any temporary international liquidity problems. On the other side of the divide, if you are outside Washington’s good graces, the dollarized world financial system allows the United States vast power to enforce sanctions against you (e.g., in the cases of Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran), whether or not the UN approves.
Europe’s elites are bound to the rulers of the United States by virtue of their common interest in maintaining dominance over the world economy. This is true despite the fact that their spoils do not trickle down to the citizenry.
This transatlantic dominance won’t last forever. Eurasia, the world’s largest land mass, which bred the colonial powers that conquered the world, continues to increase its economic integration, despite Washington’s efforts to counter this world-historical trend with its attempted TPP and TTIP commercial agreements. China’s economy is already 25 percent larger than that of the United States on a purchasing-power-parity basis (this is the measure most often used by economists for international comparisons, since it takes into account price differences between countries). In a decade, it’s projected to be about twice as big as that of the United States.
Over time, European countries, led by their corporations and financial institutions, will look more to the East and less to the West as the world becomes more multipolar and the US share of the world economy shrinks. But for the near future, the US and European elite need each other as the global hegemon tries to hang on to its unelected position. Trump can be as rude, crude, and ignorant as he pleases with his European allies, but it won’t make them rebel against the “leader of the free world.”