As the world commemorated the end of World War I a century ago, people asked bold questions, looking back for hints about our future. Most of these analyses are shallow and marred by political polarization. However, the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. took the opportunity to shine a rational light into our past and illuminates historical facts that provide a deeper understanding.
It may not be China far away that needs to be most closely watched, but demographic trends in our own backyard.
On November 13, 2018, Brookings arranged an event with two scholars, Brookings Senior Fellow Robert Kagan and Colombia Professor Adam Tooze, with the topic “World order without America?”
The short answer is: No. The U.S. played a central role in securing the end of both World Wars and has been crucial in maintaining the global order. Kagan and Tooze conclude that the world needs a strong America that does not isolate itself. They express a measured concern both with the agenda of President Donald Trump and the rise of populism across the globe.
However, unlike the Munk debate between Steve Bannon and David Frum, which was anything but nuanced, Kagan and Tooze provide facts that are elucidating regardless of what political position you hold.
# 1: The US came out of left field
America was not essential to world politics until the 20th century. Nothing illustrates this better than the fact that the United Kingdom did not establish an embassy until the end of the 19th century. The U.S. was peripheral and not on anyone’s radar as a major power. Its distance away from the European powerhouses allowed it to grow in economic and military strength without anyone noticing.
The Great War propelled America onto the world stage as a superpower, and in the last century, the U.S. has provided stability around the globe through its mostly benign hegemony. The lesson to draw from this is that the future is full of surprises.
#2 Beware of China
Until a few decades ago, China spent most of recent history relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things. However, since the death of Mao Zedong, the giant in the East has steadily been rising. It may come to have the role that America has as a dominant world force, but without the benefit of a liberal agenda.
If this seems strange to you, consider that China is the longest-lived empire on earth. For most of human history, China has been a significant power. Any weakness or withdrawal from the world stage by America will be filled by new players, and China is a likely candidate.
#3 When America withdrew, trouble came
America played a crucial role in establishing the Treaty of Versailles, in which Germany was allowed to survive as a nation, but under the harsh punishment of war reparations. Then the U.S. decided to become more isolated and withdrew from its newly established role as a global power. Europe then destabilized once again, and World War II began.
If America isolates once more, could the same thing happen again? Kagan and Tooze indicate that this may be a risk.
A New World Order?
While they provide great historical lessons that are valuable regardless of what side of the political spectrum you are on, do the populists see something that the defenders of globalism don’t? Populists have risen against the traditional defenders of the current world order because it fatigues and hollows out the cultural glue that holds a nation together. It may not be China far away that needs to be most closely watched, but demographic trends in our own backyard.
For America to remain a strong power for good in the world, it must first and foremost remain a culture of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
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