Seventy-five years ago this morning, the United States was firmly isolationist. Widely disillusioned by the aftermath of the “War to End All Wars,” the American public turned its attention inward after WWI, first preoccupied with the financial glitter and gains of the Roaring 20s, then plunged into social introspection and cross-examination by the Great Depression. In 1941, America was deeply divided as to whether to rescue Europe again, however dire the situation there. Only the huge shock of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941 — “a date which will live in infamy” — jolted the nation from its isolationist stance.
Since that fateful day, the international landscape has been entirely reshaped, largely as a result of the hard-fought efforts by Roosevelt to create a new post-war world order: one that would link the world in an interconnected web of economic, political and social cooperation and prevent us from slipping back into the slumbers of isolationism. From FDR’s Fourth Inaugural Address:
“Today, in this year of war, 1945, we have learned lessons – at a fearful cost – and we shall profit by them. We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace; that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of other Nations, far away… We have learned to be citizens of the world, members of the human community. We have learned the simple truth, as Emerson said, that, ‘The only way to have a friend is to be one.’”
And, in fact, the world we live in today is largely that of Roosevelt’s vision. But as of today, the 75th anniversary of the trigger for the North Atlantic Alliance, cracks have appeared and deepened in the shining façade. Public mistrust of trade agreements such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership — on both sides of the Atlantic — threaten to derail economic cooperation. Reluctance among some Americans to maintain NATO in light of sometimes lackadaisical European allies portends trouble for the military alliance, illiberal ideologies and anti-immigration populism are on the rise, and the related resurgence of isolationism in the United States menaces U.S. foreign relations.
Does America, and the West broadly, have the will to to maintain the post war order over the next 75 years? Or will something new, or old, replace it?