U.S. President Donald Trump made a… let’s call it a splash, at the G7 summit in Canada June 9. The G7 comprises the seven largest industrialized democracies – the United States, Canada, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Italy – who also form the core of the entire American alliance network. Their leaders and finance ministers meet regularly to discuss challenges to the global order. Normally, the G7 is a bit of a lovefest with leaders agreeing to push this bit of financial stability or that bit of poverty reduction.
This time was different. The Trump administration is busy belittling and/or wrecking parts of the international order, and a mere week before the summit the United States levied steel and aluminum tariffs on nearly all the G7 members themselves. As such the summit was preceded and followed by quite aggressive statements out of most of the G7 members, most notably from Canada and France, about how American tariffs would not be allowed to stand in specific and a general dissatisfaction with the position of the White House on global affairs in general.
In essence, ahead of the summit the G7 leaders were showing concern that Trump’s rhetoric wasn’t simply rhetoric. And in the summit’s aftermath the emotion could best be summed up as defiant despair that Trump really, truly, means what he says.
I can see why they’re all pretty bummed.
The Americans created, supported, subsidized, and maintained the global order since the end of World War II. Under that order the industrialized world in general and the other G7 countries in specific have done very well for themselves, rebuilding after the war’s devastation in an environment of absolute physical security.
Maintaining a global order is far from “normal” when viewed from the long stretch of American history. In fact, it has only been the dominant strain since the end of World War II. Before that the United States had other foreign policy themes that competed for top billing.
- In the post-revolutionary era it was all about standing up to the established European empires, with former imperial master Britain in general triggering a near-dehabilitating mix of obsessive paranoia and narcissistic fear.
- The competing ideology back then was that the United States should be one of those imperial powers.
Theme1 nudged the Americans into the War of 1812, and led the Americans to encourage the independence of the European’s imperial colonies throughout the Western Hemisphere. Theme2 birthed the Monroe Doctrine and set the Americans on their own pseudo-colonial drives.
But as the world – and America – changed, American foreign policy changed with it. The American Civil War and Reconstruction removed all appetite and bandwidth for meaningful foreign policy, triggering a shift to hard isolationism. Once the Americans finally had their (second) coming out party with the Spanish-American War in the 1890s, isolation gave way to a mercantile-driven dollar diplomacy where the Americans would fence off swathes of the world in a corporate-driven foreign policy designed to maximize American economic penetration. The Depression and World War I convinced Americans the world was no fun at all; isolationism came back into vogue.
The great upheavals of the World Wars left the US the pre-eminent power in every respect that matters. Over the course of fifty years, the Americans had gone from almost no navy, stealing Britain’s IP, and being a major global debtor to having the only navy, the technological edge, and to being an economic power on an unprecedented scale. The US had a choice: seek isolation once again and watch its only real competitor – the Soviets – slowly eat away at the periphery until they could challenge the US or find a way to take a ragtag group with long lists of mutual historical grievances a mile long and get them to work together. A real life Magnificent Seven.
The new idea was as straightforward as it was revolutionary: use America’s newfound and historically unprecedented economic power to pay all the previous competing powers of eras gone by to be on the same side. Any country that had any meaningful imperial presence could only do so if it also had a significant naval force. These empires’ clashes — over resources, populations and trade routes — were the root causes of nearly every significant military conflict of the entire industrial period, and they culminated into the First and Second World Wars.
In response, the Americans launched a broad system of what was collectively known as Bretton Woods, named after the location where the deals were first hammered out.
Bretton Woods provided global security for all the maritime and industrial powers, enabling all of them to access any resource anywhere at anytime safely, and then export finished goods to the American market. Bretton Woods puts all the world’s competing naval / maritime / trading powers on the same side by providing them with everything they had ever fought to attain. In exchange the Americans only demanded one thing: alliance against the Soviets.
All those purchased allies are all still powers of significance today, and it should come as no surprise that the most powerful of them now comprise the G7. All were represented at the G7 summit in Canada this past weekend.
The Bretton Woods strategy is notable in American diplomatic history in that it had no counterpoint. No other policy oscillated with it. Bretton Woods was both bipartisan and served as the norm for seven decades. But longevity and broad support are not the same thing as sustainability or permanence. The world is changed since the Cold War’s end, and now – belatedly and until now piecemeal – the Americans are finally changing with it. Trump’s foreign-policy beliefs are not a bug in the American system, they are a feature. Under Trump the Americans are firmly – finally – abandoning Bretton Woods, and in doing so flirting with all four of their pre-Bretton Woods foreign policies.
- Trump’s hardball on NAFTA is most definitely neo-imperial. He is attempting nothing less than the forcible change of the economic structure of America’s neighbors to meet specific American structural needs. Also fitting the mold is Trump’s suggestion that Russia be re-admitted to the G7. In a post-Bretton Woods world Russia is less a foe to be contained as it is a potential partner to leverage against other competitors.
- Trump’s position on Syria is flat out isolationist. As are many of his inklings on U.S. basing and strategic stances in Western Europe and East Asia. It isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Something that no one has ever been able to explain to me about American involvement in Syria is what-does-the-winner-get? And the idea that the Americans should defend the Europeans from Russia so that they can use Russian energy en masse has always been an awkward sale.
- Trump’s pending trade war with China has overtones of the anti-British policies of America’s early decades. And there are more than mere echoes of the general anti-British paranoia in Trump’s overall feelings about foreigners whether they be Chinese, Mexican, Iranian or Arab.
- Trump’s willingness to flirt with North Korea most certainly has a dollar diplomacy feel to it, and Trump has directed Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on a never-ending road-show for American goods… and linking potential sales to ongoing trade negotiations with, well, everyone.
Viewed through the prism of Bretton Woods all these goals and methods are inane. But viewed through the lens of anything other than the strategic environment for which Bretton Woods was designed, Bretton Woods itself is ridiculous.
It isn’t that these goals – or even methods – are good or bad. It is that they are different. It is that they better reflect America’s current situation than the Bretton Woods situation does. The Americans are done paying for alliance.
Courtesy of the G7 show this past Saturday, I think they get it now. I think America’s closest allies realize the shift in the White House is, indeed, real. I think they understand Trump is not bluffing. I think they’ve internalized that Trump’s rhetoric is the American position. I think they finally believe Bretton Woods will not magically regenerate when Trump is gone.
And that means it is high time for the allies to figure out where they fit into the scared new world that is tumbling open right in front of them.
In this series we will go through the other six members of the Group of Seven. These are the powers that the Americans co-opted to make the Bretton Woods system work. They are the countries with the greatest long-term potential to shape and re-shape their worlds. Many may be out of practice, but that is far from saying they are done with history.