Three battles determined the course of World War II in Europe: Stalingrad (concluded February 1943 on the Eastern Front), Italy (September 1943 on the Southern Front), and Normandy (June 1944 on the Western Front). Collectively, these three battles shattered the Axis position in Europe and made Nazi capitulation inevitable.
Scant weeks after Normandy, the United States gathered representatives of all of its Free World Allies at the ski resort of Bretton Woods to inform them of how Washington intended to rule the post-war era. We know it now as “free trade”. The U.S. military would guarantee the security of all members in general, while the Navy in specific would guard all trade among all participants. No longer would the world’s powers have a need for independent military forces, and all would have a vested interest in collaboration with the United States. The policy ushered in the greatest era of peace and prosperity that humanity had ever known, and was the leading factor in the containment and ultimate defeat of the Soviet Empire.
The free trade era has nearly run its course. American commitment to a rather expensive system of global management is waning, particularly since the Cold War ended a quarter century ago. The dissolution of the Bretton Woods system will be disastrous for nearly everyone. Seventy years of economic expansion and wealth are utterly dependent upon the free flow of goods globally. But one country will barely feel it. Today, the United States is the least involved country in international trade as a percent of its total economy. Unique among the attendees at Bretton Woods, only the United States never bet its economy on what was – for it – a security policy.
For more information on the how’s and why’s of the Bretton Woods system, and what will happen when it is gone, see Chapters 1, 5, and 8 of The Accidental Superpower.