I read recently that the objective of the Cold War was to defeat the Soviet Union, but the achievement was to build the West. We’ve lived with the concept of “the West” so long we’ve forgotten that, prior to 1945, there was no such concept. The geopolitical paradigm was very much the Old World and the New, with fleeting acknowledgement of China and, to a lesser extent, Japan. Russia was part of Europe, even as it moved deeper into Communism. The United States, after World War I, retreated into isolationism to atone for it’s mistake in joining a “European” war. World War II forced America to rejoin the world, but even in the victory-infused days of late 1945 there was no clear understanding of what that world would be. Europe was devastated by six years of modern total warfare. China as it had been viewed in 1940 had been revealed to be en empty shell. Japan, even in defeat, had ironically become the most significant Asian nation. There were two centers of power in the world, the United States and the Soviet Union, separated by a world laid waste. There was concern about what Stalin’s Soviet Union would do, but there was no concept of “the West”. There was only the concept of the Allies, which mostly meant the United States and the Soviet Union, with Britain as effectively a junior partner and France, Italy, and the other European allies almost auxiliary members. Britain and France hadn’t yet accepted that their time as colonial powers was over. Germany was being disassembled piece by piece. There was concern about what the Soviet Union would do, and as it became obvious that Stalin was going to assert Soviet domination over Eastern Europe, the remaining Allied countries realized that the pre-war relationships would not be effective counters, especially after the Soviets began to isolate eastern Germany. Militarily, Britain, France, and the other European allies were too exhausted to offer any resistance should Stalin decide to move west. Thus NATO was born, first as a political association, and later, after the Korean War, as a standing military alliance. From the European perspective, the purpose was “to keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and Germany down”. Above all, they wanted to avoid a third war. And so, America joined the Old World, or more accurately, the Old World joined America, and the concept of the West was born.
From roughly 1950 until the fall of the Soviet Union, that was the world in which we lived, the West vs. the Communist bloc. Early on, “West” lost its geographical meaning – the addition of Japan was enough to demonstrate that – and attained a geopolitical meaning that far exceeded anything prewar Europe had defined. The United States dominated the directions taken by the West, whether militarily, economically, or even culturally. As the economies of other countries recovered from World War II, the economic dominance of America began to wain, as Japan and Germany especially grew their economies while the US was dealing with Reagan’s increase in defense spending, instability in the oil markets, and a recession. But the West was still cohesive, and remained so through conflicts in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and Syria, at least initially. NATO gave the world 70 years of peace at a time when the weapons of war could easily end civilization as we know it. In 1949, few on either side of the Iron Curtain could have foreseen that.
Into this world came the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. And in the eighteen months since his inauguration, he has confused, antagonized, and insulted our NATO allies over and over, while praising Vladimir Putin and taking every opportunity to cozy up to his authoritarian rule. With his limited grasp of history and geopolitics, he has become the classic bull in a china shop, except that he seems to be doing the damage deliberately, like a child who destroys something without knowing or caring what it does. Under Donald Trump, the United States is retreating from the world, creating vacuums which other nations – China and Russia in particular – will eagerly rush to fill. The damage he is doing to our international standing will take many, many years to repair, if indeed it can ever be done.
On September 12, 2001, the French newspaper Le Monde’s headline read “Nous sommes tous Américains” – “We are all Americans”. For the first time in its history, NATO invoked Article 5, which states that an attack on one member is an attack on all. At a time when America was as badly shaken as it as ever been, NATO – those same European allies that Donald Trump insults – rushed to make it clear that they stood with us. You have to wonder if they will do it the next time.