US dominance has always rested on coercive power—Trump just puts less effort into hiding itby Helen Thompson / May 5, 2019 / Leave a comment
Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron may not agree on the future of the EU, but they are of one mind in understanding its origins. Both believe it was founded as part of a precious liberal, rules-based international order—that Europe must now rally to defend. In a joint press conference with Canada’s Liberal premier Justin Trudeau last year, Macron declared that “the rules-based international order is being challenged not by the usual suspects, but by its main architect and guarantor: the US.” He vowed to fight its unchecked “hegemony,” which would spell “the end of the rule of law.” This argument, that we are witnessing the death of the rules-based order, is made with increasing frequency by troubled liberals. Given the bumpy path of politics and the vulgar posturing of Donald Trump, many Prospect readers will share Macron’s panicked reading.
The reality, however, which was always plain to Europeans who actually lived through the post-war years, is that there never was a liberal, rules-based order free from rampant hegemonic power. To grieve the loss of one is to mourn a phantom.
Ironically, nothing makes the unbridled US dominance of the post-1945 international order starker than its relationship with European allies. During the Cold War the US offered military guarantees to western European states in exchange for subordination. When during the Suez crisis, Britain and France tried to act independently against Egypt, the US used economic pressure to end their military action. Indeed, it was precisely because de Gaulle judged the US a hegemon that he pulled France out of Nato’s integrated military command in 1966, insisting France should “regain on her whole territory the full exercise of her sovereignty.”
The truth, however much we tell ourselves otherwise, is that coercive power in international politics has always been inescapable. Economically, western European states during the post-war years had to accommodate the realities of US power. The 1944 Bretton Woods conference agreed a set of rules for the IMF, the centrepiece of the new and supposedly international order, but it was tasked with overseeing a dollar-based exchange rate system that allowed the US a veto on states devaluing their currencies. In sharp contrast, when the US itself needed devaluation in 1971, Nixon simply ripped up the IMF’s rules without consulting any European state.