It is impossible to really understand our 21st century foreign policy or all its ill-advised global adventurism without the havoc let loose by the second world war. Or more to the point, the post-war settlement. In 1918, the interested victors had negotiated a self-serving deal between allies and the losers just had to take it. In 1945, however the post-war settlement wasn’t negotiated at all but simply dictated by the one power that hadn’t been razed half-way back to 1452. What was so remarkable was that the same deal was offered to our crippled allies as to the vanquished foes. And it didn’t take place in the gilded halls in London or Paris, but at an off-season ski resort in in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire.
The main purpose of the imperial navies of the past – French, British, Spanish, Japanese – had been to keep markets and supply chains open between the home country and the colonies. Obviously, this sounded boring as hell so it was sold as Imperial Glory to the respective publics. When a power was feeling expansive, it went off to wreck the markets and supply chains of a rival and called it Imperial Expansion for the Greater Glory of … He didn’t know it at the time but Darius the Great, that shifty bastard, had really hit on something.
The American revolution was a political anomaly as well as a geographical one: We didn’t need an empire because we had a continent, and after that Manifest Destiny business, we had the run of a hemisphere. And it looked like things would stay that way. The old Spanish colonies had envisioned a “United States of South America,” but in the resulting power vacuum the center didn’t hold. We didn’t have to fight for access to the sea lanes because we had an ocean on either side of us. Our two neighbors who might stage a land invasion were so economically tied into our markets as to make the very idea of hostilities not only impossible but aggressively unprofitable. In fact, the only way to invade the United States was an imperial-sized navy. And in 1945, despite efforts to the contrary by the Japanese, we had the only one still floating. And because the US had the only industrial centers of note that hadn’t been bombed to rubble, we were the only country capable of maintaining one. When the allied powers met at Bretton Woods, the American economy accounted for a third of the global total.
The QED being that the United States didn’t have to negotiate at Bretton Woods, but could dictate terms. And for all you Americans out there poor-mouthing your country, the terms were so generous as to be entirely without historical precedent. To the victorious but brutalized allies, the terms seemed almost non-sensical, even baffling. The United States navy would keep all the markets and global supply chains open. Not only for the allies, but for the defeated Axis as well. Under the new American system, a country could have access to the American market but, unlike the old Imperial system, you didn’t even have to do business with America. All you had to do to gain access to the largest free market system in the world, under the protection of the largest naval power, was play by the rules.
The liberal rules-based global market ushered in the greatest period of peace and longest, most sustained growth in wealth and standards of living since Ur-Nammu dictated that the price of a turn with a working girl was a piglet. Like Cyrus, and later the Romans, we persuaded most of the world with a better system. It worked on a greater scale than Cyrus the Great’s attempts to bring order to the world, and outstripping either the Pax Romana or Pax Britannia.
It wasn’t as altruistic as that. Not really. The new system was designed with the US at the top. Still, there was the knock-on effect. Navies, while glorious, are incredibly expensive. No government would splash out on one unless they felt they had to, and now, at least for our allies, they didn’t have to. The point of the American system was to contain and put pressure on those powers that had not signed up for the US led free market. As has already been pointed out, where foreign policy from maintaining the greater order to forcing smaller powers to sign onto the system, was where we made a mess. And there was another option, developing a post-war bloc of its own: The Soviets.
This modern world needed oil so both blocs were eager to have the Muslim world sign with their team. The Muslim world, for its part, was sick to death of the Great Game. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, President Wilson had made Germany safe for democracy but left the Arab world to their kings and European colonial overlords. And then there was the matter of Palestine cum Israel. The feeling in the Muslim world at the time was one of general sympathy to the plight of the Jews at the hands of Nazi Germany. They failed to see, exactly, a Muslim country in the Levant should largely erase itself to give a homeland to the refugees. The Germans had caused the war, why not carve a homeland out of Bavaria?
To the Arabs, the Cold War brewing between the West and the Soviets looked like just more of the same and began seeking a third way – nonalignment – which might have worked if the post-war world had not gotten rich enough to buy all those cars. But the West did get rich enough to buy all those cars. Suddenly all those people that the West had declared too backward to rule found themselves with a very, very big hand to play.
There may be something to "those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it", but then again, history rarely repeats itself too exactly. The world's relationship to oil is changing - diminishing the force of the "oil weapon" for both the Middle East and Russia. China is on the rise, and the countries that are in play for the great power blocs are lately in South-East Asia. The ringer, as before, is how Europe will play it. They are no longer on their back. The empires have crumbled, but they are wealthy bloc.
In short, it is still about supply chains.
Adapted from Pothole of the Gods. Now available from Burnaby.