From Truman to Trump: The rise and fall of a paradigm

Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri
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Because of their intense dislike of President Donald Trump, the mainstream media seem to have missed the potential importance of his recent address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Parts of the media either ignored it while some dismissed it as a consignment of Trumpian balderdash.

However, leaving aside its sentimental approach and provocative lexicon, the address merits attention for at least two reasons. The first is that, in it, Trump signaled what he sees as the looming end of globalization, a paradigm that, with varying degrees of intensity, has dominated international life for seven decades.

The second reason is that the alternative that Trump implicitly suggested, albeit in a round-about-way, could put the so-called world order on a new trajectory with unknown consequences.

According to some historians the average life of a paradigm is around eight decades. It starts as a seductive novelty before morphing into received wisdom on its way to inevitable decline and eventual atrophy.

The globalization paradigm was an invention of the ruling elite in the United States when faced with the challenge of creating a new world order in the aftermath of the Second World War. A handful of American statesmen, known as the “Egg Heads”, emerged as the architects of what became Pax Americana. They included George Marshall, Dean Acheson, Cordell Hull, Charles Bohlen, Averell Harriman, John McCloy and Robert Lovett with Presidents Franklin D Roosevelt and then Harry S Truman in the helm.

Addressing the first UN General Assembly in 1945 in San Francisco, Truman highlighted the need for multinationalism.

He said: “We fully realize today that victory in war required a mighty united effort. Certainly, victory in peace calls for, and must receive, an equal effort. Man has learned long ago, that it is impossible to live unto himself. This same basic principle applies today to nations. We were not isolated during the war. We dare not now become isolated in peace. “

Truman went on to urge the creation of a “sensible machinery for the settlement of disputes among nations. Without this, peace cannot exist.”

However, he was quick to point out that the creation of such a machinery did not mean the effacement of differences among nations.

He said: “Differences between men, and between nations, will always remain. In fact, if held within reasonable limits, such disagreements are actually wholesome. All progress begins with differences of opinion and moves onward as the differences are adjusted through reason and mutual understanding.”

The new world order needed to establish Pax Americana succeeded in creating its mechanisms in a record time. The United Nations and its various addenda were fully in place within a few years along with The International Monetary Fund, The World Bank, The General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (GATT) and more exclusive outfits such as the Atlantic Council and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

By the 1980s, the American gospel of fee trade, pluralist democracy and market economy had been established as the paradigm of the international order when even the Soviet Union, through its massive reliance on loans from Western banks, and the People’s Republic of China with its switch to capitalism appeared as new converts at least in part.

However, by the end of the last century, the established order was beginning to show fundamental weaknesses.

The United Nations was exposed as a dilatory mechanism that merely froze international problems. One stark example was the Israel-Palestine problem which the UN danced around for almost five decades eventually putting it on the backburner. The UN was also absent when one of the worst genocides in history was enacted in Rwanda. Nor did the UN provide leadership in ending the tragedies triggered in the heart of Europe, by the disintegration of Yugoslavia.

The free-trade ideology did help raise hundreds of millions out of poverty but produced a reduction in the living standards of some strata in the older industrial societies, fomenting anger and despair.

Globalization enabled even the medium and small nations to secure enough resilience to stand up to the diktats of the World Bank and the IMF. In the 1980s, the twins dictated the economic policies of more than 60 nations across the globe. In 2018 they were active in fewer than a dozen and expelled from several others, most recently Turkey.

The decline in the power of international organizations was partly due to the dramatic rise in the economic and financial clout wielded by global business empires based on modern technology.

The globalization paradigm enjoyed the support of most countries for as long as the very relevance of the nation-state was not challenged. However, the 2008 global financial crisis revealed the inability of nation-states to exert meaningful control through the international mechanisms in place.

Trump won the presidency at a time that the global system fathered by the American “Wise Men” had entered its phase of decline. Together with elections in a dozen other countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America, Trump’s election was an emotional response to a malaise felt across the world.

But what is to be done?

The British tried to provide an answer with their Brexit.

The Hungarians, Poles, Czechs, Swedes, Germans, Austrians and Italians have opted for various forms of nationalism with a taste of xenophobia.

In Russia, Vladimir Putin has embarked on a strategy of power projection to hide fundamental weaknesses.

In Xi Jinping’s China, sino-centrism rather than classical Maoism now sets the tone.

Trump has tried to offer a mixture of strategic isolationism and tactical activism with “America First” as ideological topos.

Some Western luminaries, for example German philosopher Jurgen Habermas and former Pope Benedict, preach a return to “Christian culture” as the backbone of an alternative global order, at least for Europe and the Americas.

Both Truman in San Francisco and Trump in New York tried to attract world attention to a real problem. Truman had a solution in the form of the global architecture the US erected around the concept of globalization.

Trump, in contrast, has confined himself to guerrilla attacks on aspects of globalization to attract interest in the problem. That in itself merits the quest for a new paradigm.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat.


Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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