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News Analysis: The Post-World War II Order Is Under Assault From the Powers That Built It

Still, public anger at traditional centers of power remains fierce in many lands, with Mr. Trump’s election the most potent manifestation. He has claimed a mandate to attack the global establishment and its sacred institutions in the name of reasserting American primacy. He has injected uncertainty into the American commitment to NATO while dismissing the World Trade Organization as a “disaster.”

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President Trump’s election is the most potent manifestation of public anger at traditional centers of power.Credit Al Drago for The New York Times

Within a White House roiled by tumult, recent weeks have demonstrated that the nationalists have seized the upper hand from their few globalist peers. Gary Cohn, the Goldman Sachs alumnus who advised Mr. Trump on economic policy, has departed. Peter Navarro, the stridently anti-China trade adviser, has gained influence. Since then, Mr. Trump has antagonized core allies with tariffs on steel and aluminum while raising the specter of a trade war with China.

But the United States is far from the only power tearing at the foundations of the postwar order.

News Analysis: The Post-World War II Order Is Under Assault From the Powers That Built It
News Analysis: The Post-World War II Order Is Under Assault From the Powers That Built It

Britain is abandoning the European Union, turning its back on the project whose very existence is an expression of faith that integration discourages hostilities. Italy just elevated two populist political parties that nurse historical animosities against the bloc.

Poland and Hungary, once viewed as triumphs of democracy flowering in post-Soviet soil, have shackled the media, cracked down on public gatherings, and attacked the independence of their court systems.

This re-emergence of authoritarian impulses has undercut a central thrust of European policy since the end of the Cold War. Expanding NATO and the European Union by bringing in Eastern European nations was supposed to have prompted the newcomers to adopt the liberal democratic values of their fellow members. Things went differently.

China has used its economic power — enhanced by its entry to the W.T.O. in 2001 — to reinforce the authority of a state still controlled by the Communist Party. This, too, has dashed hopes that China’s integration into the global economy would lead to its democratization.

And Russia, which joined the trading organization in 2012, has since intensified a foreign policy that is centered on confrontation.

For anyone still inclined to believe that liberal democracy is the inevitable outgrowth of human progress — an outcome hastened by the postwar institutions — these events have provided a sobering rejoinder.

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Mr. Trump appears to subscribe to the notion that the United States must unabashedly pursue its self-interest.Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

“What we are returning to is great power politics,” said Derek Shearer, a former American ambassador to Finland during the Clinton administration and the director of the McKinnon Center for Global Affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

The causes of this turn vary from country to country, but a common element is public distrust of institutions amid a sense that the masses have been abandoned.

In the United States and Britain, working people have suffered joblessness and declining living standards while political leaders have prescribed policies that have enriched the elite — more trade deals, fewer strictures on bankers. These countries’ economies have been bolstered by trade, but not enough of the gains have filtered down to working people.

Even as China has violated trade rules, subsidizing state-owned companies and stealing innovations from foreign investors, commerce across the Pacific has lifted the American economy. But American leaders have failed to deliver job training and other programs that might have cushioned the blow for communities hurt by imports.

“Many people in Europe and the United States have not benefited very much from overall economic growth over the past few decades, and they are naturally skeptical of the policies and leaders in place,” said Douglas W. Elmendorf, dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. “But the solution is not to throw out the liberal order. It is to complement it with government policies that allow people to share in the benefits.”

Economic threats have combined with rising nativist inclinations to amplify hostility toward power centers.

In Poland, Hungary, Britain and Italy, distrust of the European Union reflects public anger at its liberal immigration policies, and an influx of people from Muslim countries. In the United States, Mr. Trump has found support among those inclined to blame immigrants for joblessness, and Muslims for security threats.

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President Harry Truman entering the United States into NATO in 1949. The expansion of the pact to Eastern European nations after the Cold War was meant to prompt newcomers to adopt liberal democratic values.Credit George Tames/The New York Times

Mr. Trump’s trademarks — “Make America Great Again,” and “America First” — underscore his forsaking of his country’s traditional commitment to collective ideals.

When he bypassed the World Trade Organization last week to slap tariffs on some $60 billion in Chinese imports, Mr. Trump reinforced his scorn for multilateralism as the province of weak-kneed sentimentalists. He appears to subscribe to the notion that the United States, the largest economy on earth, must unabashedly pursue its self-interest, free of constraints like naïve reverence for the rules of the global trading system.

In Europe, Mr. Trump’s willingness to flout trade rules has combined with his denunciation of the Paris climate accord and his equivocal support for NATO to force questions about America’s reliability.

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“The U.S. was always seen as a stabilizing force within the post-World War II order,” said Ms. Crespy of the Free University Brussels. “From a European perspective, the shock comes from the fact that the U.S. is now seen as a destabilizing force, like Russia, and ironically making China look more moderate.”

The institutions created after World War II have never lacked for critics — or instances of failing to live up to lofty rhetoric.

The International Monetary Fund has long provoked criticism that it caters to the investor class while imposing austerity on ordinary people in crisis-hit countries. Trade deals have been crafted to advance the interests of politically connected special interests. Labor groups have accused the European Union of harboring an unhealthy obsession for avoiding budget deficits at the expense of jobs. Democratic convictions have not stopped the West from supporting authoritarian regimes in pursuit of their own strategic goals.

But if the justice of the liberal order has been contentious, now its basic endurance appears in question.

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Mr. Trump sat beside Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain at the dedication of the new NATO headquarters in Brussels in May. The willingness of the United States and other countries to expel Russian diplomats over the poisoning of a Russian defector in London have enhanced hopes that old alliances will endure.Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

In the early 1990s, shortly after the Berlin Wall came down and the West claimed victory in the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama, a Stanford University political scientist, famously suggested that the global arrangement of power had reached its conclusion.

“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history,” Mr. Fukuyama wrote in a book that took that provocative phrase as its title. “That is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Thinkers across the ideological spectrum excoriated Mr. Fukuyama for penning history’s premature obituary. Some accused him of evangelizing for American power. Others would say he was blind to the threat of radical Islamist terrorism, the resurgence of Russia, and the ascendance of China.

Last year, with Mr. Trump assuming office, Britain leaving Europe, and nationalists on the march, Mr. Fukuyama suggested a new obituary might be required — for the “liberal world order.”

More than a year into the Trump era, Mr. Fukuyama has only grown more alarmed.

“What you’re seeing now is really insidious, because it’s coming from within democracies,” he said in an interview. “It’s not just the U.S., but Hungary, Turkey, Poland and Russia, where you have a democratically elected leader who is trying to dismantle the liberal parts of liberal democracy. We are seeing a new type of threat that I don’t really think we’ve seen in my lifetime.”

History is still running. New leaders may be capable of delivering policies that could restore faith in internationalism. Yet for now, the globalists who have long dominated are losing ground to a thriving nationalist insurgency.

“Trump is weakening the United States at a crucial time,” said Mr. Shearer, the former ambassador to Finland. “It’s more important than ever that the U.S. be strong and united and stand up for the values we claim to stand for. This ‘America First, Go It Alone,’ is so wrongheaded. It’s bad for us, and bad for the world.”

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