On Donald Trump’s first day as president, he declared a change in America’s direction.
"For many decades, we've enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry, subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military,” the new commander-in-chief declared in his inaugural address. “We've made other countries rich while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon.
“From this moment on, it's going to be America First.”
He was complaining about what’s known as the liberal world order — international economic and security arrangements linking major market-oriented democracies.
America led in creating those arrangements after winning World War II. Presidents of both parties agreed that institutions like the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would help prevent wars, advance American values and enhance prosperity here and abroad.
America won the Cold War with the Soviet Union. There has not been another global hot war.
The world’s economy, adjusted for inflation, is now seven times larger than it was in 1960. The U.S. economy is nearly six times larger.
Today, the U.S. spends roughly $14 billion a year to support these institutions. But a Rand Corp. study earlier this year found that America has derived hundreds of billions in benefits through trade expansion, productivity improvement, conflict prevention and safeguards for the global financial system.
“The U.S. has had a disproportionate voice in how this system has unfolded, and that has been incredibly beneficial to U.S. diplomacy and interests,” Rand political scientist Michael Mazarr told me. “It’s fair to say, based on what we’ve done, that no great power has ever had a more profound competitive advantage than the one we have from this postwar order.”
But some have been badly hurt. The Peterson Institute for International Economics estimates that expanded trade has cost roughly 156,000 American jobs annually in recent years.
Those lost jobs, and cultural changes from rising immigration levels, have jolted blue-collar communities in the U.S. and Europe — and made the global order a target of populist revolts.
It is also a target of Russian leaders eager to restore lost power and influence.
The British Parliament is now investigating covert Russian attempts to assist the 2016 Brexit campaign to split the United Kingdom from the European Union.
The U.S. intelligence community concluded that Russia also meddled in America’s 2016 campaign to help elect Trump as president.
Since taking office, Trump has shaken one international structure after the other.
He withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, threatened to terminate NAFTA, and slapped import tariffs on U.S. allies.