We come to a pivotal point in the course. The rise of European power and its dominance over the rest of the world was not preordained. Indeed, in 1500, Europe was a cultural and economic backwater in comparison to the Arab, Indian, and Chinese civilizations at the time. When Vasco da Gama arrived in Calicut, India, in 1498, he was repudiated by the traders because he had nothing that they found of value. By the time of the end of the 19th century, Europe ruled the world and its institutions–representative democracy, market capitalism, and human rights–were beginning to be established virtually everywhere. There were no powers to contest European domination.
And then, everything fell apart. Since they controlled the rest of the world, the European powers turned on each other. There were no other places to divide and conquer, so they decided to divide and conquer each other. They practiced the balance of power and imperialism against each other. World War I began in 1914 and ended in 1918. There was a period of time when the fighting stopped from 1918 to 1939, but it was hardly a time of peace. Totalitarian regimes arose–communism in the Soviet Union in 1917 and Fascism in Hungary in 1920. The economic system fell apart in what we call the Great Depression. And there were massive human rights violations: by Japan in China, by the Italians in Ethiopia, and by the Germans in the Holocaust. Then World War II began in 1939 and ended in 1945. The period of time from 1914-1945 should be called the Great European War. When it ended, all the European Empires began to disintegrate.
Most Americans do not fully appreciate how total the collapse of Europe was. As a matter of fact, most Europeans were also unaware of how seriously depleted Europe had become. But the US emerged from the Great European War the strongest power on the planet. Unlike 1918, when the US refused to join the League of Nations, in 1945 the US fully embraced the role of a Great Power. It was a role that it had not actively sought and the President at the time, Franklin Roosevelt, knew that the US had to embrace it but the American people were not fully prepared.
On paper, it looked like a no-brainer. Every other country had been decimated. The US had by far the largest economy on the planet, it was fully battle-tested, and it possessed atomic bombs, the most powerful weapons ever invented. But the US was not going to become a Great Power in the European mold. The US had itself become an independent state after fighting a war to defeat the strongest colonial power at the time, Great Britain. Its founding mythology was that of an anti-imperial power. How was the US going to replace Europe without becoming a colonial power?
Perhaps the world did not need a Great Power to regulate the international system. But the turmoil of the Interwar Period suggested to Roosevelt that the international system was not capable of self-regulation. Without a “cop on the beat”, the international system would become victim to the self-interests of whatever powers had the ability to push its agendas, just like Germany, Italy, and Japan. And Roosevelt was not prepared to see that scenario repeated with the Soviet Union willing to fill the power vacuum.
So the US came up with a system of indirect rule which we call a hegemonic system. The US decided to replace the regulation of the balance of power and imperialism with a system based upon multilateral institutions and the rule of international law. To regulate political affairs, the United Nations was created. To regulate economic affairs, the Bretton Woods Institutions–the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and what we now call the World Trade Organization–were set up. And for human rights, the US pursued the Nuremberg and Japan Trials to bring the leaders of Japan and Germany to justice for the crimes that were committed. Those trials were then supplemented by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to create a system of articulated rights.
Countries joined these institutions voluntarily because they offered benefits from membership. The alternative for most countries was to try to exist in a regulatory vacuum, and most countries were too weak to survive under those conditions. So hwile joining was not optimal for most countries, membership was preferable to going it alone. The important feature of these institutions was that the US had a dominant voice in how they were run. The US could exercise its influence without the necessity of taking physical control of any country.
Most importantly, these institutions were enfused with liberal values: representative democracy, market capitalism, and human rights. The US designed the system so that American interests were well served. The system worked despite the active opposition of the Soviet Union in what we call the Cold War. During the Cold War, the US became increasingly involved in political and military affairs all over the world. Its economic interests exploded and American economic interests became omnipresent. By the end of the 20th century, the Soviet Union had collapsed and in the year 2000 there really was no organized effort to undermine the American system
This short history lesson raises an important question for us all. A new system came into being only after a global catastrophe. As the American system begins to be questioned in the early 21st century, not only by some important states in the system but also by Americans themselves, it appears as if we are on the cusp of a new system emerging.
Does the 20th century hold lessons for how the current international system may change?