President Trump’s “America First” foreign policy has sparked heated debate in the international community. Many foreign policy observers argue that Trump’s policies are undermining the multilateral institutions that make up the “liberal international order.” Others contend that Trump is merely expressing openly what previous American presidents have long believed: The United States dominates the international system and has the power to violate its terms at will, and frequently has.
But both arguments miss the point: The liberal international order thrived not because of overwhelming American power and dominance, but because of a hard-fought consensus forged when much weaker powers resisted U.S. policies on critical matters. The United States’ success depended on American willingness to consider seriously the opinions of weaker allies and arrive at compromises, despite significant disagreements. Flexibility defined the post-World War II international order, and that may be what ultimately preserves the place of the United States within that order during the Trump presidency.
The United States did strong-arm its allies, but it did so only when American presidents thought the actions of allies constituted a threat to Western security. Consider the often-cited example of the 1956 Suez Crisis, when British, French and Israeli forces invaded the Sinai Peninsula to retake control of the Suez Canal from the Egyptians. In response, President Dwight D. Eisenhower threatened to undermine the British financial system unless the three powers withdrew their forces, which they subsequently did.
Eisenhower’s response was unquestionably heavy-handed. Significant, too: It is often cited as the end of Britain’s role as a world power. However, Eisenhower acted because he feared that the Anglo-French invasion would undermine a decade of American foreign policy aimed at containing the expansion of Soviet power in the Middle East, Europe and the Third World.
The controversy had already provided the Soviets a critical victory, because the invasion led the world to focus on the Suez, rather than the Hungarian revolution trying to overthrow a Soviet-imposed communist regime. That was, in fact, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s plan. He championed the Egyptian cause as a distraction from Hungary, threatening nuclear attacks against the British and French unless they withdrew their forces. Fearing that the crisis could spiral out of hand, and angered that the French and British had not coordinated with the United States before the attack, Eisenhower pressured the nations to withdraw.
The invasion reminded the world of European colonialism, heightened anti-American sentiments and accelerated the Arab elite’s turn toward the Soviet Union. By distracting from the revolution in Hungary, the Suez attack also made space for the Soviet invasion that killed thousands of Hungarians in bloody battles throughout the country. The Suez crisis certainly underscored American hegemony, even as American involvement was driven by fear that the Suez invasion would undermine U.S. national security for decades to come.
It would be the last such example.
Time and time again in the years that followed, U.S. allies rejected American policies and entreaties for support, despite their heavy reliance on U.S. economic and military assistance. For instance, in 1954, Western Europe rejected the European Defense Community, the cornerstone of Eisenhower’s European security strategy. The goal of the EDC was to strengthen Europe militarily and economically to make it a “third force” in international affairs between the United States and the USSR. But despite intense American political pressure, the French Parliament rejected the program, dealing a major blow to Eisenhower’s foreign policy.
Instead of a U.S.-backed European army providing the bulk of European security, a U.S.-led NATO army would remain the cornerstone of Western Europe’s defense, defining American relations with its European allies even today. Twelve years later, France would withdraw from the NATO alliance despite vociferous protests from the United States.
The allies also limited U.S. freedom of action when it came to the possible use of nuclear weapons. During the Korean War, Britain consistently pressured the Truman administration not to use nuclear weapons, even in response to China’s surprise attack in November 1950 that routed the American 8th Army and threatened to overrun the entire Korean Peninsula. Only a few years later, the British vetoed the possibility of using nuclear weapons during the French Indochina war to save French forces trapped at Dinh Bien Phu by the armies of Ho Chi Minh. The French forces surrendered shortly afterward.
Clearly, allied opinions mattered to the United States, even when following them risked a disastrous defeat for the U.S. Army in Korea or the actual defeat of the French army in Indochina.
This tradition of resistance to U.S. power continued under President Ronald Reagan. In 1986, Reagan ordered the bombing of Libya in retaliation for a terrorist attack that killed two and injured 79 at a West Berlin disco frequented by U.S. soldiers. France, Spain and Italy refused to give the United States permission to stage the attack from American bases in their countries or the right to overfly their territory. The attack ended up being launched from American bases in Britain, adding nearly 1,300 miles to the journey and requiring aerial refueling several times. This again demonstrates the ability of the allies to resist U.S. pressure, even though Washington asked for overflight rights only to respond to a terrorist attack that took American lives.
One of the most famous rejections of American leadership occurred in 2002-2003 when President George W. Bush sought the approval of the United Nations for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. French President Jacque Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder opposed the Iraq War, persuading the U.N. Security Council to reject the U.S.-sponsored resolution authorizing military action. Their resistance did not stop the war, but it delivered a severe blow to the legitimacy of the operation. The diplomatic conflict between the United States and its allies led many observers to doubt whether the Western alliance could survive.
In short, despite America’s power and wealth, it was seldom in a position simply to dictate to its allies. The times it tried were when the United States felt the allies were undermining its critical foreign policy objectives, and it succeeded only after significant cajoling. U.S. allies repeatedly resisted American policies with which they disagreed, even if the issues were vital to U.S. national security, demonstrating that the postwar international system was not created out of pure brute force but out of an international consensus.
And so, when allies challenge American authority today, it is not a sign of American weakness or decline. Rather it’s an example of the system of checks and balances that has been central to international relations over the 70 years. While perhaps not constituting formal rules, this process of cooperation is the backbone of what we call the liberal international order. The general principles the United States and its allies worked together to create have already limited the damage caused by a president as outside of the mainstream as President Trump and will enable his successor to repair the United States’ relations with its allies.