The world has changed quite a bit since 1947. In his book The Best Laid Plans, Stewart Patrick invites us to think back to that time, to reconsider American global policy in the years following World War II, and to draw lessons for today from that perspective.
Patrick is a senior fellow and director of the program on international organizations and global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations. He begins his book tracing the international and domestic political struggles that embroiled President Wilson and the League of Nations. He describes the competition over the first half of the twentieth century among advocates of a “great powers” strategy, isolationists, and liberal internationalists. For readers who want to revisit and better understand the lasting influence of American leaders like Robert Taft, Henry Cabot Lodge, Dean Acheson, Arthur Vandenberg, Cordell Hull, and George Kennan, this is a book for you!
The world view of Americans in the 1940s was shaped by profound and disturbing events including the Great Depression, the Holocaust, and the development and use of nuclear weapons. Modern observers know with hindsight that a Second World War followed the First World War. Of course, for the generations who lived through the “Great War,” the very fact of a “Second” World War gave urgency to the demand for global solutions to global problems.
In was in this atmosphere that the Roosevelt and Truman administrations in the 1940s and 1950s adopted the liberal internationalism that characterized their engagement with the world. Patrick applauds this approach, pointing out that liberal internationalism and the support of international institutions is in harmony with American political and cultural traditions and values. This liberal internationalism allowed the United States to promote its global priorities: collective security arrangements, an open global economic system, and democratic self-determination.
In 1947 the United States stood as a preeminent global power, fostering the establishment of the United Nations and the Bretton Woods international financial system and encouraging the dismantling of old colonial empires. The world seemed poised on a path toward greater international cooperation and reliance on open global institutions. That same year, one of our predecessor organizations, the World Federalist Association, was established at a meeting in Asheville, North Carolina, with those aspirations.
Of course, the path has not been as smooth or straight as an observer in 1947 might have predicted or hoped. Patrick describes the emergence of the Cold War and the concerns that nationalist impulses would lead not just to decolonization but to revolutions with destabilizing global repercussions. Through the turmoil of the last 60 years, Patrick sees the United States consistently retuning to a multilateral global approach that reinforces, on a global scale, the values Americans espouse.
“Ambivalence,” Patrick says, “is the enduring feature of the American attitude toward multilateral institutions….” He cautions that the experience of the George W. Bush administration teaches that American unilateralism on the world stage imposes costs: “Squandered international legitimacy for U.S. leadership and actions, lost opportunities for burden-sharing, and the erosion of world order.”
Today, in Patrick’s view, the United States faces many of the same challenges that it faced in 1947. As we consider how Americans can reengage constructively with the world, Patrick invites us to reexamine the wisdom of the American leaders in the 1940s and 1950s who found answers both practical and consonant with American pluralist political traditions.