History was not supposed to turn out this way.
In the aftermath of World War II, the victorious Western countries forged institutions — NATO, the European Union, and the World Trade Organization — that aimed to keep the peace through collective military might and shared prosperity. They promoted democratic ideals and international trade while investing in the notion that coalitions were the antidote to destructive nationalism.
But now the model that has dominated geopolitical affairs for more than 70 years comes progressively fragile. Its tenets are being challenged by a surge of nationalism and its institutions under assault from some of the very powers that constructed them — not least, the United States under President Trump.
In place of shared approaches to societal issues — from trade disputes, to security, to climate change — national interests have captured primacy. The language of multilateral cooperation has been drowned out by angry appeals to tribal solidarity, tendencies that are heightened by economic anxieties.
“What we’ve seen is a type of backlash to liberal democracy,” said Amandine Crespy, a political scientist at Free University Brussels (ULB) in Belgium. “Masses of people feel they have not been properly represented in liberal democracy.”
Even as nationalists take aim at globalists, the eventual shape of international relations remains an open question. In a sign that investors are optimistic that talks can yet avert a trade war between the United States and China, markets soared on Monday. And the United States, Canada and other European nations expelled Russian diplomats in solidarity with Britain over the poisoning of a Russian defector in London, enhancing hopes that old alliances will endure.
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.”
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.
Britain is discarding the European Union, turning its back on the project whose very existence is an expression of faith that integration discourages hostilities. Italy just exalted 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 trust that liberal democracy is the inevitable outgrowth of human progress — an outcome hastened by the postwar institutions — these events have provided a sobering rejoinder.
“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.
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 biggest 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.
“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 comes in question.
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.”