Was the post-45 international order an ‘expert consensus’, a ‘US hegemony’ or a ‘balance of threats’?

The post-World War II international order was to be a new epoch for how international relations was to be conducted, one focusing on collective security through a common interest in trade, welfare, and peace. However, those that sought to establish this new order at the Bretton Woods Conference had more difficulty in fulfilling this vision of an expert consensus. Some believe this is due to the new constraints the rising power of the US posed, others by the reality of world affairs exacerbating states’ self-interests by the threats their rivals may present to their relative power.

The great powers at Bretton Woods wished to ensure that the mistakes of Versailles and the Great Depression that culminated into WWII did not reoccur. To implement the necessary safeguards, the Anglo-American agreement that was settled, despite their differences, appeared to be an exemplar of an expert consensus, one “that would reconcile openness and trade expansion with the commitments of national governments to full employment and economic stabilization”. British Foreign Secretary Eden emphasised this by linking “British goals to Roosevelt’s commitment to ‘freedom from want’”. Such cooperation also applied to efficient world economic management that Keynes and the proposed Gold Standard wished to ensure. As Polanyi believed, as described by Silver and Arrighi, such consensus measures of economic regulation were required “because the project of a self-regulating market is simply ‘utopian’”. Noting also that Kindleberger saw “international economic stability as a collective good” where “various combinations of nations might provide the requisite leadership” for it, the relative peace that the post-45 world experienced can be said to have only occurred through a greater amount of cooperation between the Western states.

This hypothesis however becomes less legitimate when using historical comparison. Previous world orders, such as the League of Nations, had failed largely due to the absence of a hegemonic power’s leadership. As Stein notes, Kindleberger argued also that the collective good can only exist through the power of a hegemon and its balancing of “global stability, and that the absence of such hegemonic leadership worsened the Great Depression”. Like Kindleberger, Gilpin had his own version of hegemonic stability theory, believing the hegemon has unique “symbolic, economic, and military capabilities” which can “entice or compel others to accept an open trading structure”; the US doing the same in Bretton Woods and with its aid projects such as the Marshall Plan.

Whilst one can use the founding of the United Nations as a counterargument to the US’s apparent hegemonic rise, itself was an organisation originally supported by Roosevelt to ensure “all executive power” of the international order was “concentrated in the hands of a few permanent states”, contrary to past orders. Even with this supposed oligopoly does Gowan argue that Roosevelt believed “America should dominate” it as its leader. Subsequent American leadership went beyond Roosevelt’s own manipulation of the UN when it was “mobilizing the UN for its own uses” such as legitimising Western intervention in the Korean War through its support, until it had been “abandoned as the vehicle through which American global dominance would find expression”. Whilst US foreign policy was hardly consistent thereafter; its grand strategy of primacy was becoming ever more omnipresent whether other states liked it or not.

Expanding on the preference of the US hegemon’s leadership leads to its existence being ensured through the balancing of threats by individual states, by assuming that the abundant amount of power the US wielded after WWII could not support itself alone. As Keohane stated, “cooperation is not antithetical to hegemony”, for a hegemon’s power such as the US’s “depends on a certain kind of asymmetrical cooperation”. Whilst many of America’s allies supported it as a quid pro quo through the Marshall Aid they received, the threat of the Soviet Union during the Cold War extended this contract further. With most of the European powers becoming exhausted by the costs of war and both the US and USSR’s developments in nuclear armaments, they, in the words of Mearsheimer, took “advantage of those situations when the benefits outweigh the costs”.

Despite some of America’s allies being highly anti-American themselves, such as Goslan’s description of French anti-Americanism being “so heartfelt” that it was a “inspiration for other European anti-Americanism”, the circumstances of the Cold War forced them to submit to the balance of threats theory. Thus, they conducted non-balancing towards the US, described by Schweller as “buck-passing, bandwagoning, appeasement, engagement, distancing, or hiding”; for they see their well-being as being “inextricably tied up with the well-being of the hegemon”. US-UK relations and its original tensions is one example of non-balancing maximising itself post-45. As Ikenberry admits, the differences between them occurred through Britain’s interest to “secure postwar full employment”, contrary to the US State Department’s “unalloyed free trade position”. These tensions fully mitigated once the Suez Crisis occurred when the UK faced pressure by both the US and the Soviet Union. Knowing that its well-being was symbiotic with the US’s, Britain submitted to America’s demands. A later example of the balancing of threats occurring is the Sino-Soviet Split, eventually forcing Chairman Mao to pursue a policy of rapprochement with the US to balance against the USSR. Where it is evident that many post-war powers were unsatisfied with the rise of American hegemony, they nevertheless submitted to it as the lesser evil against the security threat the Soviet Union posed that stood contrary to America’s informal imperialism of economic power. This paradoxically continued the hegemonic capabilities the US began to employ with or without universal support by the UN.

It can therefore be said that the post-45 international order was dominated by a status quo within the Western world that a US hegemony was indeed present, but only through the support its allies were willing to give it. The dilemma for them though is that it was their instinctual self-interest to do so to preserve what powers they had left after buck-passing much of their previous ones to the US. This was not however with the belief that the US was the rightful new harbinger of world affairs, but as a necessary guardian against the perceived greater evil of authoritarianism that the Soviet Union represented. Using the term ‘expert consensus’ is therefore inappropriate when describing this new international order after WWII. Instead, a ‘consensus through necessity’ would be more accurate, established through the rise of American power and its tandem with the balancing of threats by other states that proliferated it.

Featured image credit: “File:The Gold Room – Bretton Woods Mount Washington Hotel.jpg” by Barry Livingstone is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0