The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder

Chapter 1 - The World We Think We Know

Written by Peter Zeihan

On July 1, 1944, 730 delegates from the forty-four Allied nations and their respective colonial outposts convened at the Mount Washington Hotel in the skiing village of Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, with a mission to do nothing less than decide the fate of the postwar world.

The scores of luminaries included high-ranking bankers, economists, government ministers, and the future leaders of Canada, France, Greece, New Zealand, and Peru.

They had trained in overnight from Atlantic City, New Jersey, and were greeted by a sprawling resort in disarray: Many of the rooms lacked running, potable water; there wasn't enough ice or Coca-Cola to go around; staffing was so thin that some nearby Boy Scouts had to be drafted; and the establishment's manager locked himself in his office with a case of whiskey and refused to come out.

This couldn't have been how the conference's organizers and lead delegates-Harry Dexter White of the United States and Lord John Maynard Keynes of the United Kingdom, who'd been discussing and planning the conference for nearly three years-had imagined the opening days. But despite this inauspicious beginning, the delegates set to work on the agenda White and Keynes had laid out and over the next three weeks engaged in multilateral negotiations that were responsible for creating the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development: the institutions that helped knit devastated Europe back together and that hammered out the foundations of the free-trade-dominated global economic system that endures to this day.

At least that is how history records it. The banks and the fund-really, the negotiations themselves-were sideshows. The attendees had arrived in Bretton Woods knowing that they had no real leverage to negotiate or bargain with the United States; they had mainly come to hear what White and the other Americans had to say. And what the Americans had to say shocked them all.

On the eve of the conference, White and the American delegation were fully aware that they had the upper hand going in. America was running the Allied side of the war. Everything from Sicily to Saipan was in essence an American effort fought with American equipment and American fuel. Even in terms of manpower the fronts were largely American affairs, with American troops tending to outnumber all other combatants, Allied and Axis combined, by a two-to-one margin. Only grand affairs such as the Normandy landings featured the sort of multinational resolve the propaganda lauded. In the Pacific, the Americans were carrying the war all by themselves.

For the majority of the attendees at the conference, the Americans weren't simply saviors or urgently needed auxiliary forces for ongoing combat missions, they were the war effort. Immensely popular in his third term as president and seen by many as a shoo-in for a fourth, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had indicated that the Americans wanted to discuss the shape the world would take once the war had ended. This in itself raised international eyebrows. Until that point there really hadn't been a "global system" in an economic sense. Instead, various European nations maintained separate trade networks stemming from their earlier imperial ventures, in which their colonies served as resource providers and captive markets while mother countries produced finished goods. What inter-empire trading that occurred was largely limited to goods, whether raw materials or specific manufactures, that could not be sourced within the respective "closed" systems.

Most of this cross-empire trade flowed through enterprising peoples like the Dutch who excelled at brokering deals among imperial leaders. Protecting each empire's trade were its national naval forces, and the use of navies to guard national commerce and raid the commerce of competitors was as old an industry as the use of sail and oar. It was the naval component that signaled to many of the Bretton Woods delegates that the past they'd known was over. Even if (thanks to American help) they were able to win their homes back from the Axis, they had no navies. Building a navy is one of the most expensive and time-consuming projects a nation can undertake in the best of times, and it wasn't something that a country emerging from rubble and occupation could even consider.

The current and future lack of naval power meant that almost all of the delegates at the conference knew full well that their countries wouldn't be able to use trade to bootstrap themselves back to normality, as they usually might. They would, for decades to come, be at the mercy of whoever could offer them security or economic well-being or both.

Keynes and the other delegates knew they were on the verge of momentous and unforeseeable change. But at least one aspect of the brave new world to come seemed both inevitable and imminent: There was about to be only one navy. The Americans' late entry into the war meant that the Nazis had been able to destroy the navy of every country in the world except Britain, France, and Japan. Then, to deny the Germans control of French ships, the British had sunk the remnants of the French fleet while it was in port in Algeria. And no one had any doubt that when the Americans (to say nothing of the Russians) were finished with the Germans and Japanese, they'd be lucky to float merchant marines. As Keynes realized all too clearly, the British could still claim to have a potent navy, but it was a subsidiary force compared to the American fleet-and that was before considering that the Americans now had more troops on the ground in Great Britain than the British did.

The obvious lopsidedness of the playing field may have led Keynes to write that his American counterparts "plainly intend to force their own conceptions through, regardless of the rest of us."

For French delegates such as Vincent Auriol, future president of France (1947-54), and Pierre Mendès France, future prime minister (1954-55), the sense of relief and gratitude they felt toward the Americans for loosening the German stranglehold on their country must've been mixed with equal measures of disbelief and apprehension. Although they were at the mercy of friends rather than enemies, Auriol and Mendès France would be "negotiating" from a position of abject weakness, and they must've been wondering if their eighteenth-century predecessors had not inadvertently helped to create the monster that would now devour them.

The tension in the Mount Washington Hotel was palpable, not simply because the temperature was high and cool beverages scarce. Auriol and Mendès France, along with the Canadians, Australians, Danes, Belgians, Indians, Mexicans, Brazilians, Bolivians, Colombians, Ecuadorians, Cubans, Peruvians, Dominicans, and others in attendance, most certainly expected White and the American team to take a well-worn page from history and unveil the details of a Pax Americana: how the United States would fold all the far-flung European imperial holdings-up to and including the territories of the European states themselves-into a global American imperial system. It was what the Soviets expected the Americans to do, and, given their pasts, likely what various European nations would have done had the roles been reversed.

Imperial designs or no, the very fact that the delegates were attending a conference in New Hampshire rather than somewhere outside Novosibirsk spoke volumes about where their hopes rested. White and the American team didn't let the others sweat it out for long, and they presented their two-part plan with all the kindness and amused patience that comes from a position of unassailable strength. The first part alone likely stunned the conference into baffled silence: The Americans had no intention of imposing a Pax. They didn't plan to occupy key trans-shipment or distribution nodes. There would be no imperial tariff on incomes or trade or property. There would be no governors-general stationed in each of the Americans' new imperial outposts. No clearinghouses. No customs restrictions. No quotas. Instead, the Americans said that they would open their markets. Anyone who wanted to export goods into the United States could do so. The Americans acknowledged that devastated Europe was in no condition to compete with American industry, which hadn't been touched by the scourge of war, so this market openness would be largely one-way. The Americans suggested ideas about a new global system to reduce tariffs, but that was to be negotiated separately and later.

As startling and unexpected as part one of the plan was, part two must have rolled the Europeans in particular back on their heels. The Americans offered to use their navy to protect all maritime trade, regardless of who was buying or selling the cargoes. Even trade that had nothing to do with the United States would be guaranteed by the overwhelming strength of the American navy. Far from proposing a Pax that would fill their coffers to overflowing with trade duties, levies, and tariffs, the Americans were instituting the opposite: a global trading system in which they would provide full security for all maritime trade at their own cost, full access to the largest consumer market in human history, and at most a limited and hedged expectation that participants might open their markets to American goods. They were promising to do nothing less than indirectly subsidize the economy of every country represented at the conference.

Either believing the deal too good to be true or that the heat had softened the Americans' brains, the delegates quickly agreed, ratifying the terms via signature in the hotel's Gold Room on July 22, 1944. This, however, was exactly what White and the Americans wanted. For no matter how the plan was regarded by the delegates or the rest of the world, it was firmly rooted in the United States' unique strengths: a singular combination of geography, industry, and technological development that constituted the primary source of American power, and that in turn is the subject of this book.





Accidental Superpower  



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