The Postwar Global Order That Never Happened

After the wreckage of World War II, a new form of global community had huge momentum—but the United States rejected it.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, meeting during the Casablanca conference, preparing the Normandy and Italy landing, which lasted from Jan. 14 to 24, 1943.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, meeting during the Casablanca conference, preparing the Normandy and Italy landing, which lasted from Jan. 14 to 24, 1943. AFP via Getty Images

This year, as we remember the 75th anniversary of World War II’s end, we should also remember the road not taken for U.S. foreign affairs. An alternative vision for global order was developed during the war but lost during its aftermath. Although this view of world affairs—call it the “one world” vision—never cohered around a single set of precepts and never became official policy, many thousands of Americans rallied around its iconoclastic brand of popular internationalism.

The lead exponent of the one-world idea was Wendell Willkie, a charismatic speaker, business lawyer, world traveler, and bestselling author who had been the surprise Republican nominee for president in 1940. Little remembered beyond his ill-fated presidential run, Willkie should be recalled now for the picture of the world that he gave the country in 1942 and ’43, during the darkest months of World War II. His one-world ideals captured public imagination, only to be scorned as not tough-minded enough for the incipient Cold War. Recalling them now might help us unlock new ways to see our current global crisis and find responses equal to the complex interdependency that imperils the world today.

In late 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Willkie to serve as his emissary on a world tour, carrying a message of American unity to unsure Allies and neutrals. Forced to avoid occupied Europe, Willkie toured Africa, the Middle East, the Soviet Union, and China, meeting with everyday people but also with luminaries like Bernard Montgomery, Charles de Gaulle, Joseph Stalin, and Chiang Kai-shek. Willkie discovered that people everywhere were restive and unsatisfied. They hoped the war might mean a new world order, one in which Western empire no longer shaped the fate of the globe. Like Willkie, they had thrilled to Woodrow Wilson’s message of world freedom a generation before, only to find their hopes crushed when the mandate system erected by his League of Nations perpetuated European imperial power.

They had been newly encouraged in 1941, when Roosevelt and Winston Churchill’s Atlantic Charter seemed to resuscitate those hopes, promising freedom and self-determination to all as the fruits of Allied victory. Soon after, however, Churchill had backtracked, and Roosevelt had gone silent, putting off all talk of postwar planning. From Cairo to Baghdad to Chongqing, no question mattered more to a whole generation of anti-colonial activists.

Moved by this global surge in idealism, Willkie looked to bring it home. In One World, the bestseller he wrote about his trip, he told Americans he was “passing on an invitation” from “the peoples of the East.” People everywhere were “no longer willing to be Eastern slaves for Western profits.” They recognized that the world was growing ever more interdependent, creating a world society with no place for imperialism.

The global “war of liberation,” as Willkie called it, left the United States with a choice. The country could go one of three ways. “Narrow nationalism” meant the equivalent of prewar isolationism—and ultimately a limited prospect for postwar American life. Continued “international imperialism” meant refusing to welcome the very sort of freedom dreams that floated American independence in the first place. The only way forward was a just world order based on the fact of global interconnection. Realizing the full possibilities of interdependence meant recognizing independence everywhere. It required “the creation of a world in which there shall be an equality of opportunity for every race and nation.”

But the greatest challenge to realizing this equitable global society lay elsewhere. During his visit to Moscow, Willkie saw that easing tensions between the United States and Soviet Union was the only way to stave off another age of great-power rivalry. In his talks with Stalin, he tried to woo the Soviet leader, looking for a way to assure him that the two wary allies could cooperate in the world beyond the war. For Willkie, this was the linchpin of his strategic vision. Contrary to later detractors who dismissed him as a naive utopian, his interest in U.S.-Soviet cooperation anchored a geopolitical analysis of the world to come. The best postwar plan, Willkie felt, was clear-eyed cooperation with the Soviets, equal partnership with the Chinese, and a push to get the British and other European allies to commit to decolonization. Avoiding the standoff that would come to be called the Cold War was the way to found a new global society, as well as true peace and national security for the United States.

Willkie’s vision found a ready and eager audience. Over 36 million people listened to the live radio report he delivered on all the major networks after his trip. More than 4 million bought One World—the fastest-selling book in American history, according to some experts—and many millions more encountered his ideas in his editorials, magazine pieces, and speeches. In the summer of 1943, as his book broke sales records, he gave a July Fourth radio address calling for the United States to add a “declaration of interdependence among the nations of this one world” to its own Declaration of Independence.

No such document was forthcoming, of course. Over the coming years, mutual suspicion between the Americans and Soviets would narrow the terms of debate over foreign affairs—pushing independent national interests above interdependence. Willkie spent the last act of his life—he succumbed to heart disease in October 1944 at 52, after another failed run for the presidency—arguing for a more democratic shape for what would become the United Nations. But FDR’s vision was less democratic. He wanted a world body controlled by “Four Policemen”—the United States, Britain, China, and the Soviet Union. Smaller nations would advise, discuss, petition, and “blow off steam.” The final form of the Security Council—which added France to FDR’s original four powers and gave each member a veto over majority-approved resolutions—would find itself hamstrung by the growing U.S.-Soviet conflict.

With the rise of the Cold War, a new consensus took hold, consigning Willkie’s vision to the dustbin of history. One-world internationalism was naive, nascent Cold Warriors argued. So-called “globaloney,” former Willkie ally and member of Congress Clare Boothe Luce sneered, was too trusting in good will between people and not hardheaded enough for a world carved up by sharp ideological divides.

One-worldism was no panacea, to be sure. As its detractors noticed, it tended to mistake the technical facts of world connection for the existence of global community or the possibility of world political union. In fact, even Willkie, had he lived, may have ended up as a more or less conventional Cold War liberal. (He was, near the end of his life, expressing dismay at Stalin’s attitude toward Eastern Europe.)

But the eclipse of one-world strategy by hardheaded Cold War thinking (extended by the global war on terrorism) has obscured what Willkie discovered as the great problem of the postwar period: that the United States inherited a hierarchical interdependent world made by European empire. The United States confronted a choice: continue the imperial great-power politics that had thrown the planet into two successive global conflicts or found something new. Conventional wisdom holds that the country chose the latter, noble path. The truth is less heroic. It split the difference.

The United States set out to renovate that imperial structure for a new national challenge: assuming responsibility for the global capitalist system once overseen by the British Empire. It was this new empire of influence, markets, and far-flung military power that the United States defended against the Soviet Union in the Cold War and protected by bankrolling a host of new international organizations, such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Health Organization (WHO). The result was a paternalistic mix of benevolence and coercion. Strategic favor went to Western Europe and Japan. Some decolonizing nations were greeted with aid and loans for economic development, others with napalm or covert action.

We have long lived in the complex, interdependent world that Willkie discovered in 1942 and 1943. But for decades now, our conventional responses to globalization have been mired in Cold War-style thinking: A “narrow nationalism” that sees American world leadership as indispensable fuels a modified form of “international imperialism” concerned to preserve U.S. power abroad. The country has accepted the rewards of globalization—low prices on consumer goods and financial returns for the elite—but only the responsibilities that tend to redouble those rewards. And it has driven the benefits of globalization to the few and forced the many to shoulder its liabilities.

No wonder then that the early stages of America’s post-imperial decline have played out as cascading fragmentation amped up by a reckless chief executive and a disastrous response to the pandemic. Meanwhile, the idea of “one world” mostly lives on as a kind of cliché, in “We Are the World”-style sentiment. Take, for instance, the recent One World: Together at Home virtual concert, put on by the NGO Global Citizen, where one could log on to hear Billie Eilish or Alicia Keys play their hits from lockdown and exhort us to “wash your damn hands” or “take care of one another.”

It’s easy to sneer at this sort of thing as Bono-politics, the celebritification of global aid, or just more “globaloney.” But events like this raise millions of dollars for the global health response—for WHO, in this case—and one might argue that they reflect the actual shape of the world today better than the usual invocations of lost U.S. world leadership. For all their easy sentiment, they suggest how we are all dependent on each other—and they tap into widely held feelings that could be harnessed for deeper political cooperation.

The coronavirus shows us that Willkie’s challenge remains ours today. Some Americans, those who bought One World or logged on for One World: Together at Home or went to work for WHO or organizations like it, have long sensed this dilemma. Recognizing complex global interdependency requires building a world system in which the United States must cooperate rather than dictate.

New faith in interdependent, democratic global institutions could take many forms: for example, giving the U.N. General Assembly greater leverage over the Security Council or even expanding and reforming the Security Council altogether to reduce its power over the world body. For the United States, it would mean returning to global climate talks and committing to a just transition from fossil fuels, as well as restoring funding to WHO and investing in robust interchange between the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and global health officials to improve WHO’s performance. Most of all, it would mean creating a truly multilateral world bank based in multiple reserve currencies (not just the U.S. dollar) and dedicated to relieving debt crises across the globe. But any efforts should take Willkie’s lesson to heart. Just as he urged Americans to listen to anti-imperial insurgents during World War II, true interdependence now means hearing the voices and demands of those in the global south who stand to lose the most from the further erosion of global cooperation on a warming, fragmented planet.

Skeptics will object that Russian and Chinese authoritarianism will go unchecked in a world without vigorous U.S. leadership. Those are real threats, but thinking that only America can tame them would be as shortsighted as dismissing one-world ideals was in 1945. American power is in its twilight years—the strife in the country’s hospitals and streets makes that clear. Propping up old notions of American indispensability ensures that we are fighting yesterday’s battles.

The deeper challenges unite Russia, China, and the United States alike in shared peril. Perhaps the greatest legacy of the last 75 years has been the absolute determination of the United States to lead the rest of the capitalist world in the global capture and exploitation of the world’s natural resources. That is the one world we live with today—a planet inescapably joined in a web of commodity chains, petroleum pipelines, greenhouse gases, and the terror of this and future zoonotic diseases gone pandemic. The sooner we admit this reality the sooner we can build the global, interdependent response our shared crisis demands.

Samuel Zipp is a cultural and intellectual historian at Brown University. His latest book is The Idealist: Wendell Willkie’s Wartime Quest to Build One World.