The Superpower Next Door

Bully for you — but at what cost?

At the height of NAFTA renegotiations last summer, I found myself facing a recurring question: What could Canada do? The Trump administration had raised tariffs on steel and aluminum in May 2018, with renegotiations well under way, and it had refused to exempt Canada, its biggest supplier of both. Trump called our genteel prime minister meek, weak, and dishonest. Almost daily, his administration threatened to escalate the trade conflict and exit NAFTA altogether, upending the most important trade relationship of our two countries.

McGill undergraduates asked me the question during lectures, as did journalists on live television, when I was brought on wearing my political scientist hat. No matter who asked, they were hoping for some cunning strategy, a point of leverage that Canada might exploit, a winning argument we could make. I didn’t want to be the bearer of bad news, but what kept coming to my mind was that we were the Melians. And they, the Americans, were the Athenians. I kept coming back to the Melian Dialogue, an episode from the fifth century BCE, likely the most referenced diplomatic ­encounter in history.

First translated into English by Thomas Hobbes in 1629 and translated anew ever since, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War records the unbalanced back and forth between the powerful Athenians and the far weaker Melians. As Thucydides — historian, general, and first-hand witness of the war — recounts, the Athenians arrive on the Aegean island of Melos demanding unconditional surrender. (This is the same island that would later give us the Venus de Milo, not to mention countless Greek seafood restaurants bearing the name Milos.) Others throughout the region have long ago submitted to Athens, but the Melians continue to resist, fearing a life of bondage.

When the envoys arrive, the Melians attempt to reason with them, claiming a right to neutrality in the war between the powerful city and its neighbours. But the Athenians will hear none of it. It isn’t a matter of anyone’s rights, they respond: “We shall not trouble you with specious pretences . . . and make a long speech which would not be believed.” Athens is merely enacting the natural course of things, they say. And out comes Thucydides’ winning line, the one every political science student and military college grad continues to memorize 2,500 years later: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

Nevertheless, the Melians try to defy the maxim, and refuse to surrender. As if commenting on the turning of the leaves and the fall of the first snow, Thucydides informs us that the following winter, the Athenians press their siege, take Melos, slaughter the men, sell the women and children into slavery, and bring in 500 Athenian colonizers to inhabit the place themselves.

Canada was not under siege in 2018. But, confronted with an economy twelve times our size, what could we do? As we face a powerful nation bent on exercising its power, the logic of Thucydides’ dictum seems irrepressible: little room for strategy, even less for argument.

If Canada could somehow find a point of leverage, say by targeting a sensitive American industry with countermeasures, the U.S. could retaliate twice over, and at lesser cost in the short term. Owing to its size, the U.S. has a large internal market to fall back on, in a way that Canada does not. Like the Melians before them, officials in Ottawa tried reason against power. The Trudeau team argued that proposed trade measures would end up costing the U.S. economy: American firms relied on cheaper Canadian steel for their own production, and American consumers would end up footing the bill. They tried in vain to demonstrate that the U.S. actually had a trade surplus with Canada — buying into Washington’s bogus trade-­deficit reasoning. None of this swayed the Trump administration, which kept up demands for still further NAFTA concessions.

So when asked about what we could do, I instinctively responded, Not much. But those students and TV anchors got me wondering: When it comes to bullies on the international stage, what, if anything, has changed in the two millennia since Thucydides?

If history is first recorded in newspapers, it’s quickly revised in the prefaces of reissued publications. Book writing is a slog, so before an entirely new monograph can address a changed reality, an older one gets updated with new front matter. The authors of such addenda have the difficult task of squaring existing arguments with novel facts. It’s a game of reconciliation, and the palimpsestic reading of history it invites make prefaces to new editions uniquely revealing.

A new edition of G. John Ikenberry’s After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars, the first since its original 2000 publication, features just such a preface, in which the author must wrestle with ongoing events. When After Victory first came out, it quickly found its way onto political science syllabi across North America and became a go‑to reference for anyone examining how global order emerges out of international disorder.

Ikenberry’s instant classic focused on “order building” moments in the wake of great modern wars: 1648, 1815, 1945. Postwar solutions varied widely, he observed, and so did their successes. Some were short-­lived, while others outlasted major historical shifts, like the end of the Cold War. The book demonstrated how decision making specific to one historical moment can result in the seemingly immutable logic of world affairs in the next, as victors make bets on what kind of system will best serve their ends. In doing so, it served as a reminder that the current international regime, of which NAFTA is a piece, had originally been erected in the wake of the Second World War to advance American self-­interest.

Like the Athenians of antiquity, Americans found themselves with power to spend after the war. The question was how best to spend it. In previous eras, the Romans and the British had used their power to dominate, ostentatiously projecting their might as far as it would reach. By contrast, the U.S. chose to convert its preponderance of influence into a set of staid global institutions — the United Nations, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the International Monetary Fund — designed to bind all countries together, including itself. The result was a very different hegemonic order.

Ottawa was an early supporter of U.S.-led multilateralism. Together with their British counterparts, Canadian officials believed that such a regime could prevent U.S. isolationism — and with it a return to the protectionism that had wrought havoc during the 1930s and paved the way for the Second World War. Although Canadian officials were not always happy with the new global trade regime, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, they were the ones to push the broader GATT membership into negotiating what would ultimately become the agreement’s successor, the World Trade Organization.

In building a new world order, the U.S. came upon an original design of international governance, one more often associated with national politics. As Ikenberry pointed out, the result had a quasi-­constitutional flavor: the superpower was tying its hands to reassure weaker states that it would not turn despotic, much as a constitution binds a sovereign as well as a people. Those weaker governments, in turn, willingly entered into the bargain in exchange for some influence over the emerging order’s development. Postwar institutions offered them voting rights, sometimes even veto power. They also provided, most crucially, the ability to hold the U.S. accountable and even challenge it if it violated the shared rules.

Max Weber once observed that rulers need fewer resources when ruling through consent rather than coercion. It’s an insight that extends far beyond political economy. Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky, for example, has shown that aging male baboons that get the most grief from a troupe’s alphas tend to be those that were the most aggressive when they were in their prime. By contrast, the ones that engage in grooming and socializing just carry on into their golden years.

Ikenberry showed that — not unlike kings and monkeys — states that restrain their power can actually maximize it, just as money put away in the bank grows at interest. Selectively flexing its muscle extends a superpower’s ability to do so, even as underlying dynamics shift: the relative numbers of tanks and people, the ratios of GDPs, differential rates of technological innovation. Through this approach, a country can sidestep what might otherwise be a violent transition or decline.

This is how America went about consolidating power through consent and socializing. By exercising restraint as the dominant player, the U.S. afforded others the luxury of restraining their power, too. By banking influence, it could make regular withdrawals, even during times of relative decline. In ways previous powers had not, Washington set out to outlast the fleeting postwar moment that enabled it to shape the rules. And so American policy throughout the second half of the twentieth century gives the lie to what might seem an inescapable logic of power, the one Athenians argued was immutable: “We found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist for ever after us.”

So how has Ikenberry’s original argument fared? How difficult is it to preface the new edition of his influential monograph two years into the Trump administration? After Victory originally appeared shortly before September 11, 2001, changed the course of history. At first, the “new unilateralism” of George W. Bush’s War on Terror seemed to throw the robustness of a decades-­old global arrangement into question. But Bush’s policies look mild compared with the current president’s assault on global governance: exits from the Trans-­Pacific Partnership, the Paris Agreement on climate change, and the Intermediate-­Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; blocking new judges at the WTO; repeated claims of NATO’s obsoleteness; and the barrage of NAFTA threats.

With the benefit of hindsight, Ikenberry admits in his well-­reasoned preface, “the strong version” of his liberal hegemony argument now looks “a bit fanciful.” So he retreats to a weaker form: exercising restraint not only affects what happens when the tables have turned — it can delay that shift in the first place. While the U.S. can simply break out of its self-­imposed shackles if it so chooses, it pays a price for doing so. Ikenberry suggests that Bush spent part of his second term making up for his first term’s go-it-­alone approach. Beyond allies’ reduced willingness to cooperate, that cost included a renewed keenness among foes to ­disrupt the status quo. In other words, a superpower that once exploited its might is one that others will be in a greater hurry to topple.

Yet we are left to grapple with the uncomfortable point that Trump’s ongoing belligerence appears to have borne fruit. Ikenberry points out that NATO allies, Canada among them, have committed to increasing their defence spending. North Korea was brought to a negotiating table of sorts. The European Union has adopted a stance on judicial activism among WTO judges that is closer to the U.S. position. The Chinese government has vowed to interfere less with foreign businesses operating in China. And in a test of wills, Turkey agreed, in October, to release an American pastor held for two years on espionage charges.

Given the recent record, does Athenian-­style diplomatic bullying, not restrained wielding of power, work after all? On balance, Ikenberry’s updated answer appears to be yes, but with a significant caveat: just as the spendthrift can live like a king for a week if he blows it all in one go, so too can powerful states exploit their power in contravention of international rules, norms, and expectations. The lingering question is what happens next.

The system of governance that emerged after the Second World War is ideally suited for keeping count. Reputation in international affairs has always mattered; but since 1945, it has been recorded for all to see, and everyone knows the score. When Trudeau’s diplomatic entreaties failed to bring down the steel and aluminum tariffs, Canada brought a legal challenge to the WTO. A number of other countries, including Mexico and the EU, filed parallel cases. Such disputes and appeals to the international regime matter. Few nations want to be branded as violators of the rules — especially rules they wrote. In fact, the Trump administration went to great lengths to justify its steel tariffs under (an admittedly questionable invocation of) the national security exception. Yet that effort, in itself, testifies to the grip of law. Even when the U.S. skirts the rules, it does so by reference to them. The simple fact is that no nation today behaves like the Athenians, announcing “might is right” and carrying on. Governments have internalized the rhetoric of law, and that may be the most ingrained, lasting effect of American-­led global governance in the second half of the twentieth century.

I am tempted to take Ikenberry’s updated view of power politics one step further: the last two years have actually led me to question the benefits of diplomatic bullying in the first place. After all, for all its belligerence during the NAFTA renegotiations, the U.S. under Donald Trump secured an agreement that might well have been reached under Hillary Clinton. The president may have vowed that any deal would be “totally on our terms,” but in the end Canada conceded little more than it already had under the Trans-­Pacific Partnership, and it held out on every one of its top priorities: the enforcement mechanism of the original chapter 19 and the system of supply management both remain. For all of Trump’s talk of exiting NATO, European allies have mostly paid lip service to his demands for increased defence spending: Canada has committed to 1.4 percent of GDP by 2026–27, modestly up from 1.2 percent. In its trade conflict with the U.S., China offered little more than symbolic gestures that Trump might use to save face domestically, and it has instead turned itself into an unlikely defender of the very internationalist values that the U.S. once promulgated, adapting the rhetoric of global governance to its own export-­driven ­interests. And while Kim Jong‑un enjoys the limelight that two unprecedented summits with Trump have yielded, North Korea has so far rejected Washington’s core demands.

In fact, I would argue, the history of the trade regime would lead us to expect as much. Unilateralism breeds disproportionate resistance, even when it is backed up with considerable power. In what might be described as its first exercise of postwar unilateralism, starting in the mid-­1970s, the U.S. expended significant efforts to impose its will on foreign partners, and it had just as hard a time getting those countries to give in to its demands as it does today. In what now looks like a rehearsal for the conflict with China, the commercial foe of the time was Japan. Americans were buying Japanese cars, and U.S. firms were running Japanese semiconductors. Japan, though, was hardly importing any American goods. Pundits warned that schoolchildren would soon be learning Japanese, the better to understand their new overlords. Policy makers wanted to force a change, and in 1974 Congress took global rules into its own hands, creating a domestic trade court that would unilaterally decide whether Japan was in violation of its commercial commitments under the international regime. In defiance of that regime, the domestic court could allow for trade sanctions against countries it judged to be in violation.

Allies reacted no less vehemently than today. The Canadian GATT representative claimed that American unilateralism was “a threat to the continued viability of the multilateral trading system.” And, using words that could be lifted straight from the Melian Dialogue, Europeans decried the U.S. actions as “an irreparable act of folly,” warning Washington was “weaving a web of frustration, into which they too would most certainly fall. . . . It should not abuse its strength, nor use the law of the strongest.” Resistance was not only rhetorical. Japan, in particular, was bent on resisting what it saw as illegitimate action.

The record shows that despite potent threats of retaliation, the U.S. proved 34 percent less likely to secure concessions in targeted countries when it opted for unilateralism than when it chose the ­formal multilateral route of dispute settlement under the GATT. The apparent lesson of American unilateralism of the 1970s is that legitimacy pays off.

All these years later, the Melian Dialogue remains an instructive lens through which to examine the international order. In part that’s because bullying does work: the Athenians take Melos, after all. But, interestingly, the island’s resistance is more effective than the Athenians expect. The siege lasts nearly a year, the Melians score some small victories, and the Athenians have to call for reinforcements. In a passing remark that political theorists have mulled over ever since, Thucydides lets slip that the siege finally succeeds because of some “treachery taking place inside.” If not for this act of sabotage, we are left to believe, the Melian resistance might have endured a while longer. But what is often overlooked is that the Melians, in their entreaties to the Athenians, appeal not to universal values of justice but to their adversary’s own self-­interest. As the Melian envoy warns, the Athenians might “force others to become [enemies] who would otherwise have never thought of it.”

The greatest effect of America’s approach over these last two years has been to shake our conviction in its reliability. Not since the War of 1812 and the Fenian Raids have we so doubted the U.S. is on our side. Now an entire generation of Canadian policy makers may be brought up to think differently and to take steps to ensure our interests against the unpredictability of U.S. behaviour — at great cost to the superpower that wrote the rules.