What a difference 75 years makes

What a difference 75 years makes
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On the 75th anniversary of D-Day, President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Memo: Biden seeks revival in South Carolina Congress eyes billion to billion to combat coronavirus Sanders makes the case against Biden ahead of SC primary MORE will visit Portsmouth, England and then traverse the English Channel for ceremonies at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.

Over 80 million people may have perished during World War II. More than 12 million Americans were serving in the military in 1945, compared with 334,000 in 1939. During the course of this global conflict, 407,000 were killed, and another 671,000 were wounded.

After the war, the U.S. helped rebuild the devastated European continent through the Marshall Plan enacted in 1948, and then provided military protection via the establishment of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949.


The Cold War occurred between 1947 and 1991, ending with the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989 and the Soviet Union itself two years later. Even though the Soviet Union was strong militarily, it was always weak economically.

For example, after the USSR fell apart, the GDP of Russia in the early 1990s was about equal to Illinois’, measured in nominal dollars.

Arguably, the United States in 1945 was history’s most powerful nation-state in terms of global reach, accounting for almost half of international production, possessing the dominant military power and enjoying a monopoly on nuclear weapons. 

In addition, the continental U.S. escaped the ruinous physical destruction that ravaged Europe, the Soviet Union, China and Japan.

By 1980, the current members of the EU and the U.S. were responsible for almost three-fifths of global GDP (China was merely a blip on the radar screen). The United States was also the world’s largest exporter and source for international direct investment.

What about now? The combined 2017 GDP of the U.S. and EU in nominal dollars was down to 41 percent of the global total.


Using the purchasing power parity (PPP) method preferred by most economists, that share slipped to below one-third. In PPP terms, China has already surpassed the U.S. as the planet’s largest economy. China is also the leading exporter and manufacturer.

Asia as a whole accounts for 60 percent of global population and 36 percent of exports. Next year, it may exceed 50 percent of total GDP measured by PPP and is also becoming a leading force in international direct investment.

The United States enjoys robust job creation and a low unemployment rate. On the other hand, it suffers from sclerotic policymaking, and its government debt has exploded from $1 trillion in 1982 to $22 trillion today. 

Most Americans would be hard pressed to explain what this huge accumulation of debt has purchased. Certainly not the world’s most modern infrastructure, nor affordable health care for all citizens, nor global leadership in K-12 education, nor an added sense of security from potential foreign enemies. 

The U.S. is also the world’s largest external debtor and exports only slightly more than Germany, a nation with one-quarter of the American population.

Meanwhile in Europe, economic growth has been anemic for years. The U.K. may soon exit the EU and nationalism, populism and euro skepticism are combining to weaken continental unity. 

Russia threatens its borders, Italy has decided to join China’s controversial Belt and Road Initiative, and President Trump openly supports Brexit, the dismantling of the EU and a reduced U.S. commitment to NATO.

The West has dominated the global scene economically, strategically and politically since at least 1820. D-Day was a watershed event solidifying the special bonds between the European allies and the United States. 

However, three-quarters of a century later, transatlantic drift, relative U.S. and EU decline, and Asia’s expanding power base will profoundly transform international relations for the remainder of the 21st century.

Earl Fry recently retired as a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. He has also been a Fulbright lecturer at the Sorbonne, the University of Helsinki and the University of Toronto.