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Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets U.S. President Donald Trump for bilateral talks during the G7 summit in Biarritz, France on Aug. 25, 2019.

POOL New/Reuters

Ian Buruma is the author of various books, including A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir.

Seventy-five years ago, the prestige of Britain and the United States could not have been higher. They had defeated imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, and they did so in the name of freedom and democracy. True, their ally, Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, had different ideas about these fine ideals, and did most of the fighting against Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Still, the English-speaking victors shaped the postwar order in large parts of the world.

The basic principles of this order had been laid down in the Atlantic Charter, drawn up in 1941 by prime minister Winston Churchill and president Franklin D. Roosevelt on a battleship off the coast of Newfoundland. What they had in mind, after the eventual defeat of the Axis powers, was a world of international co-operation, multilateral institutions and the right of peoples to be independent and free. Although Churchill resisted extending this right to Britain’s colonial subjects, Roosevelt believed that the Anglo-American relationship was too important to quarrel about it too much.

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For many decades – despite a number of reckless wars, eruptions of Cold War hysteria and opportunistic support for some very undemocratic allies – Britain and the U.S. maintained their image as models of liberal democracy and internationalism.

In the age of Donald Trump and Brexit, this image has been shattered. Of all the older democracies, it is in the U.S. and Britain that right-wing populists have taken over conservative parties and rule their respective countries. The same has happened in Hungary and Poland, but they were never models of liberalism, and also in India, but its democracy is not as old.

Mr. Trump’s Republicans – with their slogan of “America First,” borrowed from the isolationists of the 1930s, who were often more sympathetic to Hitler than to Roosevelt – stand for everything FDR opposed. And Britain has turned its back on Europe in a way that Churchill – an internationalist and one of the first advocates of European unity (though he was vague about Britain’s role in a united Europe) – never would have condoned.

How could this have happened?

There are of course many reasons, which are not unique to the U.S. or Britain: increasing economic inequality, sclerotic institutions, complacent elites, animus against immigrants and so on. But I would argue that the current troubles in both countries are linked to their greatest triumph in 1945.

Having emerged from isolationism and defeated the Axis powers, the U.S. might have grown a little high on its military power. The temptation to regard Churchill (always more popular in the U.S. than Britain was) as a model of leadership has led many American presidents astray. His is the bulldog face of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism and heroic stands for freedom that play to U.S. leaders' self-regard. George W. Bush was not the first presidential Churchill-worshipper who decided to embark on a misconceived war, in his case in Iraq against Saddam Hussein, who was brutal, but not remotely as threatening as Hitler.

Mr. Trump’s revival of “America First” isolationism, his loathing for international institutions and U.S. allies in the democratic world, are at least partly the result of Mr. Bush’s disastrous war. Mr. Trump appealed to the kind of people – white, rural, often poorly educated and deeply resentful of coastal elites – who were sent off to die in the United States’ overseas adventures.

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Former British prime minister Tony Blair was as much of a Churchill-worshipper as Mr. Bush. He, too, had an almost messianic view of the Anglo-American alliance on a mission to rid the world of contemporary “Hitlers.” At the time of the Iraq War, he argued that only one nation had stood by Britain in its hour of gravest peril.

For years, Britain stayed aloof from every European effort to establish common institutions, not just because Clement Attlee’s socialist government in the 1940s believed that Europe would destroy Britain’s welfare state, but also because the British could not conceive of their country being on a par with other European powers. Britain had won the war; the others had either been Nazis or were overrun by Nazis.

Even after leaders such as Harold Macmillan realized that Britain could not afford to stay out of the European Economic Community, the lure of standing shoulder to shoulder with the U.S., especially in faraway wars, was stronger than the desire to play a leading role in Europe. Former U.S. secretary of state Dean Acheson described the refusal to seize the opportunity as Britain’s “greatest mistake of the postwar period.”

So here we are, with an isolationist United States and Britain increasingly cut off from Europe. Their moment of greatest glory turned out to contain the seeds of future disaster.


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