The Return of Anarchy?


World orders are not forever. The post-1945 Pax Americana, enforced through the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and a host of subsidiary and regional organizations, is tottering. Released from frozen stasis in 1989, it hit its zenith in 1991 with the first Gulf War. Fourteen members of the UN Security Council supported a resolution condemning Iraq for invading Kuwait, violating Kuwait’s territorial integrity in violation of article 2(4) of the UN Charter. A coalition of 34 nations pushed Iraq back out of Kuwait but then stopped; their goal was to punish rather than to conquer.

For the rest of the 1990s the Security Council was the place of first resort for global crises big and small. It failed miserably in Rwanda and Somalia, succeeded, ultimately, in Bosnia and East Timor, and was end run but later consulted in Kosovo. In 2001, with the attack on the United States on 9/11, the UN again found unity in supporting George W. Bush’s war on terror.

The Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 with the intention of toppling its government without the approval of the Security Council, however, caused an earthquake, a seismic shock rippling outward. Nor was the Iraq war a one-off. Bush and his team declared the legality of preemptive war and announced their doctrine of coalitions of the willing. The United States insisted that the best defense was a good offense and was prepared to use force alone or with shifting groups of partners.

Barack Obama re-embraced multilateralism with logic and fervor. The United States needed to prove that it was once again a good global citizen, not only to uphold and strengthen a rules-based order at a time when rising and returning powers were increasingly challenging those rules, but also to leverage and extend America’s declining resources as much as possible. Rushing to fix every crisis, with diplomacy, sanctions, or the threat or use of force, raised expectations the United States could not, and should not, try to meet. The Security Council, meanwhile, returned to its Cold War habits, meaning that multilateralism is once again a prescription for inaction. By Obama’s lights, he has played an honorable game; he also made a virtue of necessity, recommitting to the global order to reduce imperial overstretch.

The next four to eight years may well see the end of the United Nations as a serious forum for global decisionmaking about peace and security. That may sound melodramatic, but consider Frederic Hof’s characterization of “the West” in the Washington Post as a “hollow, demoralized, leaderless coalition of the frightened and unwilling.” Hof warns of the consequences of standing by and watching as the Syrian government and its allies systematically killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and destroyed the country to “save” it. “Having protected no Syrians from mass murder; having given Russia, the regime, and Iran a green light to do as they wished by chanting endlessly about there being no ‘military solution’ to the problem of Syria; having watched the Kremlin draw lessons from Syria to apply in Europe—where does it now end?”

Now ask yourself what a Trump presidency will do to change any of that. He and his generals will be highly willing to fight the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and any other terrorist groups that could strike America. They will be completely unwilling to use force to stop a government’s treatment of its own people, no matter how savage, and inclined to cut deals with other great powers that allow the big players to have spheres of interest, in the best nineteenth-century style. After all, what is most important is to make the world safe for business.

Based on the extrapolation of current trends (a foolhardy thing to do, but often the only alternative), I see the following dangers shaking and perhaps toppling the current world order.

A Transactional America. Obama expressed one of the fundamental precepts of his foreign policy in the 2010 National Security Strategy: “America has not succeeded by stepping outside the currents of international cooperation. We have succeeded by steering those currents in the direction of liberty and justice.” His was an institutional America, committed to alliances and organizations that the victors of World War II created and developed to safeguard, however imperfectly, global peace and prosperity. Trump’s will be a transactional America, looking for the best deal it can get to advance its interests wherever, whenever, and with whomever. UN approval will become a nice-to-have rather than a need-to-have.

A Preoccupied Europe. Even the cloudiest crystal ball yields this prediction. Although I am a euro-optimist over the long term, meaning that I believe that European integration will survive and will prove to be a powerful precedent for other regions over a century or so, the European Union has no bandwidth for anything other than its own internal challenges. EU countries may be able to pull together on issues like refugees and direct threats to regional security, but European leaders will step back from global leadership for the foreseeable future. The strongest traditional partner for the United States, Great Britain, is contending with the same war-weariness and public mistrust of government-led foreign misadventures as the U.S. government is.

Chinese and Russian Cynicism. Both China and Russia have a major stake in preserving the current UN-based order because both are permanent members of the Security Council with the right to veto resolutions that contravene their national interests. Both nations talk a good game with developing countries, periodically presenting themselves as BRICS—emerging or at least returning powers. But when it comes to the world order, they are deeply status quo. They show much less interest in actually using the Security Council to authorize actual action (as opposed to resolutions “deploring” or “regretting” action taken by other nations) to bolster global peace and security. Both are willing to authorize almost any kind of action taken in the name of fighting global terrorism, because their governments are genuinely afraid of terrorism and because labeling their domestic opponents “terrorists” has proved handy. Overall, however, a United Nations used as a prestige platform by Russia and China and a hand-writing forum by everyone else will become steadily more irrelevant to anything but global humanitarian issues.

Value-Free Foreign Policy. In 1945, the most important article in the UN Charter was 2(4), by which all UN members pledge not to use force against the territorial integrity or political sovereignty of any state. The goal was to avoid a repeat of the two great world wars that humanity had endured over thirty years. The Security Council was supposed to act whenever a state broke this pledge, deploying the resources of all states against the aggressor, in furtherance of the opening line of the preamble, to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” Over time, however, the second clause of the preamble has become more and more salient, promising “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.” That provision gave rise to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly in 1948, and a host of human rights treaties and resolutions commanding the assent—at least on paper—of almost all nations. Even the sovereignty guardians (many of them with the bitter experience of imperialist interventions behind them) have steadily recognized that unless the international community cares about what happens to citizens and not just states, chaos, terrorism, lawlessness, disease, and mass migration result. But although these values will continue to adorn the “whereas clauses” of UN resolutions, they will be merely a screen for the classic pursuit of great-power interests.

Rising Regional Institutions. In the absence of meaningful action by global institutions, regional organizations will have no choice but to fill the vacuum. NATO is an experienced practitioner of this game, although NATO members much prefer to act with UN authorization whenever possible. The African Union has also played a valuable security role with UN authorization over the past several decades and the Organization of American States may now be reinvigorated with the United States finally able to talk to Cuba again. The coming disintegration of Venezuela will test OAS resolve and offer a harbinger of either continued inertia or more active things to come. ASEAN has also stepped up its level of activity in recent years, which was made easier by the thaw between the United States and Myanmar. But we will also see more activity from newer regional organizations, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and other new regional and particularly sub-regional organizations, that can usefully serve the interests of the biggest power in the neighborhood, just as the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States authorized the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983. The United States will be getting a taste of its own medicine, as it did with Warsaw Pact authorizations of Soviet incursions during the Cold War. But with a growing number of powers using these tactics, the world will be a more chaotic place.

In his book World Order, Henry Kissinger defines his subject as “the concept held by a region or civilization about the nature of just arrangements and the distribution of power thought to be applicable to the entire world.” Any successful world order rests on a “balance between legitimacy and power,” the legitimacy of “a set of commonly accepted rules that defines the limits of permissible action,” and a “balance of power that enforces restraint where rules break down.”

I do not believe that a twentieth- or twenty-first-century world order can operate only through a balance of power—steadied and preserved by statesmen who revere Metternich and Talleyrand and understand themselves to be playing the same game. The post-1945 world order that is now coming to an end required a hegemon, a nation among nations that was willing to absorb the costs of making the global machinery work, insisting that other nations meet the commitments they had agreed to. Those costs include the direct costs of leadership—the willingness to negotiate, spend, and fight at the head of a coalition—and indirect costs, including the side payments to other nations necessary to keep them on board in a sanctions regime or another diplomatic or military venture that is costly for smaller players. 

After hegemony, to borrow the title of Robert Keohane’s most famous work, the institutions of the post-World War II order continued as useful platforms that reduced transaction costs for all nations in situations in which they shared common interests in reaching a Pareto-optimal outcome. They acted as “intervening variables,” not driving international outcomes but instead enabling them when national interests were already aligned. But when it took a bit of “help” to align those interests, active leadership was still required to push, prod, pressure, and pay off. The United States was still willing to play that role, most frequently joined by Europe and Japan.

If the United States is now forsaking that role, leaving it to other nations to sort out their own problems (as Turkey, Russia, and Syria began to do in late 2016), then the engine of the current world order is sputtering. Making deals with other great powers may advance U.S. interests in the coming decades, but a return to naked power politics will kill the core idea of that order, which was that the United States and other nations will thrive best in a rule-governed world. Without the willingness to uphold and enforce those rules, even at short-term national cost, we will return to the basic anarchy of the international realm until another great power or group of powers takes up the task of creating and imposing new rules. It could be a long and ugly wait.


Anne-Marie Slaughter is the president and CEO of New America. Follow on Twitter @SlaughterAM.