The architects of the post-World War II international order began their work even before the shooting stopped. Reacting to a half century that had seen the most destructive conflicts in human history, the worst economic depression, and the rise of autocrats bent on conquest, U.S. leaders and their foreign partners saw fundamental flaws in the structure of international politics. In a moment of titanic ambition, they endeavored to transform the interactions among states, moving from a global structure based on the balance of power, spheres of influence, and exclusionary economic blocs to an open, liberal, and rules-based order favorable to capitalism and democracy.
They succeeded remarkably. In the seven decades since its inception, the post-war liberal order has generated profound benefits. Since World War II, military conflict among the great powers has been absent—the longest period of great-power peace in modern times. The global financial architecture has reduced both the frequency and severity of global banking crises, and the fall of protectionist barriers has produced a dramatic rise in trade and investment. In recent decades, billions of people have moved out of poverty’s ranks. Democracy, which in the early twentieth century was limited largely to a few European nations and their settler offshoots, now encompasses half of humanity.
Yet for all its benefits, a crisis is brewing for the liberal international order. Trade liberalization has stalled, freedom has contracted in recent years, and the integrity of national borders has become less respected. Increasing numbers of voters in key democracies see little concrete gain from supporting the order and are casting their ballots accordingly. Some observers, noting such negative trends, have already pronounced the era of liberal order over, a vestige of the unique power politics that shaped the latter half of the twentieth century.
Reports of the liberal order’s demise are greatly exaggerated, but they do point to significant and growing threats to its future. Together, these pressures present the most profound challenge to U.S. foreign policy over the next several years. Dealing with them should be at the top of the American agenda, and doing so starts with a clear understanding of international order and the nature of the threats to it.
New Threats to the Old Order
The notion of an open, rules-based liberal order represents a kind of foreign policy shorthand. It refers to the prevailing constellation of institutions, regimes, rules, and norms that seek to govern international behavior, many of which have been put in place under U.S. leadership since 1945. It is a rules-based order because it elevates standards above a might-makes-right doctrine, though there remain broad domains—such as cyberspace—where few rules exist. It is open, because any nation-state that wishes to follow the standards can join its ranks—there are no exclusionary regional or ideological blocs. And it is liberal, because it is weighted toward the protection of free-market capitalism and liberal political values.
There exists, in fact, not one undifferentiated international order but multiple, overlapping orders that together comprise what American policymakers have traditionally held dear. These range from maritime rules and trade regimes to norms against forcible conquest and in support of state sovereignty. They include institutions like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, as well as a variety of key alliances and arrangements. Given the aggregate benefits it has generated for the countries that fall under its purview, by the 1990s the liberal order looked as if it might ultimately triumph everywhere, and as if even the last outliers would fall sway to its enticements.
Today that prediction seems to describe not just another time but another world. In recent years the order has been fraying rather than expanding. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and seizure of Crimea, for example, upended norms against territorial conquest, and the partial destruction of the Middle East’s state system has undermined notions of borders and sovereign rule. China’s claims to virtually the entire South China Sea has posed a profound challenge to the maritime order, as have piracy and Russia’s extensive claims in the Arctic Ocean. North Korean and Iranian nuclear pursuits have put pressure on the nonproliferation order, while the trade order is challenged by the rise of China’s globally competitive state-owned enterprises, stasis in the Doha Round of global talks, and rising protectionist sentiment in influential democracies. The human rights order, too, confronts new pressures. The wave of democratization that began in the 1970s has crested and freedom in the world continues a decade-long slide.
The 2016 U.S. presidential election threw fundamental questions about international order into high relief. It also revealed widespread doubts among many Americans about whether globalization, and by extension the order that structures it, benefits them rather than merely a narrow slice of coastal business and governmental elites. Though shaping and bolstering international order has for seven decades been a key aim of both Republican and Democratic administrations, President Donald Trump appears to share many of these doubts.
Looking through the prism of global order helps to clarify some of the numerous discrete threats facing the United States in the coming years. Some, like transnational terrorism, represent a threat to the country’s physical security. Others, like rising protectionism, challenge America’s trade-driven prosperity. Still others, like the rise of illiberal democracy, offend the country’s national values. Each can also be understood as a broader threat to the liberal international order, and together represent a priority set of issues for the new U.S. administration.
Four threats should be at the top of the list.
First is the threat posed by the Islamic State and other terrorist groups with international reach. The Islamic State’s ideology represents a negation of the liberal order, and its propagandists emphasized the group’s destruction of the “Sykes-Picot border” that existed between Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State’s society is closed, its rule theocratic, and it rejects most norms of international behavior. So long as the Islamic State provides either a compelling ideological alternative to liberal democracy or a source of terrorist attacks on the United States and its partners, the group will represent a threat that must be met with enhanced military, economic, and diplomatic efforts to destroy it.
Second, there is the threat stemming from Russia’s attack on several key principles of international order. Moscow has challenged the basic norms of sovereignty and self-determination by invading Georgia and Ukraine, seizing and annexing Crimea, and attempting to exercise a veto over its neighbors’ international alignments. Its military regularly enters the airspace and waters of NATO members and conducts information operations aimed at destabilizing democracies in Europe and elsewhere. Its combination of hacking, cyber trolling, and propagandizing, including in the United States, threatens to erode the trust on which democratic politics depends. The Trump administration will need to assemble its partners in an effort to push back with firmness against these and other Russian attempts to undermine elements of global order.
Third, China’s rise poses a long-term challenge to essential international institutions and rules. The conduct of its state-owned enterprises have revealed gaps in global trade rules, and the United States has had little success in stopping its currency manipulation. Its land reclamation and establishment of military outposts in the South China Sea threaten freedom of navigation and norms favoring the peaceful resolution of disputes. And its use of economic coercion for geopolitical ends poses a challenge to American allies caught between a security partnership with the United States and economic dependence on China. There are nuances, and even areas of partnership, with China, but accelerating the process of balancing its growing power will be important for stabilizing relations in the future.
Fourth, and most profoundly, elite-level support in the United States for a bolstered international order is undermined by the legitimate concerns shared by a large portion of the electorate. Americans are increasingly aware of the huge expense and dissatisfying results of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, and that the United States shoulders the lion’s share of NATO’s defense spending burden as well. Many feel that recent trade agreements have killed jobs in key sectors like manufacturing and mining, and that any net benefits of trade have not accrued equitably across the population. To a significant section of the voters, elements of the traditional American approach to bolstering international order—maintaining military might, intervening to punish rule-breakers, exercising paramount diplomatic leadership, strengthening alliances, disbursing foreign aid, and pushing for new trade and other economic agreements—don’t seem to be worth the cost.
This domestic disquiet, overlain by the first three threats and a panoply of others—from malign Iranian activity in the Middle East to North Korea’s provocations and aggression—puts the United States at a potential turning point. Its will and capacity to play the ultimate order-supporting role is newly in doubt. If Americans increasingly choose to disengage from the world, absent a direct threat to the homeland, vacuums will arise and will be filled at times by actors inimical to American interests and values or by the forces of chaos. Indeed, to some extent that has already started to occur.
There is no single alternative emerging to supplant the liberal order today—no communist bloc or ideologically coherent autocratic axis. Even the BRICS grouping, so fashionable just a few years ago, shows little unity of interests or ability to act in concert. The risk is not a China- or Russia-dominated illiberal global order, but rather that the post-World War II structure simply fragments. In this world, the principles embedded in the order become less universally binding, different parts of the world interpret and apply them based on local consensus or the desires of the regionally dominant power, institutions and arrangements that have successfully regulated key areas of state behavior become less effective, and, in short, the world becomes less stable and less ordered—with security, prosperity, and freedom as the attendant casualties.
The Way Forward
America’s task at hand is neither to allow the liberal order to fracture nor to embrace a spheres-of-influence successor that will invite conflict and regional domination. Instead, the overarching goal of U.S. foreign policy should be to reshape and reinvigorate global order so that it continues to safeguard security, prosperity, and freedom far into the future. This strategic objective will require a number of shifts, few of them easy.
Washington should work with rising powers like India, Brazil, and Indonesia to reshape global institutions and rules on terms that induce their active participation in enforcing them. It should encourage American partners to become more militarily and diplomatically active, both to multiply U.S. weight in the global order and to demonstrate to Americans that others are shouldering the global burden as well. It should become more assertive in exercising American leadership abroad rather than less, which often means dealing with problems like the Islamic State and Chinese provocations in the South China Sea sooner rather than later. It will need to distinguish between problems that can be solved from those that can simply be managed, and deploy scarce diplomatic and military resources accordingly. And it will need to work toward a combination of foreign and domestic policies that spread the benefits of globalization more equally to the American people.
All of this is an exceedingly tall order, but also a necessary one. The liberal international order is under pressure, at home and abroad, and requires enlightened American support. That order is imperfect, to be sure, and has its downsides as well as its benefits. But it remains better than any of the realistic alternatives. Now is the time for the United States to direct its energies to renewing the liberal order. Otherwise, we will all miss it when it’s gone.
Richard Fontaine is the president of the Center for a New American Security. Follow on Twitter @RHFontaine.