The Once and Future Order - What Comes After Hegemony?
Few foreign policy issues have attracted more attention in recent years than the problem of sustaining the U.S.-led liberal international order. AfterWorld War II, the United States sponsored a set of institutions, rules, and norms designed to avoid repeating the mistakes of the 1930s and promote peace, prosperity, and democracy. The resulting system has served as the bedrock of U.S. national security strategy ever since. In everything from arms control to peacekeeping to trade to human rights, marrying U.S. power and international norms and institutions has achieved significant results. Washington continues to put maintaining the international order at the center of the United States’ global role.
Yet the survival of that order—indeed, of any ordering principles at all—now seems in question. Dissatisfied countries such as China and Russia view its operation as unjust, and people around the world are angry about the economic and social price they’ve had to pay for globalization.
It’s not clear exactly what President-elect Donald Trump’s views are on the role of the United States in the world, much less the liberal order, but his administration will confront the most profound foreign policy task that any new administration has faced in 70 years: rethinking the role that the international order should play in U.S. grand strategy. Whatever Trump’s own views, the instincts of many in Washington will be to attempt to restore a unified, U.S.-dominated system by confronting the rule breakers and aggressively promoting liberal values. This would be the wrong approach; in trying to hold the old order together, Washington could end up accelerating its dissolution. What the United States must learn to do instead is navigate and lead the more diversified, pluralistic system that is now materializing—one with a bigger role for emerging-market powers and more ways for countries other than the United States to lead than the current order provides.
THE HOUSE THAT WE BUILT
The creation of the current order, like that of its two modern predecessors—the Concert of Europe and the League of Nations—was an effort to design the basic architecture of international relations in the wake of a war among major powers. All three orders used a range of tools—organizations, treaties, informal meetings, and norms—to attain the goals of their creators. The current order’s main institutions include the United Nations, NATO, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the G-20.
Together, these bodies have influenced almost every aspect of the modern world. The UN has provided a forum for the international community to rally around shared interests and ratify joint action. The international financial institutions have boosted trade and stabilized the global economy during crises. Multilateral treaties and agreements brokered through various bodies have helped avoid chaotic arms races and uncontrolled nuclear proliferation. And dense global networks of experts, activists, businesses, and nonprofits, operating within the framework of the liberal order, have built consensus and taken action on hundreds of other issues.
The rules of any such order are not self-enforcing. When combined with direct state power, however, they encourage governments to accept norms of conduct such as nonaggression, the avoidance of nuclear weapons, and respect for human rights. The United States would be wise to do what it can to sustain these norms in the future. The trick is figuring out how to do so—and what, given all the changes the world is now experiencing, the emerging order should look like.
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