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Research Questions

  1. What do we mean by "international order"?
  2. Why is the international order an important topic to explore today?
  3. What are the primary engines (or causal mechanisms) that drive states to participate in the order?
  4. What has been the U.S. approach to the order since World War II?

Since 1945, the United States has pursued its global interests by building and maintaining various alliances, economic institutions, security organizations, political and liberal norms, and other tools — often collectively referred to as the international order. In this first report of a series on the emerging international order, RAND researchers offer several lenses to understand the character of the existing post–World War II liberal order. In addition to outlining the broad scope of the issue and the tools through which the order affects state behavior, the report categorizes and outlines the causal mechanisms that lead states to strengthen and work within the order. The report then reviews how U.S. policymakers have consistently viewed the international order as a key means of achieving U.S. interests in the world. Finally, the report concludes with potential questions for a research agenda that explores what type of international order — and, thus, what type of world — the United States should seek over the coming decade.

Key Findings

Framing International Order: Definition, Significance, Drivers, and U.S. Approach

  • We conceive of order as the body of rules, norms, and institutions that govern relations among the key players in the international environment. An order is a stable, structured pattern of relationships among states that involves some combination of parts, including emergent norms, rulemaking institutions, and international political organizations or regimes, among others.
  • The primary reason that we and others are focusing attention on the international order today is because it is perceived to be at risk — and, by extension, U.S. interests served by the order might also be at risk. The nature and severity of the perceived threats have important implications for the nature of the U.S. policy response.
  • The causal mechanisms that lead states to strengthen and work within the order include the rational pursuit of common interests, the interests of a hegemon, domestic politics, socialization and constructed identities, and system effects.
  • Building an international order has been a formal program of U.S. foreign policy since at least the 1940s and an aspirational goal since the nation's founding. According to its post–World War II architects, the international order protects U.S. values by maintaining an environment in which the ideals of a free and democratic society — like that of the United States — can flourish. The United States has used both power and idealistic notions of shared interests to underwrite the rules-based order. In this sense, it employed both hard and soft power to construct the order.

Recommendations

  • The main research question to explore going forward asks what type of order the United States should seek over the coming decade. The answer is often taken for granted because American analysts and policymakers have a firm image in their head of "international order" as the liberal internationalist variety pushed by the United States since 1945. But order comes in many flavors, and it is not clear that the dominant model of the past 60 or 70 years can or should be the default approach going forward.
  • In order to develop good strategy and policy, it will be especially important to take seriously the tensions, contradictions, and dilemmas that exist among and between different visions of order.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    The Role of International Order in U.S. Strategy

  • Chapter Two

    Defining the International Order

  • Chapter Three

    Engines of International Order

  • Chapter Four

    U.S. Approach to the International Order

  • Chapter Five

    Implications for a Research Agenda

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense's Office of Net Assessment and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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