Taking Stock of a Shifting World Order


Aug 31, 2018

Eroding world map

Photo by imagoRB/Getty Images

Distinguished members of the U.S. foreign policy establishment had been expressing concern about the erosion of the liberal world order well before Donald Trump's election in 2016. Emerging powers such as China and India had become increasingly vocal in citing the disconnect between the post-1945 balance that it reflected and the continuing shift of global weight to the Asia-Pacific. The downturn of 2008-09 had undermined confidence in both America's competence as a macroeconomic steward and its health as a democratic polity. And it had become axiomatic to note that a state-centric architecture aimed at preventing a third world war was increasingly incapable of incorporating nonstate actors into its deliberations and mobilizing collective action to tackle borderless challenges.

Most conversations about modernizing the liberal world order, though, had been focused externally—how to make it more inclusive of new centers of power, restore the appeal of Western values and institutions, and devise a framework that relied more on nimble coalitions of state and nonstate actors to make headway on the day's pressing issues. Few observers anticipated that the most potent challenge to its resilience could—and ultimately would—originate from the leader of its principal architect, the United States. In Washington, after all, few injunctions command more widespread agreement than upholding the liberal world order. The more self-evident one regards a proposition to be, the less time one invests in making an affirmative case for it—and, conversely, in identifying and refuting potential objections, at least three of which deserve attention.

Objection 1: The term “liberal world order” is not well-defined.

It has not always been enlightened. Harvard University's Joseph Nye notes that “Washington may have displayed a general preference for democracy and openness, but it frequently supported dictators or made cynical self-interested moves along the way.” It has never been unitary and all-encompassing. While the postwar order has been global in its effects, it has been narrower in its constitution: it was largely designed by and intended to advance the interests of Western powers, especially the United States. It is more accurate to posit that there is a set of regional orders whose dynamics have grown increasingly interdependent as a result of economic globalization and information technology. Finally, it has not always been orderly. While the construct of mutually assured destruction provided a veneer of high-level calm during the Cold War, those 45 years were marked by political violence, decolonization movements, and ideological competition that spanned the world.

Considering how fraught each of the constituent terms is—“liberal,” “world,” and “order”—it is not surprising that the resulting concatenation can be—and has been—understood in so many ways. The liberal world order is better understood as the U.S.-led postwar order. That reduction is intended not as a critique. Only by clarifying its contours and acknowledging its limits can the United States and its allies think properly about how to modernize it.

Objection 2: U.S. participation in the postwar order has become increasingly disconnected from the economic welfare of an ever-increasing segment of Americans.

Consider the following data:

  • Journalist Steven Brill reports in his new book that middle-class family incomes grew faster than upper-class family incomes between 1929 and 1970. “In 1971,” however, “the trend started going the other way and has accelerated (except for a slight pause in 2015).” The share for the bottom 90 percent, meanwhile, which stood at 68 percent in 1970, “had fallen to 49 percent by 2012, the first time the share ever dipped below half.”
  • Median household income increased by just 19.5 percent between 1975 and 2015 (translating to a paltry 0.45 percent rate of annual growth).
  • Median personal income for those 55 to 69 tapered off after 2000, for the first time since data become available in 1950.

In an important report he wrote earlier this year while based at the Center for a New American Security, Harry Krejsa explained that U.S. voters “arguably wrote national security policymakers a blank check under the specter of the Soviet Union and financed it through the postwar expansion, but that era has ended, and no diplomatic solution or strategic initiative can now succeed if the implications for everyday Americans are not at the core of their design.” He urged the postwar order's defenders not to “ignore the broad and justified sense that internationalism is not paying off for everyday Americans” as it did for roughly three decades after World War II's conclusion.

Objection 3: Perhaps the most visible manifestation of U.S. engagement abroad, the application of military force, has produced poor results over the past two decades.

Americans have legitimate grounds to question the nature and scope of their country's present participation in that order, beginning with its military activities. The war in Afghanistan is approaching its 17th birthday, with no end in sight, and the Taliban controls roughly as much territory as it did before 9/11. The war in Iraq, meanwhile, turned 15 in March and spawned the Islamic State (ISIL), which has wreaked havoc across the Middle East and is increasingly fomenting chaos beyond the region. And roughly seven years after the U.S.-assisted overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya has become an incubator for both ISIL and al-Qaida. It is not surprising, then, that, according to a recent study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, younger Americans “are significantly less supportive of the use of military force, defense spending, and other forms of militant internationalism.”

These three objections long predate Donald Trump's presidency; to claim that his policies are causing the postwar order's erosion is both to overstate the extent of its erstwhile unity and to discount the confluence of forces that had been weakening it well before he took office. Nor, however, can one discount the extent to which his actions are compounding its frailty: whether abandoning key multilateral agreements (including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris climate accord, and the Iran deal); imposing tariffs on longstanding allies across the world; and weakening America's commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the European Union, and, more broadly, the transatlantic project.

While President Trump has raised important questions about U.S. participation in the postwar order, his foreign policy seems far less likely to yield a thoughtful recalibration of that system than an accelerated erosion. Recall the philosopher Edmund Burke's admonition: “Rage and frenzy will pull down more in half an hour than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in a hundred years.” If mythology about the order is misplaced, so, too, is insouciance about its degradation. In early June, the University of Birmingham's Patrick Porter penned a trenchant, widely discussed critique of “the claim that a unitary 'liberal order' prevailed and defined international relations.” Importantly, though, he stipulated near the end that…

…neither the legitimacy of American power in the world nor many of its benefits [is being questioned]. If there was to be a superpower emerging from the rubble of world war in midcentury, we should be grateful it was the United States, given the totalitarian alternatives on offer. Under America's aegis, there were islands of liberty where prosperous markets and democracies grew. U.S. internationalism rebuilt Western Europe and East Asia and successfully contained Soviet communism.

The trouble is that the president's detractors tend to highlight the damage that his policies are doing to U.S. interests without reckoning fully with the critique he offers and presenting a compelling alternative. The University of London's Stephen Wertheim and the American Council on Germany's Thomas Meaney urge them to “forge a future foreign policy that improves on what preceded Mr. Trump's election” and “resist collapsing America's interests into an abstract 'order'.”

An increasingly concerning fiscal outlook and an increasingly contested external environment mean that the United States cannot preserve in amber the global balance that presently prevails. It may have to distinguish more rigorously between what Foreign Affairs Editor-in-Chief Gideon Rose calls the “core” and the “periphery” of the order, recognizing that one cannot have a strategic foreign policy if one feels compelled to invest in every theater and address every crisis with equal vigor. It may have to make more serious accommodations for emerging powers, recognizing that clinging to an increasingly ossified structure will only intensify revisionist pressures. It may have to appreciate more fully that the failure of certain countries or regions to bend to U.S. strategic preferences may not reflect the insufficient application of military force as much as the intrinsic inability of external power to alter domestic configurations. It may have to decide whether it accords greater priority to the centrality of U.S. influence within the current order or to the order's modernization. And it may have to ensure that its participation in world affairs advances the material welfare of a growing segment of Americans.

While the preceding paints a gloomy picture, it is important not to overreach; the postwar order is eroding, but it would be premature to contend that we are returning to the interwar period, where there were countries, such as Japan and Germany, that were militarily and ideologically revisionist. In addition, the past 70 years have produced a range of multilateral institutions and supply chains that bind countries' fortunes together far more closely than ever before. “Unlike in the 1930s,” Financial Times columnist Edward Luce reminds us, “there is still a global order to defend.” Nor would it be accurate to suggest that we have entered into a new Cold War simply because great-power competition is becoming more salient. Here are some notable differences between the period of U.S.-Soviet competition and the present era of world affairs:

  1. Then: The United States had one overarching antagonist that focused its mind: the Soviet Union.
    Now: While the United States confronts a formidable long-term competitor in China, a nimble short-term spoiler in Russia, an ever-evolving jihadist threat, and an increasingly threatening North Korea, none of those challenges is comparably suited to mobilizing a shared national purpose.
  2. Then: The United States classified the Soviet Union as an antagonist and adopted a policy, containment, that guided eight administrations.
    Now: The United States does not know where exactly to locate China along the continuum between ally and adversary; nor, accordingly, does it know what policy to adopt towards its putative superpower successor.
  3. Then: The United States and the Soviet Union each presided over blocs of ideologically aligned countries.
    Now: There are few, if any, such blocs today; instead, smaller countries increasingly maneuver to benefit from great-power competition.
  4. Then: The Cold War featured a struggle between two clearly defined ideologies.
    Now: While liberalism has lost some of its luster, there is no clear successor in the offing.
  5. Then: Ideological clashes and arms races were the defining characteristics of U.S.-Soviet relations.
    Now: U.S.-China relations are grounded far more in economic competition.
  6. Then: U.S.-Soviet rivalry provided a high-level prism through which to view world affairs for nearly a half-century.
    Now: No comparable framework presently exists, a reality that is increasingly apparent with the ongoing erosion of the postwar (really, the post-Cold War) order.
  7. Then: Despite its seeming stability, the Cold War was an exceptionally brutal period of human history: tens of millions died in civil wars, proxy wars, and genocides.
    Now: The acceleration of disorder belies the reality that today's world, on balance, is far less violent.

This last comparison is one of the reasons why nostalgia for the Cold War seems misguided: the world is less violent. A RAND Corporation study finds that “up until 2014, the overall levels of deadly political conflict had been declining for decades—since the end of the 1960s in the case of interstate wars and since the mid-1990s in the case of intrastate conflict.” Scholars have proffered a litany of explanations for such trends—ranging from growing “war aversion” to the expansion of economic interdependence—and there are compelling reasons to believe that they can endure. Still, it is important to be circumspect. It may be that the putative long peace of the past seven decades is less a self-propelling phenomenon than it is a blessed anomaly: a recently published study contends that “even if there have been genuine changes in the processes that generate wars over the past 200 years, data on the frequency and severity of wars alone are insufficient to detect those shifts. The long peace pattern would need to endure for at least another 100 to 150 years before it could plausibly be called a genuine trend.” In a similar vein, one of the foremost historians of the First World War, Margaret MacMillan, reminds us that human folly is an enduring phenomenon: it would be misguided to “assume that the peaceful parts of the world are particularly virtuous or that they represent a clear trend for humanity's moving away from war. We have been fighting each other for a very long time—as far as we can tell, from the moment we started to organize ourselves and settle down as agriculturalists.”

Every indication suggests, unfortunately, that the world will continue to produce and invest in increasingly destructive weapons. Thus, while the number of nuclear warheads worldwide has fallen from a peak of 70,300 in 1986 to roughly 14,200 as of early 2018, an 80 percent decline, nonproliferation analysts Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris explain that “the overwhelming portion of the reduction happened in the 1990s. Moreover, comparing today's inventory with that of the 1950s is like comparing apples and oranges; today's forces are vastly more capable. The pace of reduction has slowed significantly. Instead of planning for nuclear disarmament, the nuclear-armed states appear to plan to retain large arsenals for the indefinite future.” Meanwhile, the construct of mutually assured destruction (MAD), which guided U.S.-Soviet nuclear relations for nearly half a century, is also under duress.[1] James Miller, U.S. under secretary of defense for policy from 2012 to 2014, and Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security, warned (PDF) this past September that “emerging new military capabilities—cyber, space, missile defense, long-range strike, and (cutting through all) autonomous systems—are increasing uncertainties associated with strategic stability and creating potential slippery slopes of escalation.”

The postwar order seems poised to continue eroding, without a clear alternative in the offing. The reflex to analogize when confronting uncertainty is hardwired; indeed, one of the first steps we take when confronting an unfamiliar problem is to see if our past experiences might offer any guidance. But straining to refract today's disorder within a Cold War prism is misguided: a strategy that was designed to counter a single nemesis is likely to prove of little prescriptive value in addressing a panoply of geographically and topically diffuse challenges, especially given how much larger a role nonstate actors and information technology play in shaping policy priorities. No less the architect of containment, George Kennan, warned that America's post-Cold War foreign policy would run astray if it aimed to chart “a highly unsettled and unstable world” by contriving a successor to its “fixation on the Soviet Union.” In short, guidance on navigating today's uncertainty is wanting. It has often taken cataclysmic events to inaugurate new eras of geopolitical order—the Thirty Years' War, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and the two world wars, for example. One hopes that the postwar order will instead be reinvigorated through farsighted statecraft.


  • [1] While contemporary observers often praise MAD for restraining U.S. and Soviet adventurism, the world came perilously close to the brink of nuclear Armageddon—once in 1962 and again in 1983. Retired Air Force General George Lee Butler, the former commander of U.S. Strategic Command, ventures that it averted that outcome "by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion."

Ali Wyne is a policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

A version of this commentary originally appeared on Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte on August 31, 2018.

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