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Research Questions

  1. What is the current overall health of the post–World War II liberal international order?
  2. Which variables can inform the order's current health?
  3. What are the implications for U.S. policy?

As part of a larger study on the future of the post–World War II liberal international order, RAND researchers analyze the health of the existing order and offer implications for future U.S. policy.

Today's order includes a complex mix of formal global institutions, such as the United Nations and World Trade Organization; bilateral and regional security organizations; and liberal political norms. To evaluate the health of the existing order, the researchers examined several categories of indicators, including both inputs (such as state participation in and attitudes toward order) and outcomes that reflect the order's primary objectives (such as economic liberalization and interdependence, peace among great powers, and adherence to the order's norms).

Across numerous variables, the analysis demonstrates an impressive degree of stability — and, in many cases, steady progress — in the international order since 1945 and especially since the mid-1980s. However, the recent global populist upsurge is placing the popular consensus on key elements of the order in jeopardy. These elements include the desirability of open markets and open borders, the value of multilateral solutions, and the very notion of the rule of law. The study's overall conclusion is that the postwar order continues to enjoy many elements of stability but is increasingly threatened by major geopolitical and domestic socioeconomic trends that are calling into question the order's fundamental assumptions.

Key Findings

The Order Remains Relatively Stable Since 1945, but Recent Trends May Threaten It

  • To gauge the health of the order, researchers examined 18 indicators, including development assistance, membership in formal institutions and alliances, peacekeeping contributions, territorial changes resulting from conflict, global indexes of democracy, and public opinion, among others.
  • Based on the analysis in this report, until recently, measurable indicators of the rule-based order remained broadly stable and did not show evidence of a rapid decline. However, developments since 2014 — including Russian aggression in Ukraine, the Brexit vote, the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and the continued influence of far-right parties in Europe — suggest that the order could be in much more peril than the data through 2014 would suggest.
  • In many ways, the foundational promise of the order is economic prosperity. If public and governmental audiences perceive that the order can no longer make this promise, support for its rules, norms, and institutions could be fatally weakened, partly because so many other variables are affected by economic ones. In this sense, economic growth and stability represent a basic source of equilibrium in the order.
  • Our analysis strongly suggests that the order is robust enough to sustain some negative impacts, but if negative trends were to accelerate in all three sources of equilibrium — economic indicators, U.S. leadership, and governing systems (via the rise of authoritarian populism) — at the same time, the order could sustain fatal damage.

Recommendations

  • Given the multiple signs of stress already in place, were the United States to withdraw its support for alliances, end contributions to international institutions, and abandon free-trade accords, the result could be fatal damage to any concept of a meaningful international order. It is no time to conduct large-scale experiments in U.S. global retrenchment.
  • Maintaining the stability of global economic markets, institutions, and rules is the indispensable foundation for sustaining the order.
  • The United States must develop strategies for balancing engagement, norm enforcement, and accommodation of other leading powers, particularly China and Russia.
  • The tone and character of U.S. leadership will have to change to sustain the current order. The undeniable multipolarity of the emerging system, as well as the high sensitivity of populist and nationalist great powers, means that traditional U.S. approaches to diplomacy in an era of U.S. preeminence must give way to approaches that are more nuanced and patient. This does not mean the United States should step back from decisive leadership but rather that it should exercise that leadership in ways that are less directive and domineering.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Participation in Formal Regional and International Institutions

  • Chapter Three

    Economic Liberalization and Interdependence

  • Chapter Four

    International Conflict and Peace

  • Chapter Five

    Adherence to Liberal Norms and Values

  • Chapter Six

    Major-Power Signaling and Policies Toward Order

  • Chapter Seven

    Public Attitudes Toward Elements of the Order

  • Chapter Eight

    Foundations of Order: Geopolitics and Ideology

  • Chapter Nine

    Summing Up: The State of the Order

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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