Cover: Summary of the Building a Sustainable International Order Project

Summary of the Building a Sustainable International Order Project

Published May 3, 2018

by Michael J. Mazarr


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Research Questions

  1. What has been the grand strategy of the United States and its allies in shaping the postwar order?
  2. Is the strategy behind the postwar order, and the order itself, still viable?
  3. What policy changes are required to sustain U.S. interests in shaping the international order?

The growing threat to the rules-based postwar order has become a defining feature of current discussions about world politics. Over the last two years, a RAND project team, working with outside experts, has sought to understand the existing international order, assess current challenges to the order, and recommend future U.S. policies to advance U.S. interests in the context of a multilateral order. This summary report of that project, Building a Sustainable International Order, outlines the overall project’s basic findings and lessons.

Key Findings

Major findings of the study

  • Because of both internal stresses on leading democracies and rising pressure from such challengers as Russia and China, the order is under unprecedented strain — but retains areas of persistent strength.
  • The order has value for U.S. interests and constitutes a significant form of U.S. competitive advantage by offering a supportive, multilateral context for U.S. objectives and values.
  • The international economic order has been the engine of the wider geopolitical order.
  • Orders grow out of broader realities in world politics, such as the degree of shared interests and values among leading states — but once institutionalized, the structure and habits of an order can shape state preferences and behavior.
  • The order must become more multilateral and shared.


  • An agenda for revitalizing a meaningfully shared order should begin with a renewed effort to build strong ties within the informal community of countries who have strongly invested in the order, including value-sharing democracies and some other partners.
  • Create a more shared order that takes seriously the demands for a more culturally diverse approach and does not privilege Western influence.
  • The United States must work with other leaders of the postwar economic order to develop a strategy for sustaining the economic elements of a shared order. Such an agenda would include efforts to reaffirm support for the WTO and its dispute-resolution mechanism as the shared way of resolving disputes, fight back urges for tariffs and nontariff protectionist measures, and enhance the stability of the global financial architecture. The United States should use the institutional framework to begin a dialogue on mechanisms to enhance equality and fairness in economic outcomes.
  • Develop a powerful but noninterventionist agenda for liberal value promotion that is more likely to sustain multilateral support.
  • Invest in mechanisms of intergovernmental collective action and nongovernmental organizations.
  • Clarify — and prioritize — baseline rules for conduct in international relations specifically focused on trade openness and nonaggression.
  • Use the normative and gravitational power of the order as the foundation for strategies regarding China and Russia.

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 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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