The Liberal International Order Cannot Survive the Absence of American Power
One challenge in navigating the debate over the future of the liberal world order is that American power has been the primary source of that order, but the United States is an imperfect practitioner of its own grand strategy of promoting a rules-based global system. Criticism of the liberal international order often defaults into criticism of American foreign policy, or of American political leadership past and present. Or it turns into an Alice-in-Wonderland fantasy of what the world could be like if only power was shared democratically, if only multilateral institutions were not governed by great powers, or if only countries did not pursue narrow self-interests.
American leadership of the international system since the early 1940s has certainly been preferable to the alternatives.
No nation governed by human beings will ever be perfect, just as no country’s statecraft will ever be truly enlightened. But American leadership of the international system since the early 1940s has certainly been preferable to the alternatives — the victory of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in World War II, or the extension of Soviet power after 1945 to encompass not just eastern Europe but all of it.
As part of its leadership, the United States constructed an institutional architecture — including military alliances like NATO and multilateral organizations like the United Nations — that gave lesser powers not only security guarantees but defined a set of rules governing the global commons, the extent and limits of state sovereignty, an open international economy governed by markets, and norms of global good citizenship.
These were shared endeavors in which the United States worked with allies in Europe and Japan as well as with other nations including the Soviet Union and China. But make no mistake: the United States in 1945 and again in 1991 dominated over the other great powers as a result of first a hot war and then a cold one. Leaders in Washington could have pursued raw forms of hegemony that did not constrain American power through multilateral institutions or reciprocal alliance commitments and which did not open the American market to former competitors. That the United States did so was the result of a bet that America could not be secure or prosperous in a world that wasn’t.
The problem today is that the liberal international order worked perhaps too well to uplift Western competitors like China — whose access to the American market in no way reciprocates American access to the Chinese market, and whose military ambitions are incapable of being balanced by any nation other than the United States. The European solidarity that arose under the American defense umbrella and grew out of the Marshall Plan has led advocates of the European Union to believe that they can handle their own security — or at least it did until Russia invaded Ukraine.
Countries like today’s Russia, whose imperial predecessor was defeated not only by the power of the NATO alliance but by the values of the democratic West, want to erode the liberal order so they can return to a spheres-of-influence world in which democratic values have little standing. Countries like China have similar though perhaps more ambitious goals, including replacing the consensual hub-and-spokes U.S. alliance system with one centered on Beijing and organized coercively in hierarchical fashion, as befits the traditional Middle Kingdom.
Countries like India are rising as world powers, but have yet to embrace the responsibilities that come with sitting at the apex of the international system. Much easier, especially for those Indians still in hoc to Third Worldism and deference to a defunct Non-Aligned Movement, to critique America for having sponsored international institutions that privileged the rich West, even though the form of open globalization these institutions produced have been the greatest sources of prosperity for rising powers in Asia.
It is an error to conflate the liberal world order with the daily twists and turns of American foreign policy.
It is an error to conflate the liberal world order with the daily twists and turns of American foreign policy. Doing so produces muddled thinking, like simultaneously criticizing the United States for political outcomes in Iraq (where America intervened) and Syria (where it did not), as if Washington were a puppeteer and no other country had it within its power to shape developments in these places far removed from American shores.
Even as the liberal international order is not simply a proxy for American foreign policy, at the same time a global rules-based system is unlikely to survive the absence of American power. If not reversed, the most likely outcome of the retrenchment launched by President Obama, compounded by the confusion produced by America’s current political constellation, is a world riven by raw balance-of-power dynamics, producing spheres of influence and potentially great-power war while eroding the open international economic order that has lifted billions across the developing world out of poverty. A world governed by protectionism, nationalism, and armed territorial contestation would not in any way be liberal.
A world governed by protectionism, nationalism, and armed territorial contestation would not in any way be liberal.
In this predicament, international institutions would not work better, global governance would not be more democratic, rising powers whose economies and energy supply are dependent on secure global commons might stop rising, supranational institutions like the EU would lose their soft-power advantage in a hard-power environment, and democrats everywhere would be on the retreat as strongmen grew ascendant. Those who have grown tired of America’s imperfect leadership of the world it created — including voters in the United States who tell pollsters their country should mind its own business — should be careful what they wish for.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.