A World of Our Making
The international order that America created will endure—if we make the transition to a grand strategy based on reciprocity and shared leadership.
This spring’s dramatic upheaval in the Middle East has sent the world many messages. It has reminded us how quickly and unexpectedly political order—both within countries and internationally—can be shattered. It has reminded us that opposition to authoritarian rule can lay dormant for decades, only to be ignited suddenly and spread across regions. It has reminded us that while the world’s democracies have had their share of troubles in recent years—and that some democratic transitions have failed—the deep forces of history continue to favor freedom and the popular control of government. Finally, the Arab spring has reminded us that while the outside world cannot dictate or direct the flow of change in North Africa and the Middle East, the prospects for successful transitions increase when the Western democracies and the wider international community are working together—and when the international order is open, stable, cooperative, and engaged.
It is in this sense that there is a new urgency for a renewed American commitment to international order building. The Arab world is embroiled in turmoil, but this is only part of a larger global drama of crisis and transformation that includes the world economy’s struggle to find a path to stable growth, conflicts driven by resource scarcity, looming environmental threats, and the rise of developing countries—India, Brazil, and particularly China—into the ranks of the great powers. Even today, amidst these grand shifts in the global system, the United States remains the critical player in the rebuilding of international order, and three broad tasks confront it: It must integrate the rising powers into that order, ensuring continuity; it must make sure that China has the right incentives and opportunities to participate; and it must forge a “milieu-based” grand strategy that structures the general international environment in ways that are congenial to its long-term security.
The Future of America Inc.
For half a century, the United States held the keys to global order—and in many ways it still does today. No country has ever been as powerful as the United States or has had as many opportunities to put its mark on the organization of world politics. After the world wars, after the Cold War, and again today, the United States has been in a unique position to lead in the creation of rules and institutions that guide the global system. At key turning points, it stepped forward with liberal ideas about world order and struggled to reconcile them with the geopolitical realities of the day. The United States has been a liberal order builder, reflecting both American national interests and a set of calculations about the virtues of an order that would provide a long-term flow of economic and security benefits to itself and the wider world.
The pivotal moment in liberal order building occurred in the years after World War II. It was then that America’s desire for a congenial world order—open, stable, friendly—turned into an agenda for the construction of a liberal hegemonic order. But this shift was not entirely deliberate. The United States took charge of the liberal project and then found itself creating and running an international order. America and liberal order became fused. It was a distinctive type of order, organized around American hegemonic authority, open markets, cooperative security, multilateral institutions, social bargains, and democratic community. It was also built on core hegemonic bargains. These bargains determined how power and authority would be apportioned. So although the United States ran the liberal order and projected power, it did so within a system of rules and institutions—of commitments and restraints. It underwrote order in various regions of the world. It provided public goods related to stability and openness, and it engaged in bargaining and reciprocity with its allies and partners. The center of gravity of this order was the West—and as it moved outward to Asia, Latin America, and the developing world, the liberal logic gave way to more traditional imperial and great-power domination. Globally, the order was hierarchical—dominated by the United States—but infused with liberal characteristics.
This American-led liberal hegemonic order is now in crisis. The underlying foundations that support this order have shifted. Pressures for change—and for the reorganization of order—are growing. But amidst this great transformation, it is important to untangle what pre-cisely is in crisis and what is not. My claim is that it is a crisis of author-ity—a struggle over how liberal order should be governed. But it is not a crisis over the underlying principles of liberal international order, defined as an open and loosely rule-based system. That is, what is in dispute is how aspects of liberal order—sovereignty, institutions, participation, roles, and responsibilities—are to be allocated, but all within the order rather than in its wake.
If the old postwar hegemonic order were a business enterprise, it would have been called America Inc. It was an order that, in important respects, was owned and operated by the United States. The crisis today is really over ownership of that company. In effect, it is a transition from a semiprivate company to one that is publicly owned and operated—with an expanding array of shareholders and new members on the board of directors. This is true even as non-Western states—most importantly, China—continue to rise up and struggle to define their relationship to liberal international order. But even if the global system transitions away from America Inc. to a publicly owned and operated company, the United States will inevitably be a major shareholder, even in an era of slowly declining unipolarity.
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