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.
The movement away from the American-led order will raise a num-ber of dilemmas and tensions inherent in the liberal project. There is pressure for the reallocation of authority and leadership—but how will a post-hegemonic system provide public goods relating to open markets and the stability of rules and institutions? There is pressure for more extensive forms of international cooperation and global institutional capacity to deal with economic and security interdependence—but how can this be reconciled with democratic accountability? There is pressure for new rights and capacities for the international community to intervene in the domestic affairs of troubled states—but how does lib-eral order develop governance mechanisms to generate the necessary collective action and also safeguard itself against liberal imperialism? These dilemmas will run through the struggles over reform of liberal international order, even as rising states and new global issues shape and constrain what comes next. What does seem certain is that the demand for more and increasingly sophisticated forms of cooperation will not abate in the decades ahead. Indeed, countries large and small will face a crush of new demands for more extensive cooperation. In other words, if the current organizational logic of liberal international order is in crisis, the solution to this crisis is more—not less—liberal international order.
Crisis and Continuity
The current hegemonic organization of liberal order is in crisis—but it is a crisis of success. The problems that beset the current system are ones that, for the most part, emerged out of the expansion of the American-led postwar system. The postwar liberal order took root inside the bipolar system, but after the Cold War it spread out-ward and became the outside system. The American order went global. Markets spread, states rose up, and the scale and scope of the liberal capitalist world expanded. Taken together with the emergence and spread of liberal internationalism in the nineteenth century, the world has witnessed a 200-year liberal ascendancy. The main alternatives to liberal order—both domestic and international—have more or less disappeared. The great liberal international era is not ending. Still, if the liberal order is not in crisis, its governance is. Yet, given the fundamental weakness of the past international orders—brought down by world wars and great economic upheavals—the challenges of reforming and renegotiating liberal world order are, if anything, welcome ones.
There are four reasons to think that some type of updated and reorganized liberal international order will persist. First, the old and traditional mechanism for overturning international order—great-power war—is no longer likely to occur. Already, the contemporary world has experienced the longest period of great-power peace in the long history of the state system. This absence of great-power war is no doubt due to several factors not present in earlier eras, namely nuclear deterrence and the dominance of liberal democracies. Nuclear weapons—and the deterrence they generate—give great powers some confidence that they will not be dominated or invaded by other major states. They make war among major states less rational and there-fore less likely. This removal of great-power war as a tool of overturning international order tends to reinforce the status quo. The United States was lucky to have emerged as a global power in the nuclear age, because rival great powers are put at a disadvantage if they seek to overturn the American-led system. The cost-benefit calculation of rival would-be hegemonic powers is altered in favor of working for change within the system. But, again, the fact that great-power deterrence also sets limits on the projection of American power presumably makes the existing international order more tolerable. It removes a type of behavior in the system—war, invasion, and conquest between great powers—that historically provided the motive for seeking to overturn order. If the violent over-turning of international order is removed, a bias for continuity is introduced into the system.
Second, the character of liberal international order itself—with or without American hegemonic leadership—reinforces continuity. The complex interdependence that is unleashed in an open and loosely rule-based order generates expanding realms of exchange and investment that result in a growing array of firms, interest groups, and other sorts of political stakeholders who seek to preserve the stability and openness of the system. Beyond this, the liberal order is also relatively easy to join. In the post-Cold War decades, countries in different regions of the world have made democratic transitions and connected themselves to various parts of this system. East European countries and states within the old Soviet empire have joined NATO. East Asian countries, including China, have joined the World Trade Organization (WTO). Through its many multilateral institutions, the liberal international order facilitates integration and offers support for states that are making transitions toward liberal democracy. Many countries have also experienced growth and rising incomes within this order. Comparing international orders is tricky, but the current liberal international order, seen in comparative perspective, does appear to have unique characteristics that encourage integration and discourage opposition and resistance.
Third, the states that are rising today do not constitute a potential united opposition bloc to the existing order. There are so-called rising states in various regions of the world. China, India, Brazil, and South Africa are perhaps most prominent. Russia is also sometimes included in this grouping of rising states. These states are all capitalist and most are democratic. They all gain from trade and integration within the world capitalist system. They all either are members of the WTO or seek membership in it. But they also have very diverse geopolitical and regional interests and agendas. They do not constitute either an economic bloc or a geopolitical one. Their ideologies and histories are distinct. They share an interest in gaining access to the leading institutions that govern the international system. Sometimes this creates competition among them for influence and access. But it also orients their struggles toward the reform and reorganization of governing institutions, not to a united effort to overturn the underlying order.
Fourth, all the great powers have alignments of interests that will continue to bring them together to negotiate and cooperate over the management of the system. All the great powers—old and rising—are status-quo powers. All are beneficiaries of an open world economy and the various services that the liberal international order provides for capitalist trading states. All worry about religious radicalism and failed states. Great powers such as Russia and China do have different geopolitical interests in various key trouble spots, such as Iran and South Asia, and so disagreement and noncooperation over sanctions relating to nonproliferation and other security issues will not disappear. But the opportunities for managing differences with frameworks of great-power cooperation exist and will grow.
Overall, the forces for continuity are formidable. Of course, there are many forces operating in the world that can generate upheaval and discontinuity. The collapse of the global financial system and an economic depression that triggers massive protectionism are possibilities. Terrorism and other forms of transnational violence can also trigger political panic and turmoil that would lead governments to shut down borders and reimpose restrictions on the movement of goods and people. But in the face of these seismic events in world politics, there are deep forces that keep the system anchored and stable.
The Rise of China
What about the challenge of a rising China? The rise of China is one of the great dramas of the twenty-first century. To some observers, such as historian Niall Ferguson and journalist Martin Jacques, we are witnessing the end of the American era and the gradual transition from a Western-oriented world order to one increasingly dominated by Asia. China will rule the world and will do so on very different terms. Scholars have begun to explore, more generally, the possible character of a post-Western international order. To be sure, China is indeed booming. The extraordinary growth of its economy—and its active diplomacy—is already transforming East Asia. Coming decades will almost certainly see further increases in Chinese power and further expansion of its influence on the world stage. But what sort of transition will it be? Will China seek to oppose and overturn the evolving Western-centered liberal international order, or will it integrate into and assert authority within that order?
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