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The Future of International Order

Rebecca Lissner and Mira Rapp-Hooper—

Foreign policy elites have reached a near-consensus that the liberal international order led by the United States since World War II is fraying, as its institutions, laws, and norms are growing less effective and its principles of free markets, democracy promotion, constraints on the use of force, and multilateral cooperation are becoming less entrenched. With Donald Trump’s ascendance to the presidency on a platform of unpredictability, the future of international politics—and the role of American leadership therein—appeared to enter a state of flux. The world the next president inherits will differ profoundly from the international environment the United States has faced since the end of the Cold War and, in many ways, since 1945. 

The term “liberal international order” has always served as a shorthand for a fairly benign form of U.S. hegemony. This order is primarily Western in its origins, and liberal preferences for free markets, international institutions, human rights, democracy, and American leadership are at its foundation. As rising social, economic, and political anxieties seem to erode domestic political support for these tenets within the United States, the pressure on American foreign policy and the international order will likely intensify. Our current moment is almost certainly not a random shock, however, but a product of political and economic forces that will outlast any one administration. Comprehending it therefore requires a strategic reckoning that both accounts for and looks beyond the present political paroxysm. 

The 2016 election spawned widespread debate about the future of American strategy and international order. Strategists and scholars on both sides of the political divide declared the international order in peril in the hands of the forty-fifth president. Eminent analysts of international relations acknowledged some broader political forces, including populism, nationalism, and economic stagnation, as contributing to the decay of the U.S.-led postwar order, but they placed the lion’s share of the blame on the new chief executive. Others argued that the liberal international order was never as liberal, international, or orderly as the American policy narrative alleged. If the liberal international order did indeed exist, it was decidedly limited in its geographic and historical scope. This counter-narrative held that the postwar international order contained such drastic variations in its implementation across time and space that it gave no particular prescriptions for how to promote democracy, manage alliances, or craft regional postures. While some thinkers have rushed to defend the core underpinnings of the liberal order as fundamentally sound, calling for more liberalism to buttress listing institutions and regimes, even these optimists acknowledge the birth of powerful forces that will fundamentally reshape postwar politics. International order is therefore under duress due to forces that defy any one theory or paradigm.

Three years into this lofty debate, strategists have generally come to recognize that the country will not have the luxury of returning to foreign policy business-as-usual in 2021 or 2025. The conviction that the liberal order is unraveling is relatively recent, but many of the trends that contribute to its fraying have been years in the making. Retrospectively, the 2008 financial crisis was a leading indicator of America’s waning primacy—a punctuated shock that fostered the conditions for a period of competitive international relations and less functional domestic politics. The domestic and international trends that caused the United States to stumble and brought Trump to power will ensure that Washington cannot simply recoup its unipolar position atop a familiar liberal international order in a few years’ time. Yet the debate over the future of American grand strategy—so long reduced to a stylized caricature between liberal internationalism and realist retrenchment—has grown musty. These discussions too often look backward, focused on relitigating post–Cold War failures rather than grappling with the domestic and international conditions Washington will face in the future—conditions with which neither pole of this false grand strategic dichotomy sufficiently reckons. If strategists wish to define how the United States can navigate the world a new president will find, they must account for the forces that have already begun to reshape international politics and build strategies toward order accordingly.

The future of the international order is not simply the domain of esoteric strategy; it is the charge of new leadership. The powerful forces exerting pressure on American foreign policy and international relations will not abate when the current political paroxysm eases. No leader, however competent and determined, can arrest the structural trends afoot. A new chief executive cannot simply heal the damage wrought by one administration by enacting palliative policies; she or he must also devise strategies for a fast-changing world and the systems that order it. Essential to that task is an understanding of international order and its relationship to power—and why that age-old nexus has placed the United States in a moment of stunning and ineluctable change.

From An Open World written by Rebecca Lissner and Mira Rapp-Hooper. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.

Rebecca Lissner is an assistant professor at the U.S. Naval War College. Mira Rapp-Hooper is Stephen A. Schwarzman Senior Fellow for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and Senior Fellow at the Yale Law School’s China Center.

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