An Open World Is in the Balance. What Might Replace the Liberal Order?
The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States imperils the liberal international order that America has championed since World War II. That open world was already operating under strain, challenged by rivals and upheaval abroad. But suddenly, it is vulnerable at home, too. A wave of angry populism has propelled to power a nationalist leader who campaigned on a promise to put “America First.” As a candidate, Trump questioned longstanding U.S. alliances like NATO, criticized international institutions like the United Nations, and promised to abandon major trade, arms control and climate agreements. Little wonder that liberal internationalists are shuddering. Writing in the New York Times, outgoing Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken frets that the new administration will “become complicit in dismantling” the very world that America made.
Can the open liberal order survive this sudden convergence of foreign and domestic assaults? And, if not, what will take its place?
It is too early to know what direction Trump will pursue once in office—and what route he will take to get there. But it is not too soon to consider the alternative paths he could choose and where they might lead. If Trump decides to abandon the eroding liberal world order, he could pursue at least five distinct alternative visions. These range from a great-power concert to spheres of influence, a fortress America, a league of democracies and an ad hoc system. In practice, “Trump World” will likely include elements of each. But to understand just how different the future could be, we first need to appreciate the world we have now—and how it originated.
The Origins of the Liberal Order
The open world we know today did not arise out of thin air. It was the outcome of American power, imaginatively organized and robustly deployed. The “wise men” of the Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman administrations, who laid the foundations of the contemporary world order, envisioned a world in which all peoples might pursue shared peace, prosperity and dignity. They hoped to forge a global community under the rule of law, governed by international institutions, in which sovereign nations could cooperate to deter and defeat aggression, trade openly and fairly, and enjoy domestic liberty.
Enlightened self-interest, not altruism, underpinned these aims. The wise men of the 1940s were determined not to repeat the previous generation’s mistakes, which had produced the twin catastrophes of the Great Depression and World War II. An open world—and open societies—were the answer. In international economics, this meant replacing mercantilist barriers, imperial preferences, and autarkic blocs with a liberal, reciprocal and nondiscriminatory system of trade and payments, in which states could build wealth while advancing social welfare. In international security, it meant rejecting spheres of influence, exclusive alliances and the classical balance of power in favor of a general system of international peace and security. Finally, it meant promoting the principles of self-determination and democracy so that a world of multiethnic empires might evolve into one of independent, self-governing states reflecting the will of the people. To advance these goals and undergird this new order, the United States launched the great postwar multilateral institutions, including the United Nations and NATO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
For most of modern history, with the exception of the failed League of Nations, what passed for “world order” was shallow. The term denoted little more than agreement among great powers on a handful of principles of coexistence, similar to the Concert of Europe of the early 19th century. What set the post-1945 order apart was how densely institutionalized it became. The United States spearheaded agreement on rules of the road, standards of behavior and legal obligations. Scores, indeed hundreds of formal organizations came to govern entire international spheres, from international commerce to nonproliferation and public health to environmental conservation.
If Trump decides to abandon the eroding liberal world order, he could pursue at least five distinct alternative visions.
During the Cold War, of course, the United States deferred much of its open world vision to pursue the imperatives of containment. The U.S. scheme was restricted to a narrower “free world” community, with Western market democracies at its core. But when the Berlin Wall fell, U.S. leaders hoped that their open world would spread across the globe. In the meantime, the United States would continue to guarantee global stability and preserve regional balances of power in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
Despite their many differences, the four post-Cold War U.S. administrations of George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama agreed on one thing: The world was headed toward a liberal international order. For a while, their optimism made sense. For as the Princeton scholar G. John Ikenberry wrote in “Liberal Leviathan,” the world that America had made was “easy to join and hard to overturn.” All that was required was for the United States and its allies to bring new nations into the ever-expanding liberal system.
The Erosion of the Liberal Order
Unfortunately, this rosy scenario seems more dubious today than it did just a few years ago. Both the open world and open societies are on the defensive. From Crimea to the South China Sea, Russia and China are challenging the international order, even as they crack down on domestic political dissent. Other major emerging economies, including Brazil, India, South Africa and Turkey, are clamoring to revise multilateral rules of the road, from trade to cyberspace.
Early in his first term, Obama espoused a “new era of engagement” premised on integrating rising powers into reformed global institutions. His hope was to strike a grand bargain. Emerging players would gain more voice and weight in global forums, provided that they agreed to shoulder greater global responsibilities. Unfortunately, these plans bore little fruit, in part because the administration never developed a real strategy to implement them. Not only were existing institutions, from the IMF to the U.N. Security Council, resistant to reform, but the governments of emerging economies balked at assuming new burdens and obligations, preferring to free ride on others’ contributions. In his quest to reinvigorate the multilateral system, Obama got little help from the other pillars of the Western liberal order, Europe and Japan, as the former lurched from crisis to crisis and the latter remained stuck in the economic doldrums.
More problematically, a return of geopolitics shocked the administration and mocked its one-world hopes. Back in 2010, Obama’s first National Security Strategy suggested that world politics had become more benign than in the past, as strategic competition ceded to the management of shared challenges. In the president’s words, “Power, in an interconnected world, is no longer a zero sum game.”
Alas, neither Russian President Vladimir Putin nor Chinese President Xi Jinping got that memo. From Ukraine to the South China Sea to Syria, it soon became apparent that world politics remained red in tooth and claw. America’s open, rule-bound world collided with powerful authoritarian rivals possessing expansive geopolitical ambitions. Russia’s 2014 seizure of the Crimean peninsula and its intervention to support Ukrainian separatists were the gravest violations of another nation’s sovereignty since the Iraqi invasion and annexation of Kuwait in 1990. Putin justified these actions as essential to protect Russian-speaking “compatriots” in Russia’s near abroad, but Moscow’s conduct contradicted a fundamental international rule against seizing territory by force. To be sure, Washington would have been in a stronger diplomatic position to resist the Kremlin’s actions had the United States not invaded Iraq in March 2003 without securing a specific U.N. Security Council resolution to do so.
China’s behavior in the South and East China seas has been only slightly less provocative. Advancing a series of assertive territorial and jurisdictional claims, Beijing has challenged fundamental maritime rights that all states accept under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), including rights of innocent passage for naval vessels. Once again, U.S. objections to Chinese actions would carry more weight if the United States were formally a party to UNCLOS, although it does abide by the treaty’s terms as a matter of policy.
Debates over the rules of world order—and how liberal they should be—are hardly restricted to disputes over territory or the use of force.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has watched in passive horror as the political openings of the 2011 Arab uprisings have collapsed into endless sectarian violence and proxy wars, most agonizingly in Syria. Thanks to a failure of strategic imagination, the United States has too often been adrift and reactive in a turbulent world.
But debates over the rules of world order—and how liberal they should be—are hardly restricted to disputes over territory or the use of force. Major countries disagree on numerous principles and norms. A short list would include: Under what circumstances is sovereignty “contingent”—and what are the criteria for “pre-emption?” What is the definition of “terrorism,” and what are legitimate responses to it? What norms should apply in cyberwarfare—and who gets to enforce them? What principles should govern development cooperation? To what degree should states intervene in the domestic and international economy? What rules should govern the uses of outer space? How much emphasis should countries place on the World Trade Organization versus preferential trade agreements? What role should global bodies play in promoting human rights? What responsibilities do nuclear weapons states have to disarm? How should the world respond when major emitters balk at fulfilling their climate change commitments?
Hammering out agreement on such questions would be hard enough in the best of times. It is immeasurably more difficult when global power is shifting rapidly; multilateral institutions are sclerotic; and—suddenly—narrow nationalism is on the rise in the United States.
Donald Trump and Alternatives to the Liberal Order
The end of 2016 found Donald Trump bound for the White House, thanks to a populist groundswell of support for his campaign pledge to “make America great again.” Turning his back on seven decades of bipartisan U.S. foreign policy, he has jettisoned the usual shibboleths about U.S. leadership—and, indeed, any pretense that U.S. power should be linked to a higher global purpose. Far from promoting a vision of liberal order, he endorses a crassly transactional diplomacy. Besides promising to shred the recent Paris climate accord and Iran nuclear deal, he proposes to upend longstanding U.S. commitments, from protecting America’s allies to promoting global free trade. He has said not a word about promoting democracy and human rights, while lavishing praise on strongmen like Putin and embracing the use of torture and violations of international humanitarian law in the struggle against terrorism.
It is, of course, possible that the liberal world will revive and survive. But let us imagine that it does not. What alternative orders might take its place?
Five possibilities suggest themselves. Call them Concert Redux; Spheres of Influence; Fortress America; A League of Our Own; and Ad Hoc World. These are admittedly ideal types, and not mutually exclusive with one another. But there is heuristic value in considering them separately and outlining their potential ramifications.
While international organizations like the United Nations would continue to exist, the ambitions of such bodies would be more modest, and true power would rest with a directorate of great powers. The United States would value comity with China and Russia on the U.N. Security Council and would achieve it because of a return to a more Westphalian view of national sovereignty, including the effective death of humanitarian intervention under the Responsibility to Protect principle. Major powers would cooperate closely on counterterrorism and nonproliferation matters, in which they all have an interest. In geopolitical terms, the U.S. posture in such a scenario would resemble the “offshore balancing” role that the United Kingdom played during the heyday of the British Empire. America’s overriding strategic goal would be to prevent the domination of Eurasia by any single power or combination of powers.
Spheres of Influence: This phrase describes a world that is regionally fragmented, both politically and economically, in which major powers are responsible for providing order and organizing economic cooperation within their respective neighborhoods. Under this scenario, the Trump administration would implicitly, if not explicitly, recognize Russian and Chinese—and perhaps Indian—spheres of influence, in which they would enjoy a relatively free hand akin to what the United States has pursued under the Monroe Doctrine.
American alliances including NATO and its network of Asia-Pacific treaties would persist out of inertia, but they would atrophy. As the credibility of any U.S. security guarantee erodes, Washington’s allies and partners would face a choice between attempting to balance against the relevant regional hegemon or bandwagon instead. In Europe, this scenario would see at a minimum the “Finlandization” of Ukraine, with Kiev increasingly obedient to Moscow and perhaps even eventually reabsorbed into a union with Russia. China would cement its status as the economic center of gravity in East Asia, thanks to its leadership of institutions like the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Program, as well as its One Belt, One Road initiative. With the demise of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, U.S. economic leadership in the Asia-Pacific would quickly wane. As America gradually abdicated its role as security guarantor, China’s neighbors would no longer be able to hedge against the latter’s rise, increasing incentives to hop on Beijing’s bandwagon.
While international organizations like the U.N. would continue to exist, the ambitions of such bodies would be more modest, and true power would rest with a directorate of great powers.
Fortress America: The most isolationist of the five scenarios, Fortress America would be most consistent with the insular, protectionist and sovereignty-minded campaign themes upon which Trump ran. Making America great again would translate into building walls to keep the country safe from hostile enemies, unfair trade competition and “un-American” people and ideals. In historical terms, this is a “back to the future” choice, returning the United States to the posture that it occupied from independence until World War I and into the interwar period. It would imply an abdication of U.S. responsibility for maintaining world order, including a weakening and ultimate abrogation of major U.S. alliances and a dramatic downgrading of U.S. support for the United Nations, other multilateral organizations and potentially international law itself.
In essence, U.S. foreign and national security policy would become increasingly subsumed under homeland security, including defense of U.S. terrestrial and maritime borders, and levels of immigration, both legal and illegal, would decline dramatically. Such a posture could become more plausible in the wake of catastrophic terrorist attacks on the United States. Trade would decline as a volume of U.S. GDP, as the United States focused on domestic production and installed high trade barriers. The dollar would gradually cede its dominant role as the major global reserve currency, raising the cost of U.S. sovereign debt and placing new constraints on the federal budget. High U.S. trade barriers and foreign retaliation would stifle American productivity, exports and economic growth compared to more open economies.
A League of Our Own: Under this scenario, the United States would respond to the deterioration of the liberal world order and the rise of authoritarian rivals by circling the wagons within the OECD world of advanced market democracies, in a sort of “containment lite.” Although a league of democracies would represent a dramatic turnaround for Trump, it would build on existing alliances with NATO, Japan, South Korea, Australia and others, as well as the surprisingly resilient Group of Seven partnership, which has taken on renewed importance in American diplomacy since the ejection of Russia from the Group of Eight following the seizure of Crimea.
The posture would also command some bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress and among the American public. Such a scenario would only become plausible if the scales were to fall from Trump’s eyes with respect to the true nature of Putin’s regime—regarding China, he already appears to have a strongly negative view. Were the United States to move in this direction, a central focus of U.S. foreign and national security policy would include not only defending NATO members and other allies against internal subversion but also bolstering democratic norms and values in major emerging democracies—including India, Brazil, Indonesia and perhaps South Africa—that could serve as geopolitical swing states. As geopolitical competition took on an increasingly ideological dimension, frictions with China and Russia would bleed into other spheres, complicating pragmatic cooperation on global challenges from trade to climate change. The U.N. Security Council would presumably grind to a halt, increasing the U.S. incentive to resurrect a “free world” coalition.
The problems of the world will not permit complete insularity, and Trump will be drawn by temperament and efficiency to improvisational, ad hoc responses to global dilemmas.
Ad Hoc World: Finally, the Trump administration could adopt a purely improvisational, seat-of-the-pants approach to world order, focused less on overall strategy than on specific reactions to the particular challenge of the day. Under this à la carte scenario, the president and his senior officials would create ad hoc coalitions and alliances, as well as multistakeholder frameworks, tailored to specific contingencies or dilemmas, for example on terrorism or financial instability. To be sure, some “minilateral” consultative groups exist, most prominently the Group of 20 and the Group of Seven—alongside formal global bodies with universal membership, like the U.N., IMF and WTO. Moreover, both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations experimented with issue-specific coalitions in the former’s Proliferation Security Initiative and the latter’s Nuclear Security Summit. Trump could well elevate ad hockery to a new level, however, given his disdain for binding international organizations and longstanding alliances. Considering his business background, he might also experiment with new forms of global public-private partnerships.
Such an orientation could bring speed and flexibility while allowing the Trump administration to restrict itself to situational coalitions with interested, capable and like-minded partners. This would allow the United States to work with China and Russia on some shared interests, for instance, but exclude them from other frameworks where their preferences diverge. Still, a pervasive ad hoc appraoch would carry risks—particularly if it translates into “winging it.” Most worrisome is the prospect that bypassing formal organizations would weaken them, hastening the erosion of the institutional foundations of liberal order without creating any standing capacities or alternative sources of legitimate international authority.
So which of these scenarios is most likely? The safest bet is that Trump’s approach to world order will include a measure of all five. His desire for good relations with great powers will push him toward the concert and sphere of influence models, both of which could complement a Fortress America focus on strategic retrenchment, protectionism and border security. The problems of the world will not permit complete insularity, however, and Trump will be drawn by temperament and efficiency to improvisational, ad hoc responses to global dilemmas.
That leaves the one scenario furthest removed from the president-elect’s biases. While Trump will instinctively shy away from the notion of a league of democracies, his purely transactional approach to diplomacy is sure to collide with American political culture over the longer term, striking the U.S. public as a cynical betrayal of the country’s historical mission as the global champion of freedom. If only for political survival, Trump will need to pay at least lip service to America’s liberal ideals. But he is unlikely to reinvigorate a liberal world order that is already on the wane.
Stewart Patrick is the James H. Binger senior fellow in global governance and director of the international institutions and global governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations.