(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Everywhere one looks these days, it seems that global norms are under assault. From the South China Sea to Eastern Europe, longstanding international rules of the road — concepts such as non-aggression, freedom of navigation and self-determination — are being flagrantly flouted or subtly eroded. Ideas, such as democracy and respect for human rights, that seemed to have become incontestably dominant are facing renewed threats.
Americans and people around the globe are getting a harsh reminder of a truth that is too easily forgotten — that the whole idea of global norms is an illusion.
This is overstating matters, but only a little bit. We tend to think of norms as guidelines or standards of behavior that are accepted by all the members of a given community. We thus tend to think that ideas like respect for human rights and democracy have become so influential because their logic is so compelling.
This notion is pleasing, as Robert Kagan has written, because it implies that the “right” ideas can triumph by dint of their own moral and intellectual superiority, and because it appeals to the Enlightenment principles at the heart of the American project. It is also basically wrong.
What we think of as “global” norms have traditionally been little more than the values and preferences of the leading country or countries in the international system. Norms become dominant mostly because they are propagated by dominant powers.
Think about a few historical examples. The international norm against slavery did not emerge over the course of the 19th century solely because slavery was morally wrong — although slavery was undoubtedly a moral obscenity. That norm emerged because the world’s most powerful country, Great Britain, undertook a concerted campaign over a period of decades to suppress the slave trade. That campaign included appeals to morality and humanity, of course, but it also included harder-edged measures such as coercive diplomacy and the use of violence. Even then, it took a brutal war of attrition waged against the mightiest slaveholding society in the world — the Confederate States of America — to make calls for abolition persuasive to those who had resisted them. The ascendance of the anti-slavery norm was a product of bare-knuckled use of hard power.
Or consider the norms at the heart of the post-World War II international system. Democracy and human rights became widespread over the course of the late 20th and early 21st centuries for any number of reasons, having to do with socioeconomic changes, shifts in the doctrine and teachings of the Catholic Church, and other factors. Yet that ascendancy surely would not have been as powerful had not the next hegemon, the U.S., itself been a democracy that was frequently — albeit inconsistently and often selfishly — willing to exert its influence to restrain authoritarian aggressors and promote democratic change.
The same goes for concepts such as non-aggression, freedom of navigation and geopolitical self-determination. There has never been anything like principled agreement among all the states in the international system that large countries should not engage in wars of exploitation and conquest against their weaker neighbors. North Korea’s invasion of South Korea in 1950, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 all demonstrate that humanity has not purged itself of such base temptations.
The reason that wars of aggression and undisguised national aggrandizement have been comparatively rare over the past 70 years is that the American superpower, in cooperation with its allies, has believed that such bellicosity threatens to tear the fabric of international peace, and has been willing to shed blood to reverse it when it occurs.
Likewise, freedom of navigation is not universally appealing to all countries — in the waters of the Western Pacific, the Chinese are working very hard to undermine that principle each and every day. It has retained its persuasive power because it has been enforced by the U.S. Navy.
Finally, the idea that countries should have the right to choose their own geopolitical alignments and alliances free of coercion and intimidation is not some universal law. It is a reflection, as Charles Edel and I have written elsewhere, of America’s opposition to other countries constructing exclusive spheres of influence without the consent of those who would be incorporated into them.
We like to think we live in a world that would be unrecognizable to those who lived in earlier, less enlightened times — a world in which the rules are the result of moral and intellectual progress of humanity. In reality, we live in a world that would be quite recognizable to those who lived in previous eras, one in which the rules reflect the power and commitment of the rulers.
This is not the same thing as saying that the world is just as brutal, violent and chaotic as it was in earlier epochs. The last 70 years have indeed been an era in which peace has proliferated, more tolerant and inclusive modes of governance have flourished, and the strong have increasingly been restrained from simply doing what they will to the weak.
The point, however, is that this has occurred largely because the U.S. and its allies have believed it is in their interests to fashion a particular set of rules that has supported this progress. And as any parent can tell you, the moment the rules cease to be enforced, they start to lose their power.
This point is critical to understanding the trajectory of international affairs today. Leading scholars such as G. John Ikenberry have argued that the “liberal international order” — the set of arrangements constructed by the U.S. and its allies after World War II — can persist even after America declines or retrenches from its leading global role. Donald Trump appears to be testing this proposition today, by heaping scorn on so many practices and traditions of U.S. statecraft.
But the idea that a post-American world will still be a world rooted in American norms represents a dubious gamble of epic proportions. It is far more likely that a different leading power, particularly a non-democratic power, would promote a different set of norms more to its liking.
This is precisely what is starting to happen. Sensing that U.S. power and resolve are in decline, China and Russia are working assiduously to undermine the rules that have so long constrained their power, and to establish a new set of rules — the absolute sovereignty and legitimacy of authoritarian regimes, the right of great powers to dominate their peripheries — that would make for a very different world. And if these countries are already waging this campaign now, just imagine how much more assertive and successful they might be if the U.S. were to cede them the geopolitical field.
This is why so many countries around the world are so anxiously watching the direction of U.S. policy under Trump — because they understand that the guiding principles of the international system will be up for grabs if he indulges his desire for retrenchment and abandons America’s leadership role.
This may all seem very depressing, because it means that there will never come a moment at which the U.S. and its allies can pull back from the world without seeing the norms they have fought to establish crumble. But far better to learn this lesson from history than to re-learn it through our own mistakes.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.