A person waves an American flag outside the the U.S. Supreme Court building as the court rules on the final opinions of term in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg)  

America’s Global Order Is Worth Fighting For


(Bloomberg Opinion) -- (This is the first installment of a series of columns on the threat to the U.S.-led liberal international order.)

The “liberal international order” is one of those phrases that means everything to people inside the Washington policy community and absolutely nothing to anyone outside of it.

After Donald Trump’s election in 2016, it became laudatory shorthand for the world the U.S. had done so much to create after World War II — and that the president often seemed determined to destroy. More recently, though, some foreign-policy commentators have pushed back, arguing that the liberal order is overrated, and that nostalgia for its accomplishments is not simply misplaced, but damaging.

These critiques have led to a worthy debate from which I draw two clear conclusions: The critics are wrong to talk down the most successful international order in history; but they’re not off-base in arguing that America and its allies face a stiff test in preserving a system that is facing its greatest challenge since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

This column kicks off a three-part series that aims to unpack the current discussion over the future of the liberal international order. Today, I explain what that liberal order is, and why the strongest critiques of it are overdrawn. In the next installment, I’ll discuss some of the major challenges the liberal order presently faces. In the third piece, I’ll explain why domestic support for the liberal order seems to be waning, and how U.S. political leaders can respond.

So, what is the liberal international order? “International order” is an academic term for the set of relationships, institutions and principles that shape interactions between the players in global affairs — the “rules of the road” and the structures that underpin them. Specific international orders have historically been led by the world’s foremost power or powers, such as imperial Rome and 19th-century Britain. Since 1945, that preeminent power has been the U.S., so the global order has reflected America’s liberal preferences for how the world should work.

“Liberal,” in this sense, refers not to the progressive-conservative political divide, but to the classically liberal concepts that have informed America’s post-1945 foreign policy. The liberal order features trade arrangements and international organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization, which promote relatively open trade and global finance. It favors democratic forms of government, protection of human rights, and promotion of national self-determination. It emphasizes written and unwritten rules — freedom of navigation, non-aggression, peaceful settlement of disputes — meant to foster a relatively cooperative global environment.

Yet because there have always been authoritarian powers that do not share this vision, the liberal order is backstopped by hard-power tools, such as America’s unparalleled military capabilities and global network of alliances.

The liberal order, then, simply reflects America’s effort to forge a world conducive to its own interests and values. Between 1945 and 2017, every U.S. president was committed — albeit to varying degrees and in varying ways — to that ambitious project, which gradually expanded over time.

Today, however, the system is facing challenges, and not just from a president who clearly dislikes both economic and political liberalism and the outsized role that the U.S. has typically played in sustaining global order.

It is also under fire from foreign policy mandarins who level three strong critiques against the liberal order and its proponents.

First, the critics argue that the accomplishments of the liberal order are overstated and even, as Harvard’s Graham Allison puts it, that the order itself is a “myth.” Second, they contend that the U.S. was never really committed to anything beyond the promotion of its own narrow interests, and they highlight in the phasing of the University of Chicago’s Paul Staniland “how coercive, violent, and hypocritical U.S. foreign policy has often been.” Third, they contend that Washington would be better off foregoing “teary-eyed nostalgia,” as the historian and retired Army colonel Andrew Bacevich writes, and embracing the inevitable transition to a different and less U.S.-centric world.

The first argument is easily disposed of. Yes, the postwar world has been thoroughly imperfect, featuring nuclear arms races, genocides, widespread poverty and other scourges. But the world has always been imperfect, and by any meaningful comparison, the last seven decades have been a veritable golden age.

The liberal international economic order has led to an explosion of domestic and global prosperity: According to World Bank data, both U.S. and global per capita income have increased roughly three-fold (in inflation-adjusted terms) since 1960, with U.S. gross domestic product increasing nearly six-fold. The U.S. system of alliances and forward military deployments has contributed critically to the longest period of great-power peace in modern history, and the incidence of war and conquest more broadly have dropped dramatically. The number of democracies in the world has increased from perhaps a dozen during World War II to well over 100 today; respect for basic human rights has also reached impressive levels.

As a bevy of scholarship has shown, the policies that the U.S. has pursued and the international order it has built have contributed enormously and directly to these outcomes. If the liberal international order can’t be considered a smashing success, no international order could be.

The second critique is also overstated. It is true that Washington, like all great powers throughout history, has been willing to bend the rules to get its way. It is hard to reconcile Cold War-era interventions in Guatemala, Chile and other countries with a professed solicitude for human rights and democracy; the Iraq War of 2003 is only one instance in which the U.S. brushed aside the concerns of international organizations such as the U.N. Security Council. Likewise, when the U.S. government determined that the Bretton Woods system of monetary relations no longer suited its interests in the 1970s, it terminated that scheme and insisted on creating a more favorable one.

But again, the proper standard here is not sainthood but reality. And the U.S. has generally enlisted its power in the service of universal values such as democracy and human rights; it has, more often than not, promoted a positive-sum international system in which like-minded nations can be secure and wealthy. This goes back to the very beginning of the liberal order: Washington did not seek to hold its defeated adversaries in subjugation after World War II; it rebuilt Japan and western Germany into thriving, democratic allies that became fierce economic competitors to the U.S.

The U.S. has taken this approach not simply because it wanted to do good in the world powerful as this motivation is but because of a hard-headed desire to do good for itself. In an interdependent global environment, American officials have long calculated, the U.S. cannot divorce its own well-being from that of the wider world. And in contrast to how other great powers Imperial Japan, for instance, or the Soviet Union ruled their spheres of influence, American behavior has been positively enlightened. It is this relatively benign behavior that has convinced so many countries to tolerate American leadership and it is the emergence of a darker form of U.S. hegemony under the Trump administration that so profoundly worries them today.

As for the third critique, the premise is right but the conclusion can easily go too far. It is always dangerous to become so enraptured by past achievements that one loses sight of the need for adaptation in the future. This is particularly true today, because the strength of the liberal order is being tested from within and without, by issues ranging from unequal burden-sharing among American allies to the ambivalence of the American people themselves. There is little evidence to suggest, however, that either American power or the liberal order it supports have eroded so dramatically that Washington’s postwar project cannot be sustained. Quite the contrary the U.S. is likely to remain the world’s strongest power for decades to come.

This being the case, the proper response to today’s challenges is not to abandon America’s order-building project, but to refine it while recommitting to it. U.S. presidents have done this before: In the 1970s, Richard Nixon renegotiated the terms of the international monetary system, adjusted America’s role in the defense of Asia from communism, and opened new diplomatic relationships. Yet he did all this to extend the lifespan of an international order that was under strain. That’s the sort of effort that is again required and is what I’ll address in greater detail in my next column.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His newest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump." 

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