A vendor holds an American flag with the image of U.S. President Donald Trump outside the venue of a rally with Trump in Tampa, Florida, U.S. (Photographer: Zack Wittman/Bloomberg)  

America’s Global Order Is in Retreat

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- (This is the second installment of a series on challenges facing the U.S.-led international liberal order. Read the first part here: America’s Global Order Is Worth Fighting For.)

The “liberal international order” is not a myth, but that doesn’t mean it lacks for problems. In my previous column, I explained what the liberal order is, how and why the U.S. led its creation, what it has accomplished, and why the strongest recent critiques of it are overblown. Yet those critics nonetheless get one thing right: The liberal order is facing a barrage of pressures.

Those pressures are by no means irresistible, but addressing them will require — as a baseline condition — a degree of U.S. commitment that is presently uncertain.

There are three basic challenges testing the liberal order today. The first is the instability caused by authoritarian great powers. These rivals have partially benefited from the order — particularly the access it provides to global markets and capital — but nonetheless view it as a barrier to their geopolitical designs.

For Russia and China, the liberal international order is inherently threatening. This is because it is rooted in liberal values that pose an existential threat to all authoritarian regimes, and because it rests on structures and arrangements — such as U.S. alliances and military deployments — that limit their freedom of action. As Beijing and Moscow have become more powerful in recent years, they have employed multiple measures — incremental coercion in the South China Sea and the Baltics, election meddling and information warfare, promotion of autocracy overseas, military buildups and even, in Russia’s case, outright invasion of foreign countries — to chip away at the liberal order and its guiding precepts.

The second challenge is inadequate cohesion and cooperation among the countries that make up the order’s core. If the liberal order has been primarily an American project, Washington has always pursued that project with the help of countries that share basic U.S. interests and, in many cases, values. That approach, in turn, has been key to the order’s success: It has ensured the “world America made” has been underwritten not just by the power and initiative of the U.S., but also the power and initiative of broad geopolitical coalitions.

Today, however, these coalitions are under strain and underperforming, with NATO as the primary example. Having long neglected their military capabilities, key NATO members —  including the U.K., France and Germany — can contribute only minimally to the defense of the alliance’s eastern flank. And when a country as rich as Germany declines to spend more than 1.5 percent of gross domestic product on defense, burden-sharing is a real problem. More broadly, Brexit, the seemingly endless travails of the EU, and the rise of populism, nationalism and illiberalism in countries across Europe are tearing at the community of nations that has long been Washington’s partner of first resort.

This relates to the third challenge: the ebbing tide of political and economic liberalism. The liberal order is rooted in liberal values, but everywhere one looks, those values seem to be in retreat. An authoritarian resurgence is underway from Latin America to Europe and beyond: According to Freedom House, the number of countries experiencing declines in freedom has outnumbered those registering increases every year since 2006. Protectionist sentiments are surging, owing to uneven economic growth and feelings of cultural displacement. In any number of countries, xenophobia, narrow nationalism and other illiberal sentiments are forming a toxic mix.

These issues are challenging in their own right, but they seem all the more daunting because they undermine some of the core assumptions that proponents of the liberal order held as recently as the 1990s and 2000s. It was commonly believed, in those days, that authoritarian relics such as China would ultimately liberalize and integrate peacefully into the existing international order; that the advance of economic and political liberalization was irreversible; and that the community of Western nations was being bound together ever more closely. Today, all three assumptions seem tenuous at best, and are simply unraveling at worst.

When one considers all the problems the international order faces, in fact, it can be easy to fall into geopolitical despair. Yet if complacency is dangerous in international affairs, so is premature despondency. The liberal order has faced plenty of problems before, such as the threat a totalitarian Soviet Union posed to a prostrate Europe in the early postwar era, the global economic crisis of the 1970s, or the intense disputes over burden-sharing, nuclear deterrence and everything in between that have characterized America’s alliances since the day they were formed. In each case, the challenges were grave — arguably graver than they are today — but the sky did not fall. This should give us hope that the liberal order may not be doomed this time around, either.

The key to preserving the order will be recognition of the imperative of change and continuity alike. The U.S. and its friends will need to devise new strategies for protecting democracies under strain, for addressing incremental coercion and information warfare, and for preserving globalization in an era of populism and protectionism.

The liberal democracies may need to undertake shifts with painful short-term effects, such as pursuing selective economic de-integration with China as a way of limiting the strategic and military vulnerabilities interdependence can bring. In Europe and the Asia-Pacific alike, they must find ways of applying more resources and generating more multilateral cooperation to keep a resurgent Russia and a rising China in check. Yet all this adaptation must be rooted in an understanding that one thing has not changed: the absolute centrality of engaged and enduring U.S. leadership.

Indeed, the gravest threat the liberal order faces is not some unsolvable, technical problem of statecraft. In a variety of areas where the order is under strain — shoring up shaky democracies and dealing with authoritarian political warfare, competing more effectively and comprehensively with China, for example — observers inside or outside government have already advanced constructive proposals for action. The greatest threat, rather, is that the country that has traditionally taken the lead in spearheading action and defending the liberal order from danger will cease to play that role.

If the U.S. does not advocate on behalf of democratic values, the authoritarian resurgence will gather momentum. If the U.S. retreats into protectionism, no amount of clever policy by American allies will be able to shelter the global economy from the damage. If the U.S. doesn’t exert its diplomatic influence to ameliorate or at least mitigate the strains that have emerged in Europe, the fissures within the democratic world will grow wider. The real danger, in other words, is that America will make the long-term strategic decision — under Trump or perhaps his successors — to retreat from the liberal order. Even a decade ago, that prospect would have seemed unlikely at best; now there are apostles of narrow nationalism and retrenchment on both sides of the aisle.

It is not putting things too starkly to say that the liberal order will survive only if the U.S. finds the commitment and resolve to continue supporting it. Doing so, however, will require reconsolidating a domestic political consensus that has frayed in recent years. That will be the subject of the final piece in this series.

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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