America’s Global Order Can Be Saved

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

The first two columns in this series explored the meaning and value of the liberal international order, the challenges it faces, and the need for enduring U.S. leadership if it is to survive. Yet sustaining such leadership requires political support at home, and that support appears to be weak — and getting weaker — today. So how should U.S. leaders go about rebuilding the domestic consensus that is necessary to sustain a global order under strain?

Although the U.S. has been doing it for decades, the task of defending the liberal order has never been an easy sell to the American people. This is not just because “liberal international order” is a term that, although beloved by academics and policy wonks, hardly resonates with the average voter.

It is also because defending the liberal order has required making extraordinary exertions: defending faraway countries, patrolling distant frontiers, catalyzing collective action on myriad diplomatic and economic challenges. It means accepting the idea that the U.S. will make the world’s problems its own. That is a lot to ask of any country, particularly one as geographically fortunate and naturally secure as the U.S.

Historically, domestic consensus in support of U.S. internationalism was supported by a three-legged stool of fear, hope and political leadership. For much of the postwar era, the memory of the traumas that had befallen the U.S. during World War II — the last time the international order had collapsed — and the omnipresent threat from a totalitarian Soviet enemy convinced Americans on the whole that the costs of global engagement were ultimately less than the costs of geopolitical withdrawal.

Yet fear was always complemented by hope. There was a shared sense that the U.S. was undertaking a grand mission to vindicate democratic values and improve the lot of humanity. This aspiration not simply to live in the world, but fundamentally to transform it, traces back to the very founding of the republic. Later, it helped inspire the Marshall Plan, the creation of alliances that bound America to its fellow democracies, the promotion of human rights and liberal political values, and other key elements of Washington’s order-building project.

Critically, domestic support for that project was also a product of determined political leadership by America’s elites. From the earliest days of the postwar era, U.S. officials understood that there were still strong isolationist tendencies in the body politic. So they undertook a multi-decade public education campaign on the imperatives of global involvement.

They drew vivid — and sometimes exaggerated — pictures of the threats posed by Moscow and other malign actors, and made the case that shaping the world was critical to America’s own well-being. "We are assuming the responsibility which God Almighty intended,” Harry Truman explained in 1949, “for the welfare of the world in generations to come.”

For decades thereafter, virtually every president — even those who came into office preaching retrenchment — came to see it as his responsibility to rally Americans to the cause of building and preserving the liberal order.

Today, however, all three legs of the stool have grown weaker. The end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet Union made it harder to win support on the basis of fear. The 9/11 attacks provided, for a brief time, another reminder that there remained serious dangers in the world, but the stimulus wore off amid long and unsatisfying wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those wars also damaged the “hope” leg of the stool, leading to a growing perception that energetic U.S. statecraft was as likely to mess up the world as to make it better. Combined with the impact of the great recession and its aftermath, they led many Americans to conclude that the U.S. should concentrate, as President Obama put it, on nation-building at home rather than nation-building abroad.  

The political leadership leg of the stool has collapsed even more spectacularly. Barack Obama, for all his virtues, always manifested a certain ambivalence about America’s expansive global role. Donald Trump has taken a far starker view. He portrays the liberal order as the cause of many of America’s problems; he harps on the things the U.S. has gotten wrong in the world rather than the things it has gotten right. The U.S. president is no longer the chief defender of the liberal order; he is its chief critic.

Admittedly, public opinion polling shows that Americans’ views of alliances, trade and other international initiatives have not changed remarkably during Trump’s tenure. But the president has the world’s strongest megaphone, and the longer he inveighs against that order and the U.S. role in sustaining it, the weaker domestic support for that endeavor will become.

So how might a post-Trump cohort of American leaders rebuild support for a robust defense of the liberal order? It will require strengthening all three legs of the stool.

For starters, there must be a public education campaign about the growing dangers to U.S. security and the world America has helped to build. This is not really a matter of focusing on threats like Islamic State, North Korea and Iran, troubling as they are. Rather, it should center on the threats posed by the authoritarian great powers: Russia and especially China.

Although Russia’s power base is limited, it has shown a propensity to use violence to upset the liberal order in Europe, and it has demonstrated an ability to sow political instability in the U.S. and other Western countries. China is a totalitarian regime that could ultimately prove every bit as powerful and threatening as the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and it has already proclaimed its intention to compete with the U.S. for global leadership. Americans need to understand that if these countries succeed in reshaping things to their liking, the world will be less peaceful, less democratic and less congenial to the security and well-being of the U.S.

Equally important will be rediscovering positive, hopeful narratives. This does not meaning whitewashing the history of U.S. foreign policy or sweeping the nation’s various mistakes and misdeeds under the rug. Yet if self-criticism is admirable, what is more important today is to remind Americans of the great successes the U.S. has had in building a better world — one that has seen democratic values spread far and wide, countless people lifted out of poverty, and the longest period of great-power peace in the modern era — because that will be critical in rallying them to the task of defending the international order today. 

Finally, all these efforts must feature strong and vocal leadership from the top. U.S. officials must explain, in everyday language, why the liberal order is worth American sacrifice. They must explain what the consequences of its collapse would be. This is not an impossible task: The question of whether the liberal order will be preserved is ultimately a question of whether a world in which the U.S. itself has thrived will endure or perish.

But if the American president doesn’t make that argument, we can hardly expect Americans to buy into it on their own.

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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