The following is a guest post by Terrence Mullan, assistant director for international institutions and global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The world is at a historic inflection point. Can the so-called liberal world order—which many believe has helped deliver seven decades of peace, prosperity, and stability—survive the litany of challenges it faces today? And how can institutions and norms that have long facilitated international cooperation function in an era that many see as defined by great power competition? To develop tentative answers to these questions, CFR hosted the eighth annual conference of the Council of Councils (CoC) in Washington, DC, from May 5 to 7, 2019. Forty-three delegates from twenty-three countries representing twenty-five think tanks discussed the future of world order, the catastrophic risk of nuclear weapons, the challenges of rapid urbanization, the future of freedom worldwide, and the ongoing conflict in Yemen.
Four takeaways stand out:
1. The U.S.-led order is spent. Since the end of World War II, the United States has pursued its global interests by constructing and maintaining international economic institutions, security alliances, and liberal political norms—three legs that hold up the liberal world order. These institutions, norms, and rules mediated relations among countries, helped prevent conflict between major powers, and promoted the spread of democracy and human rights. The United States under President Donald J. Trump is rejecting and undermining basic tenets of all three legs. Current U.S. disinterest leaves its continued leadership—and even the preservation—of that order in doubt. Every time the United States abandons or weakens a multilateral arrangement that it helped to establish, other countries take that as an indicator of their own freedom to flout shared rules and norms.
2. The world order is cracking and there is no clear way forward. Aside from U.S. neglect and abuse, the world order faces three main challenges. First, it does not reflect the new distribution of global power. China, Russia, and other countries do not see the structure of the order as legitimate, and they will continue to contest it. Second, globalization is exacerbating economic inequality and financial imbalances, which policymakers are failing to remedy. Third, transformative technologies are disrupting labor markets and political systems. Populist movements have exploited anxieties created by uncertainty and fear of “the other,” agitating for more insular economies and closed societies. This backlash against globalization, combined with the resurgence of state industrial policy and large, market-distorting economies, challenges the functioning of the open world order and imperils the design of any new one. Moreover, while some countries prefer a world order based only on a limited set of basic rules, others want the core of any order to reflect the values of democracy and human rights. Bridging this ideological gap will be extremely difficult.
3. Middle powers need to take more global responsibility and buttress the world order. As the United States takes a step back, middle powers need to step up to sustain the world order in which they are stakeholders. Without clear rules, middle powers are lost in a Thucydidean world in which the strong do as they can and the middling do as they must. In a paper written for the CoC conference, Michael Fullilove, president of the Lowy Institute, proposes [PDF] principles that could inform the foreign policy of many middle powers: stand up for their values, call out challengers to the international order, be exemplars in following international rules, reinforce connections among themselves and stand up a new concert of like-minded countries, and, most importantly, bolster their own capabilities to be responsible global partners. Ultimately, however, international orders cannot be created or sustained by middle powers alone. They are maintained or broken by great powers. So Washington and Beijing will have a large say in the future of world order.
4. A failure of political leadership is darkening the world’s future. Today’s problems are linked to the current quality of global leadership. The absence of strong, principled, and effective leaders willing to do the right thing—regardless of short-term political calculations–is palpable. History turns in part based on vast impersonal forces, but individuals still matter enormously. The formation of the post-World War II order, for instance, was not inevitable. It was contingent on individual events and the instincts of great men and women. Preserving and reforming the world order will require exceptional leadership.
Is the world order in as bad of shape as everyone says, and the above points imply? Perhaps not. For many years, the United States has seen itself as an exceptional or “exemptionalist” power, able to ignore norms it claims to uphold, much as Trump is doing now. Yet the world order has survived. The current order is in dire need of repair, and Trump has identified many of its shortcomings. His solutions, however, leave much to be desired. His “ready, shoot, aim” approach undermines prosperity and security. His administration’s pursuit of narrowly conceived national interests is laying waste to world order.
In the coming years, the Trump administration’s disdain of global rules and could have drastic implications for U.S. security alliances and liberalism writ large. The problem for the rest of the world is that the United States is still the most powerful country militarily, imports the most goods, and maintains the world’s reserve currency. Building alternatives to the world order as we know it, particularly the economic order, will be difficult. However, other countries are already starting to refuse to play along with Trump’s bluster.
Instead of abandoning the world order that has served most of the world well, the United States should seek to preserve and prolong that order—the essential parts, at least. No one pretends that the liberal world order is perfect. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the liberal world order is the worst form of order except for all those others that have been tried.
Read the full CoC conference report here.