from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

World Order: What, Exactly, are the Rules?

Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin sit for photographs during the Yalta Conference in February 1945.

May 3, 2016

Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin sit for photographs during the Yalta Conference in February 1945.
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The international rules-based order established after World War II seems to be under relentless pressure, threatening its foundations existentially. If so, what if anything can be done to reinvigorate it? This question raises several others a priori. First, what are the most distinctive attributes of the post-1945 world order; how did that order come into being; and what explains its longevity? Second, what forces are now placing this order under strain? Third, what aspects of today’s order are most vulnerable—and which are most resilient? Fourth, what principles, frameworks, and objectives should guide U.S. policy toward world order going forward? In my new article in The Washington Quarterly, I aim to answer those fundamental questions.

Contemporary analyses of world order tend to fall into two camps: “the sky is falling!” and “what, me worry?” Despite their differences, however, both the pessimistic and optimistic outlooks share the same premise: there exists a Western liberal international order whose distinctive values, norms, laws, and institutions were designed to inform and govern state conduct. This order originated in Europe but achieved full expression only with the U.S. rise to global leadership (or hegemony), as the post-1945 United States combined power and purpose to forge a multilateral world order, using a mixture of persuasion, incentives, and coercion to do so. Where these outlooks part ways is on how ongoing shifts in the distribution of material power affect the substantive content of world order, including its regnant norms, rules, standards, and institutions.

My take? The sky is not yet falling. But the turbulence of the past sixteen years, over two very different U.S. administrations, suggests little room for complacency. The international rules of order laid down over the past seventy years are fraying, even as rules of the road are needed to address challenges the “wise men” of the 1940s could scarcely have imagined. Beginning with its likeminded allies, the United States must use its still-unmatched position to forge workable consensus among established and rising powers. And it must temper its historic “exemptionalist” stance towards multilateral cooperation—or risk seeing others mimic its behavior, to the detriment of world order.

Read the full article in the latest issue of The Washington Quarterly here.

More on:

International Organizations

United States

Diplomacy and International Institutions

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