war on the rocks

Re-Imagining the World: Reflections on the Future of World Order

January 9, 2018

In Washington and other friendly capitals, there is increasing concern about the state of liberal world order. There is a sense that the rules and institutions that have governed international affairs since 1945, and especially since the end of the Cold War, are fraying. Two major forces are challenging the system. First, the balance of power is shifting: a system once dominated by the United States is seen as giving way to other rising powers, namely China, who seek a greater say in world affairs. Second, and perhaps more ominously, the norms, values, institutions, and practices that have long shaped this global order are believed to be losing their attractive power and very legitimacy. On both fronts, the perceived change in attitude, position, and power of the United States is recognized as crucial. The unexpected and disruptive presidency of Donald J. Trump is understood as both cause, symptom, and acceleration of national and domestic trends challenging international relations.

What are we to make of these concerns? How should we think about the issues surrounding the so-called liberal order, and the concept of world order in general?

While the term is widely used, it is worth noting that such a thing as world order does not exist in nature, but largely in our heads: It is a heuristic, based on perspective. In other words, world order is a highly stylized, simplistic, and collective lens to view and make sense of extraordinarily complex and often crosscutting, contradictory global phenomena, as well as map out ambitions and aims. Heuristics by their nature are imperfect, provisional, and miss important details. Capturing something as diffuse and evolving as a world order is especially challenging. It requires incorporating the interests and interactions of scores of states and institutions – each with their own complex politics and histories – while recognizing powerful and equally complex cultural, technological, ideological, and economic forces, both local and global – shaping the world around us.

The term world order is also sneakily evaluative. When assessing a world order, one should ask: Who does any purported order serve, and to what end? The century after the Congress of Vienna, which ended the bloody Napoleonic wars and delivered, at least in relative terms, political stability, economic growth, and peace to Europe, is often identified as an exemplar for how to organize international relations. The same century, however, was marked by tragedy and humiliation for the two most populous countries in the world, the great civilizations of China and India, to say nothing of the horrors perpetuated upon Africa. There is little nostalgia for the Vienna system outside of Europe. The same could be said within Europe: The 1713 Treaty of Utrecht is, to this day, understood far differently in Barcelona than it is in Vienna or London. Needless to say, not everyone has benefited equally from the postwar liberal order nor do they possess the same desire to defend it.

It is also important to ask what the goal of any past or proposed order might be. Stability or dynamism? Wealth or security? Hegemony or multilateralism? Also, how likely is world order to achieve the stated goals? The first half of the 20th century suffered a collapse of the international system and unspeakable violence and chaos. The same period also witnessed unprecedented and widespread improvements in technology, medicine, public health, nutrition, education, and literacy, as well as extraordinary decreases in infant mortality and increases in life expectancy. History is full of such grim ironies: It was the Black Death whose thinning of the population brought wage increases and new prosperity to those that managed to survive. History often unfolds in ways immune to our best-laid plans, for better and worse. Conceptions of world order often prove impotent in the face of more powerful historical forces.

This is not to dismiss the concept of world order, either as a heuristic or as a goal of policy — quite the contrary. Complexity is not an excuse to throw our hands up in the air or engage in ad hoc, reactive analysis. Intellectually, thinking about world order is a way to surface our assumptions about international relations and explore and better understand what forces drive the outcomes in the world we care most about. Debates about world order allows us to generate better questions and organize discussions about difficult policy choices in a more intelligent, less reactive and ad-hoc way. The grand strategy a leader or a state pursues will be dictated in large part by their understanding of the rules and incentives of the international system.

Furthermore, regardless of whatever oversimplifications are involved in any discussion of the so-called liberal order, it is hard to quibble with the positive outcomes that marked international affairs since 1945. Seven broad trends stand out. First, the global economy generated unprecedented wealth. Second, while uneven, states generally became more responsive to the needs of their citizens than they had in centuries past. Third, states became more committed to and developed institutional capabilities for the purpose of confronting transnational problems and dealing with the tragedy of the commons. Fourth, tolerance, both as a norm and as a state policy, became increasingly important (if still inconsistently and unevenly applied) in countries that became part of the liberal order. Fifth, on most measures of wellbeing, from literacy to diet to various personal freedoms, there have been massive and widespread improvements. Sixth, great power wars of conquest, the scourge of humanity throughout history, largely disappeared. Seventh, the United States exercised extraordinary influence on world affairs and derived great political and material benefits from global arrangements. While not discounting the many negative outcomes and worrisome trends of the last eight decades, from a historical standpoint, this is an extraordinary record, well worth the United States preserving and building upon.

How much of this positive outcome was the result of a thought out, constructed, shared vision of world order, or instead deeper historical forces or mere coincidence?

Policymakers and academics debate this question fiercely. Perhaps one way of evaluating this question is to explore well-designed, rigorous counterfactual analysis about the past: What would the world look like today if the United States had not committed itself to nurturing a liberal world order in the postwar world? What if another worldview, with different assumptions and policy prescriptions – say, offshore balancing, neorealism, or restraint – had held sway amongst U.S. policymakers? What would have been the consequences if the United States had not devoted political capital to the international economic order, to developing global institutions, to advocating certain norms and political practices around the world? What if it had relied on traditional balance of power politics, embraced spheres of influences, and employed alliances in their more traditional sense – as temporary and threat-specific, as opposed to institutionalizing and making them permanent? What if it had adopted a more hands-off approach to transnational issues such as nuclear proliferation, international monetary relations, or human rights? Would the world be more or less dangerous, more or less stable, more or less prosperous? Even though these questions can’t be answered with certainty, and different people will have divergent answers, this type of analysis allows for a more sophisticated, contextual discussion about world order than is often the case when various “isms” and theoretical approaches slug it out. It should also allow us to move beyond overly simplistic binaries; i.e. one can support a robust, U.S. led liberal order and still be opposed to poorly thought out wars in the Middle East.

Another important issues surrounds how threatened the current order actually is. Deeply embedded institutions and practices may be more resilient than we understand. That said, as any historian knows, few things last forever. As a heuristic, world order tends to be static, immobile, timeless lens, while the actual world it is trying to explain is dynamic, complex, and ever changing. Those very qualities that make a world order successful may provide the seeds of its eventual change and transformation. This brings up an important point in any discussions and debates about any future order: We should avoid simplistic nostalgia. This requires a delicate balance in our analysis. The past can tell us much about the future, but it can also blind us to what may be new in the world. We should ask ourselves what forces, actors, trends, institutions, and people will matter most, and how, why, and in what ways – and not assume the answers will be the same as they were in the past.

Which World Order?

Much of the lament over world order derives from a fear that an international system that has structured world politics successfully for over 70 years is dissolving. But what precisely is the history of this liberal world order we fear losing?

There is a common, if overly simplified, narrative. During and in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the story goes, wise statesmen constructed an U.S.-led world order that generated both security and prosperity for the United States and its friends. The security order was fashioned around containing the Soviet Union through integrated alliances and vigorous but prudent military competition. The economic prosperity was created by building a liberal trading system, buttressed by international institutions – including the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund – and enhanced by regional arrangements like the European Community (then Union). The United Nations provided a place for states to discuss their grievances and to advocate practices such as observing human rights, and democratic elections spread throughout the world. The great virtues of this system were demonstrated when the United States prevailed in the Cold War, the Soviet Union disappeared, and liberal capitalism spread throughout the globe in the 1990s and 2000s. The causes for the weakening of this order are disputed: Some blame a decade and a half of foolish U.S. led wars in the Middle East, while others point to the natural rise of new powers challenging the system. But few doubt that there is and was a liberal world order and that it is weakening.

The truth of the post-1945 international system is, of course, far messier. National reconstruction and development, not interdependence and globalism, was its early focus. Trade as a percentage of world GDP in 1962 was a little more than half what it was in 1913. Human rights and democratization were not pursued with vigor. International institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations were weak if not largely irrelevant. Trade, investment, and capital flows were managed, not free, until the early 1970s, when the so-called Bretton Woods system came crashing down. What many refer to as the liberal trading order emerged from its ruins, and was actually a mish mash of ad hoc reactions to the global economic crisis, frightful currency volatility, and massive increases in money flows outside of the reach or regulation of any state or institution. Inflation, slow growth, bad debts, and spikes in resource prices marked this transition, and venerated institutions such as the G-7 summits and the move to further European monetary integration were frantic efforts to coordinate a response. The pressures for human rights and democratization largely emerged outside of states and the United Nations, driven by nongovernmental organizations and public opinion.

On the security side, not a year went by during the Cold War when the NATO alliance could not be described as “in crisis.” Similar uncertainty often marked America’s presence in East Asia. Containment, the concept supposedly shaping U.S. military policy in the postwar period, meant dramatically different things to different people, including its author, George Kennan, who began disavowing the strategy within years of recommending it. An observer from Mars to Earth in 1979 could be forgiven for not being able to identify a vibrant liberal international order led by a vigorous, purposeful United States. Other historical forces, from decolonization to globalization to Islamism threatened to overtake or to undermine whatever stability this order purported to provide.

This is not to deny the existence of a liberal world order.  Rather, it is to acknowledge its complexity and changes over time. We should be clear on which world order we are seeking to emulate. Do we long for the state-centric postwar stability of fixed exchange rates, geopolitical and ideological competition, relatively limited migration, capital controls, non-inference in other state’s affairs, and trade restrictions of the four decades of the postwar period?  Or do we miss the wild swings of economic, and political chaos of the middle period? The world we live in now – dynamic, highly globalized with massive (and often destabilizing) movements of money, trade, data, people, and ideas, where the state’s authority is increasingly challenged – is a much different one than the postwar order “wise men” envisioned.

Where is the Action?

To think about world order is to embrace certain assumptions about how the world works. World order is often a state-centric view, one in which politics and policy are critical – if not the most important – variables shaping outcomes in the world. Those who care about world order often believe strategy and statecraft matters enormously. Can those assumptions, however, blind us to other important dynamics in the international system?

Politics, policy, and statecraft, while the most immediate and transparent causal variables in international affairs, may not matter the most in the long term. Over time, deep structural forces, such as demographics, technology, economic forces (both macro and micro), geography, and climate will determine many of the most important aspects of world politics. In the medium term, our culture and society will be crucial, providing us our beliefs, our norms and attitudes, our sense of who we are – individually and collectively – and what matters most in our lives. These are, of course, overly simplistic ways of thinking of both the past and the future. And policy and statecraft can influence culture, economics, and demographics, and vice-versa, though often in unexpected and unusual ways. Thinking about world order forces one to think about how these causal forces – short, medium, and long-term – interact. It also challenges us to reflect on where, how, and when policy and statecraft are essential and when it is far less important that we think.

Consider the fate of three nations in the second half of the 19th century: France, Prussia/Germany, and the United States. While culture and economics were important, Prussia/Germany pulled ahead of France largely because, for several decades after 1850, the strategies and statecraft of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck were far superior to those of Napoleon III and his successors. Politics and policy were critical variables shaping Germany’s rise and Europe’s political order. At the same time, however, the United States became the most powerful nation in the world, despite having weak policy institutions and little interest in statecraft. The rise of the United States was driven by powerful geographic, demographic, and economic forces, as well as an increasing collective sense of civic purpose. The grand strategies of Benjamin Harrison and Chester Arthur were not, alas, the key variables.

One crude way to think about this today is to ask, how much do President Donald Trump’s tweets affect and shape the things people care about the most in the long-term: where and how they live, marry, pray, educate their children, what they do for a living, etc.? If his tweets and ensuing policies lead to war or a nuclear exchange, the answer would be – quite a lot. Absent such a catastrophe, however, odds are that other powerful if often hidden and unexamined forces will be more important in shaping the world around us. Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between. Over time, Trump’s policies, and the trends they represent, will have a cumulative effect on America’s role in the world. That world, however, is being shaped and structured by a multitude of forces, many beyond the control of even the world’s most powerful state. Regardless of the answer, wrestling with these sorts of questions forces us to be more precise about what matters and why as we think about international relations.

The Problems of Plenty?

Thinking about world order requires us to measure things: what counts for power and influence in the international system? In the past, these calculations were relatively straightforward. War determined outcomes that mattered most to states within the international system. The states that could build the most tanks and ships and mobilize their economies to field the largest armies for the longest period of time were the most powerful. Crude metrics, such as land mass, population, and steel and coal production, determined who were the great powers that shape the order. Powers rose and fell based on relative shifts in these metrics, with the results often manifested on the battlefield.

The virtual disappearance fully mobilized, great power war of conquest generates questions about what matters and how to measure what matters in any future order. What counts for power when the types of all consuming, murderous conflagrations of the past have receded into historical memory? Where have the great power wars gone, and is their absence temporary? What made them go away? Will other kinds of conflict and competition – equally consequential – eventually take their place? We know the influence of the nuclear revolution – the awesome power of the bomb makes invading other nuclear-armed states a bad bet. If nuclear weapons disappeared tomorrow, however, would the threat of full-scale great power wars of conquest return? In the past, invasions were often driven by the desire for highly valued land and resources, needed to feed expanding populations. With land cheap, food plentiful, population growth flat, conquest and occupation expensive, and wealth generated by ideas and innovation, not wheat fields and coal mines, will conquest appear any more appealing? In such a world, what will be the most prized tools of power, who is most likely to possess them, and how will we measure these endowments?

Thinking about these questions requires both humility and imagination. If coal mines and train lines won’t matter as much in the future, what will? What impact will extraordinary new technologies – robotics, the internet of things, artificial intelligence, biogenetics, nanotechnology, quantum computing – have on how we think about power and influence? How will the way people live and work affect world order?

Ultimately, decisions about world order, strategy, and statecraft are related to the states within the system and the people who are members of that political community. What do they want – from their states, the world, their lives? Imagine the motivations of a fictional,  “average” Chinese citizen in 2025 or 2030.  Picture a 55 year old man, who has witnessed dizzying, unprecedented, disorienting change in his life, living in an anonymous high-rise in a mega-city with his wife, working remotely and engaging most people virtually (as does his wife), possessing material abundance unimagined by his ancestors but with no siblings and few if any cousins. Perhaps he has one child (studying or living abroad), no religious affiliation, is proud of China’s history, but skeptical of his government’s ideology. Imagine tens if not hundreds of millions of not dissimilar people. Collectively, what might such a notional population want from its nation and the world? Is this a demographic more likely to be war-like or peaceful than, say, his predecessors in a much different demographic, economic, and ideological landscape of Europe in the early 20th century? With an older population, unwilling to risk a narrow base of productive young people needed to fund their social welfare in war or conflict, China in ten or fifteen years might become what I call a “Grandpa Simpson” nation – cranky, ornery, but risk adverse.  Again, this question is impossible to answer but this kind of re-imaging is what is necessary when thinking about world order.

The question of counting and measurement brings up another issue as we think about world order and the grand strategies of particular states. On questions of security, intelligence, and prosperity, many of our analytical models, to say nothing of our common assumptions, focus on scarcity. Wealth, security, information – all are assumed to be scarce, driving fierce competition to acquire these sparse assets. Wise policy, it is assumed, seeks to aggressively maximize and accumulate these rare items: you can never have enough wealth, security, and information.

At least some of the most pressing global challenges any world order will face are less problems of scarcity, but overabundance. Climate change, the proliferation of dangerous technologies, financial and economic volatility, information wars, and pandemics – we might think of these as the “problems of plenty.” In other words, these challenges, which often spill over borders, are the result of too much of something: too much economic productivity, too much information and innovation, too free a movement of ideas, people, and money. One might even apply this to the security circumstances of the United States: Has a great power ever had to worry less about being invaded and conquered in human history? Might this abundance of security, this freedom of choice, lead to dangerous temptations abroad?

All these arguments are obviously debatable. It is worth thinking about, however, whether or not this category of challenges – the “problems of plenty – are much different than those that faced states in the past. The tools and models that helped us understand the forces that shaped world order in the past – too little land or access to resources, too little security, too little information – may need to be re-imagined to understand that abundance presents as many challenges as scarcity.

Whither the United States?

What will be the role of the United States in either maintaining, enhancing, replacing, or abandoning the current international system? This is a question of fundamental importance, and the Trump administration’s turn away from the liberal order the United States helped create, even if it builds upon earlier trends, is deeply unsettling to many.

The United States, since its founding, has often been ambivalent about both the idea of and participation in world order. Balance of power politics – the linchpin of many previous orders – was often understood by American thinkers and leaders as the corrupt practice of European monarchies and empires. When the United States did achieve great power capabilities in the late 19th century, it took a half century for it to fully recognize and – if at times reluctantly – embrace its role as the key player. The United States enjoyed extraordinary growth in the late 19th and early 20th century behind high tariffs and erratic monetary practices, and despite being the largest, most dynamic economy in the world, contributed little in the way of public goods. Its participation in the liberal world order it helped build was often far more tenuous and ambivalent than we recall. The post-World War II domestic political consensus around America’s role in the world order can be overstated. Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, for example, all sought to reduce America’s security commitment to Europe, while President Carter wanted to remove American troops from South Korea. In the end however, the United States overcame its own ambivalence.

While there were costs and troubling mistakes, ultimately both U.S. leaders and citizens recognized that the United States benefited enormously from engaging the world, especially in its leading role in pursuing strategies and statecraft that advanced its own interests while also promoting global peace and stability. Put another way, leading the world was understood as putting America first. That understanding, however, appears to be unraveling. This is not merely a result of the recent Presidential election. The forces within American society – that seek to disengage from the world, to abandon the U.S.-led international – have grown considerably in the last two decades, hearkening back to deep roots in U.S. history. The timing of this shift is especially unfortunate, as both the underpinnings of the current world order – the balance of power and its legitimacy – are under threat from multiple sources.

The question, however, is the character and magnitude of this change in attitude. Does it reflect a mild correction or irreversible shift? One especially elusive but important factor for those worried about the United States and its role in the world is leadership.  Are there individuals who can lay out a compelling vision to explain why thinking about and shaping any future world order is in America’s self-interest? To be successful, such a vision must build upon more than stylized, simple stories from the past, and be grounded in the complex, ever-shifting realities the people of the United States are experiencing.

In Search of Imagination

Thinking about world order requires as much an imaginative sensibility as a scientific one.  As John Bew wisely pointed out, “It is a work of abstract art never complete.”

Sovereign states, controlling territory, managing their economies, monopolizing the means of violence with military power on behalf of a national citizenry, and fiercely competing with other sovereign states over scarce resources, are seen as the linchpin of past and current international system. Yet one senses that on all the categories most frequently looked at when assessing world order – the reach and effectiveness of the modern state, the definitions of sovereignty and conceptions of identity, the nature and measurement of power and influence, the role of war and conquest, the emergence of transformative technologies, shifting demographics, the structure of both national and global economies, and the nature of scarcity versus abundance – are shifting before our eyes. This should not surprise us.I In historical terms, a state-centered world order is relatively recent.

These changes, however, make the task of thinking about world order no less important.  Clearly, we are at a precarious moment. If the United States exits the world stage, or remains in a desultory manner, without thought or conviction, the dangers to America’s interest may be profound.

History teaches us that different versions of order emerge from different nations and civilizations at different times. The United States risks an alternative order, one inimical to its interests, taking hold. World orders can collapse and be replaced by new ones with alarming speed. The United States could find itself on the outside looking in.

There is another threat, however, that is more likely, more prosaic, but just as dangerous – the absence of any legitimate order. While the factors and forces that go into creating a sustainable order are changing, history is clear one thing. The absence of an order, where international political life is seen only through a transactional lens, where global exchanges are understood as zero sum, where alliances and trust are discounted, where no overarching set of rules or principles or institutions are available to help powers navigate the dangers of international political life, is a recipe for disorder, misfortune, and even war. A well-constructed world order that combines legitimacy, recognition of changed circumstances, and a balance of power does not guarantee peace and prosperity. The absence of such an arrangement, however, virtually guarantees tragedy, both for the United States and for the world.


Francis J. Gavin is the Giovanni Agnelli Distinguished Professor and the inaugural director of the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University. He is also the Chairman of the Board of Editors of the Texas National Security Review.

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