What’s So Disordered About Your World Order?


It seems that the liberal international order, a system of rules and institutions that brought peace and prosperity to the world in the aftermath of World War II, is now “being challenged as never before in its 70-year history.”

Examples of this unprecedented challenge can be seen around the globe: Trump is threatening to destroy NAFTA. Russia is resurgent, annexing Crimea and menacing the Baltic states. Democratic values are on the decline in Eastern Europe, with Poland and Hungary slipping toward autocracy. China flouts the rules of the World Trade Organization and Britain is on the verge of leaving the European Union. Worst of all, in the Middle East a brutal dictator uses chemical weapons with impunity.

As these examples make clear, though, the international order at risk today isn’t quite as old as we think. As late as 1988, there was no NAFTA. Ukraine and the Baltic states were firmly under Russian control. Poland and Hungary were communist dictatorships. China hadn’t joined the World Trade Organization and what is now the European Union had yet to adopt such key features as a common currency and visa free travel. Saddam Hussein was using chemical weapons not just with impunity but with tacit American support.

And even in the last three decades, the liberal international order was not as robust as we’d like to imagine. For example, the ongoing humanitarian tragedy in Syria has generated poignant laments for a vanished era when such horrors wouldn’t have been permitted. By this standard, though, the golden age of the international order lasted just a few years, from Washington’s successful 1999 intervention in Kosovo to its unsuccessful 2003 intervention in Iraq. Or, measured differently, from the time Bill Clinton sincerely apologized for not stopping the genocide in Rwanda up until the moment it became clear George W. Bush wasn’t prepared to stop the genocide unfolding in Darfur.

Of course, even its most ardent admirers would readily admit that the liberal international order was always more of an aspiration than a consolidated, 70-year-old achievement. And the optimism that accompanied the end of the Cold War has been widely derided for some time now. Yet there was still a surprisingly hardy assumption that up until recently the world was moving, however slowly or erratically, in the right direction. If nothing else, there appeared to be a trajectory toward greater order that has now become impossible to discern.

This in itself is excellent cause for alarm. If the liberal order was always an arduous and incremental work in progress, it is all the more likely that progress could come apart. Similarly, if what order exists today only came about through the efforts of successive presidential administrations, the arrival of a president without the desire or competence to sustain this achievement is even more frightening. And gratuitously alienating allies is never a good idea.

But it would be a mistake to react to this rising alarm with nostalgia for an era of global order that never was. Watching the president abandon the rhetoric and ambition that, however imperfectly, sustained American policy seems to have led observers to double down on historical myths. The temptation to invoke romanticized history in an effort to avert disaster is entirely understandable. But it comes at the expense of accurately diagnosing the contradictions of the previous policy consensus and having a candid discussion of how we got where we are today. Which then makes it harder to build something stronger in the aftermath of the crises we are experiencing.

In fact, many of the questions up for debate today are the ones policymakers debated in the 1990s – when U.S. power and the optimism for a new international order were at their peak. In championing the liberal order, U.S. politicians were always loath to admit that there were ever trade-offs between America’s interests and the world’s, or that they had sometimes broken the very rules they promoted. Yet beneath this rhetoric there were still real arguments that now risk being lost in the nostalgia: Would the liberal order be American-led or American-dominated? Would America follow the rules or make them? How could countries like China and Russia be convinced to accept the terms of an American order? And out of what combination of idealism and self-interest would the American people be convinced to support this whole endeavor anyway?

Well before Trump, U.S. foreign policy had to navigate between rival critiques, from Americans insisting that the international order was a hopelessly idealistic project with little in it for them and foreign critics who saw it as a euphemism for American hegemony. Partisan debates aside, past presidents never received an outpouring of popular support when contemplating intervention in the Balkans, or Syria, or anywhere else where they couldn’t articulate a clear threat to American security. Similarly, there was never a consensus, even in Washington, on how to respond to Russian aggression against non-allies situated on the periphery of Western institutions, whether Georgia in 2008 or Ukraine in 2014.

It was, in other words, far from clear that voters were willing to shoulder the cost of compelling countries like Russia to accept the version of the international order that the United States was offering them. In pushing confidently ahead with a geopolitical project that saw its success peak in the year 2000, policymakers were bound to run into trouble eventually. Appeals to an idealized past serve to bolster the argument that if only the president – Obama, Trump, or both, depending on your politics – had not abandoned America’s commitment to global leadership the world’s current crises could have been avoided. The implicit premise is that were Washington to recommit to its previous foreign policy vision, the world would fall in line. Difficult disagreements about matching America’s geopolitical ambitions to its resources would resolve themselves without any insurmountable objections from voters or foreign leaders. Syria’s civil war could be resolved like Bosnia’s eventually was, rather than any one of the countless other civil wars Washington couldn’t, or didn’t ever attempt to, solve.

One need not know the solutions to these challenges to see that they won’t be found in recreating a short-lived moment of post-Cold War confidence. Figuring out what comes next requires looking at the recent past as a cautionary tale as well as a template. And recognizing that, whatever solutions emerge, they will almost certainly prove more compelling – both at home and abroad – presented as a revised vision for a more stable and just world than as a return to an era whose virtues are more apparent to op-ed writers than anyone else.


Nick Danforth is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center. He completed a PhD in Turkish history at Georgetown University and has written widely on Middle Eastern politics.

Image: Nicolas Raymond/Flickr

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