Asking the Right Questions about the Past and Future of World Order

World Order (1)

In June 1965, the French philosopher and political scientist, Raymond Aron, gathered an extraordinary group of thinkers, including Stanley Hoffmann, Lord Gladwyn Jebb, and Henry Kissinger, for a weeklong seminar in the beautiful Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, Italy. This discussion centered upon the question of whether and how a stable world order could be achieved. Could different ideological systems co-exist in an often chaotic and uncertain world? Was the nation-state the most effective instrument of global governance? What effect would transformative technological change have on global politics? The core issue the esteemed group wrestled with was if it were “possible to organize so that there can be peaceful coexistence between societies which remain fundamentally different.”

Fifty-five years later, analysts are once again consumed with the current and future state of world order, which appears in crisis. Many have offered recommendations for what a future global order might look like and what should be done to build it. It is hard to imagine a more consequential question.



Before looking to the future, however, we need to better understand the past. The order that emerged after World War II is often portrayed in overly simplistic and misleading ways. We need a fuller understanding of the much lionized, but often misunderstood, postwar world if we are to construct an effective future order. We ought to also correctly diagnose the contemporary challenges to this order and assess what the aim of future order-building efforts should be.

Four Caveats

Before discussing elements of postwar order, I would like to offer four caveats, or things to consider, when analyzing and trying to understand the events, policies, and institutions that shaped international relations after World War II.

First, we often think of world order as emerging from a long-term master plan and sober debate and consideration, based on deep reflection about the future. This is how things often look in retrospect, especially when described by political scientists and even historians, but that may be the product of outcome bias. In fact — as every decision-maker knows — ex ante, policymakers faced radical uncertainty about the future, and often stumbled towards ad hoc, reactive ways to create what now seems so impressive and pre-planned. We often forget the efforts and initiatives to build order that failed or were re-adapted for other purposes.

Second, no singular world order emerged after World War II. The Cold War produced competing orders, such as the system imposed by the Soviet Union on its own country, its near periphery, and its global allies. There were some issues and areas where it would be hard to identify any order. More often than not, chaos and uncertainty, rather than order, marked decolonization and the rise of new states in Africa and parts of Asia. My focus will be on what some call the “Western” liberal world order that emerged after World War II (though that name is not without its own problems).

Third, because of its overwhelming power after emerging victorious from World War II, many, if not most, of the elements of this postwar order were shaped by the United States and its close allies. It is important to recall, however, that the United States, based on its history, had a deep ambivalence about engaging in order-shaping, to say nothing of participating in alliances. We easily forget that there was never a domestic political consensus that world order-building should have been an American priority, and there were plenty of critics, with strong political followings, of the order that was constructed. There was a deep, highly respected tradition, dating back to founders including Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Quincy Adams, that deep engagement in the affairs of the world risked great danger to the American experiment.

Fourth, the order that was constructed was shaped largely under the shadow of the searing memory of the recent past. Three issues or events in particular influenced early order building: the abject failure of the Versailles conference and other order-building efforts in Europe in the 1920s, the catastrophic collapse of the global economy in the 1930s, and World War II, which engulfed Europe and Asia and pulled in a reluctant United States after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

These three concerns were obviously seen as linked, and the effectiveness of any world order was judged by its ability to solve the underlying causes and tensions that had led to these crises.

The intellectual origins of the postwar order matters for two reasons. First, early order-builders had theories about why the interwar period had been a disaster; some of these hypotheses were correct, other arguments were proven, in time, to be wrong; but for the purposes of constructing an order, their understanding of how unwelcome events occurred in the previous decades is critical to understanding their priorities and their choices. Second, some aspects of the order they built were better at solving these problems of the past but less effective at anticipating the problems of the future. In other words, while this order anticipated and solved many older issues, it was less adept at dealing with new challenges in that emerged in the years after World War II.

The American-led postwar order possessed four components: economics, security, nuclear stability, and global governance and international regulation. These elements were often related, and at times overlap and intersect. Each had its own chronologies and disjunctures.

I will not spend much time on the last leg of world order — global governance and regulation — although arguably, it is the most durable, pervasive, and consequential plank of postwar world order. Scores of international organizations, norms, and laws have been created since World War II, and over time have become deeply embedded within the international system, affecting all sorts of daily transactions we now take for granted. Think of the impact that the International Civil Aviation Organization or the World Health Organization have had. In the year 1967, when the World Health Organization began its smallpox eradication program, 2 million people died of the disease. In the 20th century, 300 million people died of it, twice as many as died in all the wars combined. Over ten years later, the disease had been eliminated and the death toll was zero, largely resulting from global cooperation and collaboration made possible by the World Health Organization. One could argue that the proliferation and deep penetration of such regimes, and the expansion of global governance to include networks of non-governmental organizations and even the private sector over the past few decades, is the most important, if not most obvious, legacy of postwar order-building.

International Economic Order

The earliest and, initially, most important leg of world order was economic. It was also the most discontinuous, as there have been at least three periods of postwar economic order since 1945: first, the Bretton Woods period that lasted until the early 1970s; second, the chaotic efforts to rebuild economic order in the 1970s and 1980s; and third, the globalization order that emerged in the early 1990s, which continues today but which has been under some strain since at least 2008.

Economic order-building took priority for two reasons. First, the United States long had a view about international politics that prioritized economic relations between states over traditional geopolitical concerns, such as European balance of power politics or imperialism. A guiding principle of American foreign policy since the founding had been that vigorous and fair commerce between states was the best way to generate good relations and peace among nations.

Second, American decision-makers drew a straight line between the economic disasters of the 1930s, the rise of autarky and autocracy, and the origins of World War II. The collapse of the U.S. stock market in 1929, and in particular, the global consequences of the failure of the Creditanstalt bank in Vienna and the suspension of sterling convertibility in 1931, unleashed a variety of unfortunate national policies that made global economic recovery difficult, if not impossible. Countries raised tariffs, imposed capital controls, and unleashed competitive currency devaluations, resulting in what were called “beggar thy neighbor” policies. American order-builders believed this kind of economic nationalism weakened democracies, strengthened autocracies, and made world war more likely.

The main elements of the postwar economic order were initiated at the Bretton Woods monetary conference in the summer of 1944 and Savannah in the spring of 1946, when the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were created. Other initiatives followed, including the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade, the 1946 Anglo-American Loan, and the European Recovery Program, known as the Marshall Plan. Large amounts of U.S. economic aid were provided to countries in East and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. Also included was support for the 1951 European Coal and Steel Community, which ultimately led to the Common Market and eventually the European Union. Later, programs such as the Mutual Security Administration, the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act, and the 1961 Alliance for Progress were implemented.

These institutions and period of economic world order are often misunderstood. They did not promote unfettered free trade, foreign investment, and the movement of global capital. The effort to create an international trade organization failed. Reconstruction, stability, and domestic autonomy were prized over interdependence. Regional integration, such as in Europe, was emphasized over global interactions. Exchange rates were fixed, but national governments were rarely forced to alter their domestic monetary or budgetary policies to rectify misaligned currency values that naturally emerged from differential rates of inflation. Trade was managed, and as a percentage of gross national product, far smaller than in previous periods. Capital controls were common.

Economic order-builders were motivated, above all else, to prevent what they saw as the economic volatility and chaos of the interwar period. But the Bretton Woods system possessed internal contradictions and tensions that meant crisis was inevitable. The unraveling of the system was hastened by an American balance of payments deficit driven by its overseas security commitments, the unsustainability of the fixed rate gold exchange system, and the massive increase in capital flows. The convertibility of dollars into gold was suspended in 1971.

Efforts to re-establish economic order and rules, to return to stable exchange rates and to limit economic volatility largely failed in the 1970s and 1980s. While certain parts of the world, especially East Asia, witnessed impressive growth, inflation, steep increases in natural resources prices, burgeoning debt in the developing world, budget deficits amongst developed countries, banking crises, massive increases in global capital flows, erratic exchange rates, and rising protectionism marked what might be thought of as a non-order. The main consolation was that the rival economic order, the communist system of the Soviet empire, was suffering steep crisis and collapse.

The third period of economic order — which persists though is challenged today — emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The G-7, founded in 1975, took on a greater role for both economic and political coordination; it was supplemented by and then replaced by the G-20.

The Uruguay trade round led to the World Trade Organization. The United States began working more closely with re-empowered Bretton Woods institutions to build on principles that were dubbed “the Washington consensus.” These principles emphasized steering countries towards the principles of economic reform based on fiscal discipline, property rights, liberalization, privatization, and market dynamics.

Much of this economic order was molded by powerful institutions and important arrangements that few recognize or understand. For example, much of the globalization order is shaped by massive and complex flows of capital and currency between private banks around the world. These exchanges, which are measured in the trillions of dollars, are loosely regulated by a set of agreements — the Basel accords — overseen by the Basel Committee on Bank Supervision. Created in 1974, the committee is an international committee made up of the most important central bank and banking regulatory officials in the worlds. It has neither a founding treaty nor is it a multilateral organization; yet its three accords (Basel I in 1988, Basel II in 2004, and the as yet unimplemented Basel III arrangements) are far more important than the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in shaping the global economic order.

International Security Order

There were two strands of order-building in the postwar period. The first was based on the principle of collective security and international cooperation to prevent interstate war, expressed through the charter and mission of the United Nations. While President Franklin Roosevelt put much stock into this organization and its mandate, which was an expansion upon the Wilsonian principles that failed after World War I, it is fair to say that the U.N. system disappointed the early hopes of its greatest advocates. That said, the U.N. system did serve the postwar international order in a few ways: It provided a forum to negotiate, diffuse crises, and build support for multilateral action. It also enshrined the importance of international law and the need to obtain international legitimacy for state action (and, perhaps more importantly, the costs of not securing it.)

The stronger and more effective — if surprising — plank of postwar order was the American alliance system. There were quite a few treaties and pacts, both with individual and groups of countries. Many of these alliances were transformed, deepened, and expanded, even when the original source of their creation, the Cold War, went away. The proliferation of treaties, pacts, and security arrangements was surprising for two reasons. First, as mentioned earlier, the United States had long looked askance at alliances, so its postwar alliance-building represented a profound shift in grand strategy. Second, historically alliances were temporary, threat-specific, and additive. Most of these postwar relationships persisted and deepened over years and decades, even as the threat changed and disappeared. Many of these security arrangements, as will be discussed in the next section, sought to inhibit alliance partners from adding certain capabilities, such as nuclear weapons.

Postwar security-building was extraordinarily successful. It is currently under threat, as the administration of President Donald Trump questions their value while rising powers challenge their legitimacy.

Postwar Order and Nuclear Weapons

It might seem odd to have a separate category for nuclear weapons, distinct from security, as its own plank of postwar order. It is not, for two reasons. First, it was recognized early that the terrifying destructive capabilities of nuclear weapons, and the speed and distance at which they could be delivered, was historically unique. The emergence of nuclear, then thermonuclear, weapons would have profound, revolutionary consequences for world order. No one expected geopolitical or ideological competition to go away. But nuclear weapons made it imperative to construct an order that reduced, if not eliminated, the risk of great power war. The second reason was that constructing a postwar order for nuclear weapons required two bitter geopolitical and ideological adversaries — the Soviet Union and the United States — to cooperate. It often saw the two superpowers work together, both to limit their own armaments and to suppress the nuclear ambitions of their allies and client states.

A nuclear world order took some time to emerge: In the twenty years after the United States used nuclear weapons against Japan in 1945, the American and Soviet arsenals expanded to include thousands of weapons, new countries — the United Kingdom, France, and China — developed their own nuclear weapons, while many others, ranging from Australia to Sweden, demonstrated an interest in acquiring the bomb. The trend lines, if nothing was done, would have seen a continuing arms race between the superpowers and perhaps dozens of new nuclear weapons states by the end of the century. While the intellectual origins of arms control went back to ancient Greece, it had never successfully underpinned previous efforts at world order; but the postwar prominence of arms control was to become one of the most important developments in world order.

Beginning first with the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, and moving towards the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the superpowers worked with other states to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. Other initiatives were put forward, including from the 1974 Nuclear Suppliers Group, the 1997 Additional Protocol, and the 2003 Proliferation Security Initiative, to strengthen global nonproliferation. Chemical and biological weapons were limited. The United States and the Soviet Union, and then Russia, worked to limit strategic weapons with the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, 1991 Start, and 2011 New Start treaties. The global nuclear order was not always perfect — new nuclear powers have emerged, there were cases of cheating and several treaties, such as the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and more recently the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, were abandoned. Still, if one had told interested observers in 1960 that 60 years later nuclear weapons would not have been used in war, that nuclear stockpiles had been massively reduced, and the number of nuclear weapons states was in the single digits, they would have both incredulous and overjoyed.

The United States as the Builder of Order

America was, in many ways, a reluctant order-builder after World War II, seeking to replace what it saw as inherently predatory, destabilizing imperial orders — beginning with the Western European empires and culminating in the hyper-expansionist German and Japanese regimes. The hope of American planners was that this U.S.-led order, while respecting state sovereignty, would be more open and integrative. Theirs was an economic-political-military conception, in that order. Trade would flourish, as might self-governance. International law and collective security would prevail. While not naïve, there was hope that the ideals of the Atlantic Charter — concepts including self-determination, disarmament, open trade, freedom of the seas, and the end of conquest — could be implemented.

Over time — certainly by the early 1950s — important elements of this conception were submerged under a more constrained Cold War order. Openness was balanced by the need to fill political vacuums with reconstruction and stability. Security took precedence over economics. Militarized alliances were formed to counter what was seen as an acute threat from the Soviet Union’s communist empire.

This order was not, however, simply a traditional geopolitical, balance of power arrangement hailed by 19th century statesmen and 20th century realists. Creative, thoughtful statecraft both integrated and liberalized former enemies like Germany and Japan. Europe was encouraged both to integrate and to decolonize. While often applied inconsistently and unevenly, the order encouraged both political and economic liberalization. The United States even cooperated with its bitter ideological and military adversary, the Soviet Union, on the gravest threat to global order — nuclear weapons.

There was no one postwar order. What did emerge was by no means perfect. Nor are many of its elements relevant to the profound global challenges facing the United States and the world today. If we are to construct an effective world order for the future, however, it would be wise to better understand the lessons of the past.

The Future of World Order

It is important to recall that this postwar order was very successful. For example, great power war was avoided and conflict and violence overall fell. Imperialism was discredited and, though often messy, a system of sovereign states replaced one of empires. A system of arms control and deterrence — based on treaties and alliances — reigned in the worst fears of a nuclearized world. Though often uneven, both internally and externally, the world economy expanded, and sharp economic crises were largely avoided. This American led order also allowed the west to prevail in the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union and, just as important and often unrecognized, helped allow for a relatively peaceful, stable, prosperous transition to the post-Cold War world. And while there have been ups and downs, human rights and tolerance have become powerful global norms, and governments are increasingly expected to be responsive to the needs of their citizens.

So why not simply continue with this post-World War II order, amending and improving as needed? Certainly, there are parts that are very successful and should be continued. The nuclear order, based on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime, has, despite challenges, been successful and should be nourished and strengthened. Also, the norm and the practice of international institutions and global governance, though rickety at times, is important.

There are two great challenges to the contemporary world order — the dramatic rise of China and the consequences of the profound transformation of the global economy and international system, a revolutionary change on par with the Industrial Revolution. Most of the current debates on world order focus on the capabilities and intentions of a growing China. This is understandably important; in the past, rapidly-rising powers have challenged global arrangements, with calamitous military conflicts as the result. These two stories, however — the rise of China and the global dynamics of technology, demographics, and socio-economics — are intertwined and cannot be understood, or dealt with, separately. Furthermore, the second challenge — which has transformed everything from demographics to governance to how people live and work and self-identify to calculations about war and peace — is the key challenge, and the one that people aren’t focusing on enough. Beginning in the United States in 1960s, accelerating in the 1970s, and spreading and intensifying in recent decades, how the global system operates has been completely upended. It is, to a great extent, the reason for China’s rise. The consequences of this revolution are impossible to overstate and hard to fully accommodate under current arrangements.

Much of this has to do with the digital revolution and the profound expansion of access to information, unmediated by traditional institutions. Part of it is an upending of how and where and at what cost things were manufactured, with world trade and prosperity build upon a complex and deeply integrated global supply chain. Part of it has to do with a financial revolution even larger and more profound than that which launched early modern Europe. Part of it has to do with a rights revolution that completely upended traditional categories of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, with a focus on individual autonomy and the tolerance of difference. Part of this has to do with a complete reshaping of identity and how people live and relate to each other — individual, family, and communal — that upends historical relationships between personal autonomy and collective belonging.

In 1970, a successful American was likely a white male, associated with large organizations — companies, unions, churches, civic associations, political parties — and likely lived where his parents did. He married (in his early or mid-twenties) from this community and expected to raise his children as he was raised. Needless to say, all of this has changed. How we work, how and where we live, who we live with and how, and for what end, has changed more dramatically than at any time since the Industrial Revolution. These changes, which have reshaped the American socioeconomic and political landscape, have quickly spread around the world.

These shifts in core demographics, identity, finance and trade, technology, socioeconomics, and the relationship of the individual to institutions, have generated both profound opportunities and worrying challenges. They have also created a dizzying puzzle.

In material terms, the world is doing wonderfully. Poverty has fallen dramatically, as has infant mortality. Diseases have been eliminated, starvation is rare, and life expectancy increased. Education has spread, resources become more abundant, and violence of all types — between states, within states, between communities, within families — has fallen dramatically around the world. There has been a profound, if largely unrecognized and uneven, embrace of tolerance and human rights. Extraordinary amounts of wealth have been created, although obviously not always distributed fairly. Military expenditures have fallen, and new technologies have vastly increased access to information and knowledge. Despite these accomplishments, however, there is an overriding sense of anxiety, dread, worry, and concern, a sense that world order is trending in the wrong direction.

Constructing a World Order for the Future

The elements that underpinned the postwar order in the second half of the 20th century may not be relevant to these issues. While they could return, the great scourge of human history through the 20th century — great power wars of imperial conquest — no longer appear to be the most looming threat. A variety of factors make this so. Nuclear deterrence, for one. But another is demographics — historically, aging populations rarely pursue great power war. Furthermore, unlike the past, land and territory are not the most important source of power and wealth. In some cases, they are a burden. Hong Kong is valuable to China, not because of its land features or natural resources, but because it is a center of financial and technological innovation and one of three places in the world possessing deep capital markets. Economies and societies are deeply integrated, and any move away from such interdependence would come at great cost to the welfare of many.

How should we think about a world order that alleviates these concerns and anxieties? Three questions should drive this consideration: What do we want to see happen? What do we want to avoid? And what counts for power to achieve the first two considerations?

For a start, any future global arrangement needs to better account for what counts for power in this current and future world. In 1890, 1950, even 1980, the answer to what mattered, to what was power, was clear. A state with favorable geography, a large population, abundant natural resources, an industrial economy focused on coal, steel and electricity, and a centralized governance structure that could mobilize these resources into war-making capabilities to conquer rivals, was what mattered. Does anyone think that is the recipe for success in 2020 and beyond? In other words, how will nuclear weapons and tanks confront climate change, disinformation, epidemics, or financial collapse?

This gets to the challenge that this profound transformation has wrought for world order.

First, the problems that we faced in the past were based on scarcity. Wealth was scarce, resources scarce, information was scarce, security was scarce, health was scarce, and with populations increasing by leaps and bounds in the 19th and first part of the 20th century, intense competition for these scarce resources was bound to be violent.

The problems we face now — the explosion of information and disinformation, unthinkably large global financial flows, the large movement of people, climate change generated largely by world-wide economic success, anxiety and uncertainty due, in some measures, to the dizzying increase in individual freedoms — these might be called the problems of plenty. In a world of nuclear deterrence, integration, flattening demographics, where the costs of occupation are high and conquest unappealing, military security is far more abundant than we recognize.

Second, neither our intellectual tools nor our governing institutions were constructed to deal with these problems of plenty. The postwar, state-based international order was built to handle great-power war and old-timey economic crises like currency depreciations. They are completely overwhelmed when dealing with the issues we are currently facing and, in fact, often respond to these new problems with old solutions (such as a focus on military combat capabilities or outdated tariff policies). The same goes for our scholarly models, whether in international relations or economics, which are based on scarcity models and don’t always do well dealing with the problems of plenty. The types of insecurity we face look nothing like those that worried order-builders in the middle of the 20th century.

This has generated a legitimacy crisis for governance, both nationally and internationally.

Why? We know how to prevent World War II. We have a decent sense of how to avoid a Great Depression or, as 2008 revealed, how to prevent the worst from happening when the global economy faces steep crisis. We don’t, however, have effective policy answers for dealing with climate change or disinformation; for regulating trillion-dollar, all-invasive technology companies; for handling massive and potentially destabilizing financial flows; for managing intensely integrated global supply chains; for inequality; for identity politics; or for the flow of people.

We face a conundrum when trying to understand and manage this new world. We must avoid the temptation to simply rely on past practices and institutions to deal with emerging challenges. We must also recognize that these changes, though destabilizing and occasionally frightening, have brought profoundly positive changes to the world. The remarkable global revolution of the past few decades has generated wealth and massively reduced poverty, helped eliminate disease, increased individual tolerance and freedom, provided access to unimaginable levels of communication and information, and dampened the dark cloud of war and violence. The challenge for any future order-building is to capture and build upon these impressive accomplishments. As importantly, we must generate novel, effective institutional and normative responses to deal with the troubling, upsetting, disorienting, and dangerous aspects of these changes.

How should we go about examining and trying to understand these crucial issues? Six decades after the Bellagio meeting, the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs — which I direct — in cooperation with the Centre for Grand Strategy at Kings College and the Ax:son Johnson Foundation, is gathering a diverse set of thinkers in April in Middleburg, Virginia to debate and discuss the question of world order from a variety of perspectives. Similar to the meeting Aron hosted, we certainly do not expect consensus, or even agreement that world order is achievable, wise, or even a meaningful goal. At best, we hope to accomplish what Kissinger suggested in his comments at Bellagio. “Before the problem of order can be ‘dealt’ with, even philosophically, we must be certain that the right questions are being asked.”



Francis J. Gavin is the Giovanni Agnelli Distinguished Professor and the inaugural director of the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins SAIS. In 2013, Gavin was appointed the first Frank Stanton Chair in Nuclear Security Policy Studies and Professor of Political Science at MIT. His writings include Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age

Image: Pixabay (Image by Schaeffler)

CORRECTION: A previous version of the article misspelled Stanley Hoffmann’s name. It is “Hoffmann” not “Hoffman.”

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