According to its post–World War II architects, the international order protects U.S. values by maintaining an environment in which the ideals of a free and democratic society can flourish, says the report, Understanding the Current International Order. The United States has used both power and idealistic notions of shared interests to underwrite the rules-based order. In this sense, it employed both hard and soft power to construct the order, it adds.
Ultimately, the most important questions about the international order have to do with U.S. strategy and the choices that future administrations will make, the report suggests:
Should a future administration, for example, aim primarily at deepening the bonds among the democratic core and integrating a few significant additional members into the more formal institutions (treaties and alliances) of that selective club? Should it instead prioritize a global vision of coordination on shared challenges?
The report, written by Michael J. Mazarr, Miranda Priebe, Andrew Radin, Astrid Cevallos, discusses the common themes in the U.S. approach to the international order that appear in postwar U.S. national security strategy documents, including:
- a rules-based free trade system;
- strong alliances and sufficient military capabilities for effective deterrence;
- multilateral cooperation and international law to solve truly global problems, such as the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction;
- the spread of democracy.
The basic argument—that there is a mutually supportive, and indeed mutually dependent, relationship between U.S. interests and a more robust international order—has been one of the central themes of U.S. national security strategy since World War II, the authors note:
Today, however, there is some evidence that the order itself is under threat and can no longer bear the loads that U.S. strategy has traditionally assigned to it. Some observers particularly doubt whether the leading liberal components of the order, including promoting democracy, defending human rights, and preventing genocide, will survive the transition to a more multipolar international context.
Some form of order will almost certainly characterize the international system over the coming decades, but it may take a different form from today’s order. For example, such powers as Russia and China have challenged the more-liberal elements of the postwar order (such as promotion of human rights and democracy) but strongly support the conservative elements (such as norms of sovereignty and territorial integrity). One possible future is more-basic global order organized around these principles, with global institutions (such as the United Nations [UN] and the World Bank) placing less emphasis on promoting liberal values. From the standpoint of its national security strategy, the United States inevitably confronts the challenge of which sort of order to seek.
In contrast, Russia and China do not see their interests served by parts of the U.S.-led order, the report notes. In particular, they see democracy promotion as an attempt to weaken them by destabilizing them internally.
The postwar order came to embrace goals of democratization and the protection of human rights, which have become deeply embedded in the U.S. and global vision for order, the report notes:
It was initially built within the global democratic community in competition with the Soviet bloc; the order, in that sense, was a strategy for competitive advantage, and it served that role exceptionally well. With the end of the Cold War in 1989, however, the concept of order was extended globally, with the same basic offers: States could participate and be recognized as legitimate members of the order to the extent that they adhered to certain necessary norms and rules.
“These other aspects of the order’s liberalism, from human rights norms and compacts to calls for good governance, have become integral to the postwar version of order,” the authors add. “U.S. conceptions of the order were based, in part, on the assumption that no order would be sustainable if not built on a foundation of democracies with shared values.”
Analysis of the character of the postwar order points to three broad categories of possible risk, the report cautions:
- some leading states that see many components of the order as designed to constrain their power and perpetuate U.S. hegemony;
- volatility from failed states or economic crises;
- shifting domestic politics in an era of slow growth and growing inequality.
Any of these three types of threats could prove fatal to the postwar order as we know it, the report warns:
The order’s legitimacy rests on states believing that participation in the order benefits them directly, and this belief is being shaken by various economic and social trends that have produced growing doubts that the current international order is serving the interests of the United States and other liberal democracies.
Yet even those who worry about the steadiness of the existing order recognize that it has inherent strengths. All leading nations remain economically interdependent, and their self-interest argues for at least limited cooperation. The group of democracies that has always constituted the core of the modern order continues to cooperate on most international issues.
Reducing the emphasis on the order’s liberal elements could begin to pull a thread that would unravel the whole, the report cautions:
If states such as Germany, India, Japan, and Turkey came to believe that the order no longer reflected a set of shared values and aspirations for a more equitable, democratic, and open world, their calculations about other components of the order could change. Creating a truly resilient and sustainable order will be exceptionally difficult without the continued leadership of a core set of states with shared values, transparent political systems, and respect for human rights. Once the United States and its key partners in the order begin compromising liberal principles, they may abandon some degree of their leverage to fight illiberal tendencies that are dangerous to the system.
Going forward, this is one of the most important questions for U.S. policy, the report adds:
Just how necessary is the postwar order to the achievement of U.S. interests? Could it obtain roughly the same results in more unilateral, bilateral, or ad hoc ways? Part of the answer depends on the general perspective of U.S. national security strategy. If it remains fundamentally transformational in outlook, envisioning a future that is more orderly, democratic, and rule-bound [the subject of a recent forum at the National Endowment for Democracy], then building on current elements of order is a necessary approach.