By Peter Marcus Kristensen
University of Copenhagen
American observers of international affairs are currently enmeshed in a debate on the uncertain future of the “US-led liberal international order.” This is, of course, spurred by the election of President Trump and his nationalist and isolationist “America First” strategy. Trump’s wavering approach to alliance commitments, skepticism towards multilateralism, protectionist stance on trade, and withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Accord list only a few anxiety-inducing examples. On closer inspection, fears over the demise of the liberal order turn out to be fears over the long-term decline of American power and the ever-lurking China threat. The immediate cause for concern, however, comes from within.
Anxiety is growing not only about a post-American era but also about a “new world disorder.” With no one left in charge, the principles and institutions of the liberal international order are being dismantled from within. Fears abound: That a G-Zero world, with no one superpower, will be much less stable. That multilateralism and global governance will be significantly weakened. That political and economic liberalization will come to a halt. That the world generally will become much less safe than in the “American century” where the “US-led liberal international order” reigned.
Americans have debated their own decline from superpower status several times before: The loss of the space race to the Soviets with Sputnik. The ongoing arms race and Cold War. The loss of China to Communism. The Vietnam War. The Bretton Woods collapse. The OPEC oil crisis. The rise of Japan. The rise of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). Few issues can mobilize American pundits more than the fear of US decline and of the liberal order it installed after World War II. Indeed, when a BRICS-inspired debate on American decline raged five years ago, Robert Keohane noted, “What really scares American foreign policy commentators is not any immediate frustration or danger but the prospect of longer-term decline.”
Yet, there is a pervasive sense that this time is different. Current challenges to America’s status as a global leader present a more profound change than simply the long-predicted end of the “unipolar moment” and the “coming of anarchy.” Rather, US policy circles see a more fundamental — and potentially more dangerous — break with post-WWII liberal order. The prominent policy magazine Foreign Affairs titled its first issues of 2017 “Out of Order,” “Trump Time,” and “Present at the Destruction.” Now they ask, in past tense, “What was the liberal order?”
Adding to the sense of urgency is the widespread opinion that the change is driven by Trump’s voluntary abdication of global leadership. Rather than the predicted hegemonic clash between rising and declining powers, the order is being dismantled by choice, not necessity. In earlier debates on US decline, the rising powers of BRICS were seen as the main threat. Now, the main challenge comes from within.
You know that something dramatic is afoot when “end of history” author Francis Fukuyama argues that “the greatest challenge to liberal democracy comes not so much from overtly authoritarian powers such as China, as from within.” Or when a primary defender of the liberal order, John Ikenberry, asks, “Is the world witnessing the demise of the US-led liberal order? If so, this is not how it was supposed to happen. The great threats were supposed to come from hostile revisionist powers seeking to overturn the postwar order. The United States and Europe were supposed to stand shoulder to shoulder to protect the gains reaped from 70 years of cooperation. Instead, the world’s most powerful state has begun to sabotage the order it created. A hostile revisionist power has indeed arrived on the scene, but it sits in the Oval Office, the beating heart of the free world.” In other words, orders are supposed to disappear by “murder” not “suicide.”
The abdication metaphor is prevalent. Harvard professor Graham Allison once popularized the idea of a Thucydides’ Trap in which a rising China and declining United States would inevitably clash over global leadership. Now he notes, “We are absenting the field.” America’s abdication led Harvard colleague Joseph Nye to coin the “Kindleberger trap.” Named after the author of The World in Depression, 1929–1939, one of the architects of the Marshall Plan, the trap results not only from an inevitable clash between rising and declining powers, but the inability of the declining power (Britain then, the US today) to support the existing order. Combined with the unwillingness of the rising power to lead, this results in a leadership vacuum and, in turn, 1930s-like disasters.
Diagnoses of the coming “leaderless” or “G-Zero” world are never simply neutral observations of world politics. They are also political moves often followed by prescriptions. A perceived leadership vacuum can be deployed politically for different purposes, including calls for stronger unilateral leadership, containing others’ attempts to lead, and/or more multilateral engagement and global governance. It is quite telling that the foreign policy establishment has seen Trump as most presidential when he bombed Syria while eating chocolate cake with Xi Jinping. Talk about killing two birds with 59 Tomahawk missiles.
This points to two striking tendencies in the contemporary debate on the future of the “US-led liberal order.” First, mainstream US discourse on the coming “leadership vacuum” is not primarily about any global governance problems left unsolved as the US abdicates its leadership role. These include climate change, civil wars, trade barriers, laggard economic growth, rising authoritarianism, terrorism, and so on. Rather it is about the damage “abdication” does to US power, influence, credibility, and image around the world. After all, the missile strike may have demonstrated resolve but it solved very little. Second, the only thing more feared than a leaderless “G-Zero world” is a world where China is in charge. US abdication of leadership in climate or trade is not only seen as a problem for the US or the climate, but as “the greatest strategic gift to the Chinese” and “a whole lot of winning” for China. In that sense perhaps the goodbyes to the US-led liberal order are really about China after all.
This article is part of a six-blog series that follows from a workshop on International Relations in a Post-Liberal Era. The workshop was hosted by CIPS and marks the start of the Copenhagen–Ottawa Research Exchange (CORE). For other blogs in this series, click here:
NATO: A Liberal Alliance in an Increasingly Illiberal World? by Alexandra Gheciu
Liberal Interventionism: The Crisis Within by Katja Lindskov Jacobsen
Trump’s Genius by Michael C. Williams
In Africa, “America First” means “Development Last” by Rita Abrahamsen
CETA after Opinion 2/15: Legal Clarity or Confusion? by Jens Ladefoged Mortensen