Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Twilight of the Liberal World Order

The liberal world order established in the aftermath of World War II may be coming to an end, challenged by forces both without and within. The external challenges come from the ambition of dissatisfied large and medium-size powers to overturn the existing strategic order dominated by the United States and its allies and partners. Their aim is to gain hegemony in their respective regions. China and Russia pose the greatest challenges to the world order because of their relative military, economic, and political power and their evident willingness to use it, which makes them significant players in world politics and, just as important, because the regions where they seek strategic hegemony—Asia and Europe—historically have been critical to global peace and stability. At a lesser but still significant level, Iran seeks regional hegemony in the Middle East and Persian Gulf, which if accomplished would have a strategic, economic, and political impact on the international system. North Korea seeks control of the Korean peninsula, which if accomplished would affect the stability and security of northeast Asia. Finally, at a much lower level of concern, there is the effort by ISIS and other radical Islamist groups to establish a new Islamic caliphate in the Middle East. If accomplished, that, too, would have effects on the global order.

However, it is the two great powers, China and Russia, that pose the greatest challenge to the relatively peaceful and prosperous international order created and sustained by the United States. If they were to accomplish their aims of establishing hegemony in their desired spheres of influence, the world would return to the condition it was in at the end of the 19th century, with competing great powers clashing over inevitably intersecting and overlapping spheres of interest. These were the unsettled, disordered conditions that produced the fertile ground for the two destructive world wars of the first half of the 20th century. The collapse of the British-dominated world order on the oceans, the disruption of the uneasy balance of power on the European continent due to the rise of a powerful unified Germany, combined with the rise of Japanese power in East Asia all contributed to a highly competitive international environment in which dissatisfied great powers took the opportunity to pursue their ambitions in the absence of any power or group of powers to unite in checking them. The result was an unprecedented global calamity. It has been the great accomplishment of the U.S.-led world order in the 70 years since the end of the Second World War that this kind of competition has been held in check and great power conflicts have been avoided.

The role of the United States, however, has been critical. Until recently, the dissatisfied great and medium-size powers have faced considerable and indeed almost insuperable obstacles in achieving their objectives. The chief obstacle has been the power and coherence of the order itself and of its principal promoter and defender. The American-led system of political and military alliances, especially in the two critical regions of Europe and East Asia, has presented China and Russia with what Dean Acheson once referred to as “situations of strength” in their regions that have required them to pursue their ambitions cautiously and in most respects to defer serious efforts to disrupt the international system. The system has served as a check on their ambitions in both positive and negative ways. They have been participants in and for the most part beneficiaries of the open international economic system the United States created and helped sustain and, so long as that system was functioning, have had more to gain by playing in it than by challenging and overturning it. The same cannot be said of the political and strategic aspects of the order, both of which have worked to their detriment. The growth and vibrancy of democratic government in the two decades following the collapse of Soviet communism has posed a continual threat to the ability of rulers in Beijing and Moscow to maintain control, and since the end of the Cold War they have regarded every advance of democratic institutions, including especially the geographical advance close to their borders, as an existential threat—and with reason. The continual threat to the basis of their rule posed by the U.S.-supported order has made them hostile both to the order and to the United States. However, it has also been a source of weakness and vulnerability. Chinese rulers in particular have had to worry about what an unsuccessful confrontation with the United States might do to their sources of legitimacy at home. And although Vladimir Putin has to some extent used a calculated foreign adventurism to maintain his hold on domestic power, he has taken a more cautious approach when met with determined U.S. and European opposition, as in the case of Ukraine, and pushed forward, as in Syria, only when invited to do so by U.S. and Western passivity. Autocratic rulers in a liberal democratic world have had to be careful.

The greatest check on Chinese and Russian ambitions, however, has come from the combined military power of the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia. China, although increasingly powerful itself, has had to contemplate facing the combined military strength of the world’s superpower and some very formidable regional powers linked by alliance or common strategic interest, including Japan, India, and South Korea, as well as smaller but still potent nations like Vietnam and Australia. Russia has had to face the United States and its NATO allies. When united, these military powers present a daunting challenge to a revisionist power that can call on no allies of its own for assistance. Even were the Chinese to score an early victory in a conflict, they would have to contend over time with the combined industrial productive capacities of some of the world’s richest and most technologically advanced nations. A weaker Russia would face an even greater challenge.

Faced with these obstacles, the two great powers, as well as the lesser dissatisfied powers, have had to hope for or if possible engineer a weakening of the U.S.-supported world order from within. This could come about either by separating the United States from its allies, raising doubts about the U.S. commitment to defend its allies militarily in the event of a conflict, or by various means wooing American allies out from within the liberal world order’s strategic structure. For most of the past decade, the reaction of American allies to greater aggressiveness on the part of China and Russia in their respective regions, and to Iran in the Middle East, has been to seek more reassurance from the United States. Russian actions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria; Chinese actions in the East and South China seas; Iranian actions in Syria, Iraq, and along the littoral of the Persian Gulf—all have led to calls by American allies and partners for a greater commitment. In this respect, the system has worked as it was supposed to. What the political scientist William Wohlforth once described as the inherent stability of the unipolar order reflected this dynamic—as dissatisfied regional powers sought to challenge the status quo, their alarmed neighbors turned to the distant American superpower to contain their ambitions.

The system has depended, however, on will, capacity, and coherence at the heart of the liberal world order. The United States had to be willing and able to play its part as the principal guarantor of the order, especially in the military and strategic realm. The order’s ideological and economic core order—the democracies of Europe and East Asia and the Pacific—had to remain relatively healthy and relatively confident. In such circumstances, the combined political, economic, and military power of the liberal world would be too great to be seriously challenged by the great powers, much less by the smaller dissatisfied powers.

In recent years, however, the liberal order has begun to weaken and fracture at the core. As a result of many related factors—difficult economic conditions, the recrudescence of nationalism and tribalism, weak and uncertain political leadership and unresponsive mainstream political parties, a new era of communications that seems to strengthen rather than weaken tribalism—there has emerged a crisis of confidence in what might be called the liberal enlightenment project. That project tended to elevate universal principles of individual rights and common humanity over ethnic, racial, religious, national, or tribal differences. It looked to a growing economic interdependence to create common interests across boundaries and the establishment of international institutions to smooth differences and facilitate cooperation among nations. Instead, the past decade has seen the rise of tribalism and nationalism; an increasing focus on the “other” in all societies; and a loss of confidence in government, in the capitalist system, and in democracy. We have been witnessing something like the opposite of the “end of history” but have returned to history with a vengeance, rediscovering all the darker aspects of the human soul. That includes, for many, the perennial human yearning for a strong leader to provide firm guidance in a time of seeming breakdown and incoherence.

by Robert Kagan, Brookings Institution |  Read more:
Image: Dr. Strangelove