When Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, called for a new world order in 1988, it seemed that the institutions and agreements built to ensure a more stable, open and economically integrated world after World War II might finally gain universal acceptance. Just a few decades later, what scholars call the liberal, rules-based international order and its underlying norms — including free trade, the inviolability of territorial borders and multilateral dispute settlement — is showing signs of stress. Hopes that Russia and China in particular would adopt Western views on matters such as human rights and the rule of law proved misplaced. Yet the greatest threat to a system that some argue has produced the most peaceful and prosperous period in history comes from the growing isolationism and nationalism in its traditional champions, the U.S. and Europe.
U.S. President Donald Trump, channeling popular discontent over the perceived failures of globalization to deliver widespread prosperity, has launched a protectionist trade war, withdrawn from a global agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program, vowed to pull the U.S. out of the Paris plan to mitigate global warming and questioned the value of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In the years before Trump took office, Russia and China had been pushing back against some aspects of the arrangements, such as the United Nations’s 2005 pledge to protect people at risk of genocide, which they condemned as intrusions on national sovereignty. Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia flouted a basic rule of international order by annexing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. It has opposed expansion of NATO, the European Union and other alliances that developed as U.S.-backed pillars of the system, which Russia sees as hostile to its goal of reasserting its influence in the former Soviet bloc and beyond. China has embraced components of the global system and introduced new ones of its own, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. But it also makes exceptions for itself, such as when it rejected an international tribunal’s ruling against its territorial claims in the South China Sea in 2016.
Ever since the catastrophic destruction of World War II, U.S. leaders — until Trump — have seen a strong international order based on rules and institutions as supportive of American national interests. While there’s no standard definition of what this includes, the UN and its Security Council, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization stand at the core, as well as conventions that govern use of the oceans and prevent the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Narrower organizations — such as the EU, NATO, Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the International Criminal Court — grew up around these. Many of them were associated with the democratic and capitalist ideals of the West as the Cold War cleaved the globe into U.S. and Soviet spheres. America’s former Cold War foes were willing to accept some organizations created under U.S. sponsorship, including the IMF and WTO, but not others. Even as it championed the global system, the U.S. has placed itself above it from time to time, such as when it flouted international law to invade Iraq in 2003.
Trump justifies his inward turn by saying the international institutions aren’t working sufficiently in the interests of Americans. For instance, he argues that U.S. allies should shoulder more of the burden for funding NATO’s defenses. Debate also rages around the motivations of the countries that built the system. Some academics say it was an accidental product of the Cold War that was always a naked tool of U.S. national interest, and that America has no choice but to adjust to a world with strong rivals and few rules. Rand Corporation’s Michael Mazarr, who led a research project sponsored by the U.S. Defense Department on the topic, believes the success of the system is evident in the security strategies of nations around the globe that include the ideas and institutions of the rules-based order. But the West, he says, has been guilty of “liberal overreach” since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The best way forward, some argue, is for global institutions to focus on economic and security collaboration, while downplaying broader liberal values, such as spreading democracy or protecting people from their own governments. Others point out that neither Russia nor China offers a feasible alternative to the U.S.-led system. Overall there’s an acknowledgement that rising economic powers, notably China, will have to be given an expanded role in global governance.
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First published Sept. 25, 2018
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