The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The world is getting better. Why don’t we believe it?

President Obama meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 Summit in 2013. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about the shifting world order. Need a primer? Catch up here.

Ali Wyne is a fellow with the Truman National Security Project and a master in public policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School.

It would seem entirely reasonable to conclude that the world has taken several turns for the worse since President George H.W. Bush delivered his famous “new world order” address. The United Nations estimates that more than 250,000 people have perished in Syria’s civil war, and another million or so have been injured. With vast swathes of the Middle East collapsing, the Islamic State continues to wreak havoc, increasingly inspiring and coordinating attacks outside the region. There are now more “forcibly displaced” people worldwide than there have been at any point since World War II. Russia’s incursions into Ukraine have challenged Europe’s post-Cold War peace, and North Korea has conducted its fourth nuclear test. Pope Francis summarized many observers’ judgments when he lamented that “after the second failure of another world war, perhaps one can speak of a third war, one fought piecemeal, with crimes, massacres, destruction.”

[Other perspectives: Politicians say American leadership is in decline. They’re wrong.]

Still, we would be remiss to discount how much progress has been made in the quarter-century since Bush’s speech. According to the World Bank, the rate of extreme poverty fell from 37 percent in 1990 to about 10 percent last year. The Food and Agriculture Organization reports that the rate of undernourishment fell from 18.6 percent to 10.9 percent during that same window. A major study by the University of Washington’s Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation found that life expectancy increased by 5.8 years for men and 6.6 years for women between 1990 and 2013. Doctors have made extraordinary strides in reducing the mortality rates of polio, measles and malaria. And the threat of a nuclear war, as well as that of a war between great powers, has declined significantly.

It is easy to discount all that is going well: We tend to overestimate how good the “good ol’ days” were, the media disproportionately covers bad news, and contemporary progress is occurring amid profound uncertainty about the evolution of world order. While the United States remains the world’s lone superpower, it is no longer as preeminent as it was in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s implosion. In addition, it has to sustain an increasingly challenging balance of competitive and cooperative dynamics with China (whose resurgence underpins a broader, eastward shift in the center of global gravity). While the two countries’ political systems, understandings of history and approaches to foreign policy are fundamentally different, each is convinced of its own exceptionalism.

The evolution of their relationship — as uncertain as it is consequential — is occurring against the backdrop of fundamental changes in each of the world’s principal strategic theaters. The Middle East is undergoing a cataclysmic transformation, and it is anyone’s guess as to how the evolving tapestry of relations among the region’s governments, political outfits and militant organizations will resolve itself in the coming decades. A range of phenomenons — among them unfavorable demographics, resurgent populism and Russian revanchism — are testing Europe’s cohesion. And while transatlantic ties have long anchored the postwar order, America’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific raises questions about their durability. And in the Asia-Pacific itself, what has been called “the contest of the century” is unfolding between the United States and China: China’s neighbors are doing their utmost to strengthen their security ties with the former while reaping the fruits of the latter’s economic ascent.

[The fight against the Islamic State is no ordinary war]

The architecture of any “new world order” will (appropriately) have to accommodate the redistribution of power among states and the growing sway of non-state actors. We will see a more equitable balance of voting shares within the main postwar institutions (among them the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund), the establishment of parallel and supplementary institutions (such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank), the reconfiguration of long-standing alliances and enmities, the further blurring of the divide between “wartime” and “peacetime” fighting, and so forth.

It would be premature to infer, however, that there is a coherent alternative to the postwar liberal order in the offing. No less than the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of China’s National People’s Congress, Fu Ying, observes that while China is “dissatisfied and ready to criticize,” it is “not ready to propose a new design. . . . We need to come up with more specific ideas, to reassure others and advance our common interests.” Democracy and democratic values continue to strengthen globally, even if incrementally and haltingly.

Globalization continues to sputter along, and the progression of initiatives such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and China’s “One Belt, One Road” undertaking — not to mention the proliferation of regional economic organizations and institutions — suggests that economic interdependence worldwide will continue to grow. The structure of world order stands to grow more complex; the ownership of its evolution, more contested. Still, Foreign Affairs Editor Gideon Rose reminds us that the postwar system “has outwitted, outplayed, and outlasted every rival for three-quarters of a century.” That it will be strained and renegotiated, therefore, does not necessarily imply that it will disappear.

Explore these other perspectives:

G. John Ikenberry: American leadership may be in crisis, but the world order is not

Joseph S. Nye: Politicians say American leadership is in decline. They’re wrong.

Kim Ghattas: One person’s world order can be another’s disorder