But in defending the international order, many of its champions have relied on a romanticized, sometimes triumphalist version of its history that distracts from what is at risk. A look at the evolution of American ideas about the international order reveals a disorderly progression of hopes, reversals and contradictions that never quite lived up to their promise. The international order has always been as much an aspiration as an actual accomplishment. In an increasingly chaotic world, the possibility of tossing aside that aspiration and the limited progress made toward realizing it is all the more frightening.
After World War II, many people hoped it would be possible to build a better world through international cooperation. Some of those ambitions verged on the utopian, and some proposals, such as voluntary nuclear disarmament under the authority of the United Nations, now seem hopelessly naive. Yet the idea of what President Harry Truman called a “just” or “peaceful” international order “based upon common principles of freedom and tolerance” also drove many of America’s most enduring and effective postwar policies: the creation of the United Nations, the promotion of European integration through measures such as the Marshall Plan, and financial agreements such as Breton Woods and Dumbarton Oaks that reorganized the global economy.
But those internationalist ambitions soon ran into the reality of the Cold War. It became clear that U.S.-Soviet competition, not international cooperation, would shape the world order. The Soviet Union and its clients had little interest in building a system of global free trade, and Soviet pressure prevented Eastern European states from participating in the Marshall Plan. After the Korean War, U.S. and Soviet veto power prevented the United Nations from being able to play a decisive role in resolving any of the most pressing global conflicts.
In response, NATO emerged as the dominant institution of the U.S.-led order. The alliance drew on the ideas of cooperative internationalism that animated the United Nations but limited them to a small set of countries and mobilized them against a rival power. NATO’s internal order was envisioned as a liberal one, but its relationship with the communist world was around a tense standoff between nuclear-armed superpowers.
In 1956, the nature of the Cold War order became clear with President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s response to the revolution that erupted in Hungary that fall. When the Soviet Union sent tanks into Budapest to crush the uprising, some staunch anti-communists hoped the United States would intervene in the Hungarians’ defense. By refusing to do so, Eisenhower made it clear that his idea of the international order didn’t involve risking World War III to advance liberal principles or push back against Moscow’s sphere of influence.
Subsequently, Henry Kissinger, an avid admirer of 19th-century European diplomacy, would go further in promoting an international order based on regulating rather than ending great- power competition. Kissinger dismissed concerns over the Soviet Union’s distinctly illiberal domestic politics in favor of arms control, detente with Moscow and a stable balance of power.
But by the 1970s and 1980s there was a widespread sense that neither idealistic internationalism nor Kissinger’s more cynical alternative had created a great deal of actual order, particularly beyond the West. The economic system that had served Europe and America so well had done little for the Third World; in many countries, coups, interventions and proxy wars rather than liberal stability were the defining experience of the Cold War.
Against this backdrop, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 sparked a rebirth of America's 1945 optimism. Then-President George H.W. Bush anticipated the belated achievement of a new world order, “freed from Cold War stalemate.” For a moment, Americans could imagine that Soviet resistance had been the only thing preventing the order achieved in Western Europe from spreading around the globe. But as early as the Bosnian civil war in 1992, this optimism began to wane. And as NATO rapidly expanded, so did the fear that it would lose cohesion and purpose without the Soviet threat to sustain it.
Moreover, Washington’s commitment to expanding the international order belied significant disagreement on what exactly this meant. Some felt this order depended on maintaining America’s unrivaled power to act on the world stage, while others thought it required subsuming this power to build stronger multilateral institutions. In the heated debate over the Iraq War, for example, both sides defended a vision of the international order: in one case secured by American power, in the other by American restraint.
Similarly, ongoing debates over trade policy have pitted different components of the liberal order against one another: on one side, principles such as free trade, along with the international institutions and agreements that promote it; on the other, concerns over democracy, sovereignty and human rights in the countries with which we trade.
But recognizing the messy history of the international order only makes it all the more striking that the president simultaneously opposes almost all its competing versions: free trade and human rights, the U.N. and NATO, arms control and democracy promotion. Even with organizing ideals, the world has been a dangerous place over the past seven decades. It’s unclear what will happen without them.