The liberal international order is made of institutions
The United States has long talked about the “liberal international order” or the “rules-based order” (the two terms are more or less interchangeable). Academics usually think of an international order as centering on a set of institutions and rules. The key institutions of the liberal international order are NATO and the U.S.-Japan alliance, the World Trade Organization and the other open-trade institutions, and the United Nations. Since the end of the Cold War, some people have seen the liberal international order as involving other institutions and obligations, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the need to reduce climate change and the nuclear nonproliferation regime.
The defenders of the liberal international order claim it helped secure peace during the Cold War and after, although I argue in a new article in International Security that arguments about the liberal international order are flawed and claims for its benefits are greatly exaggerated. As the G-20 debate demonstrates, many policymakers believe the liberal international order is important, but they often interpret it in ways that serve their interests.
The United States has just issued a new report defending the order
Even under the Trump administration, the United States talks about the order. The Defense Department recently issued an Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, in which then-acting secretary of defense Patrick Shanahan described how the United States “will not accept policies or actions that threaten or undermine the rules-based international order — an order that benefits all nations.” He further explained the United States has an “enduring commitment to uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific in which all nations, large and small, are secure in their sovereignty."
At first glance, these declarations might appear uncontroversial. However, the United States interprets the rules-based international order as including U.S. alliances in East Asia. China increasingly views these alliances as incompatible with its growing power, influence and status in the region. A couple of decades ago, China viewed the U.S.-Japan alliance positively because the alliance made it less likely that Japan would build a strong military and become a nuclear power. Today, China views the alliance as a Cold War relic that should be dissolved.
U.S. efforts to preserve the liberal international order in the Pacific, including its commitments to allies such as Japan, inevitably worry China. The United States is committed to maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific, but this requires American naval dominance, which China unavoidably views as threatening. China relies heavily on seaborne trade, especially because of its dependence on oil imports. In a wartime situation, the United States could impede the trade routes that China needs, but equally, China’s efforts to build up its military makes the United States fear that China might impede commercial and military shipping in a war. Security scholars refer to this kind of dynamic, where steps taken by one actor to secure itself provoke fear and suspicion in others, as a “security dilemma.”
The largest divergence of U.S. and Chinese interests is probably over Taiwan. The U.S. interpretation of the order includes its commitment to Taiwan and would lock in the geopolitical status quo in which Taiwan is a de facto independent state. Beijing, however, insists Taiwan belongs to China.
The liberal international order is not a useful concept
As I argue at greater length elsewhere, the concept of the liberal international order obscures more than it reveals. This is particularly important in the Pacific region, where the clash between great power interests is especially stark. Describing U.S. policy as a means of preserving the international order, and a free and open Pacific, masks this conflict of interests, encouraging the United States to misunderstand China’s security concerns and the extent to which some of China’s policies may be reactions to perceived U.S. threats. These misconceptions may in turn lead the United States to exaggerate the threat posed by China, leading to a negative spiral in which the United States adopts unnecessarily confrontational policies.
The really big question for the United States, as China rises, centers on whether the United States should retain all of its geopolitical commitments and insist on preserving rules that were established during the Cold War. Disagreements over the Pacific provide one especially stark example of these dilemmas. Discussions over the liberal international order, such as the one about to begin at the G-20, very often go around in circles. One key reason for this is the fundamental problems of international politics are about power, interests and commitments that the liberal order discourse elides. Framing analysis in terms of preserving the international order thereby simply assumes away the big questions.
Charles L. Glaser is professor of political science and international affairs and director of the Elliott School’s Institute for Security and Conflict Studies.