“Liberal International Order“ rates some 100,000 entries in Google, preferably with “collapse” or “R.I.P.” appended. The doomsayers have a point. Born in 1945, the LIO was an American project secured by American power. Now, it is being undone by America as Donald Trump is putting the axe to what his 12 predecessors since Harry S. Truman had safeguarded.
In his address to the 2018 UN General Assembly, Trump took to the chainsaw. “America will always choose independence . . . over global governance.” We will “never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unaccountable global bureaucracy.” We “reject the ideology of globalism and embrace the doctrine of patriotism.” So good-bye to the LIO, which is just another label for “globalism,” now demoted to a four-letter word by Trump.
What is—or was—the LIO? First of all, it is a set of global institutions—an alphabet soup of acronyms. At the core lay the UN, enshrining the sovereign equality of all nations, banning interference in domestic affairs and prohibiting force except in self-defense.
IMF, OECD, GATT and its successor WTO underpinned the liberal economic order. Its cornerstones were free trade, multilateralism, and the provision of capital to feed global growth. Dissed by Trump, the World Trade Organization was a historic first. Trade conflicts would no longer be resolved by gunship diplomacy, but under universally binding rules. To encourage free trade, the U.S. opened its vast markets. The infamous Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930 had topped out at 59 percent. Today, Trump is flinging punitive tariffs across the world.
The strategic foundation of the LIO was an American-sponsored network of alliances to defend those who could not defend themselves—from NATO for Europe to security treaties with Japan and South Korea in Asia.
Why dredge up ancient history? Because this order, Made in U.S.A., has blessed its members with the longest peace ever, as well as bourgeoning trade and economic growth. So no more global war, nor another Great Depression.
Why would the United States want to mess with that order, especially when it costs the U.S. taxpayer just 4 percent of GDP for defense? In World War II, it was ten times more. This modest investment fetched a tidy return. On top of strategic stability, it bought the U.S. a richesse of political benefits: authority and influence, agenda-setting and convening power. Never has a hegemon done so well for itself by doing good for others.
Donald Trump is not going for retrenchment like Barack Obama, nor for isolationism as after World War I. His game is to switch from institutionalism to power politics, which the Founding Fathers had abhorred as the devil’s work. In trade, Trumpism is not win-win, but “I win if you lose.” It is “fire and fury,” escalating tariffs, contempt for hallowed Western institutions like NATO and the G-7. It is “America first” and damn the rest. It is John Ford’s pistolero Liberty Valance—no longer Spider-Man whose uncle counseled, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
What world order next—if any?
Westphalia 1.0 through 3.0
Not gifted with prophesy, scholars like to look to the past for inspiration. A favorite model is the “Westphalian System,” the first stab at world order. In 1648, World Order 1.0 ended a century of religious mayhem that had wiped out one-third of Central Europe’s population.
Westphalia launched a thoroughly modern process in interstate politics—what we praise as “multilateralism” today. For the first time in history, a mammoth congress sealed the deal. 109 delegations traveled to Münster and Osnabrück, twice the number of those founding the UN in 1945.
There, they crafted a rules-based system—another first. Like the UN 400 years later, it enshrined the principles of state sovereignty and inviolable borders. What princes and potentates did at home was nobody’s business, hence cuius regio, eius religio—whose realm, his religion.
So no more crusades in the name of the Almighty, and no more “regime change.” Keep God out of it. That did not end wars, by any means. But it took the boundless fury out of the state system that had, during the Thirty Years’ War, wiped out eight million souls for using the wrong prayer book.
1.0 held for the next 150 years, until the French Revolution. Suddenly, “God” was back, this time in the guise of the secular democratic faith. This belief in the righteousness of “liberty, equality and fraternity” again fueled war to the max. A wondrous “force multiplier,” the democratic catechism propelled Napoleon to Moscow and Cairo. The price was again a million-fold death.
So on to “Westphalia 2.0.” At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the Greats laid down new rules. One was the “balance of power”—no nation must be strong enough to gobble up the rest, as Napoleon had done. The other norm was “dynastic legitimacy”—no revolutionary fervor would ever again be allowed to topple Europe’s royals.
Henry Kissinger wrote the book on this grand bargain, aptly titled A World Restored (1957). In a recent work, World Order, he defined the term. It designates “a set of commonly accepted rules that define the limits of permissible action and a balance of power that enforces restraint where rules break down,” preventing one state “from subjugating all others.”
Compared to Europe’s next “Thirty Years War,” aka World Wars I and II, the 19th century was sheer bliss, with short campaigns and limited objectives. The next try was “Westphalia 3.0,” the post-1945 system built around the UN. Like 1.0 and 2.0, this compact did not launch Kant’s “perpetual peace.”
But a miracle unfolded nonetheless. While some 250 major conflicts with 50 million victims have ripped through the world, the last 70 years have been mercifully free of Great Power wars. America and Soviet Russia remained at their best behavior. This longest peace was a gift the world had never seen.
What Is the Present World Order?
Was 3.0 sturdier than its predecessors? The Westphalia and Vienna systems certainly did not stop the usual suspects from fighting: the Habsburgs, France, England, Russia, Prussia, then Germany. So what made the difference?
Go back to Kissinge’s two conditions of world order. One is a set of rules defining “permissible action.” The other is a balance of power that prevents “subjugation.” What is more effective—norms or power?
Rules are made of paper, balances from steel. Hence realists steeped in history put their money on balance. Balance does not prevent Great Power war. But in the end, superior counter-force stopped those who would crush the rest, from the Spanish Habsburgs in the 16th century all the way to Hitler’s Germany in the 20th. What about the Soviet Union? Credit goes first to the overwhelming power of the U.S., and then to something completely new under the sun: an ultra-stable balance in the deadly shadow of nuclear weapons.
The fantastic stability of World Order 3.0 has held in spite of the endless strife taking place beneath the overarching “balance of terror.”
Think Korea, Algeria, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Serbia, and Libya, alongside routine mayhem in the Middle East and Africa. In the past, such “little wars” had invariably triggered Great Power wars, never mind Westphalia and Vienna. Nor did the UN secure the peace. The miracle rested on a single unwritten rule in the age of the atom: whosoever shoots first, dies second. As a result, no nuclear power has ever attacked another; Pakistan’s foray into India in 1999, one year after going nuclear, is the exception that proves the rule.
There is a catch, though. Balances don’t form by themselves. There has to be one player who harnesses coalitions against the imperialist du jour. Until World War II, that role belonged to Britain, the mighty island power. It masterminded all those alliances that laid low the world’s tyrants from the emperors of Habsburg-Spain to Der Führer of the Third Reich. After 1945, the mantle fell on the United States, which held in check the Soviet Union and China while chastening a slew of lesser despots.
Why the United States? Its unmatched economy and military deliver only part of the answer. For the first time, Number 1—historically the greatest threat to the balance—did not go for empire, which invariably provokes “ganging up” on the part of Numbers 2, 3, 4. Instead, this Gulliver produced on a global scale what economists call “public goods.” Such goods are the free movement of products and capital, open sea-lanes, institutionalized conflict resolution, and security systems like NATO.
Once these goods exist, anybody can enjoy them, like a city park or a public school. The U.S. provided the startup capital and financed most of the maintenance—but not out of sheer altruism, let alone, as Trump thinks, because Uncle Sam was suckered. For fabulous were the returns in terms of loyalty and legitimacy. The genius of U.S. diplomacy was to push its own interests by serving those of others. Yet for Trump, “globalism” ranks right next to the Beelzebub.
Wrecking the House America Built
If 45 brings down the house that America built, what’s next—“Westphalia 4.0?” Maybe negotiated in Beijing or Moscow? Not likely, because it takes liberal states like Britain or the U.S. to craft a liberal order. In centuries past, absolutist regimes like those of Spain, France and Tsarist Russia sought to impose despotism wherever they conquered. Bolsheviks and Nazis never dreamt of free trade or peaceful adjudication, let alone liberal democracy.
Luckily today, there are no new Napoleons or Stalins on the horizon, despots who would bring secular salvation to the world by vanquishing it. Russia and China no longer pray to the God of Marxism. They are revisionist, not revolutionary powers. They want a bigger pile of chips; they don’t want to overturn the table, let alone wreck the casino. They play an opportunistic game: let’s see how far we can go at a calculable risk. They will place modest bets, testing U.S. resources and resolve.
As Trump is swinging his axe, could the U.S., the housekeeper, lose out in this one-plus-two world? Ironically, Trump’s what-do-I care machismo seems to work—for now. With his trade and sanctions wars, Trump has gotten the attention of Europe, China and Russia; he may yet soften up North Korea and Iran. Best of all, the oldest game of world politics—balancing against Mr. Big—has not kicked in against the U.S. America’s rivals are not organizing global hunting parties to bring down this rogue elephant. Not yet.
Such reticence may be testimony to the overwhelming power of the U.S. How do you win a trade war against the mightiest economy that controls the channels of world trade and finance? How do you best a giant still embedded in a globe-spanning system of alliances, when you have none of your own?
Maybe Trump will be history by 2020. Maybe America will resume its role as benign hegemon by defanging malfeasants, rewarding friends and securing the LIO Made in U.S.A. But if Trumpism—might makes right—is the future, the U.S. will not flourish. Its commercial rivals will band together to unseat the almighty dollar that underpins Trump’s orgy of sanctions. They might raise ever more trade barriers against the U.S. while excluding it from regional free-trade areas more important than the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trump has spurned in favor of one-on-one deals. They will form coalitions to isolate the U.S. in the diplomatic arena.
This dark scenario comes with a warning to the Demolition Man. He is chopping away at the very order that has granted America a lifetime of primacy at a reasonable price. Rogue elephants don’t have friends; they provoke fear and defiance. You can’t punish those whom you need to harness against Iran. World order does not form ex nihilo as history shows. It demands a sponsor and housekeeper. Does the U.S. really want to live in a world where Russia and China end up making the rules? Neither does Europe, and the rest of the world.