America can falter, but the Western liberal order it helped to build must not

  • Kori Schake says Trump’s unilateralism and disdain for values-based policymaking should push America’s allies to step up in defence of the global order, now under attack from the authoritarian alternatives promoted by China and Russia
PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 December, 2018, 1:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 December, 2018, 10:20am

President Donald Trump has burned like a wildfire through the goodwill accrued by the United States in 70 years of being the leader of the free world. But does that constitute a genuine threat to the liberal international order? What does that term even mean?

The liberal order was not created by starry-eyed idealists in faculty lounges. It was hewed by the hard men who defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and dug the world out of starvation and rubble in its aftermath. They built it because they lived the wreckage of tens of millions of lives destroyed by an unregulated international system where threats gathered, strong states preyed on the weak, tariffs strangled trade, central bank policies exaggerated economic hardship, and aggression mounted until even strong states feared being overwhelmed.

But the current president of the United States seems not to believe in the fundamental building blocks of the existing order, nor accept that they benefit the US nearly enough to justify their perpetuation. Trump considers the existing order a conspiracy: “allies” free-ride off US military power while taking advantage of trading arrangements that disadvantage America. His vengeful unilateralism has injected an unwelcome instability within the Western camp.

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America’s allies are the most strident voices about preserving the existing order, and are talking tough about preserving it despite US opposition. French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted after the G7 meeting that “the American president may not mind being isolated, but neither do we mind signing a six-country agreement if need be”.

Because these countries represent values, they represent an economic market which has the weight of history behind it. America’s allies are the world’s strongest economies, most stable democracies, and most institutionally protected countries in the international order. They have the most to lose if the order erodes, but they are also the countries most able to preserve their interests as the international order transforms.

Can Western middle powers, armed with their strength and prosperity and generally accepted rules of international order, sustain that order facing China alone or if the US works against them? America’s adversaries see enormous opportunities to be exploited – not least China’s authoritarian and irredentist leader Xi Jinping, who portrays China as the new defender of the rules-based order. While China is selective in its commitment to agreed rules (it refuses to acknowledge the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s findings on its encroachment of other states’ territory, and does not meet World Trade Organisation standards on protection of intellectual property or legal enforcement), it is succeeding at positioning itself as a more reliable international partner than the US.

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A China that grows stronger without liberalising will almost certainly become a threat to the liberal order. As will an America strong enough to pull down the temple of the liberal order on its own head. An America mired in a sense of stagnation probably will not; but it will still leave a void where order used to be, and lesser powers of equal venality to China, such as Russia, may move into the space.

Yet for all his boorish behaviour, President Trump represents some important continuities in US foreign policy. Pleas for more defence spending by allies have been a standard and increasingly bitter feature of Nato meetings for decades.

The arc of history only bends towards justice when people of goodwill wrench it in the direction of justice

The US has never been a truly comfortable hegemon of the international order. America’s commitment to establishing and preserving the order is often overstated, enhanced by the ambient glow of a mythologised past in which American statesmen stood astride the world like benevolent colossuses, propounding rules of liberality unconstrained by domestic politics.

Policies designed to advance Western values have not succeeded in Russia or China, and are struggling against cultural and political backlash even in some countries added to the Western fold since the end of the cold war. The economic success of authoritarian governments adopting some free-market practices is a bracing challenge for the West, calling into question the inevitability of history bending its arc towards their values.

But values-led policies are now deeply entrenched in the policymaking apparatuses of the US and its major allies in Europe and beyond. Wrenching back towards interest-driven policies even in security would require major efforts by Western governments and could easily result in Western citizens rejecting international engagement, as Americans did after the first world war.

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If China and America falter in navigating their respective political, economic, and social challenges, a concert of middle powers could actually succeed. In fact, that would be the ultimate success of the US-led order: American leadership becoming irrelevant to the functioning of the system, overtaken by middle powers’ cooperative commitment to setting and enforcing rules against stronger powers that behave recklessly. Still, it would require a much stronger international game than America’s liberal allies are currently playing.

Reformers who speak mystically about the arc of justice bending towards history do themselves a disservice. The platitude may be of comfort in dark hours, but it is a message of passivity. The arc of history only bends towards justice when people of goodwill grab onto it and wrench it in the direction of justice. The liberal order will have to be fought for, compromised for, and rejuvenated. But I do believe it will be sustained.

Kori Schake is deputy director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. This is an edited extract from “America vs The West”, a Lowy Institute Paper published by Penguin Random House