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That Post-Liberal International Order World: Some Core Characteristics

Bruce Jentleson
Sunday, September 9, 2018, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: What the liberal international order is and how much it benefits the world is much-debated today, including here at Lawfare. Trump's policies and those of other world leaders are a direct challenge to many of its core assumptions about the benefits of trade, openness, and the spread of democracy. Bruce Jentleson of Duke, however, points out that a system constructed decades ago is bound to be stressed by an ever-changing world.

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Editor’s Note: What the liberal international order is and how much it benefits the world is much-debated today, including here at Lawfare. Trump's policies and those of other world leaders are a direct challenge to many of its core assumptions about the benefits of trade, openness, and the spread of democracy. Bruce Jentleson of Duke, however, points out that a system constructed decades ago is bound to be stressed by an ever-changing world. He identifies likely areas of contention and associated problems for the liberal order independent of who is in the White House.

Daniel Byman


Paul Staniland’s recent Lawfare article calling for “new thinking” on 21st century world order and American foreign policy beyond restorationist invocations of the Liberal International Order (LIO) both pulls together much recent work and pushes the argument further with his added analysis and insights.

And it sure kicked off quite a bit of Twitter traffic. Some of the debate has been over positive/negative net assessment of the LIO both for U.S. foreign policy and for others internationally. Going forward, though, even if one accepts pro-LIO arguments, they have an end-of-history fallacy. Why should one expect that a system established more than 70 years ago based on a particular distribution of power, array of threats, and other structural conditions should have the same effectiveness when underlying factors such as these have substantially changed? Hailing the LIO as the culmination for global peace and prosperity applicable on an ongoing basis is comparably ahistorical to Francis Fukuyama’s contention that democracy and capitalism emerged from centuries of contestation as the optimal political and economic systems to be refined but not fundamentally challenged.

What then are the key factors characterizing the 21st century terrain on which international order is to be built? Without any claim of comprehensiveness, I offer four such core characteristics.

Major Power Rivalry in a Non-Hegemonic World

No question major power rivalry is more of a factor than anticipated by the experts and policymakers who expected Russia and China to integrate into U.S.-led international order. The 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security and its commitment to “a lasting and inclusive peace in the Euro-Atlantic area on the principles of democracy and cooperative security” have not exactly held up. China’s entry into the global economy has neither led to internal democratization nor acquiescence to U.S.-dominated global geopolitics or regional alliances. There are and will continue to be conflicts of interest and competition for relative power and influence. But posing this as a new U.S.-Russia Cold War or a U.S.-China Thucydidean power transition misses the ways in which 21st century geopolitics make hegemony—“the position of being the strongest and most powerful and therefore able to control others,” as the dictionary defines it—much less achievable by any major power.

One reason is that, as important as military power remains, the military balance is much less central to overall systemic structure than during the strategic nuclear deterrence of the Cold War era. While bearing heavily on some issues, in a world in which there is much less of a shared and overarching threat, military power “currency” is less convertible to other forms of power and influence. For all the military and related aid the United States has provided Pakistan, as one but hardly the only example, little leverage has been gained over key policies. Overall military primacy has also brought fewer economic benefits over time, as both Dan Drezner and Jonathan Kirshner have shown. Additionally, the “capabilities-utility gap” between military superiority as traditionally measured and the utility of that superiority for achieving strategic objectives keeps being played out, as with the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Another factor is that, in contrast to the bloc-based world of the Cold War, we’re seeing a “pluralization of diplomacy,” in which more countries have more relations with one another on a wider range of issues. Some bilateral relationships are more important than others, but few states see their interests strictly aligning with one major power or another. In the Middle East, for instance, along with relations with the United States, Saudi Arabia has made China its top trading partner for imports as well as oil exports, Egypt has been working out new military cooperation with Russia, and Israel and Russia have an encrypted military hotline to avoid inadvertent escalation in Syria. In Asia, China and Japan recently reached their own agreement for a crisis-management hotline for the East China Sea/Sea of Japan, Australia tries to keep relations with the United States and China in balance, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi holds summits with both Trump and Xi. In Africa, Djibouti hosts military bases for both China and the United States. In Latin America, Brazil joins with Russia, China, and India in the BRICs. Leading Western European countries including United Kingdom, Germany, and France joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) despite U.S. opposition. This array of relationships and coalitions works against hegemony, whether global or regional, for any major power.

These and other factors are limiting major powers’ leverage even over weaker partner countries. This is not totally new: that the strong are able to get the weak to do what they want them to do is another flawed (or at least misunderstood) Thucydidean axiom. But the limits of leverage are more prevalent today than at the height of the Cold War or in that 1990s moment of American unipolarity. I saw this while on the State Department Policy Planning Staff in 2009-11, when so many of the “asks” prepared for high-level meetings with Pakistan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other U.S. allies and partners came back without compliance. Stephen Tankel’s study of the limits and in some instances counterproductivity of counterterrorism partnerships provides some quite telling examples. China also is running into limits on its leverage with pushback against the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Southeast Asia and Africa, as well as the costs and burdens of such commitments piling up on Beijing’s budget and economy more generally. Russia has had its share of frustrations with Bashar al-Assad, including currently regarding postwar governance models, and may well be on the verge of finding Syria more of an Afghanistan-type burden than an opportunity.

None of this means relative power gains don’t matter. They surely do. But overestimating threats as hegemonic both distorts strategizing for competing effectively for those relative gains and underestimates opportunities for major power cooperation.

Contested Global Governance

Two old arguments have run their course. One is whether international institutions matter. Contrary to those realists who over-dichotomize power vs. institutions and conservatives who milk sovereignty rhetoric, they do matter. The issue is that they tend to underperform and don’t do what we need them to do. UN peacekeeping fails more than it succeeds. The Human Rights Council continues its hypocrisy. The World Health Organization was ill-prepared for the Ebola and Zika pandemics. There is plenty of responsibility to go around. This is the “tough love” challenge for multilateralists, going beyond standard pushbacks against multilateralism denialists and getting at strategies for greater policy effectiveness. The same goes for NGOs, which, while often playing enormously valuable roles (e.g., the Gates Foundation in pandemic prevention, Human Rights Watch exposing the Rohingya genocide), have their own issues that can “produce outcomes dramatically at odds with liberal expectations.”

The other debate that has exhausted itself is whether China will be a “responsible stakeholder,” which has too often been posed as whether China plays by the Western-set LIO rules. Here, too, there are genuine issues, theft of intellectual property and the Hague Court South China Sea ruling among them. But the really interesting questions are about China’s own ideas for global governance on issues such as rules and norms for the evolving international economic system, the roles of new China-centric institutions such as the AIIB and coalitions such as the BRICs, and operative conceptions of state sovereignty. I was intrigued by Kevin Rudd’s article on the recent Chinese Communist Party Central Conference on Work Related to Foreign Affairs and President Xi Jinping’s call for China to “lead the reform of the global governance system with the concepts of fairness and justice.” The distinctions being made among guoji zhixu (the international order), guoji xitong (the international system), and quanqiu zhili (global governance) show a depth of strategic thinking that one could only wish was in U.S. national security strategies—and I don’t just mean the Trump 2017 one.

State Stability and the “Vegas Dilemma”

Whereas during the Cold War much of global instability was “outside in” (i.e., the internalization of the U.S.-Soviet global rivalry into states’ domestic tensions and conflicts), the 21st century dynamic is more an “inside out” one of externalization of states’ domestic threats and other disruptions. Thus, while it may be true that “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” as the tagline of a classic U.S. commercial had it, what happens in states does not stay inside states. Civil wars are becoming increasingly internationalized. Popular uprisings against repressive governments have wide-reaching demonstration effects. Mass atrocities set off refugee flows across borders which then feed into neighbors’ ethnic and other conflicts. Failed states continue becoming safe havens for terrorist groups with global operations. Syria is the most telling Vegas dilemma example, its internal instability spilling out across the Middle East—providing the space for the Islamic State to develop and fueling Israel-Iran and Saudi-Iran tensions—and into Europe, where it has strained the European Union and fed country-based authoritarian populism.

Yet we still know much too little about building capable states, by which I mean states that have internal legitimacy in the eyes of their own people and the policy capacity to deliver on the crucial challenges their societies face. Democracy promotion has at best a mixed record, military occupation and friendly authoritarians well less than that. Any new order needs policies—both from the United States and others in the international community—that are more effective than current practices in contributing to building capable states.

Renewed Ideological Competition

Would that it were as simple as democracy good/authoritarianism bad. Four ways in which it is not.

First, democracy is not exactly racking up points of admiration and achievement these days. I don’t “just” mean the flouting of core principles, undermining of vital political institutions, and other deep damage being wreaked by the Trump persona, policies, and practices. It’s easier today to point to a deeply troubled Western democracy than to a high-performing one. Even keeping historical perspective, one wonders whether the stresses we are seeing in the social compacts underpinning so many democracies are just marginally worse than those witnessed before or more fundamentally impaired.

Second, if we are serious in our analysis, we need to recognize that a people may deem its political system and government legitimate even if it is not based on elections. This does not include peoples cowed into submission. But it does acknowledge that for countries with mass poverty, endemic injustice, and other pressing human needs, people are looking not just to be protected from government, but also to be protected by government. I say that not to justify repression but to recognize that in many societies political legitimacy is a function of performance, not just process.

Third, debate continues over the optimal balance between the state and the market in national economic strategies. More variegated than the old socialism-capitalism dichotomy, this is more about adopting or adapting capitalism, whether to maximize market forces along the lines of modernization theory and neo-liberalism or to have what Gregory Chin and Ramesh Thakur characterize as “purposive state intervention to guide market development and national corporate growth” as a more sophisticated version of the “developmental state.” Developments like artificial intelligence and digital authoritarianism add another dimension in offering, as Nicholas Wright writes, “a plausible way for big, economically advanced countries to make their citizens rich while maintaining control over them.”

Fourth is the dilemma of fostering a sense of national purpose amidst distinct and deeply felt subgroup identities. While by no means unique historically, the politics of identity have been taking on an increasing intensity in one country after another. In some it has led to genocide and other mass atrocities, in others to systematic repression, in others to deepening animosities and intolerance with violence as yet sporadic but boding ominously. Making societal heterogeneity a source of strength is a crucial challenge.

In these and other ways, while not as much a contest between identifiably packaged -isms as was the Cold War, big questions are being re-opened within societies, across cultures, and among political systems—and a healthy dose of soft power will go to whichever system shows its own people and the world that it can meet these challenges.

I present no claim here of definitive answers or a fully fleshed-out analysis, but some thoughts on key factors and forces shaping this 21st century world. Have at it, colleagues!

Bruce Jentleson is a professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. His most recent policy position was Senior Advisor to the State Department Policy Planning Director (2009-2011). His current book is The Peacemakers: Leadership Lessons from 20th Century Statesmanship (W.W. Norton, 2018). He recently received the Joseph J. Kruzel Memorial Award for Distinguished Public Service from the International Security Section of the American Political Science Association.

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