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Like their counterparts elsewhere,
Will the Liberal U.S. policymakers sought to advance

their countrys national interests, usually

Order Survive? in straightforward, narrowly defined
ways. They saw international politics
and economics as an intense competi-
The History of an Idea tion among states constantly jockeying
for position and advantage. When the
Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Great Depression hit, therefore, U.S.
officials, like others, raced to protect
their domestic economy as quickly and

uring the nineteenth century, fully as possible, adopting beggar-thy-
the United States played a neighbor tariffs and deepening the crisis
minor role in the global bal- in the process. And a few years later,
ance of power. The country did not when aggressive dictatorships emerged
maintain a large standing army, and as and threatened peace, they and their
late as the 1870s, the U.S. Navy was counterparts in Europe and elsewhere
smaller than the navy of Chile. Ameri- did something similar in the security
cans had no problems using force to sphere, trying to ignore the growing
acquire land or resources (as Mexico dangers, pass the buck, or defer conflict
and the Native American nations could through appeasement.
attest), but for the most part, both the By this point, the United States had
U.S. government and the American become the worlds strongest power, but
public opposed significant involvement it saw no value in devoting resources or
in international affairs outside the attention to providing global public goods
Western Hemisphere. such as an open economy or international
A flirtation with imperialism at the security. There was no U.S.-led liberal
end of the century drew U.S. attention order in the 1930s, and the result was a
outward, as did the growing U.S. role low dishonest decade, in the words of
in the world economy, paving the way W. H. Auden, of depression, tyranny,
for President Woodrow Wilson to take war, and genocide.
the United States into World War I. With their countries drawn into the
But the costs of the war and the failure conflagration despite their efforts to
of Wilsons ambitious attempt to reform avoid it, Western officials spent the
international politics afterward turned first half of the 1940s trying to defeat the
U.S. attention inward once again during Axis powers while working to construct
the 1920s and 1930s, leading to the strange a different and better world for afterward.
situation of an increasingly great power Rather than continue to see economic
holding itself aloof from an increasingly and security issues as solely national
turbulent world. concerns, they now sought to cooperate
with one another, devising a rules-
JOSEPH S. NYE, JR., is University Distin- based system that in theory would
guished Service Professor at the Harvard
Kennedy School of Government and the author allow like-minded nations to enjoy
of Is the American Century Over? peace and prosperity in common.

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Will the Liberal Order Survive?

Called to order: Barack Obama chairing a UN Security Council meeting, September 2009

The liberal international order that 1950, and signed a new security treaty
emerged after 1945 was a loose array of with Japan in 1960.
multilateral institutions in which the These and other actions both bol-
United States provided global public stered the order and contained Soviet
goods such as freer trade and freedom power. As the American diplomat George
of the seas and weaker states were given Kennan and others noted, there were
institutional access to the exercise of five crucial areas of industrial productiv-
U.S. power. The Bretton Woods institu- ity and strength in the postwar world:
tions were set up while the war was still the United States, the Soviet Union, the
in progress. When other countries proved United Kingdom, continental Europe,
too poor or weak to fend for themselves and Northeast Asia. To protect itself and
afterward, the Truman administration prevent a third world war, Washington
decided to break with U.S. tradition chose to isolate the Soviet Union and
and make open-ended alliances, provide bind itself tightly to the other three,
substantial aid to other countries, and and U.S. troops remain in Europe, Asia,
deploy U.S. military forces abroad. and elsewhere to this day. And within

Washington gave the United Kingdom this framework, global economic, social,
a major loan in 1946, took responsibil- and ecological interdependence grew.
ity for supporting pro-Western govern- By 1970, economic globalization had
ments in Greece and Turkey in 1947, recovered to the level it had reached
invested heavily in European recovery before being disrupted by World War I
with the Marshall Plan in 1948, created in 1914.
nato in 1949, led a military coalition to The mythology that has grown up
protect South Korea from invasion in around the order can be exaggerated.

Januar y/Februar y 2017 11

Joseph S. Nye, Jr.

Washington may have displayed a countries on a case-by-case transac-

general preference for democracy and tional basis, making sure it wins
openness, but it frequently supported rather than loses on each deal or
dictators or made cynical self-interested commitment. Others claim that the
moves along the way. In its first dec foundations of the order are eroding
ades, the postwar system was largely because of a long-term global power
limited to a group of like-minded states transition involving the dramatic rise
centered on the Atlantic littoral; it did of Asian economies such as China and
not include many large countries such India. And still others see it as threat-
as China, India, and the Soviet bloc ened by a broader diffusion of power
states, and it did not always have benign from governments to nonstate actors
effects on nonmembers. In global mili- thanks to ongoing changes in politics,
tary terms, the United States was not society, and technology. The order, in
hegemonic, because the Soviet Union short, is facing its greatest challenges in
balanced U.S. power. And even when generations. Can it survive, and will it?
its power was greatest, Washington
could not prevent the loss of China, POWER CHALLENGED AND
the partition of Germany and Berlin, a DIFFUSED
draw in Korea, Soviet suppression of Public goods are benefits that apply to
insurrections within its own bloc, the everyone and are denied to no one. At
creation and survival of a communist the national level, governments provide
regime in Cuba, and failure in Vietnam. many of these to their citizens: safety for
Americans have had bitter debates people and property, economic infra-
and partisan differences over military structure, a clean environment. In the
interventions and other foreign policy absence of international government,
issues over the years, and they have global public goodsa clean climate or
often grumbled about paying for the financial stability or freedom of the
defense of other rich countries. Still, seashave sometimes been provided by
the demonstrable success of the order coalitions led by the largest power, which
in helping secure and stabilize the benefits the most from these goods and
world over the past seven decades has can afford to pay for them. When the
led to a strong consensus that defending, strongest powers fail to appreciate this
deepening, and extending this system dynamic, global public goods are under-
has been and continues to be the produced and everybody suffers.
central task of U.S. foreign policy. Some observers see the main threat
Until now, that isfor recently, the to the current liberal order coming from
desirability and sustainability of the the rapid rise of a China that does not
order have been called into question always appear to appreciate that great
as never before. Some critics, such as power carries with it great responsibili-
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, ties. They worry that China is about to
have argued that the costs of maintain- pass the United States in power and
ing the order outweigh its benefits and that when it does, it will not uphold the
that Washington would be better off current order because it views it as an
handling its interactions with other external imposition reflecting others

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Will the Liberal Order Survive?

interests more than its own. This con- with a veto in the un Security Council
cern is misguided, however, for two and has gained from liberal economic
reasons: because China is unlikely to institutions, such as the World Trade
surpass the United States in power Organization (where it accepts dispute-
anytime soon and because it understands settlement judgments that go against it)
and appreciates the order more than is and the International Monetary Fund
commonly realized. (where its voting rights have increased
Contrary to the current conventional and it fills an important deputy director
wisdom, China is not about to replace position). China is now the second-largest
the United States as the worlds domi- funder of un peacekeeping forces and
nant country. Power involves the ability has participated in un programs related
to get what you want from others, and to Ebola and climate change. In 2015,
it can involve payment, coercion, or Beijing joined with Washington in devel-
attraction. Chinas economy has grown oping new norms for dealing with climate
dramatically in recent decades, but it change and conflicts in cyberspace. On
is still only 61 percent of the size of the balance, China has tried not to overthrow
U.S. economy, and its rate of growth is the current order but rather to increase
slowing. And even if China does surpass its influence within it.
the United States in total economic The order will inevitably look
size some decades from now, economic somewhat different as the twenty-first
might is just part of the geopolitical century progresses. China, India, and
equation. According to the Interna- other economies will continue to grow,
tional Institute for Strategic Studies, and the U.S. share of the world econ-
the United States spends four times omy will drop. But no other country,
as much on its military as does China, including China, is poised to displace
and although Chinese capabilities have the United States from its dominant
been increasing in recent years, serious position. Even so, the order may still
observers think that China will not be be threatened by a general diffusion of
able to exclude the United States from power away from governments toward
the western Pacific, much less exercise nonstate actors. The information revolu-
global military hegemony. And as for tion is putting a number of transnational
soft power, the ability to attract others, issues, such as financial stability, climate
a recent index published by Portland, a change, terrorism, pandemics, and cyber-
London consultancy, ranks the United security, on the global agenda at the
States first and China 28th. And as same time as it is weakening the ability
China tries to catch up, the United of all governments to respond.
States will not be standing still. It has Complexity is growing, and world
favorable demographics, increasingly politics will soon not be the sole province
cheap energy, and the worlds leading of governments. Individuals and private
universities and technology companies. organizationsfrom corporations and
Moreover, China benefits from and nongovernmental organizations to terror-
appreciates the existing international ists and social movementsare being
order more than it sometimes acknowl- empowered, and informal networks will
edges. It is one of only five countries undercut the monopoly on power of

Januar y/Februar y 2017 13

Joseph S. Nye, Jr.

traditional bureaucracies. Governments pack. The United States comes first in

will continue to possess power and the Lowy Institutes ranking of nations
resources, but the stage on which they by number of embassies, consulates, and
play will become ever more crowded, missions. It has some 60 treaty allies,
and they will have less ability to direct and The Economist estimates that nearly
the action. 100 of the 150 largest countries lean
Even if the United States remains the toward it, while only 21 lean against it.
largest power, accordingly, it will not be Increasingly, however, the openness
able to achieve many of its international that enables the United States to build
goals acting alone. For example, interna- networks, maintain institutions, and
tional financial stability is vital to the sustain alliances is itself under siege.
prosperity of Americans, but the United This is why the most important chal-
States needs the cooperation of others lenge to the provision of world order
to ensure it. Global climate change and in the twenty-first century comes not
rising sea levels will affect the quality of from without but from within.
life, but Americans cannot manage these
problems by themselves. And in a world POPULISM VS. GLOBALIZATION
where borders are becoming more porous, Even if the United States continues to
letting in everything from drugs to infec- possess more military, economic, and
tious diseases to terrorism, nations must soft-power resources than any other
use soft power to develop networks and country, it may choose not to use those
build institutions to address shared resources to provide public goods for
threats and challenges. the international system at large. It did
Washington can provide some so during the interwar years, after all, and
important global public goods largely in the wake of the conflicts in Afghanistan
by itself. The U.S. Navy is crucial when and Iraq, a 2013 poll found that 52 percent
it comes to policing the law of the seas of Americans believed that the U.S.
and defending freedom of navigation, should mind its own business interna-
and the U.S. Federal Reserve undergirds tionally and let other countries get
international financial stability by serving along the best they can on their own.
as a lender of last resort. On the new The 2016 presidential election was
transnational issues, however, success marked by populist reactions to global-
will require the cooperation of others ization and trade agreements in both
and thus empowering others can help major parties, and the liberal interna-
the United States accomplish its own tional order is a project of just the sort
goals. In this sense, power becomes a of cosmopolitan elites whom populists
positive-sum game: one needs to think see as the enemy. The roots of populist
of not just the United States power reactions are both economic and cultural.
over others but also the power to solve Areas that have lost jobs to foreign
problems that the United States can competition appear to have tended to
acquire by working with others. In such support Trump, but so did older white
a world, the ability to connect with others males who have lost status with the rise
becomes a major source of power, and in power of other demographic groups.
here, too, the United States leads the The U.S. Census Bureau projects that in

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less than three decades, whites will no that 65 percent of Americans thought
longer be a racial majority in the United that globalization was mostly good for
States, precipitating the anxiety and the United States, despite concerns about
fear that contributed to Trumps appeal, a loss of jobs. And campaign rhetoric
and such trends suggest that populist notwithstanding, in a 2015 Pew survey,
passions will outlast Trumps campaign. 51 percent of respondents said that
It has become almost conventional immigrants strengthened the country.
wisdom to argue that the populist surge Nor will the United States lose the
in the United States, Europe, and else- ability to afford to sustain the order.
where marks the beginning of the end Washington currently spends less than
of the contemporary era of globalization four percent of its gdp on defense and
and that turbulence may follow in its foreign affairs. That is less than half the
wake, as happened after the end of an share that it spent at the height of the
earlier period of globalization a century Cold War. Alliances are not significant
ago. But circumstances are so different economic burdens, and in some cases,
today that the analogy doesnt hold such as that of Japan, it is cheaper to
up. There are so many buffers against station troops overseas than at home.
turbulence now, at both the domestic The problem is not guns versus butter
and the international level, that a but guns versus butter versus taxes.
descent into economic and geopolitical Because of a desire to avoid raising taxes
chaos, as in the 1930s, is not in the cards. or further increasing the national debt,
Discontent and frustration are likely the U.S. national security budget is
to continue, and the election of Trump currently locked in a zero-sum tradeoff
and the British vote to leave the eu with domestic expenditures on educa-
demonstrate that populist reactions are tion, infrastructure, and research and
common to many Western democracies. development. Politics, not absolute
Policy elites who want to support global- economic constraints, will determine
ization and an open economy will clearly how much is spent on what.
need to pay more attention to economic The disappointing track record of
inequality, help those disrupted by recent U.S. military interventions has
change, and stimulate broad-based also undermined domestic support for
economic growth. an engaged global role. In an age of
It would be a mistake to read too transnational terrorism and refugee
much about long-term trends in U.S. crises, keeping aloof from all interven-
public opinion from the heated rhetoric tion in the domestic affairs of other
of the recent election. The prospects countries is neither possible nor desir-
for elaborate trade agreements such as able. But regions such as the Middle
the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the East are likely to experience turmoil for
Transatlantic Trade and Investment decades, and Washington will need to
Partnership have suffered, but there is be more careful about the tasks it takes
not likely to be a reversion to protec- on. Invasion and occupation breed
tionism on the scale of the 1930s. A resentment and opposition, which in
June 2016 poll by the Chicago Council turn raise the costs of intervention
on Global Affairs, for example, found while lowering the odds of success,

Januar y/Februar y 2017 15

Joseph S. Nye, Jr.

further undermining public support for with many situations. Trying to control
an engaged foreign policy. the domestic politics of nationalist foreign
Political fragmentation and demagogu- populations is a recipe for failure, and
ery, finally, pose yet another challenge force has little to offer in addressing
to the United States ability to provide issues such as climate change, financial
responsible international leadership, stability, or Internet governance. Main-
and the 2016 election revealed just how taining networks, working with other
fragmented the American electorate is. countries and international institutions,
The U.S. Senate, for example, has failed and helping establish norms to deal with
to ratify the un Convention on the Law new transnational issues are crucial. It
of the Sea, despite the fact that the is a mistake to equate globalization with
country is relying on it to help protect trade agreements. Even if economic
freedom of navigation in the South globalization were to slow, technology
China Sea against Chinese provoca- is creating ecological, political, and
tions. Congress failed for five years to social globalization that will all require
fulfill an important U.S. commitment to cooperative responses.
support the reallocation of International Leadership is not the same as domina-
Monetary Fund quotas from Europe to tion, and Washingtons role in helping
China, even though it would have cost stabilize the world and underwrite its
almost nothing to do so. Congress has continued progress may be even more
passed laws violating the international important now than ever. Americans
legal principle of sovereign immunity, a and others may not notice the security
principle that protects not just foreign and prosperity that the liberal order
governments but also American diplo- provides until they are gonebut by
matic and military personnel abroad. then, it may be too late.
And domestic resistance to putting a
price on carbon emissions makes it hard
for the United States to lead the fight
against climate change.
The United States will remain the
worlds leading military power for dec
ades to come, and military force will
remain an important component of U.S.
power. A rising China and a declining
Russia frighten their neighbors, and
U.S. security guarantees in Asia and
Europe provide critical reassurance for
the stability that underlies the prosper-
ity of the liberal order. Markets depend
on a framework of security, and main-
taining alliances is an important source
of influence for the United States.
At the same time, military force is a
blunt instrument unsuited to dealing

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