Without some accommodation, which will entail compromises on what major countries consider core values and principles, the world will face growing disorder. Europe found a means of doing so to end the Wars of Religion in the 17th century, and the great powers did the same after the end of the Second World War. We need to repeat that feat today.
The world is approaching an historical inflection point. The system of global governance that was founded in the years after the end of the Second World War is straining under the accumulating weight of a shifting balance of power, a crisis of legitimacy, and rapid technological advance. Whether it will revitalize itself, give way to a new system more in tune with these emerging realities, or collapse into worldwide disorder is the central question of international affairs today.
The United States took the lead in establishing this system, often called the liberal world order because it is grounded in a set of norms, rules, and institutions that reflect liberal principles. Its foundations include open, market-based economies, democratic communities, collective security, and shared sovereignty.
To be sure, during the Cold War, this order reigned in only a small part of the globe, what the West referred to as the Free World. But with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Marxism-Leninism as a ruling ideology across the globe—even China abandoned it in practice—the United States sought to universalize this order. It worked to integrate Russia into the Euro-Atlantic Community by facilitating its transition to a free-market democracy and to persuade China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in the system. Elsewhere the United States promoted democracy and free markets. The efforts with Russia and China failed; elsewhere results were mixed. Even in a part of Europe, the Balkans, the United States and its European allies could not build an enduring order or stable democratic polities.
There were multiple reasons for this failure, not the least of which were developments in the United States. As it got bogged down in unwinnable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many observers came to question American power and the wisdom of its leaders. The global financial crisis of 2008/2009, which had its origins on Wall Street, raised doubts about the viability of the American brand of free-market capitalism. More recently, deep polarization and manifest political dysfunction, graphically displayed by the storming of the Capitol this past January 6, have gravely eroded the reputation of American democracy. What then was the worth of the liberal world order, and by what right did Americans claim to lead it?
But it has not been only American failings that have undermined the liberal world order. Global developments have shaken the two pillars necessary for any stable international system: a shared sense of legitimacy and a stable balance of power. Absent these pillars, the institutional structure of the liberal world order—the United Nations and its affiliates, international financial institutions—cannot function effectively.
China’s rise and Russia’s resurgence pose the most severe challenge, but they are not the only disruptors of the global order. For years, disarray in Europe has strained its capability to support liberal values abroad. More recently, President Trump’s disdain for America’s allies nourished yearnings for strategic autonomy among Europeans. Turmoil in the Middle East, rising populism, and the reinvigoration of nationalism have all further eroded the foundations of the US-led world order.
President Biden has made it plain that he wants to revitalize this order. In an article last spring, he made the case for American global leadership. He has promised to repair relations with allies, and his administration is making plans to hold a “summit of democracies” later this year to counter the rise of authoritarian politics. Nevertheless, while American allies have welcomed his election, it is far from clear that they are prepared to accept American leadership. Certainly, they are not going to fall in blindly behind American goals. If there is to be leadership, it will have to be joint. As for a summit of democracies, the United States needs to heal itself first if it is to rally other countries around a joint program of action.
That said, it is hard to discern the contours of a new global equilibrium that could emerge in coming years. We find ourselves in a state of uneven, multilayered multipolarity. The security order is increasingly less bipolar, as the proliferation of nuclear weapons, advanced conventional weapons, and cyberweapons erodes the duopoly once exercised by the United States and Russia. The economic order has become increasingly multipolar with the rapid rise of major economic powers, especially in Asia. And the political order sees an increasing number of states vying for influence, especially at the regional level, even as the power of states is challenged by the emergence of disruptive non-states actors, including international terrorist organizations.
At the same time, the leading powers have very different concepts of world order and therefore of legitimacy. In sharp contrast to the United States’ liberal, rules-based vision, Russia insists that a concert of great powers should take the lead in managing an increasingly polycentric world on the basis of joint decisions, over which each great power would have a veto. China has yet another vision, of a hierarchical system centered on China in which other states are awed by it cultural and economic prowess and in which it would take the lead in setting the rules.
Without a common sense of legitimacy or a robust balance of power, what has encouraged restraint in global affairs for the past 30 years has been the existence of nuclear weapons and the threat of annihilation they bear. But this last element of restraint is breaking down as the arms control regime built up during the past half century collapses in the face of new technologies and policy choices in Moscow and Washington that have lowered the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. At this point, the recently extended New Start agreement remains the last pillar of the bilateral nuclear U.S.-Russian-led arms control regime, and it will expire in five years.
What then needs to be done to arrest the growing global disorder and construct a new durable order? To start, global structures in three critical areas—security, the economy, and strategic stability— need to be reformed or replaced.
In the security realm, a working forum is needed to discuss urgent challenges and develop ways to resolve or manage them. Repeated efforts to reform the UN Security Council to perform this task have made little headway and prospects are bleak. In this light, consideration should be given to launching an informal great-power concert for this purpose. It would have to include China, Russia and the United States, today’s three most active geopolitical players. India should be included as a rising power, as well as some, if not all, of the following countries with long great-power traditions: France, Germany, Great Britain, and Japan. This concert would not have the formal authority of the Security Council, but it might have more influence because it would bring together the leading powers with the resources necessary to have a practical impact on global security.
Regional security fora also need to be revitalized or created. In Europe, the OSCE and the NATO-Russia Council are the primary fora. Both were created during a more hopeful period and now have to be rethought to deal with an agenda less focused on building positive cooperation than on responsibly managing competition. In East Asia, various platforms are already in place—the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum—while a new forum, perhaps a variation of the Six-Party Talks on North Korea, should be created to deal with the situation in Northeast Asia. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization provides a promising security forum for Central Eurasia, while an adequate structure for the Middle East remains to be established.
In the economic realm, the readjustments of voting weights in the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and development banks will continue, decreasing the influence of Western powers in favor of rising powers, especially in East Asia. In addition, the three regional trade and investment hubs of global significance, East Asia, Europe, and North America, will continue to consolidate institutionally. Meanwhile, the World Trade Organization needs to be revitalized to prevent these hubs from congealing into rival protectionist blocs.
In time, other powers, first of all China, will have to be brought into the process to prevent destabilizing arms races.
The final challenge is not so much one of institutional structure as of theoretical accommodation. In a world in which the leading powers are guided by different value systems, a key question is how we can make a world of diversity safe and secure. This will require that China, Russia, and the United States, among others, reconcile their diverging worldviews to create some common vision of a legitimate world order. This will not be easy because the worldviews lie at the core of national identity and purpose. Nevertheless, without some accommodation, which will entail compromises on what major countries consider core values and principles, the world will face growing disorder. But the task is not impossible. Europe found a means of doing so to end the Wars of Religion in the 17th century, and the great powers did the same after the end of the Second World War. We need to repeat that feat today.