Few global issues have taken on more current importance than the future of the postwar, rules-based international order. The roots of the order run back to the mid-1940s, when US leaders decided that the United States should work to shape the postwar settlement in more structured, collaborative and rules-bound ways. They conceived of global organizations to promote collective problem-solving, avert protectionist impulses and stabilize the world economy.
The resulting global institutions, processes, rules and norms inspired the rise of regional organizations and became what we now know as the postwar international order. The essential approach it reflects – nesting US power in a shared multilateral order – has provided the basis for US national security strategies since the 1950s.
Today, however, that order is under unprecedented strain, both within the societies of its leading members and from revisionist countries determined to change some aspects of how the order functions.
The question is whether the order retains strategic value, and whether such a vision can or should continue to shape US strategy.
The first answer to these pertinent questions is that the postwar order has generated tremendous value for the United States and many other countries. The order retains impressive areas of resilience as well as the challengers, notably Russia and China. But, they do not seek to destroy it.
In addition, the postwar order has boosted the effectiveness of other instruments of US statecraft, such as diplomacy and military strength, and helped to advance specific US interests in identifiable and sometimes measurable ways. An excellent example is the global response to the 2008 financial crisis, a response that was both accelerated and facilitated by the principles, norms, institutions and relationships fostered by the postwar economic order.
More broadly, the seven-decade rise of a shared order has had identifiable socialization effects. Yet, it is also true that if a truly multilateral order is to be sustained, the US predominance, which is so characteristic of the current order, must give way to a more multilateral system, one that takes seriously the sometimes-differing perspectives of other major powers.
Revisionist pressure against the order today is not as much opposed to the idea of multilateral rules and institutions per se as it is to US hegemony over key aspects of the order. If the United States clings too tightly to a particular vision of specific norms, it is likely to accelerate the order’s decay.
On the other hand, China’s role in the postwar order has raised serious concerns. The history of its attitude and behaviour toward the postwar order reveals many areas of progress, but China’s determination to extend its influence beyond its borders and predatory trade practices imply that it might not be willing to respect the rules and norms of the order over time.
Both history and theory argue that such a risk amplifies the relevance of a multilateral, rules-based order. It lays out the standards countries like China should uphold, and it offers the most powerful tool available to rally multilateral pressure for shaping China’s behaviour.
Multilateral responses to rising challenges will be more effective than unilateral ones – and more importantly, without the benefits and legitimacy conferred by such an order, vibrant US global leadership will become financially and strategically unaffordable.