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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchThe End of World Order and American Foreign Policy

The End of World Order and American Foreign Policy

Author: Robert D. Blackwill and Thomas Wright 

Affiliation: Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution

Organization/Publisher: Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) 

Date/Place: May, 2020/USA

Type of Literature: Special Report 

Number of Pages: 42

Link: https://www.cfr.org/report/end-world-order-and-american-foreign-policy 

Keywords: The US Foreign Policy, World Order, International Order, Henry Kissinger, COVID-19, and the Moment of Radical International Uncertainty

Brief:

In this report, the authors argue that we are currently witnessing the end of the US-led world order and that the COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating trends that started at the beginning of the twenty-first century. So, the world is heading towards disorder caused by the situation in which the old order paves the way for coming orders that no one can predict. The aim of this report is not to predict the long-term consequences of the current crisis, but rather to put this pandemic in its global context. It accordingly describes the situation that the world was in before the Coronavirus hit and imposed its current impacts on the order, how the global order is eroding, then suggests what the US should do. The authors begin by emphasizing that the COVID-19 pandemic is the second great test for the US-led international order since 1945 (after the competition with the Soviet Union). Since 1945, no other event has had the same broad negative impacts on the worldwide population that this deadly virus has had. To prove their view, they present a set of shocking figures. For example, the virus caused global growth to decrease by 3%, which is the stagnant rate since the Great Depression (1929), its accumulated losses for the 2020-2021 period so far amount to $9 trillion, which is larger in size than the German and Japanese economies combined, and the devastating impacts are expected to last longer. Therefore, the authors describe this crucial moment as “a Moment of Radical International Uncertainty” in which international questions abound and it is difficult to predict the geopolitical direction that the world is heading. But what is certain for them is the fact we are in the midst of a profound transformation during which the US-led world order since 1990 has ended. The scholars underline that the erosion of the US-led world order began from the beginning of the 21st century, and to understand today’s world, we must understand what happened throughout this period. Talks about this erosion began almost since the 9/11 events, then debates spread among analysts about the end of the world order since Russia’s annexation of the Crimea (2014). This trend has been reinforced by successive events such as the proliferation of failed states, Brexit, Trump’s election and the US withdrawal from global leadership; as Robert Kagan said: “the jungle (chaos) was growing back.” Before elaborating on the features of this “jungle,” the authors point to the need to distinguish between the terms international order and world order, based on Henry Kissinger’s writings, emphasizing that the intended demise is related to the world order. International order usually refers to the prevailing order led by a specific country, often referred to as an empire and not necessarily embraced by all major powers. World order is a rare case in history and consists of a “shared understanding among the major powers to limit the potential for serious confrontation… The order results not from a desire to pursue peace or justice, but from a generally accepted legitimacy and are based on an equilibrium of forces”, i.e. the existence of an international agreement about “the nature of workable arrangements and about the permissible aims and methods of foreign policy.” It also reflects the fact that no country feels extreme dissatisfaction within this framework, as happened with Germany after the Versailles Treaty and expressed in the form of a revolutionary foreign policy. By extrapolating history, the authors explain that such a world order was only available after the Cold War between 1990-2000, when “the constraints and understandings between the major powers became formalized and institutionalized,” as John Ikenberry clarified. Therefore, the demise here relates precisely to the post-Cold War US-led liberal world order. According to the authors, two major developments occurred over the past decade which stand behind this ending. First, a series of decisions by major powers to diverge from the shared understanding of limitations and enforcement that prevailed in the 1990s. For instance: the retreat from liberal governance and the trend towards totalitarian dictatorship models (Russia, China, India, Turkey, Brazil, Hungary, etc), violation of international institutions and standards as Russia did in Georgia (2008), Crimea (2014) and Syria (2015), or, as China has aggressively done for decades in the South China Sea, along with its actions outside the institutions’ framework of the international economic order such as the World Bank and the establishment of parallel regional and international institutions such as the AIIB and BRI. All this coincided with Trump’s election, who is gradually withdrawing the US from global leadership by opposing all forms of liberal globalization. Second, profound transformative changes in world affairs—technical, economic, and environmental— have given rise to issues not addressed by the post–Cold War world order. Here the report argues that we are truly living in a completely different era due to the proliferation of artificial intelligence technologies, biological sciences, the Internet, and social media, all of which are transformations that challenge the traditional structures our society has had since the late 19th century. The authors affirm that all the features of these changes and their following impacts had existed before COVID-19, but the pandemic accelerated the pace of these changes. Therefore, “the world has moved away from a standard of world order in which nations work within the same set of constraints and aspire to meet the same set of rules toward a model in which many countries choose their own paths to order, without much reference to the views of others.” Scholars see that the end of the world order does not reach the point where the major dissatisfied powers seek to directly overthrow the old order; “it is that in many respects the new world and the old rules are in parallel universes.” Moreover, the report discusses how the US should respond to this ending. Should it reshape the world order and establish new understandings with its major powers, or should it focus on improving its own ordering options in accordance with its values regardless of whether China, Russia, or others go along? Their answer is to follow the path that better protects and promotes US vital interests. Therefore, the report sets out several points that determine first what exactly these interests are, then it concludes that the US can’t reach mutual understandings with the major powers on new arrangements due to the widening gap of differences between parties (the US and China especially). Additionally, there is an absence of will to do so, given the current total conviction of the two powers in their preferences and uncompromising governance models. The report concludes with a set of recommendations that the US should adopt to reform its foreign policy, preserve its vital interests, and build its stable order, including: Abandoning the idea of pursuing the liberal international order (advocated since 1990) that aimed at creating a world in the American image, but strengthen its alliance with countries with similar liberal values as it did in the 1940s, building a qualified and convincing governance model that enables it to enhance global leadership, modernizing its diplomacy and improving how to engage partners, revitalizing its cooperation with Canada and Mexico, strengthening its relations with India, investing in international institutions, stopping deterioration in the balance of power with China, and other detailed recommendations. But first of all, the US should put the COVID-19 crisis globally and jointly at the top of its foreign policy priorities as a first step toward shaping a noble world order. 


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate

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