Few foreign policy issues have attracted more attention in recent years than the problem of sustaining the U.S.-led liberal international order. After World War II, the United States sponsored a set of institutions, rules, and norms designed to avoid repeating the mistakes of the 1930s and promote peace, prosperity, and democracy. The resulting system has served as the bedrock of U.S. national security strategy ever since. In everything from arms control to peacekeeping to trade to human rights, marrying U.S. power and international norms and institutions has achieved sig­nificant results. Washington continues to put maintaining the international order at the center of the United States’ global role.

Yet the survival of that order—indeed, of any ordering principles at all—now seems in question. Dissatisfied countries such as China and Russia view its operation as unjust, and people around the world are angry about the economic and social price they’ve had to pay for globalization.

It’s not clear exactly what President-elect Donald Trump’s views are on the role of the United States in the world, much less the liberal order, but his administration will confront the most profound foreign policy task that any new administration has faced in 70 years: rethinking the role that the international order should play in U.S. grand strategy. Whatever Trump’s own views, the instincts of many in Washington will be to attempt to restore a unified, U.S.-dominated system by confronting the rule breakers and aggressively promoting liberal values. This would be the wrong approach; in trying to hold the old order together, Washington could end up accelerating its dissolution. What the United States must learn to do instead is navigate and lead the more diversified, pluralistic system that is now materializing—one with a bigger role for emerging-market powers and more ways for countries other than the United States to lead than the current order provides.


The creation of the current order, like that of its two modern predecessors—the Concert of Europe and the League of Nations—was an effort to design the basic architecture of international relations in the wake of a war among major powers. All three orders used a range of tools—organizations, treaties, informal meetings, and norms—to attain the goals of their creators. The current order’s main institutions include the United Nations, NATO, the World Trade Organization, the In­ternational Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the G-20.

Together, these bodies have influenced almost every aspect of the modern world. The UN has provided a forum for the in­ternational community to rally around shared interests and ratify joint action. The international financial institutions have boosted trade and stabilized the global economy during crises. Multilateral treaties and agreements brokered through various bodies have helped avoid chaotic arms races and uncontrolled nuclear proliferation. And dense global networks of experts, activists, businesses, and nonprofits, operating within the framework of the liberal order, have built consensus and taken action on hundreds of other issues.

It’s not clear exactly what Trump’s views are on the role of the United States in the world.

The rules of any such order are not self-enforcing. When combined with direct state power, however, they encourage governments to accept norms of conduct such as nonaggression, the avoidance of nuclear weapons, and respect for human rights. The United States would be wise to do what it can to sustain these norms in the future. The trick is figuring out how to do so—and what, given all the changes the world is now experiencing, the emerging order should look like.


The postwar liberal order has proved remarkably stable. But it has always incorporated two distinct and not necessarily reconcilable visions. One is a narrow, cautious view of the UN and the core international financial institutions as guardians of sovereign equality, territorial inviolability, and a limited degree of free trade. The other is a more ambitious agenda: protecting human rights, fostering democratic political systems, promoting free-market economic reforms, and encouraging good governance.

Until recently, the tension between these two visions did not pose a serious problem. For many decades, the Cold War allowed the United States and its allies to gloss over the gap in the name of upholding a unified front against the Soviets. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington fully embraced the more ambitious approach by expanding NATO up to Russia’s doorstep; intervening to protect human rights in places such as the Balkans and Libya; supporting uprisings, at least rhetorically, in the name of democracy in countries including Egypt, Georgia, and Myanmar; and applying increasingly sophisticated economic sanctions to illiberal governments. In the newly unipolar international system, Washington often behaved as if the narrower concept of order had been superseded by the more ambitious one.

At the same time, the United States often took advantage of its preeminence to sidestep the order’s rules and institutions when it found them inconvenient. The problem with this approach, of course, is that international orders gain much of their potency by defining the sources of prestige and status within the system, such as participation in and leadership of international institutions. Their stability depends on leading members abiding—and being seen to abide—by key norms of behavior. When the leader of an order consistently appears to others to interpret the rules as it sees fit, the legitimacy of the system is undermined and other countries come to believe that the order offends, rather than sustains, their dignity.

An extreme version of this occurred in the 1930s, when a series of perceived insults convinced Japan—once a strong supporter of the League of Nations—that the system was a racist, Anglo-American cabal designed to emasculate it. Partly as a result, Japan withdrew from the league and signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy before entering World War II. Today, a similar story is playing out as some countries see the United States as applying norms selectively and in its own favor, norms that are already tailored to U.S. interests. This is persuading them that the system’s main function is to validate the United States’ status and prestige at the expense of their own.

The United States would be wise to do what it can to sustain the order's achievements.

For years now, a number of countries, including Brazil, India, South Africa, and Turkey, have found various ways to express their frustration with the current rules. But China and Russia have become the two most important dissenters. These two countries view the order very differently and have divergent ambitions and strategies. Yet their broad complaints have much in common. Both countries feel disenfranchised by a U.S.-dominated system that imposes strict conditions on their participation and, they believe, menaces their regimes by promoting democracy. And both countries have called for fundamental reforms to make the order less imperial and more pluralistic.

Honor guards at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, July 2014
Honor guards at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, July 2014
Damir Sagolj / REUTERS

Russian officials are particularly disillusioned. They believe that they made an honest effort to join Western-led institutions after the fall of the Soviet Union but were spurned by the West, which subjected them to a long series of insults: NATO’s attacks on Serbia in the Balkan wars of the 1990s; NATO enlargement into eastern Europe; and Western support for “color revolutions” in the early years of the new century, which threatened or in some cases actually overthrew Russian-backed leaders in several eastern European countries. In a June 2016 speech to Russian diplomats, Russian President Vladimir Putin complained that certain Western states “continue stubborn attempts to retain their monopoly on geopolitical domination,” arguing that this was leading to a “confrontation between different visions of how to build the global governance mechanisms in the 21st century.” And Putin hasn’t just limited himself to complaining. In recent years, Russia has taken a number of dramatic, sometimes violent steps—especially in Europe—to weaken the U.S.-led order.

China also feels disrespected. The financial crisis at the end of the last decade convinced many Chinese that the West had entered a period of rapid decline and that China deserved a more powerful voice in the international system. Since then, Beijing has increased its influence in several institutions, including the IMF and the World Bank. But the changes have not gone far enough for many Chinese leaders. They still chafe at Western domination of these bodies, perceive U.S. democracy promotion as a threat, and resent the regional network of U.S. alliances that surrounds China. Beijing has thus undertaken a range of economic initiatives to gain more influence within the current order, including increasing its development aid and founding the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which it clearly intends to compete with the IMF and the World Bank. China has also pursued its interests in defiance of global norms by building islands in contested international waters and harassing U.S. aircraft in the South China Sea.

Worrisome as these developments are, it is important not to exaggerate the threats they represent. Neither China nor Russia has declared itself an enemy of the postwar order (although Russia is certainly moving in that direction). Both continue to praise the core UN system and participate actively in a host of institutions, treaties, and diplomatic processes. Indeed, China has worked hard to embed itself ever more firmly in the current order. In a 2015 speech in Seattle, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that “China has been a participant, builder, and contributor” in, of, and to the system and that it stood “firmly for the international order” based on the purposes and principles outlined in the UN Charter. China and Russia both rely on cross-border trade, international energy markets, and global information networks—all of which depend heavily on international rules and institutions. And at least for the time being, neither country seems anxious to challenge the order militarily.

The United States often took advantage of its preeminence to sidestep the order’s rules.

Many major countries, including China and Russia, are groping toward roles appropriate to their growing power in a rapidly evolving international system. If that system is going to persevere, their grievances and ambitions must be accommodated. This will require a more flexible, pluralistic approach to institutions, rules, and norms.


Another threat to the liberal order comes from the populist uprisings now under way in many countries around the world, which have been spurred on by outrage at increasing economic inequality, uneasiness with cultural and demographic changes, and anger at a perceived loss of national sovereignty. For the liberal order to survive, the populations of its member countries must embrace its basic social and political values. That embrace is now weakening.

The postwar order has driven global integration and liberalization by encouraging free-trade agreements, developing international law, and fostering global communications networks. Such developments strengthened the order in turn by cementing public support for liberal values. But the populist rebellion against globalization now imperils that virtuous circle.

The populist surge has featured outbursts in Europe and the United States against the perceived intrusions of a globalizing order. Public support for new trade agreements has tumbled. Resentment toward supranational authorities, such as the European Union, has risen steadily, as has suspicion of and hostility toward immigrants and immigration. The uprising has already claimed one major casualty—the United Kingdom’s EU membership—and is mutating into angry, xenophobic nationalism in countries as diverse as Austria, Denmark, France, Greece, Hungary, the Netherlands, Russia, Sweden, and the United States.

Trump and Nigel Farage at a campaign rally in Jackson, Mississippi, August 2016

So far, none of these countries has totally rejected the international order. Populism remains a minority trend in most electorates, and support for liberal principles remains robust in many countries. In a 2016 Gallup survey, for example, 58 percent of Americans polled indicated that they saw trade as an opportunity rather than a threat—the highest number since 1992. Similarly, a 2016 poll by the Pew Research Center found that support for the UN among Americans had grown by nine points since 2004, to a new peak of 64 percent.

Reassuring as such findings are, however, if even a quarter or a third of citizens turn decisively against liberal values in a critical mass of nations, it can destabilize the entire system. In some cases, this happens because radical parties or individuals can come to power without ever achieving more than a plurality of support. More commonly, a rejectionist bloc can cripple legislatures by obstructing steps, such as trade deals and arms treaties, that would strengthen the prevailing order. And sometimes, as happened with the British vote to leave the EU, committed opponents of the order are joined by a larger number of worried citizens in a successful effort to roll back elements of the system.


International orders tend to rest on two pillars: the balance of power and prestige among the leading members and some degree of shared values. Both of these pillars look shaky today. For many years, U.S. grand strategy has been based on the idea that the unitary U.S.-led order reflected universal values, was easy to join, and exercised a gravitational pull on other countries. Those assumptions do not hold as strongly as they once did. If Washington hopes to sustain an international system that can help avoid conflict, raise prosperity, and promote liberal values, it will have to embrace a more diverse order—one that operates in different ways for different countries and regions and on different issues.

The United States will be tempted to resist such a change and to double down on the existing liberal order by following the Cold War playbook: rallying democracies and punishing norm breakers. But such a narrow order would create more embittered outcasts and thus imperil the most fundamental objective of any global order: keeping the peace among great powers. Dividing the world into defenders and opponents of a shared order is also likely to be less feasible than in the past. China’s role in the global economy and its standing as a regional power mean that it cannot be isolated in the way the Soviet Union was. Many of today’s rising powers, moreover, have preferences that are too diverse to gather into either a U.S.-led system or a bloc opposed to it.

Should China or Russia adopt a significantly more aggressive stance, the United States may find it necessary to focus primarily on containing it and hunker down into a narrow, U.S.-led liberal order. But doing so should remain a last resort. During the Cold War, the central challenge of world politics was to contain—and eventually transform—a single power opposed to the main world order. Today the aim is very different: to prevent war and encourage cooperation among a fractious group of countries. An order that is inclusive and shared will meet that challenge better than one that is narrow, aggressive, and dominated by Washington.

The United States would therefore be better off trying to develop several different yet overlapping forms of order: universal and major-power-centric, global and regional, political and economic, liberal and realist. Washington already does this, to an extent. But the tendency in U.S. strategy, especially since the end of the Cold War, has been to pursue a homogeneous liberal order that all states must join in roughly the same way and that pushes its liberal values on every front. The United States would gain more traction if it consciously embraced a more mixed order and accepted some of the difficult compromises that came with it.

The first element of such a mixed order would be a forum for regular dialogue among the system’s leading members. At a time when rivalries are growing and many leading states are eager to have a larger voice in international institutions, the world needs a better way to coordinate interests among the system’s major powers—not just China and Russia but also Brazil, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, and Japan, among others. A more inclusive UN Security Council combined with the G-20 and various regional and informal conferences would help find areas where major powers can cooperate and smooth over differences among them. This part of the new order would primarily focus on securing the goals laid down in the UN Charter, especially its prohibition on territorial aggression. It would also concentrate on areas where major-power interests overlap, such as fighting climate change, terrorism, and infectious diseases.

A second element of a new mixed order would focus on economic cooperation by relying on the set of international institutions, including the IMF and the World Bank, that have proved so effective at stabilizing the global economy and dealing with financial crises. To ensure that those bodies remain effective, the United States should support enlarging the voting rights of emerging-market powers and work to knit existing institutions together with new ones, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Doing so will be tricky, since it will involve making accommodations to enfranchise non-Western powers while upholding the essential rules of an open trading system.

Reaffirming the economic institutions of the order will be complicated by increasing disagreement over how to achieve economic growth. A number of countries are offering forms of state capitalism as alternatives to the free-market consensus of the postwar order—most notably China, whose government has adopted loose environmental and labor standards and directly supported several industries to give them an advantage over their international competitors. Even within the West, policymakers are divided over the causes of the current economic stagnation. The risk is that if no one can agree on the nature of the problem, nothing will get done. The global economic institutions will have to find ways for the world to nevertheless take joint action, as they did despite similar disagreement when they helped limit the damage of the 2008 financial crisis.

A third part of a mixed order would involve the United States continuing to work with its allies and partners to sustain regional stability and deter aggression. The United States’ role may be less predominant than in the past, but the country is likely to remain an essential spur for joint efforts and a backstop for regional balances of power.

Populism remains a minority trend in most electorates.

Washington will have to calibrate its military posture to defend the order’s rules without wrecking relations with other great powers. Assuming that China will continue to ramp up the pressure on the United States and its allies, that Russia will keep pressing its advantages in eastern Europe, and that North Korea will regularly provoke the world with tests of missiles and nuclear weapons, the United States will probably have to expand, rather than shrink, its global military footprint in the coming years. Yet Beijing and Moscow see additional U.S. military deployments in their neighborhoods as threats, so the fundamental challenge for U.S. defense policy in a mixed order will be to bolster deterrence without exacerbating such fears and sparking escalation. Promising ways to do so include establishing advisory programs to increase the military power of regional allies without massive U.S. troop deployments; relying on inherently defensive ways of thinking about operations rather than aggressive, escalatory ones; compromising on provocative deployments, such as missile defenses in eastern Europe; and creating new ways to manage crises when they do occur.

Fourth, the United States would continue to work—sometimes alone, but often with allies—to promote liberal values and systems around the world, but do so in ways that manage, rather than exacerbate, the tensions of a mixed order. This will mean scaling back the more blunt and intrusive methods, such as intervening militarily in defense of human rights or backing opposition democratic movements in countries important to other great powers. But there are plenty of ways to underwrite liberal values without generating blowback. The United States could support ongoing democratic transitions in nations such as Tunisia, for example, or assist established but vulnerable democracies not adjacent to other great powers, such as Colombia or Morocco.

More fundamentally, the United States should increasingly place more indirect and long-term approaches, such as encouraging human development, at the heart of its liberal agenda. This can be done under the auspices of the UN Development Program, which espouses key liberal norms, such as human rights and gender equality, but enjoys broad legitimacy thanks to its UN affiliation and its emphasis on long-term investment over short-term democratic activism. Working through such a structure to create fellowships for young leaders in developing countries and transitioning democracies, training officials in key aspects of good governance, and supporting public health initiatives would be a tremendous investment in the liberal values at the center of U.S. grand strategy without creating the perception that the United States was overreaching.

A uniformed man, believed to be a Russian serviceman, outside Sevastopol, March 2014
A uniformed man, believed to be a Russian serviceman, outside Sevastopol, March 2014
David Mdzinarishvili / REUTERS


In order to manage the contradictions among the various parts of a new mixed order, the United States will have to accept some uncomfortable compromises. There will be constant tension between great-power ties and the promotion of liberal values and between regional and global economic and political rules. Managing these tensions will be the toughest task for U.S. national security strategy over the next decade.

The United States has two ways to approach the problem. One is to identify win-win ideas—areas of cooperation that needn’t involve conflicts of values or priorities. There are many issues on which Washington could find such common ground: by working to stabilize financial markets or combat terrorism and infectious diseases, for example.

A second strategy for maintaining balance in a mixed order is to resolve, or at least defer, conflicts that arise out of major powers’ claims to spheres of influence. Because of the vital interests involved and the risk of escalation, these pose the greatest threat to global stability. The United States cannot impose its will to resolve these disputes, but if it allows other states to get away with aggression or human rights violations, the whole system could unravel. The biggest mistake of the 1930s, after all, was not liberal overreach but insufficient deterrence of the League of Nation’s challengers, Germany and Japan.

This strategy could be employed in the current sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea, for example. The United States could lead a renewed diplomatic effort to defer the issue without jeopardizing any country’s claims by getting all the parties to agree to principles over access to resources and maritime movement for a limited time frame and, at the same time, reaffirming shared norms such as nonaggression and the basic principles of maritime law. Getting all sides to agree to this kind of temporary fix would be extremely difficult, but it would still be easier than reaching a final resolution and might ease tensions for a decade or more, thus keeping major-power rivalries from sabotaging the rest of the order.

On these and other issues, the United States cannot abandon its role as the international order’s chief sponsor. Although it will no longer be a hegemon presiding over a unified system, it will still be a crucial actor—a catalyst for solutions and a managing partner of a mixed order, each of whose members sees itself as the equal of the others. As influential as rising powers may be, none is prepared to provide decisive direction on any issue. U.S. leadership will remain critical to global stability.

The results will be halting and, very often, unsatisfying. U.S. strategists will have to fashion clear long-term goals, find unifying themes, and explain to the American people the wisdom of diversification and compromise in a more pluralistic world that has become suspicious of grand U.S. projects. For the United States to champion a complex order and step back from liberal overreach would not be a sign of weakness, however. It would simply be an acceptance of the reality of a new, multipolar era, full of restless major powers and roiled by populist rage. The U.S. role in this changing environment will still be to lead the world toward greater peace, prosperity, and respect for liberal values, but in a different way. Getting it right will require an extraordinary balancing act.

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  • MICHAEL J. MAZARR is a Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation and Associate Director of the Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program at the RAND Corporation’s Arroyo Center.
  • More By Michael J. Mazarr