There they were, meeting in Beijing on February 4: Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Shortly before the start of the 2022 Winter Olympics, the two leaders released a remarkable 5,300-word joint statement about how the partnership between China and Russia would have “no limits.” The document went on at length about the two nations’ commitment to democracy. It called for a universalist and open world order, with the United Nations at the center. It stressed a commitment to international law, inclusiveness, and common values. It did all this even though Russia, as Xi and Putin both knew, was sending tanks and missile launchers to the Ukrainian border.

By comparison, the September 1940 joint statement issued by Germany, Italy, and Japan was a model of candor. The Axis powers were at least truthful when they announced that it was “their prime purpose to establish and maintain a new order of things.” Russia, meanwhile, has described its war against Ukraine as one of liberation. It decided that the country’s Jewish president was a Nazi. It declared that there was really no such thing as “Ukraine.” And it argued that a NATO alliance with a U.S. force commitment in Europe that was only one-seventh as large as it had been at the height of the Cold War was now an existential threat.

In their statement, China and Russia achieved peak hypocrisy. But the existing world order, which aspired to build a global commonwealth, had already been failing. The free world’s leaders had long ago started favoring performative commitments over the real action needed to safeguard the planet from crises. They expanded NATO without meaningfully responding to increasing Russian aggression. Distracted and chastened by misadventures in the Muslim world, Washington in particular disengaged from practical deeds, even as its rhetorical commitment to the international order varied. The United States’ high defense spending had more to do with satisfying domestic constituencies than with supporting any positive strategy. The world’s transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources was based on hollow pledges and private action. As support for globalization waned, the United States and other countries retreated from trade agreements and neglected international institutions for civilian and common economic action. The world’s drive in the early years of this century to improve global health and human development petered out.

The emptiness of the supposed international system was especially obvious at the end of 2019, when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. Charged with unprecedented global responsibilities, China and the United States stepped down, not up. Beijing withheld crucial information about the outbreak. Washington withdrew from the World Health Organization just when it most needed U.S. leadership. Wealthy countries began a mad scramble to develop vaccines, but they moved too slowly to create other treatments and hoarded whatever shots and therapeutics pharmaceutical companies could produce, leaving the rest of the world behind. The best estimates suggest that the virus caused about 15 to 20 million deaths and trillions of dollars of economic damage.

The most powerful idealism has usually been the idealism of what works.

By the spring of 2020, “for all practical purposes the G7 ceased to exist,” wrote the foreign policy experts Colin Kahl and Thomas Wright in August 2021. “Pandemic politics,” they continued, “ultimately dealt the final blow to the old international order.”

Six months after they published those words, Russia invaded Ukraine. It was an attack that could truly have buried the old system, as Moscow believed it would. Yet Ukraine’s inspiring fight has helped the G-7 roar back to life. Its members have organized an economic counteroffensive, and they have joined a coalition providing military aid. Amid the wreckage of so many past hopes, it is possible to imagine a reconstructed world order emerging from this crisis.

But for a new system to succeed, its would-be architects must organize actions, not more theatrics. Over the course of world history, the most powerful idealism has usually been the idealism of what works. Today, that means crafting a practical international order focused on a few basic problems that rally broad interest. Many leaders want to stop unprovoked wars of aggression, especially those that might spark a third world war. They would welcome a new vision of economic order that does not ignore security but is also not a huckster’s promise that everything can be made at home. They would like to convert jolting energy shocks, such as the one caused by Russia’s invasion, into a managed transition to a more carbon-free future. They want to be better prepared for the next pandemic. And most world leaders, and even many ordinary Americans, still hope that China will choose to be part of these solutions, not one of the wreckers of a new international system.

These aspirations may seem modest. They do not include holding war crimes trials or spreading democracy. But effective common action on just these items will be an enormous task. The world order is deglobalizing and dysfunctional, facing challenges that have never been more planetary in scope. Leaders must craft a system focused on actually addressing these issues rather than on striking the right pose.

ACTING AND ACTIONS

The idea of a cooperative world order is, historically speaking, relatively new. The European empires created a globe-spanning system meant to be stable and organized, but just to the point that it served their interests. It was not until the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 that nations began purposefully organizing an ambitious order. That era’s peacemakers strained until 1925 to reconstruct a bitterly broken world amid the chaotic collapses of five dynastic empires. But by the end of 1933, these fragile efforts had been swept away by postwar resentments, fantasies of ethnic destiny and self-sufficiency, U.S. disengagement, and the despair of the Great Depression. The result was a second, even more destructive global conflict.

After World War II, the Cold War system that emerged dealt with a divided world. It generated real actions and functional institutions but mainly within two principal confederations: one led by the United States, and the other by the Soviet Union. These confederations organized themselves for global war and competed for advantage in the uncommitted, unaligned world, much of it newly freed by the collapse of European colonialism. But the economic systems of both confederations began unraveling during the 1970s, and the Cold War system itself disintegrated between 1988 and 1990.

International policymakers then set out to create a truly global commonwealth, working from 1990 to 1994 to build new institutions and to improve old ones. Those architects believed that Washington’s role in the system would be central but not domineering. U.S. power, they understood, worked only when it combined the country’s strengths—political, financial, and military—in partnerships with other states. They were mindful of Russian pride; indeed, those policymakers ensured that all the former Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons went to Russia and that Moscow would be a party to and influential in all the pan-European arms control agreements and security systems. Amid the awful economic turmoil that accompanied the end of communism, the United States, Europe, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank offered Russia alone more than $50 billion in financial assistance between 1992 and 1994.

These financial settlements of the early 1990s did much to build a better world, and they lasted for a generation. But from the start, they also bred complacency. Beginning during that decade, NATO allies mostly disarmed and looked to the United States for military defense that no longer seemed that necessary. The United States, for its part, was withdrawing most of its forces from Europe and only reluctantly led a peacemaking mission in the Balkans. That modest success was followed by years of indifference, drift, and growing hubris, interrupted by the riveting, distracting shock of September 11. By 2006, as U.S. military efforts floundered in Iraq, sentiment had turned against the United States, and Americans were more anxious about foreigners and disillusioned about their own capacity to do good in the world. The world order and its operating institutions were left more and more on autopilot. Soon, performative gestures took the place of well-designed action.

Talk about NATO helps Putin and his minions obscure their real concern.

Consider, for instance, the problem of European security. When the debate over NATO enlargement first heated up in the mid-1990s, the main arguments were performative on both sides. Poland wanted a symbolic connection to Western defense. Russia complained not about new foreign bases or nuclear deployments, which were limited by the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997, but about symbolic issues such as wounded pride and lost status in a country where everyone had grown up with “NATO” as a synonym for “enemy.”

What was concrete was the shift of former Soviet states toward Europe and away from Putin’s Russia. In 2005, an anti-Russian leader, Viktor Yushchenko, who had survived a mysterious poisoning the previous year, became president of Ukraine, defeating the more pro-Russian candidate, Viktor Yanukovych. The U.S. reaction was triumphalist. Putin began proclaiming a messianic creed of Russian fascism. In 2007, he suspended Russian compliance with the most important parts of the pan-European arms control and security system. He invaded Georgia not long after.

This was the time for NATO allies to start taking European security seriously again, not to stage more plays. Although the allies did not take practical steps to build more credible defenses, President George W. Bush pushed in 2008 for Ukraine to receive NATO membership, a call that predictably backfired. Allies such as Germany and France blocked any plan to advance Ukraine’s membership. Bush’s move thus fostered divisions among NATO members while failing to deliver any assurance to Ukraine, where the future remained very much in question. The Russia-friendly candidate, Yanukovych, then won Ukraine’s presidency in 2010. Four years later, he was toppled in a “revolution of dignity” after he withdrew from a process that would have brought his country closer to the European Union. That, in turn, led directly to the first Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The 2014 crisis had little to do with NATO. The triggering event was Ukraine’s attempt to associate with the EU and put Ukraine on an irrevocable path away from Russia. But Putin uses “NATO” the way Hitler used “Versailles”: as a secondary grievance for propaganda theatrics. Talk about NATO helps Putin and his minions obscure their real concern, which is that Ukraine may achieve democratic independence rather than be subjected to their dictatorial empire.

TALK IS CHEAP

In the 30 years since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the problem of how countries can source, supply, and pay for energy has become a defining planetary challenge. The main international response has been a wide commitment to decarbonization, expressed in international pledges. But these pledges are a façade. As the International Energy Agency recently pointed out, most of them are not underpinned by substantive policies, and if they were, they would still not be nearly enough to stop climate change. (Even Europe, the loudest voice for a green transition, has spent the last decade becoming more dependent on fossil fuels, particularly from Russia.) The world’s response to climate change, then, has been the geopolitical equivalent of a masque: a form of sixteenth-century aristocratic court entertainment, a dramatic performance featuring poetry and dumb allegorical shows, usually culminating in a ceremonial dance joined by the spectators.

Even the energy transition will not, by itself, stabilize the planet. It will shift dependence from fossil fuels to an even more pronounced reliance on certain metals used in green technology. In the relevant geology, mining, and mineral processing, China and Russia are in paramount positions. In the absence of any concerted action, the world is therefore trending toward addiction, and financial flows, to those new sources—China above all—in its carbon-free dreams. The architects of this system have done little to prevent such addiction.

It might seem that international economic management is a bright spot, an arena where there has been real action, not just a masque. To some extent, that’s true. In the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, the main central banks jumped into action. Unlike in 1931, a financial panic that had earlier started in the United States and then spread to Europe did not lead to a world-crushing depression; instead, finance ministries and central banks coordinated to bail each other out. The G-20 was a genuinely useful forum to consider vital economic issues.

Protesting a G-20 climate meeting in Naples, Italy, July 2021
Protesting a G-20 climate meeting in Naples, Italy, July 2021
Guglielmo Mangiapane / Reuters

In the last ten years, however, the institutions for managing global capitalism have also become more stage than substance. The United States is unable to join new trade agreements because of domestic opposition. Countries across the planet have piled up debt, and the current international economic system cannot coordinate how to wind it down or provide necessary relief. The operation of the World Trade Organization is coming to a halt, both because it is unable to modernize its rules and because the United States has deliberately paralyzed the WTO’s dispute settlement system by refusing to confirm arbiters.

But nowhere has the hollowness of the current world order been more starkly revealed than in global health. After the SARS epidemic of 2003, amid concerns about China’s role in informing the rest of the planet about the outbreak, the nations of the world ceremoniously enacted a set of “international health regulations,” which defined the rights and duties of states to prevent and contain international public health dangers. The outbreak of COVID-19 revealed that the elaborate provisions for global surveillance and early warnings were a sham. The pandemic also showed that the planet’s main public health agency—the World Health Organization—was weak, and it demonstrated that the world’s major powers were far too self-interested to mount a truly global response. The most substantial investigation so far of the world’s reaction to COVID-19, by an independent panel with access to the WHO’s staff and documents, found it was “a preventable disaster.” As they wrote, “Global political leadership was absent.”

It’s a conclusion that is difficult to escape. China’s government has blocked proper investigations into the outbreak’s cause and continues to stonewall the WHO. In his own gesture of theatrical pretense, then U.S. President Donald Trump moved to pull his country out of the WHO during the spring of 2020, turning the crisis into a blame game focused on China, with the organization as an accomplice. Yet the Trump administration had no alternative agenda for meaningful global action. Its acclaimed vaccine development program encouraged an “every country for itself” approach to acquisition and bypassed the challenge of developing effective therapeutics.

The Biden administration has tried to correct Trump’s mistakes. In 2021, with due fanfare, the United States rejoined the WHO. It then focused on a rhetorically appealing G-20 health security agenda that called for spending more money on global readiness. But this agenda has turned out to be impractical in detail and ineffective in its results. At the October 2021 G-20 summit in Rome, the United States struggled to get the other countries to agree to even study its proposal.

ON THE CLOCK

The need for a new world order is apparent, and policymakers are already at work trying to address the evident failures of the existing system. In doing so, they have again invoked values and philosophies. Biden, for instance, has described the war in Ukraine and tensions with China as part of “an ongoing battle in the world between democracy and autocracy.” French President Emmanuel Macron declared that Russia’s invasion had called democracy “into question before our eyes.”

Yet the best, most unifying organizing principle for what will be the fourth system of world order is practical problem solving. It’s convenient to perceive the world as apportioned into democracies and autocracies, but it is also self-regarding and divisive. People are more likely to come together around problems that command wide interest and embrace corrective actions that require wide participation. After years of theatrics that have resulted in catastrophes and growing fear, the system can no longer afford to place inclusiveness and symbolism ahead of teamwork and results.

To erect a new system, policymakers should start by addressing the most pressing current crisis: Ukraine. The military issues are already receiving intense attention. Yet economic issues may determine the outcome of the war as Russia tries to break not just Ukraine’s armed forces but its hope for a better future. The G-7 and allied countries must prepare a far-reaching strategy of Ukrainian reconstruction, tied to the ongoing process of EU accession for Ukraine and funded in part by frozen Russian state and state-related assets. Such an action, with expert assistance from EU staff and hundreds of billions of dollars in reconstruction aid, would be a peaceful counteroffensive on an epic scale. Ultimately, it would help Ukrainians believe and see that they can have a better future.

Dividing the world into democracies and autocracies is self-regarding and divisive.

But to address the challenges Russia has created, the free world can’t focus only on Ukraine. Unless a fundamental change occurs in Moscow, the United States and Europe will also have to redefine their defense for the 2020s, from the Arctic to the Mediterranean (a process already underway), to deter further aggression. And sadly, when a leader such as Putin makes ominous threats about escalation, the United States and its friends must develop credible plans for a wider war with Russia.

For this new system to succeed at keeping the peace, the responsible countries will also need to engage in military planning beyond Europe. For example, the war in Ukraine affects diplomatic calculations on all sides of the dispute over Taiwan’s sovereignty. Because of the international response to aid Ukraine, Beijing can see that Japan, the United States, and other countries now feel much greater pressure to defend Taiwan. It is now harder for China to sustain the fiction that it can peacefully reunify the island with the mainland. The free world’s ability to defend Taiwan has long involved considerable pretense, but the war in Ukraine has also revealed that well-prepared global economic action may be a more powerful and less provocative way to deter conflict than reliance on more traditional military tools. China should see that Japan and others around the world are preparing for the possible financial and commercial earthquake that would immediately accompany a war with the United States and Japan over Taiwan.

The invasion of Ukraine has also highlighted the need for more decisive, concerted action on the world’s transition to clean energy. More than any other event since the Iranian revolution of 1979, the war spotlights the danger of relying too much on particular supplies of fossil fuels. Europe should end its dependence on Russian oil, gas, and coal as quickly as it can. At the global level, policymakers will need to boost fossil fuel supplies from more dependable sources in the short term, but they should treat these sources as “transition assets” (to quote the energy experts Jason Bordoff and Meghan O’Sullivan) that will be quickly wound down as governments embrace the transition. The switch to greener sources will need to include a renewed commitment to advanced forms of nuclear energy.

The best way to cope with deglobalization is to reglobalize among friends.

The energy transition will require much more concerted work to find, extract, and process diverse and secure supplies of the minerals needed for renewable sources. Both the United States and Europe know that they cannot let vital supply chains such as these operate according to market forces alone, since these markets have been distorted by vast Chinese state projects that operate with limited regard for the environment and for workers. Countries that regard each other as secure sources—and that accept the cost burdens of sustainable production—must form their own supply network with its own commercial system and pricing. Such a plan requires strong international participation. No country alone can source and process the metals needed for the transition to carbon-free energy.

Such trading among partners, or “friend shoring,” as U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen put it, is far preferable to the “Buy American” public procurement requirements that Washington has put in place to placate protectionists. Indeed, the United States is not self-sufficient with regard to almost any major global commodity. In this time of crisis, Americans may be tempted by the idea of a “Fortress America”—in which they bring all production onshore—but that is an illusion. The United States needs and benefits from production chains that run through other countries, whether for mineral resources or medical supplies. It needs to rebuild export markets shriveling from past trade war rhetoric and present interest-rate policies that boost an overvalued dollar. The best way to cope with deglobalization is to reglobalize among friends. As major firms operating around the world rethink their business models, the free world should create structures to help these companies see new opportunities.

For example, Germany’s new finance minister, Christian Lindner, has urged Europe to focus on renewing economic ties with the United States. “Especially now with the [Ukraine] crisis, it is becoming clear how important free trade is with partners in the world who share our values,” he told the German press, while calling on the United States and the European Union to restart negotiations on a trade deal. Such an agreement may be a hard sell in the United States, where politicians still peddle the myth of self-sufficiency. But plenty of middle-class Americans across the country know that the nations of the world are interdependent and that leaders must adjust their policies accordingly.

It is not too late for the United States and Europe to improve their response to the pandemic.

This includes in finance, where the G-7 and its partners will need to collaborate. They must manage the international financial coalition combating Russian aggression in Ukraine, and they must coordinate their policies to limit foreign exchange volatility as Washington raises interest rates. Critically, they need to consider how their actions affect developing states. “The West is grappling with stagflation,” wrote the economic journalist Sebastian Mallaby in The Washington Post. “But poorer countries face the far more acute prospect of food riots, debt crises, and even regime collapse.”

That doesn’t mean the G-7 needs to tear down the world’s economic architecture. In response to debt crises and the collapse of communism in the 1980s and early 1990s, the IMF and the World Bank transformed themselves. The IMF became a lead crisis manager and established creditworthiness for stressed borrowing countries so they could tap private lenders. The bank rethought its approach to global development. Beyond its lending operations, it has become the most important focal point for ideas and advice to policymakers in developing countries. These existing institutions can again help organize common action and evolve once more. In spring of 2022, Robert Zoellick, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, suggested in these pages that the IMF start by convening meetings of the principal actors in the global financial system to address new shocks.

Leaders around the world are also still worried about biological security, another pandemic, or a resurgence of COVID-19. That means the United States and Europe will need to improve their coordination. Both went into this global crisis with superior assets. They had more of the best scientists, the best labs, and the best pharmaceutical producers than anywhere else on earth. They should have launched a global war effort; organized biomedical intelligence efforts; sized up the global requirements for vaccines, tests, and medications; and together arranged for acquisition and deployment of these health-care resources on a global scale. Instead, they mostly looked out for themselves.

It is not too late for them to improve their response to the pandemic. The U.S. government could still work with key partners, such as the EU’s new European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority, to set global targets for developing and distributing the vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics that different regions need. Then, together, the world’s governments can replace the current vaccination and treatment free-for-all with a system in which countries coordinate their national investments and procurements.

IN IT TOGETHER

It may be easy, and perhaps natural, for the would-be architects of the new system to organize it around Washington. But that would be a mistake. The enemies of this new order, united by their resentment of the United States, will seek to discredit it as just another effort to dominate global affairs. For this new order to be viable, it must be conceived in such a way that the charge is false.

The new order must also be decentralized to be effective; the resources and wisdom needed to solve many vexing problems are not concentrated in the United States. For instance, on the enormous issue of defining rules for a digitized world, Washington has been confused and passive, despite—or perhaps because of—its dominance in such commerce. It is the European Union that has led the way. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, its Digital Services Act, and its Digital Markets Act created the standards that influence most of the world, including the Americas. Decentralized leadership has also proved critical to responding to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. The nucleus of the emerging pro-Ukraine coalition, for instance, is not just the United States but the entire G-7, including the European Commission. South Korea and Australia should be invited to join this coalition as well.

Yet a revised system of world order shouldn’t be limited to the United States and its traditional allies. It must be open to any countries that can and will help attain its common objectives. India should have a place at any symbolic high table, for example, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. But India’s leaders are still making their choices about their will and capacity to work on common problems. Even China should be welcome at the table. After much internal debate in the early 1990s, China’s leaders chose to play a major and often constructive role in the global commonwealth system that emerged after the end of the Cold War. In 2005, Zoellick famously urged Beijing to become a “responsible stakeholder.” As late as 2017, Kurt Campbell, who now leads Asia policy for the Biden White House, thought this invitation was a wise move.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Brasília, Brazil, November 2019
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Brasília, Brazil, November 2019
Pavel Golovkin / Pool / Reuters

But Zoellick’s words were a challenge, one that Beijing is failing to meet. China’s partnership with Putin—whom Xi described to the Russian press as “my best and bosom friend”—is the opposite of responsible. Instead, it shows that China and Russia lead a primarily Eurasian grouping of dangerous states, including the likes of Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan. Their loose confederation has its cross-purposes and is united mainly by hostility toward the United States. But it is building tighter links, better divisions of labor, and more effective coordination than existed among the Axis powers before or during World War II.

For these and other reasons, pessimists believe China is irredeemably hostile. They argue that China has written off the United States as a country determined to resist China’s rise and that Chinese leaders may feel they have little to lose by embracing confrontation. In this pessimistic view, China is trying to shift from the post–Cold War era’s emphasis on global interdependence toward a Chinese grand strategy of Eurasian dominance and growing national self-sufficiency. China’s leaders are now using the pandemic to keep a chokehold on international travel and strengthen domestic surveillance.

That does seem to be China’s current plan. But it is unclear whether this plan will work. It rests on unproven social, political, and economic premises that are starting to deeply disturb parts of Chinese society essential to its past and future success—such as the many residents of Shanghai who have been trapped during the city’s draconian recent lockdown.

The resources and wisdom needed to solve many global problems are not concentrated in the United States.

Chinese leaders may also have noticed that, in backing the Putin regime, they have tethered themselves to an adventurist Russian government that, for 30 years, has treated its neighbors much as Japan treated China between 1915 and 1945. For instance, Putin insists that Russia is not invading Ukraine. There is no war, he declared; there is only a “special military operation.” Many Chinese people will recall that, from 1937 to 1941, Japan insisted that it, too, was not invading China. There was no war, the Japanese said; there was merely a “China incident.”

Throughout the years of Japanese aggression, the United States defended China’s territorial integrity. Even amid times of misjudgment and weakness, Washington maintained that stance, refusing in November 1941 to make a deal with Japan at China’s expense. Ten days later, Japan went to war against the United States. As they watch what is happening in 2022, Chinese leaders can still reflect on this past and consider what decisions to make.

If Beijing charts a new course, it would not be the first time it has chosen to change. But if China does rejoin a system of world order, it should be a new one. The old system has fractured and must be remade. Facing tragic realities, the citizens of the free world must rebuild a global order that is practical enough to address the most vital common problems, even if it cannot and does not promise progress on all the values and concerns people face. This system will be far more effective if the world’s most populous country joins it, and China faces another time of choosing. Regardless of China’s participation, responsible actors must begin the hard, substantive work of protecting the planet from war, climate, economic, and health risks. The time for rhetoric and posturing is over.

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  • PHILIP ZELIKOW is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. A former U.S. diplomat and Executive Director of the 9/11 Commission, he has worked for five presidential administrations.
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