How to Get a Breakthrough in Ukraine
The Case Against Incrementalism
The global order is deteriorating before our eyes. The relative decline of U.S. power and the concomitant rise of China have eroded the partially liberal, rules-based system once dominated by the United States and its allies. Repeated financial crises, rising inequality, renewed protectionism, the COVID-19 pandemic, and growing reliance on economic sanctions have brought the post-Cold War era of hyperglobalization to an end. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may have revitalized NATO, but it has also deepened the divide between East and West and North and South. Meanwhile, shifting domestic priorities in many countries and increasingly competitive geopolitics have halted the drive for greater economic integration and blocked collective efforts to address looming global dangers.
The international order that will emerge from these developments is impossible to predict. Looking ahead, it is easy to imagine a less prosperous and more dangerous world characterized by an increasingly hostile United States and China, a remilitarized Europe, inward-oriented regional economic blocs, a digital realm divided along geopolitical lines, and the growing weaponization of economic relations for strategic ends.
But one can also envision a more benign order in which the United States, China, and other world powers compete in some areas, cooperate in others, and observe new and more flexible rules of the road designed to preserve the main elements of an open world economy and prevent armed conflict while allowing countries greater leeway to address urgent economic and social priorities at home. More optimistically, one can even imagine a world in which the leading powers actively work together to limit the effects of climate change, improve global health, reduce the threat of weapons of mass destruction, and jointly manage regional crises.
Establishing such a new and more benign order is not as hard as it might sound. Drawing on the efforts of the U.S.-China Trade Policy Working Group—a forum convened in 2019 by New York University legal scholar Jeffrey S. Lehman, Chinese economist Yang Yao, and one of us (Dani Rodrik) to map out a more constructive approach to bilateral ties—we propose a simple, four-part framework to guide relations among major powers. This framework presupposes only minimal agreement on core principles—at least at first—and acknowledges that there will be enduring disagreements about how many issues should be addressed. Rather than imposing a detailed set of prescriptive rules (as the World Trade Organization and other international regimes do), this framework would function as a “meta-regime”: a device for guiding a process through which rival states or even adversaries could seek agreement or accommodation on a host of issues. When they do not agree, as will often be the case, adopting the framework can still enhance communication among them, clarify why they disagree, and offer them incentives to avoid inflicting harm on others, even as they seek to protect their own interests.
Crucially, this framework could be put in place by the United States, China, and other major powers themselves, as they deal with a variety of contentious issues, including climate change and global security. As has already been shown on several occasions, the approach could provide what a single-minded focus on great-power competition cannot: a way for rival powers and even adversaries to find common ground to maintain the physical conditions necessary for human existence, advance economic prosperity, and minimize the risks of major war, while preserving their own security.
Incentives to compete are ever present in a world lacking a central authority, and the strongest powers will no doubt continue to eye one another warily. If any of the major powers make economic and geopolitical dominance their overriding goal, the prospects for a more benign global order are slim. But systemic pressures to compete still leave considerable room for human agency, and political leaders can still decide whether to embrace the logic of all-out rivalry or strive for something better. Human beings cannot suspend the force of gravity, but they eventually learned to overcome its effects and took to the skies. The conditions that encourage states to compete cannot be eliminated, but political leaders can still take actions to mitigate them if they wish.
According to many accounts, the international order that emerged in the 1990s has increasingly been eroded by the dynamics of great-power competition. Nonetheless, the deterioration of the rules-based order need not result in great-power conflict. Although the United States and China both prioritize security, that goal does not render irrelevant the national and international goals that both share. Moreover, a country that invested all its resources in military capabilities and neglected other objectives—such as an equitable and prosperous economy or the climate transition—would not be secure in the long run, even if it started out as a global power. The problem, then, is not the need for security in an uncertain world but the manner in which that goal is pursued and the tradeoffs states face when balancing security and other important goals.
It is increasingly clear that the existing, Western-oriented approach is no longer adequate to address the many forces governing international power relations. A future world order will need to accommodate non-Western powers and tolerate greater diversity in national institutional arrangements and practices. Western policy preferences will prevail less, the quest for harmonization across economies that defined the era of hyperglobalization will be attenuated, and each country will have to be granted greater leeway in managing its economy, society, and political system. International institutions such as the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund will have to adapt to that reality. Rather than more conflict, however, these pressures could lead to a new and more stable order. Just as it is possible for major powers to achieve national security without seeking global primacy, it is possible and even advantageous for countries to reap the benefits of economic interdependence within looser, more permissive international rules.
In our framework, major global powers need not agree in advance on the detailed rules that would govern their interactions. Instead, as we have outlined in a working paper for the Harvard Kennedy School, they would agree only on an underlying approach to their relations in which all actions and issues would be grouped into four general categories: those that are prohibited, those in which mutual adjustments by two or more states could benefit all parties, those undertaken by a single state, and those that require multilateral involvement. This four-part approach does not assume that rival powers trust one another at the outset or even agree on which actions or issues belong in which category, but over time, successfully addressing disagreements within this framework would do much to increase trust and reduce the possibility of conflict.
A more stable order could rest on negotiation, not rules.
The first category—prohibited actions—would draw on norms that are already widely accepted by the United States, China, and other major powers. At a minimum, these might include commitments embodied in the UN Charter (such as the ban on acquiring territory by conquest), violations of diplomatic immunity, the use of torture, or armed attacks on another country’s ships or aircraft. States might also agree to forgo “beggar thy neighbor” economic policies in which domestic benefits come at the direct expense of harm done to others: the exercise of monopoly power in international trade, for instance, and deliberate currency manipulation. States will violate these prohibitions with some frequency, and governments will sometimes disagree on whether a particular action violates an established norm. But by recognizing this general category, they would be acknowledging that there are boundaries to acceptable actions and that crossing them has consequences.
The second category includes actions in which states stand to benefit by altering their own behavior in exchange for similar concessions by others. Obvious examples include bilateral trade accords and arms control agreements. Through mutual policy adjustments, rivals can reach agreements that benefit each other economically or eliminate specific areas of vulnerability, thereby making both countries more prosperous and secure and allowing them to shift defense spending to other needs. In theory, one could imagine the United States and China (or another major power) agreeing to limit certain military deployments or activities—such as reconnaissance operations near the other’s territory or harmful cyber-activities that could adversely affect the other’s digital infrastructure—in exchange for equivalent limitations by the other side.
When two states cannot reach a mutually beneficial bargain, the framework offers a third category, in which either side is free to take independent actions to advance specific national goals, consistent with the principle of sovereignty but subject to any previously agreed-on prohibitions. Countries frequently take independent economic actions because of differing national priorities. For example, all states set their own highway speed limits and education policies according to domestic preferences, even though higher speed limits can raise the price of oil on world markets and improving educational standards can affect international competition in skill-intensive sectors. On matters of national security, meaningful agreements among adversaries or geopolitical rivals are especially hard to reach, and independent action is the norm. Even so, the framework dictates that such actions must be well calibrated: to prevent tit-for-tat, escalatory steps that risk a destabilizing military buildup or even open conflict, remedies should be proportional to the security threat at hand and not designed to damage or punish a rival.
Of course, what one country views as a well-calibrated response may be perceived as a provocation by an opponent, and worst-case estimates of a rival’s long-term intentions may make it hard to respond in a measured fashion. Such pressures are already apparent in the growing military competition between the United States and China. Yet both have powerful incentives to limit their independent actions and objectives. Given that both are vast countries with large populations, considerable wealth, and sizable nuclear arsenals, neither can entertain any realistic hope of conquering the other or compelling it to change its political system. Mutual coexistence is the only realistic possibility, and all-out efforts by either side to gain strategic superiority would simply divert resources from important social needs, forgo potential gains from cooperation, and raise the risk of a highly destructive war.
The fourth and final category concerns issues in which effective action requires the involvement of multiple states. Climate change and COVID-19 are obvious examples: in each case, the lack of an effective multilateral agreement has encouraged many states to free-ride, resulting in excessive carbon emissions in the former and inadequate global access to vaccines in the latter. In the security domain, multilateral agreements such as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty have done much to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. Because any world order ultimately rests on norms, rules, and institutions that determine how most states act most of the time, multilateral participation on many key issues will remain indispensable.
Viewed as a whole, our framework enables rival powers to move beyond the simple dichotomy of “friend or foe.” No doubt states will sometimes adopt policies with the express purpose of weakening a rival or gaining an enduring advantage over it. Our approach would not make this feature of international politics disappear entirely, neither for the major powers nor for many others. Nonetheless, by framing their relations around these four categories, rival powers such as the United States and China would be encouraged to explain their actions and clarify their motives to each other, thereby rendering many disputes less malign. Equally important, the framework increases the odds that cooperation would grow over time. A conversation structured along the lines we propose enables the parties to separate potential zones of cooperation from the more divisive or contentious issues, establish reputations, develop a degree of trust, and better understand the preferences and motives of their partners and rivals—as can be seen when considering concrete, real-world situations.
Several recent conflicts clearly demonstrate the advantages of our approach. Consider the U.S.-Chinese competition over 5G wireless technology. The emergence of the Chinese company Huawei as a dominant force in global 5G networks has concerned U.S. and European policymakers not only because of the commercial consequences but also because of the national security implications: Huawei is believed to have close ties to the Chinese security establishment. But the hard-line response by the United States—which has sought to cripple Huawei’s international activities and pressure U.S. telecommunications operators not to do business with the company—has only ratcheted up tensions. By contrast, our framework, although it would allow Western countries considerable latitude in limiting the activities of Chinese firms such as Huawei within their own countries, largely on national security grounds, would also limit attempts by the United States and its allies to undermine Chinese industries through deliberate and poorly justified international restrictions.
In fact, the promise of a better calibrated strategy for dealing with the Huawei conflict has already been shown. In contrast to the actions taken by Washington, the British government entered an arrangement with Huawei in which the company’s products in the British telecommunications market undergo an annual security evaluation. The evaluations are conducted by the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre, whose governing board includes a Huawei representative along with senior officials from the British government and the United Kingdom’s telecommunications sector. If the annual evaluation finds areas of concern, officials must make them public and state their rationale. Thus, the 2019 HCSEC report found that Huawei’s software and cybersecurity system posed risks to British operators and would require significant adjustments to address those risks. In July 2020, the United Kingdom decided to ban Huawei from its 5G network.
Ultimately, the decision may have had less to do with the hcsec report than with direct U.S. pressure, but this example still illustrates the possibilities of a more transparent and less contentious approach. The technical reasoning on which a national security determination was made could be seen and evaluated by all parties, including domestic firms with a commercial stake in Huawei’s investments, the Chinese government, and Huawei itself. This feature alone can help build trust as each party develops a fuller understanding of the motives and actions of the others. Transparency can also make it more difficult for home governments to invoke national security concerns as a cover for purely protectionist commercial considerations. And it may facilitate reaching mutually beneficial bargains in the long run.
Nonetheless, most actions in the high-tech sector are likely to end up in our third category, in which states take unilateral measures to advance or protect their own interests. Here, our framework requires the responses to be proportionate to actual or potential harms rather than a means to gain strategic advantage. The Trump administration violated this principle by barring U.S. corporations from exporting microchips and other components to Huawei and its suppliers, regardless of where they operated or the purposes for which their products were used. Instead of seeking to protect the United States from espionage or some sort of cyberattack, the clear intention was to deliver a fatal blow to Huawei by starving it of essential inputs. Moreover, the U.S. campaign has had serious economic repercussions for other countries. Many low-income countries in Africa have benefited from Huawei’s relatively inexpensive equipment. Since U.S. policy has important implications for these countries, Washington should have engaged in a multilateral process that acknowledged the costs that cracking down on Huawei would inflict on others—an approach that would have conserved global goodwill at little cost to U.S. national security.
Our framework also suggests how the troubled relationship between the United States and Iran might be improved to benefit both parties. For starters, the present level of suspicion could be reduced if both sides publicly committed not to attempt to overthrow the other and to refrain from acts of terrorism or sabotage on the other’s territory. An agreement along these lines should be easy to reach, at least in principle, given that such actions are already prohibited by the UN Charter; in addition, Iran lacks the capacity to attack the United States directly, and past U.S. efforts to undermine the Islamic Republic have repeatedly failed.
Although short-lived, the 2015 nuclear deal showed how even hardened adversaries can be brought together on a contentious issue through mutually beneficial adjustments. The deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was a perfect illustration of this negotiated approach: China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union agreed to lift economic sanctions linked to Iran’s nuclear program, and Iran agreed to reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium and dismantle thousands of nuclear centrifuges, substantially lengthening the time it would take Tehran to produce enough weapons-grade uranium to build a bomb.
The JCPOA’s proponents hoped the agreement would lead to a broader discussion of other areas of dispute: subsequent negotiations, for example, could have constrained Iran’s ballistic missile programs and its other regional activities in exchange for further sanctions relief or the restoration of diplomatic relations. At a minimum, talks along these lines would have allowed both sides to explain and justify their positions and given each a clearer understanding of the other’s interests, redlines, and sensitivities. Unfortunately, these possibilities were foreclosed when the Trump administration unilaterally abandoned the JCPOA in March 2018.
Skeptics might claim that the fate of the JCPOA reveals the limits of this approach. Had the agreement been in both sides’ interests, they might argue, it would still be in effect today. But the shortsighted U.S. withdrawal clearly left both sides worse off. Iran is much closer to producing a bomb than it was when the JCPOA was in force, the two countries are if anything even more suspicious of each other, and the risk of war is arguably higher. Even an objectively beneficial agreement will not endure if one or both parties do not understand its merits.
Given the current state of relations, the United States and Iran will continue to act independently to protect their interests. Still, there is reason to believe that both sides understand the principle that unilateral actions should be proportional. When the United States left the JCPOA in 2018, for example, Iran did not respond by immediately restarting its full nuclear program. Instead, it adhered to the original agreement for months afterward, in the hope that the United States would reconsider or that the other signatories would fulfill its terms. When this did not occur, Iran left the agreement in an incremental and visibly reversible fashion, signaling its willingness to return to full compliance if the United States also did so. Iran’s reaction to the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign was also measured. For example, the U.S. assassination of the high-ranking Iranian general Qasem Soleimani by a drone strike did not lead Iran to escalate; on the contrary, its response was limited to nonlethal missile attacks on bases housing U.S. forces in Iraq. The United States has occasionally shown restraint as well, as when the Trump administration chose not to retaliate when Iran downed a U.S. reconnaissance drone in June 2019. Despite deep animosity, up to now both sides have recognized the risks of escalation and the need to carefully calibrate their independent actions.
There is no question that Russia’s war in Ukraine has darkened the prospects for constructing a more benign world order. Moscow’s act of aggression was a clear violation of the UN Charter, and some Russian troops appear to be guilty of wartime atrocities. These actions demonstrate that even well-established norms against conquest or other war crimes do not always prevent them. Yet the international response to the invasion also shows that trampling on such norms can have powerful consequences.
The war also highlights the importance of our second category—negotiation and mutual adjustments—and what can happen when states do not exploit this option to the fullest. Western officials engaged with their Russian counterparts on several occasions before Russia’s invasion, but they did not address Moscow’s stated concern—namely, the threat it perceived from Western efforts to bring Ukraine into NATO and the EU. For its part, Russia made far-reaching demands that seemed to offer little room for negotiation. Instead of exploring a genuine compromise on this issue—such as a formal pledge by Kyiv and its Western allies that Ukraine would remain a neutral state combined with a de-escalation by Russia and renewed negotiations over the status of the territories Russia seized in 2014—both sides hardened their existing positions. On February 24, 2022, Russia launched its illegal invasion.
Even hardened adversaries can be brought together by mutual adjustment.
The failure to negotiate a compromise via mutual negotiation left Russia, Ukraine, and the Western powers in our framework’s third category: independent action. Russia unilaterally invaded Ukraine, and the United States and NATO responded by imposing unprecedented sanctions on Russia and sending billions of dollars of arms and support to Ukraine. In keeping with our approach, however, even amid this exceptionally brutal conflict, each side has thus far sought to avoid escalation. At the outset, the Biden administration declared that it would not send U.S. troops to fight in Ukraine or impose a no-fly zone there; Russia refrained from conducting widespread cyberattacks, expanding the war beyond Ukrainian territory, and using weapons of mass destruction. As the war has continued, however, this sense of restraint has begun to break down, with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin asserting that the United States has sought to weaken Russia over the long term and Russian officials hinting about the use of nuclear weapons and indicating that their war aims may be expanding.
Unilateral action in Ukraine has also caused significant harm to third parties. By dramatically raising the cost of energy, Western sanctions on Russia have dealt a severe blow to the economies of low- and middle-income countries, many of them already devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. And Russian blockades of grain shipments out of Ukraine have exacerbated a growing world food crisis. Because the war has affected many other countries, ending the fighting and eventually lifting sanctions is likely to require multilateral engagement. Turkey has already helped mediate an agreement to allow the resumption of Ukrainian grain exports, and states that rely on these exports will no doubt seek arrangements that make future disruptions less likely. If a Ukrainian pledge to remain neutral is part of the deal, it will have to be endorsed by the United States and other NATO members. Kyiv will undoubtedly want assurances from its Western backers and other interested third parties or perhaps an endorsement in the form of a un Security Council Resolution.
The war in Ukraine is a sobering reminder that a framework such as ours cannot produce a more benign world order by itself. It cannot prevent states from blundering into a costly conflict or missing opportunities to improve relations. But using these broad categories to guide great-power relations, instead of trying to resurrect a U.S.-dominated liberal order or impose new norms of global governance from above, has many advantages. In part because the requirements for adhering to it are so minimal, the framework can reveal whether rival powers are seriously committed to creating a more benign order. A state that rejects our approach from the start or whose actions within it show that its expressed commitments are bogus would incur severe reputational costs and risk provoking greater opposition over time. By contrast, states that embrace the framework and implement its simple principles in good faith would be regarded by others more favorably and would likely retain greater international support.
Perhaps nowhere are the potential benefits of our framework more apparent than in U.S.-Chinese relations. Until now, the United States has failed to articulate a China policy aimed at safeguarding vital U.S. security and economic interests that does not also aim at restoring U.S. primacy by undermining the Chinese economy. Far from accommodating China within a multipolar system of flexible rules, the current approach seeks to contain China, reduce its relative power, and narrow its strategic options. When the United States convenes a club of democracies aimed openly against China, it should not be surprising that Chinese President Xi Jinping cozies up to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
This is not the only way forward, however. Both China and the United States have emphasized the need to cooperate in key areas even as they compete in others, and our approach provides a practical template for doing just that. It directs the two rivals to look for points of agreement and actions that both recognize should be proscribed; it encourages them to seek mutually beneficial compromises; and it reminds them to keep their independent actions within reasonable limits. By committing to our framework, the United States and China would be signaling a shared desire to limit areas of contention and avoid a spiral of ever-growing animosity and suspicion. In addition to cooperating on climate change, pandemic preparedness, and other common interests and refraining from overt attempts to undermine each other’s domestic prosperity or political legitimacy, Washington and Beijing could pursue a variety of arms control, crisis management, and risk-reduction measures through a process of negotiation and adjustment.
Washington should encourage its allies to avoid unnecessary quarrels with China.
On the thorny issue of Taiwan, the United States should continue the deliberately ambiguous policy it has followed since the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué—aiding Taiwanese defense efforts and condemning attempts by Beijing at forced reunification while opposing unilateral Taiwanese independence. Abandoning this policy in favor of more direct recognition of Taiwan risks provoking a war in which no one would benefit. Our flexible approach would not help if China decides to invade Taiwan for purely internal reasons—but it would make it less likely that Beijing would take this fateful step in response to its own security concerns.
Managing U.S.-Chinese security competition has a multilateral dimension, as well. Although Asian countries are concerned by China’s rising power and want U.S. protection, they do not want to have to choose between Washington and Beijing. Efforts to strengthen the U.S. position in Asia are bound to be alarming to China, but the magnitude of its concerns and the intensity of its response are not predetermined, and minimizing them (to the extent possible) is in everyone’s interest. As Washington strives to shore up its Asian alliances, therefore, it should also support regional efforts to reduce tensions in Asia and encourage its allies to avoid unnecessary quarrels with China or with one another. U.S.-promoted regional trade deals, such as the newly launched Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, should focus on maximizing economic benefits rather than trying to isolate and exclude China.
Although we have emphasized state-to-state relations in this discussion, our approach could be equally productive for nonstate actors, civil society organizations, academics, thought leaders, and anyone with a stake in a particular issue area. It encourages members of the global community to go beyond the stark antinomy of conflict versus cooperation and focus on practical questions: What actions should be prohibited outright? What compromises or adjustments would be feasible and mutually beneficial? When is independent action to be expected and legitimate, and how can well-calibrated actions be distinguished from those that are excessive? And when will preferred outcomes require multilateral agreements to ensure that third parties are not adversely affected by the agreements or actions undertaken by others? Such conversations will not produce immediate or total consensus, but more structured exchanges on these questions could clarify tradeoffs, elicit clearer explanations or justifications for competing positions, and increase the odds of reaching mutually beneficial outcomes.
It is possible—some would say likely—that mutual suspicion, incompetent leadership, ignorance, or sheer bad luck will combine to produce a future world order that is significantly poorer and substantially more dangerous than the present one. But such an outcome is not inevitable. If political leaders and the countries they represent genuinely wish to construct a more prosperous and secure world, the tools to do so are available.