In American strategic circles, security and prosperity are intertwined in the international order. Following Western rules, laws and norms, that order is rooted in liberal, constitutional democratic values, which are seen as providing a fundamental guarantee of U.S. national security.
The Biden administration put it this way in its interim national security strategic guidance document: “At its root, ensuring our national security requires us to … lead and sustain a stable and open international system, underwritten by strong democratic alliances, partnerships, multilateral institutions, and rules.”
After World War II, the U.S. led the effort to create a series of international systems and norms, which then were expanded to become global mechanisms and norms after the Cold War, and hence important pillars of Pax Americana. In a general sense, American and other Western scholars refer to the paradigm as a liberal international order.
The U.S. government has long viewed preserving and stabilizing this order as being in its national interest. The 2010 and 2015 editions of the U.S. National Security Strategy, for instance, both included such statement. Both the doves and the hawks in U.S. strategic circles consider the international order to be at the core of strategic competition between major powers, as well as a challenge for U.S. national security.
From this perspective, the U.S. identifies China as its main strategic rival — meaning that it sees China as a competitor, or challenger, to the so-called liberal international order.
In December 2017, the Trump administration’s U.S. National Security Strategy called China a “revisionist state.” Later, in June 2019, the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report released by the U.S. Defense Department took a step further. It claimed that China, led by the Communist Party, “undermines the international system from within by exploiting its benefits while simultaneously eroding the values and principles of the rules-based order.”
Such thinking, however, is neither objective nor accurate. Nor is it honest, as it features obvious biases of buck-passing and presumption of guilt. The collective rise of developing countries — China’s rapid and steady development in particular — has no doubt greatly changed the global political and economic landscape, and will influence the international system and order, which reflects a certain pattern of international power distribution.
Yet the rise of non-Western nations doesn’t necessarily mean the U.S. is in decline. Various mistakes in the U.S. national development strategy and governance mechanisms are the main reasons for the relative weakening of its strength and influence. The challenges to the liberal international order lie in the U.S. itself.
Generally speaking, the U.S.-led liberal international order has three main pillars, all of which have been seriously eroded:
• Its material foundation — the economic order itself, the core of which is a liberal economic philosophy and the economic strength of advanced Western nations (the U.S. in particular) that practice such a philosophy.
• Its organizational foundation — a set of liberal international multilateral institutions, such as the United Nations and World Trade Organization.
• Its philosophical foundation — a commitment to and practice of liberal democratic values.
First, excessive expansion by the U.S. has seriously over-stretched its national strength and undermined the material foundation of the liberal international order. This expansion includes both geopolitical and capital aspects, especially financial capital. Since the beginning of the new century, the U.S. has launched a global “war on terror,” sought regime changes in the name of fighting terrorism and attempted to transform the Middle East by forcibly transplanting U.S. democratic values. In the process, such scandals as invading Iraq based on fabricated evidence and the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison have greatly undermined U.S. international image.
The U.S. has also conducted large-scale infiltrations of Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Asia-Pacific, going all-out in pursuit of a strategy of major-power geopolitical competition. This has added tension to U.S.-Russia and U.S.-China relations.
Meanwhile, the expansive nature of capital and loopholes in the U.S. government’s supervisory mechanisms led to the international financial crisis. This not only dealt a severe blow to U.S. economic might but also discredited the Washington Consensus, which in turn made it difficult to reverse American industries’ tendency to turning from the real economy to the virtual economy or to address widening wealth gaps, the fossilizing of social strata and the rise of populism, protectionism and exclusivism. The material foundation of the liberal international order has thus been seriously weakened.
Second, the U.S. government’s instrumental use of multilateral mechanisms has seriously affected the authority and credibility of international institutions. The U.S. has always deemed international multilateral mechanisms as its own private tools for preserving its hegemony — using them when they fit its purposes and shunning them when they don’t, demonstrating a unilateral approach.
U.S. president Bill Clinton told the 49th UN General Assembly: “When our national security interests are threatened, we will act with others when we can, but alone if we must. We will use diplomacy when we can, but force if we must.”
Soon after his own inauguration, in March 2021, George W. Bush scrapped the Kyoto Protocols. The Trump administration, following its “America first” mantra, took that to an extreme, withdrawing from various international treaties, including the Paris climate agreement. Institutions such as the UNESCO, took the international community by surprise, showcasing U.S. arrogance and recklessness. Nowadays, the Biden administration is declaring that “America is back”, to multilateralism, rejoining multilateral institutions and attempting to reestablish its leadership role.
But who can rest assured about such a shilly-shally “leader”? Who can guarantee that the next U.S. administration won’t maneuver another flip-flop? Obviously the fundamental cause of the weakening organizational foundation of the liberal international order is America’s own irresponsibility.
Finally, the philosophical foundation of the liberal international order is no longer solid. To some extent, this order is the internationalization of the U.S. domestic constitutional order. By extending the values it adheres to at home, such as freedom, democracy, human rights and rule of law, to the international context, the U.S. formulated the philosophical framework of the liberal international order.
However, such values have encountered all sorts of trouble domestically. Phenomena such as the decline of democracy, political polarization and racism continue to worsen. Many Americans, especially young people, are worried about their regime. In October, the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School conducted a survey on the state of U.S. democracy. It queried 2,109 people between 18 and 29 years of age. Among the findings, 52 percent believe that U.S. democracy is “in trouble” or “failing,” while only 7 percent believe it’s doing fine.
At the same time, many developing nations are reflecting deeply on the values advocated by the United States and are exploring institutional frameworks, values, norms and development paths that are better suited to their own national conditions. The “universal values” promoted by the U.S. are increasingly being questioned. Non-Western countries have also begun to actively structure their own discourse systems at the level of values.
To sum up, the foundation of the liberal international order has been shaken, and the Western liberal model is in trouble. The main cause can be found in mistaken U.S. foreign policies, domestic political and economic conundrums and changes in political thinking —especially the strength of populism, localism and exclusivism as represented by Donald Trump.
It is thought-provoking that the creator of the liberal international order has unwittingly become a party to forces that hold it in contempt. It sabotages itself and refuses to conduct a self-examination.