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The Foreign Policy Essay: The State of the International Order

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Sunday, March 23, 2014 at 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: The United States has long favored a robust international order—but defining the salient characteristics of the international order and evaluating its structure and stability can be difficult. A closer look at the current state of affairs reveals both good and bad news: the economic order is recovering, albeit in fits and starts, from the global financial crisis, while the security order is facing new and quite difficult challenges. Two of my Brookings colleagues, Bruce Jones and Tom Wright, draw on their recent Brookings report to assess the state of the contemporary international order and identify both strong and weak points for policymakers to consider.

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The international order can sometimes appear to be a relatively abstract and amorphous concept, but creating and sustaining it has been the linchpin of U.S. grand strategy dating back to the late 1940s. Now, with new powers rising, Russian aggression in Europe, a meltdown in the Middle East, and a global economy that continues to be fragile, it’s important that we step back and ask: what is the current state of the international order?

When thinking about the order it is helpful to distinguish between two different components: the international economic order and the international security order—that is, the economic and security relations among the top powers and beyond, and the purposes and values that underpin them.

The International Economic Order

Bruce Jones photoThe international economic order is actually in relatively strong shape. The global economy is characterized by overlapping interests among the major powers; but there are serious collective action challenges. When faced with a truly acute crisis, as in the 2008 global financial crisis, the international order responded effectively. But significant fault lines remain that will impede a return to robust growth and may threaten additional instability. The long-term challenges are twofold: building a deeper set of protections against financial instability, including in emerging markets; and adapting global financial and trade systems to the complex new reality of the top economies having very different structural dimensions and levels of per capita development.

Thomas Wright photoMoreover, the effects of the financial crisis still linger, in particular in Europe. While the Eurozone avoided the collapse of the Euro, which could have destabilized the entire global economy, it appears destined for a “lost decade” of protracted stagnation with very low growth, “zombie” banks (banks that haven’t been allowed to fail but are not lending), and high levels of unemployment on the periphery. The Eurozone is unlikely to collapse, but these issues will be a drag on the European and global economies and will reduce Europe’s capacity and will to influence the direction of the evolving international order. Progress towards a mega free-trade deal with the United States could help pull Europe out of its lethargy.

Developing and emerging economies recovered more quickly from the global financial crisis, and have now surpassed the rest of the West as the largest trading partner for both Europe and the United States. Their rise is a positive trend that benefits the global economy. But now there’s trouble on the near horizon for the major emerging economies—Brazil, Russia, India, and China (collectively referred to as the BRICs). Confronted with poor growth prospects for the first time in years and the potential to fall into what economists call “the middle-income trap”—the challenge of moving from using low-cost labor as a stepping stone to growth towards innovation and domestic consumption—the BRICs are now facing disenchanted populations and must deal with their increasingly apparent lack of coherence as a group. Still, over the long term they look set to remain a critical part of the global economy (though as of this writing Russia’s economy is under threat of additional sanctions which could, if applied, significantly limit its future growth).

The International Security Order

The international security order is faring less well. We’re witnessing an intensification of latent geopolitical tensions and new challenges in the realm of war and conflict—including new doctrines of intervention and new technologies of war (cyber, drones). Since 1991, the world has enjoyed a great power peace only briefly interrupted by crises that risked major power confrontation (in Kosovo and Georgia). Unfortunately, this period appears to be ending. Several major powers are engaged in a robust security competition. The greatest risk stems from the rivalry between China and Japan in the East China Sea, but rivalry also exists in Southeast Asia between the United States and China, and in Eastern Europe, as the ongoing crisis in the Ukraine illustrates. Indeed, Russia’s annexation of Crimea may be a turning point in the post-Cold War order.

These competitive rivalries are being played out in part in the world’s oceans. Intractable territorial disputes in the East China Sea and South China Sea have become increasingly dangerous and could spiral into crisis. To date, efforts to introduce a code of conduct or other mechanisms to de-escalate tensions have failed. This bad news is somewhat offset by maritime cooperation in the Arctic and collective anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.

The return of great power security competition not only threatens the peace—it might also complicate international cooperation needed to tackle common challenges. That would be a great cost, since over the past two decades international cooperation has played a key role in facilitating a precipitous decline in the number and intensity of conflicts, both large and small, in all regions of the globe. Now the Middle East is bucking that trend, and geopolitical competition is undermining the ability of outside powers to respond constructively. The apparent collapse of regional order in the Middle East has resulted in a brutal civil war in Syria (estimated to have claimed above 140,000 lives) with the risk of renewed civil conflicts in Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and Lebanon. Events in the Middle East also challenge the very fragile support for concepts like the Responsibility to Protect (R2P)—the notion that the international community has a responsibility to intervene to stop the large-scale, state-led slaughter of civilians. The stalemate over how to end the civil war in Syria has cast serious doubt on the notion.

There are bright spots. Even factoring in continuing conflicts, the broad signals of progress (infant mortality, poverty, literacy, life expectancy, etc.) are looking bright for the developing world. Despite China and India’s uneasiness that the United States controls access to the world’s critical sea-lanes, the U.S. Navy continues to play an indispensible role in securing the flow of energy and trade goods by sea, with tacit great power support. And on energy, the past decade has seen a radical shift in the global energy map as the unconventional revolution in the United States has put it on track to become the world’s largest oil producer. New discoveries in the Americas have weakened the grip of traditional suppliers on the international energy market, and are giving the United States substantial influence in shaping the future of the global energy trade.

But there are also ongoing risks. Even America’s growing energy strength could intensify competition between states vying to secure their economic lifelines. Climate change remains a profound challenge. And a turbulent Gulf threatens both stability in the Middle East and the global economy. Protecting access to the oil-rich regions of the Persian Gulf was a key pillar of U.S. grand strategy for most of the post-World War II period. Now, with the U.S. shale revolution, mounting domestic concerns, and a possible comprehensive deal with Iran over its nuclear program, countries fear that the United States is preparing to reduce, or at least transform, its commitment to Gulf security. The Persian Gulf region is increasingly unstable, but the perception is beginning to take hold in America that guaranteeing stability in the Gulf is no longer a core U.S. interest—despite the potential impact of instability in the Gulf on the global price of oil. Whether a new equilibrium will emerge remains to be seen.

A healthy international order has been the centerpiece of U.S. strategy since the mid-1940s, but today, the state of the order is decidedly mixed. There have been successes—the G-20 responded well to the financial crisis of 2008—but significant challenges remain in the economic and security spheres. It is now vital that the United States take steps to preserve and strengthen the order. This should include taking the initiative to improve the global economy through negotiating and ratifying mega free-trade agreements, like those being negotiated with European and Asian allies. In Europe, a strong response to Russian aggression in Crimea is vital to preventing a deterioration of the regional security order. In the Middle East, progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and a comprehensive agreement that significantly degrades Iran’s nuclear capacity would go some way to restoring a sense of equilibrium in the region. In East Asia, the United States still has some room to increase its diplomatic efforts to deter states from actions that threaten the status quo, especially in the South China Sea and East China Sea.

With its greater number of diverse actors and issues, today’s international order is complex, but the opportunity exists to advance cooperation on multiple fronts so that it can continue to play as constructive a role in the future as it has in the past.

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Dr. Bruce Jones is the director of the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution and the author of the just-released Still Ours to Lead: America, Rising Powers, and the Tension between Rivalry and Restraint (Brookings 2014).

Dr. Tom Wright is a fellow with the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution.

This article is based on the report The State of the International Order, published by Brookings in February 2014.

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