The idea that America should uphold the “liberal international order” is taken as something of an article of faith in foreign-policy circles. I’m no exception. As a scholar at Brookings, I have written at least a dozen articles arguing that the health of the liberal order—generally defined as the alliances, institutions, and rules the United States created and upheld after World War II—must be a key objective of U.S. strategy.
But the world has changed dramatically over the past couple of years. If internationalists are to regain the trust of the American people and meet the challenges of the coming decades, the strategy must evolve.
Americans have never been particularly enamored with the liberal international order. (It’s a clunky, partisan-sounding phrase—especially to Republicans—and conjures images of shadowy, unaccountable forces controlling the world.) After World War II, the Truman administration sought to deepen America’s engagement with Europe, only to run into fierce public resistance. As Averell Harriman, the then–U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, put it, Americans “wanted to settle all of our differences with Russia and then go to the movies and drink Coke.” In late 1945, President Harry Truman tried to provide an interest-bearing loan to bail out Britain, which was on the brink of economic collapse stemming from the cost of World War II. Britain was enraged that the United States would charge interest. The American people opposed the loan anyway, asking what business it was of theirs. In the end, the loan went through, not because Americans were convinced of some sense of broader responsibility, but because they worried that inaction could lead to the spread of communism throughout Europe.