The Return to Great-Power Rivalry Was Inevitable
With neo-authoritarianism on the rise, the old assumptions undergirding a common set of Western values just won’t do.
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.
The story would repeat itself time and again: The policy elites believed the best way to protect U.S. interests was through a postwar Western order organized around free trade, institutions, and a U.S. military presence in Europe and Asia. They couldn’t drum up enough political support for the idea until they could sell it as a vital part of the struggle with the Soviets.
The policy of supporting the liberal international order enjoyed great success. Democracy spread. Economic growth brought hundreds of millions out of poverty. Dozens of countries joined old alliances and institutions, spreading democracy, human rights, and market economies in the process. It was good strategy, although the term liberal international order was hardly used during the Cold War. While G. John Ikenberry brought the term to prominence in the 1990s and 2000s in his scholarship about American postwar strategy, it did not appear in The New York Times until 2012. Western foreign-policy thinkers saw it as a way of preserving the institutional and alliance architecture created during the Cold War, while opening up the Western bloc of democracies so all nations could participate in a rules-based system if they so chose.
Yet the notion of a liberal international order never really resonated with voters. And its success arose from the fact that American power was unrivaled—a fact that would change.
Internationalists, myself included, argued that without U.S. leadership the world would become a more dangerous and more hostile place. This may be true, but it is a hard case to make. The United States has led for so long that many people are unaware of the costs. The 2003 invasion of Iraq and other strategic mistakes have undermined America’s credibility, not least with its own citizens. The successes are taken for granted. As my colleague Robert Kagan pointed out in his new book, The Jungle Grows Back, despite their significant differences, Barack Obama and Donald Trump both understood that the American people wanted to pull back, do less, and have other nations share more of the burden.
It has now become clear that we are in the early stages of a dramatic change in world politics that necessitates a change in strategy. For several years now, geopolitical competition between the major powers has been intensifying. Russia became much more aggressive in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. China grew more assertive in East Asia. What we did not know, until very recently, was that this competition would also directly and negatively impact the lives of citizens in Western democracies.
Examples abound: Russia’s attack on American democracy. Cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, including the power grid. Chinese political interference, including pressure on American companies, especially in the media and social-media sector. The mass theft of intellectual property. The collection of private data by foreign powers. The strategic use of corruption to build networks of support. And backing for authoritarian movements in countries that were, until several years ago, stable democracies.
These may seem like isolated or disconnected incidents. But they are not. They are deeply embedded in the logic of the emerging great-power competition, and they will only get worse. To understand why, we need to look at how we got here.
In the 1990s and 2000s, American leaders believed that Russia and China were converging with the West on basic questions of world order. Countries would work together on common challenges while old geopolitical rivalries would matter much less. The “era of convergence” came to an end because Russian and Chinese leaders concluded that if the liberal order succeeded globally, it would pose an existential threat to their regimes.
Moscow and Beijing saw the spread of color revolutions, helped along by the press and nongovernmental organizations. They came to understand that Western governments will always face pressure to back democracy activists overseas at precisely the moment that authoritarians are most vulnerable, regardless of what assurances or cooperative relations existed beforehand. They saw how media organizations published material that destabilized their regimes, such as the 2012 New York Times investigation into corruption in China. They worried about Google and social-media companies aiding dissenters in their own societies. Crucially, they realized that these companies made their choices independent of Washington. They were an intrinsic part of the liberal order.
China and Russia assessed that Western liberalism and freedom undermine authoritarian rule. Indeed, many Western policy makers saw this as a desirable side effect: It may be good news for the Chinese and Russian people, but it is bad news for their regimes. And so, China and Russia began to push back.
While Moscow and Beijing correctly diagnosed the threat to their regimes, we were also correct in our refusal to accommodate them. We are constantly told that the liberal order must adjust to make way for China and perhaps Russia, but that such an adjustment—the reallocation of voting weights at the International Monetary Fund, for example—would be largely cost free. But this is a fantasy: China and Russia want and need much more than that.
True accommodation would have fundamentally and irrevocably changed the world for the worse. Addressing Moscow’s fears over the color revolutions would have handed it a veto over democracy in other countries in its neighborhood. It would mean, at best, turning a blind eye to a massive and coercive Chinese and Russian effort to pressure Western media outlets, NGOs, and even universities. And it would have turned back the clock to an era when a few people carved the world up into spheres of influence, rather than a system where rules, values, and votes play a leading role. A deal—one that actually addressed their insecurities—would have been a devil’s bargain.
The return to rivalry was inevitable, if tragically so. It is rooted in a clash of social models—a free world and a neo-authoritarian world—that directly affects how people live. China and Russia are very different powers with different strategies, but they share the objective of targeting free and open societies to make the world a safer place for authoritarianism. We are so interconnected and integrated after two decades of globalization that we, and they, are vulnerable to one another. Hence all of the recent activity from political interference and economic coercion to cyberattacks and other active measures, which they see as a necessary response to our actions.
China, in particular, has an even more ambitious long-term agenda. Its investments in artificial intelligence (AI) and facial-recognition technology appear to be giving Beijing the ability to monitor its entire population and make authoritarian rule efficient and effective. It promises real social goods, such as massive reductions in crime, in exchange for much greater control over the population. These technologies are highly exportable and will undoubtedly appeal to authoritarians or wannabe authoritarians the world over. These regimes will cooperate and share tactics and strategy, while working together to create a world that protects their interests. We would worry about these technologies anyway, but China’s capability and intention make the AI challenge especially difficult.
In such a world, it makes little sense to argue that America’s strategic objective should be promoting a liberal international order. Since that term came into common usage, it implied that China and other non-Western powers would eventually be brought into the fold. But unlike in the 1990s and 2000s, there is no prospect on the horizon of a universal liberal order. Instead, there is a free world competing with a neo-authoritarian world. Yes, it’s a bit more complicated than that. There are fissures and shades of gray on both sides, and a great deal of connection and shared interests across the divide. But the contest is real.
More importantly, framing the primary goal of American strategy as maintaining a liberal order completely misses the point. It sends a message to the American people that their job is to maintain the order far from home because otherwise it will encourage further aggression. This sounds rather abstract, particularly at a time when external powers threaten liberties at home and among America’s closest democratic allies.
Perhaps a stronger approach would be a “free world” strategy—one that preserves liberty at home and in other democracies. If you believe in a free and open society based on the rule of law, whether you are a constitutional conservative, a centrist, or a progressive, you cannot just mind your own business at home. Your vital interests are directly threatened by this competition of models. If you want to protect your democracy or a free press or the rule of law or an open internet or the integrity of critical infrastructure or nongovernmental organizations or countless other things, actions at home are necessary but not sufficient. You need to support a competitive foreign policy that pushes back against neo-authoritarianism.
Consider the crisis of Russian election interference. Presidents Obama and Trump both tried to avoid retaliating against Moscow. Obama wanted to focus on protecting the election process at home, probably because he believed Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 election and he wanted to avoid appearing to smear Trump. As the beneficiary of the interference, Trump has all but ignored it or raised doubts about whether it even happened. Others have argued for new legal safeguards.
None of this is adequate, because the American system is too open to protect fully. The only way to stop electoral interference is to convince the adversary that the cost exceeds the benefit—to deter him by preparing a credible and proportionate response. Several members of Obama’s team recommended such a course, and Mike Rogers, the former head of the National Security Agency, testified to Congress that Trump had refused to issue him a directive to allow him to do it. A conversation on deterring foreign political interference is precisely the one we need to have.
A strategy of defending the free world is consistent with America’s post–World War II leadership. But it will entail significant changes from the post–Cold War strategy of liberal order building.
It will mean placing threats to liberty at home at the center of American foreign policy and focusing as much on measures short of general war—such as economic weapons and political interference—as on large-scale military buildups to deter World War III. It will mean having a national debate about technological change and national security, especially with regard to AI. The recent letter by more than 3,000 Google employees opposing their company’s work with the Pentagon on AI is an example of what we should be talking about. And it will mean pushing back against neo-authoritarianism in other democracies as well as preventing China and Russia from taking a dominant strategic position in Asia or Eastern Europe.
This ought to be the primary mission of America’s alliances, including NATO. If existing alliances and institutions are insufficient, the United States would do well to create a new global and multilateral alliance connecting Asian and European allies—those who are committed to free societies. The American people must think seriously about how interdependent they want to be with China and other authoritarian powers, or if the time has come to pull back in certain areas to reduce their vulnerability.
America’s allies know that the Trump administration’s commitment to them is partly conditional on their levels of defense spending. Internationalists should make the same point about democracy and the rule of law. If countries such as Turkey and Hungary continue along the authoritarian path, this will raise serious questions about the future of their alliance with the United States and their membership in NATO. If they collaborate with Russia or China in undermining the free world, they will be taking their side and that will come with consequences. There will always be transactional security cooperation in pursuit of mutual interests, but dictators cannot be full members of the club and benefit from its privileges.
How would this apply to the Middle East? The United States cannot afford to simply leave the region. The resulting instability would spread, endangering Israel and Europe, empowering a hostile Iran, and increasing the terrorist threat. But the United States also cannot afford to give the Gulf Arab states a blank check, as President Trump seems to have done. The extent of U.S. engagement must depend on how it serves the broader free-world strategy. The Gulf Arab states and Egypt must understand that advancing a neo-authoritarian vision will have consequences for security cooperation. Saudi Arabia’s recent broadside against Canada for raising human-rights concerns was a case in point—there should be no doubt as to whom the United States will stand with.
What of large-scale military interventions in the greater Middle East? They will, at times, be necessary to protect the free world from existential crises, such as addressing massive refugee flows or stopping mass atrocities. But the bar for action must be high. Support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen certainly does not meet it. For more than a decade, America’s involvement in Afghanistan seems to have been justified on the basis of avoiding defeat—with new threats gathering, that is a strategic luxury we cannot afford.
America’s success will depend as much on developments at home as on actions overseas. Donald Trump may be constrained by his own administration and the separation of powers, but he has left no doubt about his own personal preferences. He is a kindred spirit of the neo-authoritarians. He has repeatedly tweeted and spoken about his disdain for the free press and the rule of law. He has little interest in bolstering the free world from authoritarian advances. If left to his own devices, he would go much further than he has in partnering with Vladimir Putin’s Russia and developing what a senior White House official described as a “no friends, no enemies” worldview. In this competition of models, the president of the United States is on the other side.
This is an ideological challenge that dwarfs any the United States faced during the Cold War. Then, communism never had any real traction politically. Today’s neo-authoritarianism has gone viral. We should not overstate its foothold in America—the vast majority of Republicans do not share the president’s ideology even if they support him politically—but this challenge is not confined to the foreign-policy arena. Americans must figure out how to preserve liberty at home, amid political and technological shifts, while also pushing back against its great power rivals.
A free-world strategy, then, would be an evolution in American foreign policy, not a rejection of the liberal international order. The United States would continue to play a leading role in international institutions and in promoting multilateral cooperation. It would continue to cooperate with authoritarian powers on matters of mutual interest, such as nonproliferation, the global economy, and climate change. But this strategy would emphasize new threats to free societies, threats that have largely been ignored by successive administrations but are worsening with each passing month. The postwar American strategy of creating an order was always about shaping an environment that would enable and support the flourishing of free societies. It is time to rediscover that spirit and intention.