America and the Rules-based orderRBO

First, rebuild at home

Rebecca Lissner
Asst. Professor, Strategic & Operational
Research, US Naval War College

“China rose within a US-led order, it now seeks to revise elements of that order to better reflect its own power and preferences.”

As President Joe Biden begins his first term in office, he inherits an international order on the brink of collapse. The crucible of the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed deep flaws in the system of international norms, laws, and institutions that structures cooperation between states. Despite the immense shared challenge posed by the pandemic, the global response has been largely fragmentary, international institutions have proven ineffective, and sharpening competition between the United States and China has stymied cooperation between the world's two most consequential great powers. Yet, many of the fissures in the architecture of international cooperation predate both COVID-19 and the Trump presidency, and will not disappear now that the Biden administration is installed and vaccines have begun to roll out.

Instead, as Mira Rapp-Hooper and I argue in our book, An Open World: How America Can Win the Contest for Twenty-First-Century Order, the liberal international order is buckling under the weight of long-term global power shifts, rapid technological change, and worsening domestic-political dysfunction within the United States. With China's meteoric economic and military growth, Washington no longer stands alone as the world's uncontested superpower. And even though China rose within a US-led order, it now seeks to revise elements of that order to better reflect its own power and preferences. Beijing's bid to shape the rules of twenty-first-century geopolitics extends into the technological domain, where global governance has not kept pace with innovation, and nations are now debating whether and how to cooperatively regulate the internet, cybersecurity, and emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence. Although the United States has a strong stake in preserving a free and open internet, the domestic dysfunction wrought by partisan polarisation within the United States has compromised Washington's ability to advance productive global governance solutions in areas ranging from technology to trade and climate change. The post-Cold War promise of universal liberalism now seems a chimera.

To meet these novel realities, restoring a pre-Trump foreign policy is simply not an option for the Biden administration. Instead, as Rapp-Hooper and I contend, Washington must pursue a new approach that rejects both nationalism and nostalgia, while embracing self-discipline alongside global engagement. Such an approach begins with a recognition that America's global leadership depends fundamentally on its domestic strength. The foreign and domestic policy agendas therefore converge on the imminent priorities of bringing COVID-19 under control, ensuring an economic recovery that embeds the prerequisites for twenty-first-century competitiveness, and restoring the integrity of bedrock democratic norms and institutions. Since these are priorities that the United States shares with many of its closest allies and partners, these efforts can serve as a springboard for a broader strategy of order modernisation that aims to renovate legacy institutions, such as the United Nations (UN) and the World Trade Organization (WTO), for contemporary challenges, while also building new, fit-for-purpose multilateral structures where needed. The United States can only succeed in these ambitious domestic and international objectives if it rebalances its foreign policy toolkit by elevating diplomacy and development that is centred on a revitalised State Department, while embracing a more restrained approach to overseas military interventions.

The destruction that President Biden will inherit is vast, both at home and abroad. But so, too, are the enduring advantages enjoyed by the United States: its economy is the world's largest measured by GDP, its dollar remains the dominant global reserve currency, it has an unrivalled network of allies and partners, its military is the only force capable of global power projection, and its science and technology base is without peer. If Washington reinvests in these assets, it will not recapture global primacy, but it can shape a future order that advances the safety, security, and prosperity of all Americans.

Dr Rebecca Lissner is an Assistant Professor in the Strategic and Operational Research Department at the US Naval War College and Nonresident Scholar at Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies. Previously, she held research positions at the University of Pennsylvania's Perry World House, Council of Foreign Relations, and Yale University, and served as a Special Advisor to the Deputy Secretary at the US Department of Energy. Dr Lissner is the co-author, with Mira Rapp-Hooper, of An Open World: How America Can Win the Contest for Twenty-First Century Order.

All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position or views of the US Government. Nothing in the contents should be construed as asserting or implying US Government authentication of information or endorsement of the author's views.