The Biden administration should as a priority in its foreign policy make a renewed commitment to a rules-based order. However, this should not mean a return to a vision of the Clinton, Bush, or Obama administrations, where a global, liberal order was supposed to supplant great power competition. Rather, President Joe Biden should treat liberal rules and norms as essential to US power and interests, particularly the protection of democracy at home and abroad.
Since at least the 1990s, the United States has approached the rules-based order as though such an order could constrain great power politics. By engaging China and Russia, and incorporating them into core institutions, American leaders argued that they could curb revisionist ambitions and turn these powers towards a path of progressive liberalisation. While both China and Russia might bristle at the promotion of democracy and human rights, the benefits of following the rules would keep both fully embedded in the liberal order.
Post-Cold War presidents also portrayed this system of liberal rules as constraining US power. The America that emerged after the Cold War was no domineering Leviathan. Instead, its commitment to liberal rules and norms ensured that it would use its power in service of the global public good. As Bill Clinton proclaimed in 1996, the United States needed to embrace its position as an "indispensable nation", providing wealth and security "not only for ourselves, but for what we believe in and for all the people of the world".
Certainly it was attractive for US leaders to believe that rules and norms could replace global competition. But today, critics point to increasing revisionist behaviour as a reason to abandon the rules-based order. Instead of liberalising its politics, China has used its increasing wealth and power to expand its territorial claims in the South China Sea, suppress democracy in Hong Kong, and provoke conflict with India. Instead of abiding by liberal norms, Russia has aided the Syrian government in its civil war, and interfered with the domestic politics of democratic states. By providing public goods, such as access to free trade and collective security, the United States has merely enabled its opponents, while allowing its friends and allies to "free-ride" on its benevolence.
For this reason, some have called for the United States to focus less on rules and norms, and to instead reinvest in the traditional military instruments necessary for prolonged great power competition. To be sure, military power is important, but increasing US defence spending to prepare for geopolitical competition with China and Russia would be a mistake. The United States already holds a sizeable advantage in military power over any of its rivals; any increased investment would only matter on the margins. And given that no major power wants to engage in a large-scale conventional or nuclear war, military power is unlikely to be the weapon of choice in power-political competition.
Instead, the United States needs to invest in the instruments that protect democracy — both its own and its partners' and allies'. Liberal rules and norms will be vital tools in this power-political competition. While the Biden administration should work with Russia and China on issues of climate change and nuclear proliferation, in other areas it should abandon the global, universal vision of its predecessors. The rules of open trade and finance can ensure the wealth of the United States and its partners. Working with like-minded allies, the United States can help create new rules and norms that regulate the technology that increasingly threatens individual liberty. In all of these areas, investing in rules and norms is not ancillary to great power politics; it provides the essential infrastructure that enables the United States to protect its vital interests.
Professor Stacie Goddard is the Mildred Lane Kemper Professor of Political Science and Faculty Director of the Madeleine Korbel Albright Institute for Global Affairs at Wellesley College. She is also a Fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Her research engages with core issues in international security, with a specific focus on legitimacy, rising powers, and territorial conflict. Her most recent book is When Right Makes Might: Rising Powers and World Order.