America and the Rules-based orderRBO

Tiered membership

Stacie Goddard
Professor of Political Science and
Faculty Director, Wellesley College.

“The United States can support liberalism at home and among its allies without embedding these principles in a universal order.”

At first glance, there is considerable consensus among the contributors to this forum, all but one of whom argue that the incoming Biden administration should embrace a rules-based order. Yet, this consensus obscures considerable debate around two points: the extent to which the United States should include or exclude China and Russia within a reconstituted rules-based order; and the extent to which a rules-based order should reflect liberal rules and values.

Some argue the Biden administration should invest in a rules-based order as an explicit counter to an increasingly aggressive and expansionist Russia and China, as well as other revisionist states, such as Iran and North Korea. Danielle Pletka writes, for example, that the United States should revitalise key institutions, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), "to more artfully coalesce its allies around a China policy that contains and begins to reverse the economic and strategic threats that an aggressive and dangerous Xi Jinping poses to us all". Similarly, Matthew Kroenig argues that the United States should revitalise and adapt existing rules, working together to counter the "primary threat to the international system" — the "revisionist autocratic powers (China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran)".

Certainly, some aspects of the rules-based order should be treated as "club goods", available only to those countries that share certain values. But approaching a rules-based order as though its sole purpose is to mobilise the free world against authoritarian states is counter-productive. Patrick Porter is right when he argues that doing so risks turning a limited geopolitical competition into an existential ideological battle. More broadly, investing in a rules-based order is not only about mobilising like-minded allies around normative principles. International orders are designed to manage great power competition to prevent catastrophic outcomes. And it should be more than obvious by now that the most likely sources of "catastrophic outcomes" lie in two areas: climate change and the unfettered proliferation of nuclear weapons. Neither of these problems can be addressed without the inclusion of China and Russia. Russia maintains one of the world's largest strategic and tactical nuclear forces, and its ongoing relationship with Iran means that it must be included in any regime designed to regulate nuclear proliferation. Likewise, there is no way to build an effective global response to climate change without engaging China in environmental and economic regimes. Excluding China and Russia from these parts of a rules-based order might be ideologically satisfying, but it could have devastating consequences.

Does the inclusion of Russia and China mean a rules-based order devoid of liberal and democratic values? No, for a number of reasons. The United States can support liberalism at home and among its allies without embedding these principles in a universal order. During the Cold War and after, the United States became accustomed to justifying liberal and democratic rules as an uncontested, universal common good. This universal vision pushed the United States to expand institutions like NATO and the World Trade Organization (WTO) until they were overextended and vulnerable. It also led US leaders to pursue liberal crusades against adversaries, who now were portrayed as enemies of a universal common good.

It does not have to be this way. The Biden administration could accept a more limited rules-based order. In some areas — such as climate change and nuclear proliferation — the order can remain "thin", based on shared interests rather than shared values. In others, the rules-based order can be a "club good", available only to those that share liberal principles and values. For example, Pletka is correct that China should not be able to use the WTO to advance a "predatory economic program" (though the United States should also commit to lowering agricultural subsidies and remaining consistent with its own values). Likewise, NATO's members should commit to liberal and democratic values.

To accept limits on the reach of liberalism does not undermine its power. Indeed, it strengthens it. While I disagree with Porter that the rules-based order is only a dangerous chimera, he is right that the United States' vision of a universal liberal order has ultimately undermined its own democracy. Expansionist and aggressive behaviour, often in the name of universal values, degrades the fundamentals of national democratic politics. In supporting a rules-based order, the United States needs to keep front and centre that there is no greater national interest than preserving and strengthening democracy at home.

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.