America and the Rules-based orderRBO

Toward a new world order

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

“For an America past the peak of its power, multilateralism will be a source of strength, not an admission of weakness.”

The contributions to this debate make clear that "rules-based order" is a misnomer — it implies a degree of international institutionalisation, normative neutrality, and sovereign equality that was never actually achieved in the post-Second World War era. Most crucially, this concept marginalises the importance of power. International rules do not emerge as a sort of global "general will", nor can they constrain the behaviour of mighty states intent on breaking them. Instead, international rules reflect the interests of the great powers who write them — often after emerging victorious from major wars — and these mighty states also typically bear responsibility for enforcement of those rules.

But to recognise — as Patrick Porter does in the starkest of terms — that order is a function of power is not tantamount to acknowledging that order is simply reducible to it. By pursuing a liberal-internationalist grand strategy that embedded the United States in a dense web of international institutions, laws, and norms, Washington placed constraints — albeit moderate ones — on the exercise of its own military, economic, and technological predominance. (The points of leverage that Danielle Pletka attributes to President Trump are notable, at least in part, as departures from this general pattern of multilateralism and self-restraint.) As Michael Mazarr argues in his first contribution to our debate, this approach to international order yielded substantial dividends, not just for the United States, but for global stability and prosperity, which explains why so many of America's allies remain invested in promoting a rules-based order. The reason that all of the contributors concur on the need for order renovation is not because this strategy was fundamentally unsound — it is because the geopolitical conditions that sustained it, namely American primacy, are no longer operable.

A power in ascendance, China now seeks to inhabit — and, in some instances, lead — an international order that better reflects its own power and preferences. Beijing's influence has already grown regionally and globally, and it will continue to do so over the coming decades. Washington must recognise this reality and adapt its grand strategy accordingly. Yet, the renewal of great power rivalry does not render international order irrelevant — on the contrary, as the United States and China compete to write the rules for twenty-first-century international politics, order-building itself will be a contested pursuit.

Rather than cynically dismissing international order as a chimera or ceding the field to China by withdrawing from imperfect global bodies, the Biden administration has an opportunity to remake the architecture of international cooperation for a new, post-pandemic, post-primacy, and post-Trump age. In many novel governance areas, especially in the technological domain, Washington will be most successful if it makes democratic allies and partners the focal point of its initial efforts, whether through a D-10 (as Matthew Kroenig advocates in his essay), a T-12, or the repurposing of existing structures such as the G7 and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Liberal technological norms are unlikely to achieve universal adherence, but their coalescence can offer a united buttress against — and alternative to — techno-authoritarianism. Like-minded allies and partners should also be the cornerstone of the democratic renewal agenda Stacie Goddard rightly calls for, which must take the threat of backsliding seriously, both within the United States and among its partners.

Liberal exclusivity will not be a panacea, however, and many pressing challenges will require Washington to leverage or modernise existing agreements that include authoritarian competitors. Pandemic recovery and vaccine distribution will be a global pursuit. Re-entering the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and embarking on follow-on negotiations necessitates the cooperation of the P5+1 — a group that includes both China and Russia — as does nuclear arms control beyond the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). The World Trade Organization (WTO) is at an impasse and it can only be reformed through consensus-based decisions made by its members — a body that, again, includes China and Russia. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides a basis for pushing back against Beijing's excessive maritime claims — yet China is a party, while the United States is not. For an America past the peak of its power, multilateralism will be a source of strength, not an admission of weakness. But if Washington crafts a foreign policy that wields the power of fellow democracies alone, it will miss crucial areas where the United States can advance its interests by working alongside its greatest rivals.

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.