What Sort of World Are We Headed for?

Oct 2 2018

By  Stephen M. Walt* – Foreign Policy

The liberal world order never really existed. Great-power politics are here to stay.

Lately, international relations hands such as Patrick Porter, Graham Allison, Thomas Wright, Robert Kagan, Rebecca Lissner, Mira Rapp-Hooper, yours truly, and a host of others have been caught up in a lively discussion about the current world order. Much of the debate has centered around whether that order was, is, or will be “liberal.” IR theory mavens out there could spend several days sifting through the various contributions and pondering who makes the better case. But to be honest, I’m not entirely convinced it would be worth your time.

Why? Well, for starters, I’ve never fully understood what “world order” means. Plenty of authors use the term—the statesman Henry Kissinger even wrote a fat doorstop of a book with that ponderous title—and I confess that I’ve used it myself on occasion. Yet it remains a vague and fuzzy concept on which there is little consensus.

Is “world order” merely the configuration of power in the world? And if so, how is power being defined?

Is it the distribution of power plus whatever system of formal or informal rules and norms the strongest states devise and enforce, except for those occasions when they decide to ignore or rewrite them? Is the term meant to signify a more or less predictable pattern of behavior among key global actors, where the observer gets to decide which players and behaviors matter most, or is it just a lazy catchall term pundits use to refer to a particular international system at a particular point in time?

Is “world order” merely the configuration of power in the world? And if so, how is power being defined?

If nobody really knows what “world order” actually means, let’s lower our sights a little. Instead of trying to figure out what the—portentous drum roll—“world order” is, we could just try to anticipate what the central features of global politics are likely to be in a few years’ time. In other words, if somebody asked you to describe the main features of world politics in 2025, what would you tell them?

As it happens, someone did ask me that question recently. My answer focused primarily on the implications for the United States, but for what it’s worth, here’s what I said.

Overall, the world of 2025 will be one of “lopsided multipolarity.” Today’s order isn’t a liberal one (a number of key actors reject liberal ideals), and 2025’s won’t be either. The United States will still be the single most consequential actor on the planet, because no other country will possess the same combination of economic clout, technological sophistication, military might, territorial security, and favorable demography. But its margin of superiority will be smaller than it used to be, and the country will still face long-term fiscal problems and deep political divisions. China will be the world’s No. 2 power (and it will exceed the United States on some dimensions), followed by a number of other major players (Germany, Japan, India, Russia, and so on), all of them considerably weaker than the two leading states.

In this system, the United States will need to be more selective in making commitments and using its power abroad. It will not revert to isolationism, but the hubristic desire to remake the world, which characterized the unipolar era, was fading long before Donald Trump became U.S. president. It is not coming back, no matter how many nostalgic neoconservatives try to rescue it.

As is already clear, U.S. foreign and defense policy will focus mainly on countering China. In addition to trying to slow China’s efforts to gain an advantage in a number of emerging technologies, the United States will also seek to prevent Beijing from establishing a dominant position in Asia. In practice, this will mean maintaining, deepening, and if possible expanding America’s alliance ties there, even as China tries to push the United States out and bring its neighbors into its own loose sphere of influence. Maintaining the United States’ position in Asia will not be easy, because the distances are vast, America’s Asian allies want to preserve their current economic ties with China, and some of those allies don’t like each other very much. Holding this coalition together will require deft U.S. diplomacy, which has been in short supply of late, and success is by no means certain. But neither is failure, because China will face accumulating problems of its own, including that most of its neighbors do not want Beijing to dominate the region.

But as realists have been warning for more than 15 years, the emerging rivalry between the United States and China will be the single most important feature of world politics for at least the next decade and probably well beyond that.

By contrast, no country presently threatens to dominate Europe. For this reason, the U.S. role there will continue to decline (as it has since the end of the Cold War). Despite alarmist fears about a resurgent Russia, it is too weak to pose the same threat to Europe as the bad old Soviet Union. The case for a major U.S. commitment to the region is therefore much weaker than it was during the Cold War. Europe has a combined population in excess of 500 million people, whereas Russia’s population is roughly 140 million, is aging rapidly, and is destined to shrink in the near future. Europe’s combined economy is about $17 trillion—Germany’s alone is about $3.5 trillion—and Russia’s is worth less than $2 trillion. Most telling of all, NATO’s European members spend three to four times what Russia does on defense every year. They don’t spend it very effectively, but what Europe needs is defense reform, not open-ended U.S. subsidies. And the real problems Europe faces—such as defending its borders against unregulated immigration—are not things the United States can solve for it. |  October 2, 2018


* Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt


site admin