Soft Power on the Wane. Down but Not Out
President Trump has burned like a wild re through the goodwill accrued by the United States in seventy years of being the leader of the Free World. But does that constitute a genuine threat to the liberal international order? What does that term even mean? Advocates of perpetuating the current US-led order are incredibly blithe in asserting there exists an order to interactions between nation states, and that it is liberal. Let’s look at three related but distinct elements of the current international system: security relationships, economic prosperity, and liberal political values.
The liberal international order was constructed after World War II with the United States providing security guarantees to countries it considered strategically important to preserving peace on US terms. Those guarantees prevented countries having to bear the full economic burden of providing for their own security. They also created leverage to coerce political change in Germany and Japan, and forced cooperation among recipients of those guarantees, (especially European countries) which stabilised them.
The architects of the postwar system considered increasing prosperity an essential component of political compliance, both within states and among them, and so provided economic assistance for recovery and expanded market access through trade agreements. That the order’s most economically successful countries were participants in the US-led system of security and economic cooperation created a centripetal force that pulled other states into participation. Architects of the order embedded co-operative practices into institutions, both among the allied countries and transcending them, creating institutions through which the power of strong states is limited by agreed rules and institutions legitimated by the voluntary accession of weaker states. These institutions also served as stabilisers in crises, creating expectations of cooperation and facilitating policy coordination.
The United States and its closest allies believed throughout this period that sustainable prosperity is inseparable from their political philosophy of individual rights and representative governance. This is the West’s philosophical heritage, largely unquestioned until the rise of China without accompanying political liberalization, and recent populist backlashes not just in newly democratised states, but in all of the major democratic states.
The system did not always, or maybe not even mostly, work as designed: powerful states, including and perhaps even especially the United States, flouted the rules when it suited their interests. The United States intervened in countries both overtly and covertly to prejudice outcomes supportive of its interests, ignored whole swathes of the globe, sustained repressive governments in allied states, opted out of international regimes and even forced their collapse, as with the Bretton Woods institutions in the early 1970s.
With the end of the restraining force of Cold War competition, the United States and its allies became much more assertive in shaping international relations and the domestic practices of other countries to conform with the West’s philosophy: there was NATO expansion, democracy promotion, through régime change and the European Union’s ‘neighbourhood policy’, and an increasing insistence on liberal values as a requirement for security guarantees. Public attitudes within Western governments now suggest a deep scepticism about effecting such change internationally. The apparent success of authoritarian capitalism, especially by China, posits an alternative model, attractive to societies that desire Western prosperity without the cultural influences, economic volatility, or political hectoring of the West.
Nor are the shortcomings of the existing international order exclusively felt by states on its periphery – in fact, they are loudly proclaimed by its leader. The President of the United States seems not to believe in the fundamental building blocks of the existing order, nor accept that they bene t the United States nearly enough to justify their perpetuation. Donald Trump considers the existing order a conspiracy: allies free-ride off US military power while utilizing trading arrangements to disadvantage America. Trump’s ‘vengeful unilateralism’ has injected an unwelcome instability within the Western camp.
America’s allies are the most strident voices about preserving the existing order, and are talking tough about preserving it despite US opposition. French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted after the G7 meeting that ‘the American President may not mind being isolated, but neither do we mind signing a 6 country agreement if need be. Because these 6 countries represent values, they represent an economic market which has the weight of history behind it and which is now a true international force.’
At a press conference with Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau before the G7, President Macron went even further, stating: ‘You say the US President doesn’t care at all. Maybe, but nobody is forever… the six countries of the G7 without the United States are a bigger market taken together than the American market. There will be no world hegemony if we know how to organise ourselves. And we don’t want there to be one.’
Macron is right that liberal states have come to dramatically underestimate their power. America’s allies are the world’s strongest economies, most stable democracies, and most institutionally protected countries in the international order. They have the most to lose if the order erodes, but they are also the countries most able to preserve their interests as the international order transforms.
Nor are America’s allies the only advocates of the existing order. Countries more exposed to the alternatives are perhaps even more concerned.
The non-American advocates of the existing order could individually and collectively become more forceful rule makers and enforcers. But are they powerful enough to preserve the existing order against illiberal challengers? And what if the United States genuinely becomes a destructive force to the existing order? Can Western middle powers, armed with their strength and prosperity and generally accepted rules of international order, sustain that order facing China alone — or if the United States works actively against them?
The middle powers of the liberal order are talking a braver, better game than they are likely to practice. But their concerted action is probably adequate to sustain the existing order for a period of ten to fifteen years, absent overt and large-scale military shocks – wars – of the kind that reshuffle the deck of international order. That period of ten to fifteen years will be the proving ground during which China’s authoritarian capitalism will be put to the middle-income test, and America will prove whether President Trump and his policies are outliers, or whether they represent a durable new direction for the United States. If pressure on the existing order abates, it will be because those two powers realigned themselves to it, or because the West mobilised the strength of its middle to overpower their challenges. If pressure on the order does not abate, our successors will likely call this period of history the interwar years.
Dr. Schake is the Deputy Director General of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. This article draws on ‘America vs the West’, her book forthcoming from the Lowy Institute. Her most recent book, Safe Passage: The Transition from British to American Hegemony is published by Harvard University Press.