For over a century, people around the world have lived through an American era, dominated by the US power, wealth, institutions, and ideas. Now, many people believe that this long epoch is closing, and a post-American, post-liberal order is coming, with renewed great-power competition. But in truth, the United States’ power is not foundering. Those narratives of decline ignore deeper world influences and the circumstances created by US power, and the misunderstanding of American decline made by prophets is to see the United States and its liberal orders as another empire on the wane. The US continues to matter not because of its power, but because of the appeal of its ideas, institutions, and capacities for building partnerships and alliances which make the US power an indispensable force, and are the secret of its power and its influence.
The United States’ liberal order is like an onion in that it has several layers. At the outer layer are its liberal internationalist ideas and projects, such as the coalition with like-minded countries to protect democracy and the collective security since 1945, which provided a “third way” between the anarchy of states and the hierarchy of imperial systems. Beneath the surface, the US’s unique geographic location and trajectory of political development play a key role to reinforce its capacity. The US stands oceans apart from the other great powers in Asia and Europe, as well as its landmass facing both of them, meaning the US can be a global power balancer, and its victories in WWI and WWII are proof. At the core, one of the US’s strengths is its capacity to fail with resilience. As a liberal society, the US can acknowledge its errors and vulnerabilities, and try to improve on them, which cannot be seen from its illiberal rivals in confronting crisis and setbacks. The stumbling around the dynamic “zero-Covid” policy in China represents the opposite case of policy lock-in.
In today’s competition over world order, the US should draw upon its advantages, and keep offering a “third way” for people to work freely together and advance the human condition. This “third way” offers a global vision of an open and rule-based system between anarchy and hierarchy. After World War Two and during the Cold War, liberal internationalism dominates the definition of modern logic of international relations such as UN institutions and free trade, in which other illiberal powers have integrated and enjoyed for several decades. Washington aimed to do more than solely restore the balance of power. The fundamental goal of liberal order includes the creation of a cooperative system in which states manage their mutual economic and security relations, balance their conflicting values, and protect the rights and liberties of citizens. The liberal order of the US is built for harmony, in which states can consent to a set of multilateral rules and institutions, but does not act to coerce other states. If other great powers try to usher in a new world order, they will need to offer better incentives than the existing alternative.
In conclusion, the US has offered a vision of world order based on a set of principles rather than simply competition over influence across territory. In fact, many countries now worry more about being abandoned than being dominated by the US. The US power has created this distinctive type of order, and the order will buttress American power and play an integral role in the years ahead.
Written by Eddie C.
Edited by Ari B.