“New world order” is a phrase mostly associated with the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, when America and the Soviet Union decided to put their differences aside and cooperate rather than constantly menace each other. Together, the 2 superpowers were supposed to police the globe, punishing wrongdoers and promoting open societies and peaceful international relations. When the USSR collapsed, it was America alone who ended up playing this role, facing almost no resistance in its quest to shape the world in its own image and promote its own ideals.
We are once again living through a seismic shift in the world order like the collapse of the Soviet Union. For the most part, American “hyperpower” lent predictability to international affairs. No other country can seriously challenge the US, so none really try to. The benefits of free trade, open borders, democracy, human rights and peaceful diplomacy are obvious, so no one really worked against them. America was reduced to playing a police role, punishing countries like Iraq and Yugoslavia that transgressed international norms, mediating international disputes like the Arab-Israeli conflict to keep them from erupting, and ignoring problems like Rwanda or Zaïre that “didn’t matter.”
There are other contenders for seismic shifts in the world order since then. The 9/11 attacks in 2001 gave America (and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the West) a new sense of purpose. Terrorism moved from the back burner to the front of the agenda, and counterterrorism efforts have dominated American foreign policy ever since. The Iraq War seemed to presage a new era of American imperialism, but as time passes it seems less and less like it started a real trend. The global economic collapse in 2008 seriously discredited capitalism and empowered China and other emerging markets over a floundering West, but the world has slowly recovered from that chaotic time.
But now, America is challenging the very underpinnings of the world order. So much of international relations is shaped by America, whether other countries like it or not (and many of them are accustomed to it and take it for granted). It bankrolls giant organizations like the UN and the World Bank. Its military protects Europe, East Asia, and (to some extent) West Asia. The dollar is the international reserve currency. Its economy is the global powerhouse, both through its huge domestic market and its role in trade. Its political system is a model, conscious or otherwise, and its values are exported both through overt evangelists and more subtle messages in its pop culture.
Yet it seems that America is now losing interest in this. Military intervention leads to prolonged war and occupation, and Americans have been tired of it for a decade already. The military and financial contribution to NATO, the Western alliance, is no longer seen as worth it. Deep cuts to the federal government and bureaucracy have reverberations in its diplomacy, as the foreign service is suddenly understaffed, underfunded and mismanaged. Protectionism is back with a vengeance, no longer just an alternative economic theory or something to fall back on to score quick political points but the outright credo of the country. America now takes a realistic approach to foreign relations, no longer judging countries by their domestic situation but evaluating them in terms of straight-up strategic value. International commitments like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP, a trade pact linking America with East Asia, Oceania and Latin America) and Paris Agreement (a climate change accord) have been discarded.
Some foreigners are freaking out about this, since America is the guarantor of global stability. Without that underlying guarantee, international relations enter a more unpredictable phase, where rising powers are more likely to challenge the status quo and bring about a different world order. Since the American-led world order has mostly worked out well — who doesn’t like peace, prosperity and freedom? — there is discomfort and uncertainty about what could replace it. The ongoing rise of China, in particular, is thought to indicate a new emphasis on nationalism and narrow-minded economic interests over democracy promotion or human rights. Russia is outright challenging the American-led order, and even though many of them have been reluctant to stand up to it before, European countries have been aghast at how unwilling America now is to confront Russian transgressions. Kenneth Roth, the head of Human Rights Watch, lamented that America’s new disregard for human rights would bring the world “to the verge of darkness.”
Other foreigners are shrugging the whole thing off or even smugly rejoicing. Any superpower is resented, and China in particular sees America as hogging the spotlight and getting in the way of its own influence. Free trade in particular is an issue with wide global appeal (especially among the business elite), and China has deftly positioned itself as the new champion of globalization. The TPP is now being resurrected by the original member countries, led by Japan, without American involvement. Others look to Germany and its stodgy but level-headed chancellor, Angela Merkel, as the new “Leader of the Free World” (China being too suspicious to trust).
So how much is all this for real? It’s far too soon to say, but it seems fair to underline how much all of these recent developments rest on 1 man: Donald Trump. Although observers have predicted America’s decline for a while now, the idea that it would suddenly give up on “leading the Free World” and lose interest in upholding international alliances would’ve seemed strange only 2 years ago. Within America, and especially its foreign policy establishment, resistance to Trump’s agenda is severe. Although Trump has certainly started a movement and has many devoted followers at home, foreign policy always takes a back seat in American politics, and it’s unclear how much shrugging off global commitments is part of Trump’s appeal. There are certainly elements of Trump’s team that back his hostility to allies and disregard for international commitments (Steve Bannon being foremost), but even among his administration there are personalities pushing for a more traditional foreign policy approach (like James Mattis, the secretary of defense, and Rex Tillerson, secretary of state). Given how chaotic Trump’s time in office has been so far, it’s fair to ask how durable his policies will be. Earlier this year editorials often asked whether Trump’s election heralded a new wave of right-wing populism across the West, but after centrist, pro-EU candidates won the elections in France and the Netherlands, these concerns have diminished.
There’s also the small problem that despite America’s eclipse, no other countries really want to step up to the plate. Britain is a more obviously declining power consumed with its controversial decision last year to exit the EU. Germany has been reluctant to shoulder the burdens of power since 1945 and is a shadow of its former self militarily. Japan, similarly, has a declining population and a tradition of pacifism and consensus. Russia may be reasserting itself and has pretensions of re-forming an alternative power center, but lacks the allies and international clout and reach it once had. China is the most obvious candidate, with its growing roster of clients all over the world, hegemonic status in East Asia, massive population, and assertive military posture…. but it remains inwardly focused and unwilling to engage in messy interventions in far-flung countries.
Ian Bremmer, an American political risk consultant, calls this state of affairs “G-Zero,” since no country really wants to take the lead and dominate the world. Having decried imperialism for so long, most countries can’t exactly assume the mantle of empire themselves. Economic growth remains the imperative for most countries, and that means pursuing narrow self-interest, not monitoring international agreements or intervening in faraway disputes of no immediate concern. Countries like Germany or Brazil have mostly narrow, regional focuses. International cooperation is hard, messy, tiresome and protracted. Military intervention, as America well knows, is bloody, expensive, frustrating and also protracted.
Thus, despite Trump’s antics, it seems most likely that America will continue to uphold global order for the time being. 1 erratic president can’t bring down a durable, popular international system all by himself. America remains the hub of world power. But Trump’s election, and later, his actions, have delivered an unmistakable jolt to the world. They have shown that all that talk about American decline was on to something. They have shown just how much other countries rely on America to get things moving. And they have shown that Americans aren’t necessarily fond of playing the role of global policemen, and that 1 successful agitator can push them away from embracing the role.