A new feature to the Hamilton Lugar School’s annual America’s Role in the World® conference was the student editorial writing contest. Open to all IU Bloomington students, the contest was judged by Carol Giacomo, the foreign policy editorial writer for The New York Times and Indiana University’s new Poynter Chair. First place went to third-year student in Political Science and Russian and East European Studies, Tyler Combs, for his piece, “For America to Save the Liberal World Order, We Must Admit that We Broke It.”
President Trump offered nothing but kind words for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un despite their failure to reach a denuclearization agreement at the summit in Hanoi. Mr. Trump praised the dictator and claimed to believe him when he denied knowing about the 2017 death of American student Otto Warmbier in North Korean custody. Fortunately, Mr. Warmbier’s parents set the record straight by reasserting that Mr. Kim was responsible for their son’s tragic demise.
That was the latest instance in which Mr. Trump has sided with authoritarian leaders, even when they have directly harmed American interests and American lives. Meanwhile, he has regularly expressed disdain for the country’s trusted democratic allies, especially in Europe. At a time when democracy and human rights are under assault, the United States, once the international leader against authoritarianism, has muted its support for both of those bedrock principles.
How did the world get to this point? The reality is that, like other great powers before it, the United States is helping to sow the seeds of its own decline. Hubris fueled by American dominance in the post-Cold War “unipolar moment” led the United States to undertake a pointless war in Iraq in 2003 that overthrew leader Saddam Hussein. Two years earlier, after the 9/11 attacks, American forces ousted the Taliban in Afghanistan to ensure the country would never again be a haven for Al Qaeda and other anti-Western terrorist groups. Those conflicts, as well as the subsequent Syrian civil war and battle against Islamic State, cost thousands of (American, Iraqi, Afghan, Syrian, NATO) lives and trillions of dollars , while creating instability that has bled over into Europe with terror attacks and a refugee crisis that are fueling authoritarian populism.
Russia, a revisionist power determined to disrupt the United States-led liberal order, is working hard to exploit the turmoil. However, the United States bears some responsibility too, as Russia’s aggression is in part a response to Washington’s push to expand NATO into Eastern Europe. Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has increasingly come to see alliance enlargement as a grave security threat that must be responded to forcefully. However well-intended, America’s push for a more inclusive NATO reflect a refusal to accept constraints that have ultimately had dire consequences for the world order.
This isn’t to say democracy shouldn’t be encouraged in the Middle East, or that Eastern Europe shouldn’t have security guarantees. However, the fact is that America’s overstretch has torn the fabric of the international order, and that revisionist states and authoritarian populists are preying on those tears to worsen the democratic recession. The spread of democracy and human rights are all greatly enhanced by a liberal world order, but for that to happen the liberal world order must exist. To ensure that, the next American presidential must be humble, prudent, and accepting of the realities of the international situation without stooping to realpolitik.
What would a more realistic liberalism look like? Essentially, it would involve a process of consolidation on an international scale. Liberal overreach abroad has resulted in a fracturing of liberalism at home, to the ultimate danger of liberal democracies near and afar. The order cannot expand to embrace the periphery of illiberal and undemocratic states if authoritarian populists destroy the core of established liberal democracies and emerging democracies.
In practical terms, this means that the United States must evaluate every foreign policy decision with the goal of advancing the long-term health of the liberal order, not just its immediate self-interest or moral crusading fervor. Before signing new trade agreements, it must manage the disruptions caused by the old. Before forging new alliances, the United States and NATO must demonstrate that they can defend the allies they already have and that all allies – old or new — are capable of, and commited to, carrying their weight.
By refocusing its foreign policy on democratic consolidation and economic stabilization, the United States will be better able to direct its resources toward securing support for the liberal order in those countries that have already committed to it. Americans and citizens in allied countries need to be reminded, and in some cases persuaded again, that democracy, with its political and economic freedoms, is the best system of governance.
At some point, undemocratic states will once again be invited into the liberal order, but that should not happen without consolidation and stabilization today.
Such an assessment of the causes of the world order’s present state and the prescriptions may seem cynical and pessimistic. Yet, it is based not on despair, but hope. The liberal order that the United State led for seven decades has provided massive benefits including peace and prosperity in Europe, and it can continue to do so while expanding further. But that can only be secured by building a more sustainable order, once the existing deep wounds have been repaired.
Although it has largely abdicated its international leadership role under President Trump, the United States still has time to guide this consolidation, but only if his successor is more enlightened and responsible.