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American Power and Liberal Order

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Over the past year, real-estate tycoon Donald Trump mesmerized the American media during his run for the presidency. He broke every rule of expected conduct for presidential candidates and not only survived—he thrived. Many of his attention-grabbing departures were matters of style and character. But among his heresies were some novel policy proposals—especially in foreign policy. Trump called into question NATO’s usefulness; promised to start trade wars with China, Mexico, and Japan; and openly admired the autocratic ruler of Russia while disparaging the leaders of the United States’ democratic allies. He embraced waterboarding and threatened to kill terrorists’ families while simultaneously promising to keep America out of foreign entanglements and let Russia sort out the Middle East. During his first major foreign policy address in April, he openly called for an “America First” grand strategy. He argued that the United States has been taken by its allies and rivals alike, played for a fool by free riders coasting on America’s overly-generous provision of global stability. It is time, in Trump’s view, for America to step back and the rest of the world to pay up.

Trump’s foreign policy vision amounts to a repudiation of the liberal international order—an order of which the United States has been a chief architect, beneficiary, and guarantor since World War II. Trump’s message cannot be dismissed simply because the messenger is unattractive: he is echoing, in a more populist and belligerent register, an argument advanced by credible and respected scholars since the end of the Cold War. Immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, Eugene Gholz, Daryl G. Press, and Harvey M. Sapolsky argued that the United States can and should withdraw most of it military forces deployed abroad, pull out of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) and other alliances, and need not be concerned about the success or failure of democracy in other countries. With the end of the Soviet threat, the United States no longer needed to sustain the costs of its global presence and leadership. The United States enjoyed unparalleled security, in their view, and could afford to withdraw its overseas military presence and wind down its alliance commitments.

Their argument has gained ground since the failure of U.S. efforts in Iraq. Barry Posen in his recent book Restraint distrusts hypothetical causal chains that purport to explain how small incidents would lead to major threats: “The United States should focus on a small number of threats. . . . It can do that because the United States is economically and militarily strong, well-endowed and well-defended by nature, and possessed of an enormous ability to regenerate itself.” Posen believes that the United States can choose the threats it focuses on because they are small enough compared to its strength and argues that the United States should redeploy its military forces homeward and withdraw from most alliance commitments.

Whether or not Trump wins in November, and his foreign policy ideas are increasingly popular. In a recent Pew Research public opinion survey, a majority of Americans said that the United States should “mind its own business internationally” and expressed the belief that the nation plays a less important and less powerful global role than it did a decade ago. The number of Americans holding these opinions was the largest in over four decades of Pew asking those questions. Other candidates than Trump, including Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders, echoed many of the arguments of the “restraint” school of thought in their recent campaigns. Even some aspects of President Obama’s foreign policy, such as his withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, his hesitance to intervene in Syria, and his open doubts about the feasibility of military force against Iran, seem to reflect an instinct for restraint.

The advocates of internationalism face an urgent task: to explain why liberal order matters and why the advocates for restraint are wrong. The United States should sustain its leading role in world affairs, including its global alliance network and far-flung military deployments, for the foreseeable future—not because the U.S. is in imminent danger of invasion or to check an aspiring Eurasian hegemon, but to invest in culture of liberal order in the world’s key regions. The advocates of restraint have an impoverished view of what constitutes world order and why it matters; consequently, they have an overly narrow view threats to American interests. A broader view understands that American power and liberal order are mutually constituting; that liberal order is the outer perimeter of American security; and that sustaining liberal order in the world’s key regions is a cost-effective grand strategy for the United States.

Restraint rests on an overly narrow conception of “security” and a misunderstanding of the relationship between American security and world order. Advocates of restraint argue that the two are separable: America might be safe even in a hostile, unstable, illiberal world, and therefore can safely look to its own shores and remain relatively uninvolved in developments abroad. These scholars are correct that at the most basic level, security is the protection of American lives and territory from immediate physical harm. And if that were the full extent of America’s security concerns, a radical reduction in America’s military budget and overseas presence would be appropriate.

But defining security exclusively as protection against invasion and conquest is an overly narrow and provincial conception of security. As Robert Art has argued, “America’s purpose in the world cannot be reduced simply to self-protection.” There are other forms of insecurity: invasion is not the only form of coercion because, at the most obvious level, in a world dominated by a hostile, illiberal power America would be vulnerable to economic strangulation and blackmail. A world economic order dominated by mercantilism, autarky, or imperialism would make Americans, along with everyone else, poorer and less economically free. The U.S. is more integrated with the world economy now than in decades: trade as a percentage of U.S. GDP rose from less than 10 percent in 1960 to 30 percent in 2013, according to the World Bank. Sustaining a relatively open global trading regime is essential to U.S. prosperity and, thus, national security. That is why policymakers regularly see “security” in broader terms seeking to build a favorable international environment.

Nor is this simply about trade. The trading regime is only the most concrete example of a much broader phenomenon that is central to U.S. national security. The United States exists in a social system comprised of the patterned interrelationships among 193 sovereign states, scores of intergovernmental organizations, and hundreds of multinational corporations, regulated by thousands of treaties and centuries of precedent. The international social system—or “world order” for short—is defined by its most powerful members, articulated in norms and ideologies, embodied in institutions, and gives rise to a discernable culture in which states operate. World order is a political and cultural formation with settled rules, arrangements, and norms that guide states’ interaction. The culture of world order shapes how states treat each other, what expectations policymakers have of other states, whether a given treaty or initiative is considered politically feasible or not, and what states believe is “normal” and what counts as “aggressive.” In this view, American national security is linked to the growth of a favorable culture of world order—which implies a much greater and more expansive American role in the world.

Advocates of restraint fail to appreciate the reality of norms, institutions, ideology, and culture in constructing security. Their focus on the formal structure of the international system leads them to argue that all states are guided by a similar logic according to a rational-actor model, regardless of their domestic political makeup, the beliefs of their policymakers, the presence or absence of democracy, or other factors. This is surely wrong. In a real sense, the world is not anarchic and states are not identical units. Realists’ focus on structure has obscured the importance of other environmental factors shaping state behavior. While there is no legal authority, there are norms that guide behavior and set expectations and function like an informal “constitution” for world order. Additionally, states differ from each other by their position in the international system, their ideologies, their strategic cultures and histories, their capabilities, and their beliefs about the justice or injustice of world order. International politics is thus not the product of a one-dimensional pursuit of power by all states under uniform conditions; it is a response by different kinds of states to an environment of power, as perceived through the lens of differing identities and ideologies.

The culture of world order is relevant for U.S. national security. If the narrower, territorial conception of security focuses on whether or not there is a bigger fish in the ocean, the broader conception worries about poison in the water. It matters that much of the world, including its legal regime, trading institutions, and efforts at arms-control, are informed and guided by liberal norms. Liberal norms comprise the atmosphere in which American research, innovation, learning, exploration, discovery, production, trade, entrepreneurship, travel, humanitarianism, proselytism, tourism, diplomacy, and more take place: it is where the nations live, move, and have their being. A world of liberal norms makes it easier to do all these things. A world of illiberal norms makes it harder, costlier, riskier, and, in some cases, illegal or impossible.

The dominance of liberal norms and the prevalence of democracy and free-market capitalism around the world have direct, practical, and positive security implications for the United States. “Today, the world’s great industrial powers share similar democratic national identities and appear to eliminate the balancing of military power from their relationships altogether,” accordingto Henry Nau, a scholar and former Reagan administration official. Similarly, John Ikenberry argued that, as the hegemonic power of the liberal system, the United States “can identify its own national interest with the openness and stability of the larger system.” Threats to this system are threats to the United States; sustaining the health of this system is a vital national security interest of the United States. Nau again: “Converging identities safeguard national security just as surely as dominant military power.” Narrowly focusing on the territorial security of the United States while neglecting the nature of world order—is it healthy or anemic? Hostile or friendly? Stable or unstable?—is short-sighted. Liberal order is the outer perimeter of American security.

The current distribution of norms is highly favorable to the United States. It has not always been so. World order has changed and evolved over centuries—but not randomly. The culture of world politics is largely the creation of its most powerful members, which is why realists are right to stress the enduring importance of power in world politics. For the past three hundred years, the most powerful states in the international system have been the United Kingdom, the United States, and, since World War II, the liberal democratic states of Western Europe and Japan. Powerful, illiberal states have launched repeated challenges to liberal ascendancy; all have failed. Scholars and policymakers have called this, variously, the “maritime system,” the “Open Door,” the “democratic community,” and a strategy of “deep engagement” to sustain the “free world,” or “liberal order.”

Politically, liberal order favors liberal democracies, the rule of law, and civil liberties. Economically, liberal order means capitalism, relatively free trade and low trade barriers, freedom of the seas, neutral rights, the sanctity of contract, and peaceful rule-based dispute adjudication. Internationally, liberal order means nonaggression and territorial inviolability—with limited exceptions for humanitarian intervention—and favors intergovernmental cooperation on issues of global concern.

Objections, Costs, and Benefits

Some critics, like scholar Christopher Layne, have criticized this view on the grounds that it leads to overextension. “By definition, any strategy that equates security with the defense of de-territorialized ‘milieu goals’—like openness—rather than with tangible strategic factors—like geography and the distribution of power—is open ended, because it is impossible to fix a point beyond which America’s security interests are not implicated.” This is unpersuasive. It ispossible to fix limits (although U.S. policymakers have sometimes failed to do so). The “milieu” is not undefined and featureless, requiring an all-or-nothing defense: it is made of up specific things like the presence or absence of pirates in strategic waterways; the proportion of power possessed by a state expressing a hostile ideology; the efficiency and competence of liberal institutions; and more. Fiji’s autocracy is irrelevant to the survival of liberal order; Pakistan’s is not. The Convention of the Rights of the Child is dispensable; the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is not. The United States’ efforts to sustain a favorable milieu can and should be strategic and selective, largely by focusing on regions with the greatest concentration of wealth, power, and danger.

A second objection is similar to the first. Fostering liberalism abroad may be possible, but it may not be cost-effective. Do the benefits of upholding liberal order outweigh the costs? Or is the U.S. at risk of “imperial overstretch” and “strategic overextension,” the point at which the resources required to maintain its position exceed the benefit of doing so? Scholars have computed the direct cost of different military deployment patterns and found, unsurprisingly, that the cost of a globally-deployed U.S. military presence is higher than the cost of “restraint”—but, importantly, the cost of either is easily sustainable given the United States’ massive economic foundation.

The direct cost of a globally-deployed military posture—probably between four and six percent of GDP—is nowhere near “imperial overstretch.” Since 1940, the United States spent an average of 7.4 percent of its GDP on defense. Since the end of the Cold War, the average has dropped dramatically to 3.7 percent, is currently 3.3 percent, and is scheduled to drop to 2.7 percent by 2020, according to the Office of Management and Budget. The United States sustained more than twice that level of defense spending for four decades during the Cold War. The greatest barrier to a modestly larger defense posture is political will, not economic sustainability.

The real argument is over the opportunity cost of investing U.S. resources, energy, attention, and prestige in upholding liberal order versus not doing so. Advocates of restraint argue that the United States pays an opportunity cost by investing in military and diplomatic tools rather than domestic economic and social programs, such that it is undermining its own economic health by overextending itself abroad. One problem with this approach is that the economic models that purport to show the economic impact of military spending versus domestic spending are uncertain and contested; some scholars contend that military spending actually contributes to economic growth. Paul Kennedy’s classic argument about the relationship of economic strength to military power was drawn from cases of imperialism and mercantilism; its logic does not apply to the novel case of liberal order-building. The United States rarely conquers and administers territory, so it neither incurs the costs nor takes the direct benefit of imperial rule, limiting the usefulness of analogizing to past great powers. In fact, liberal order is an economic asset to the United States because it includes an open trading regime.

Another problem with the argument about relative opportunity costs is that the United States would pay an enormous opportunity cost by not investing in liberal order, a point advocates of restraint rarely consider. Liberal order already exists and provides benefits to the United States. The opportunity to sustain the already-existing liberal order—by staying in NATO, for example—is a major asset for the United States. Divesting from liberal order forgoes those benefits. And even if policymakers are uncertain about the benefits of liberal order, prudence counsels continued investment. Sustaining an existing liberal order is cheaper than building a new one from scratch; sustaining liberal order at low cost today makes more sense than divesting from it only to rebuild it at high cost later.

The debate is intractable because liberal order has no price tag: Liberal order is either priceless or worthless. Advocates of restraint believe that liberal order has zero value because they do not believe the culture of world order matters for American security. Advocates of internationalism argue that liberal order brings concrete benefits and its absence would incur costs, but not ones that can be quantified. If the culture of world order matters at all, it matters a great deal; policymakers should certainly take great care with the kind of culture they help create. The question is not “how much does liberal order cost?” but rather “what kind of world do we live in?” If the world is as described by advocates of restraint, then no conceivable level of costs associated with upholding liberal order would be justified. But if the world is as described here, then, similarly, no level of benefits associated with restraint are very attractive.

A final objection to this view of American security and world order is that it is unsustainable. Liberal order depends on American power, in this view, and it was only built because of the historically unprecedented disparity of power between the United States and others. As China and other developing countries close the gap between themselves and the developed world, America’s relative power will decline, and the United States’ ability to sustain liberal hegemony will erode. If true, grand strategies that aim at the continuation of liberal order are expensive projects in proving the futility of working against the grain of history.

This objection depends on two premises: that liberal order depends on American hegemony and that American power is inevitably declining. Both are contestable. First, liberal order is much older than American hegemony, having antecedents in the Pax Britannica of the nineteenth century and perhaps earlier. It does not depend on unipolarity or hegemony: The British built their version of liberal order within a multipolar balance-of-power system, and the United States within the bipolar Cold War. Today the rise of China or a belligerent Russia might end American hegemony (and might not), but liberal order could nonetheless live on. The rise of India and the enduring prosperity of liberal democratic Europe and Japan suggest liberal order has many pillars to stand on.

Second, while American relative power has declined if measured in crude material terms such as America’s share of global GDP, that is not a very full measure of the United States’ ability to secure its interests. The United States has arguably increased its ability to achieve its goals by fostering a favorable international environment. Liberal order is an extension of American—and other democracies’—power. By entrenching liberal norms, it gives them a life beyond the fiat of any single liberal state. The system is self-reinforcing: Liberal states uphold liberal order, which in turn enhances their power to defend and extend the system. Whether American unipolarity lasts or not, there is ample reason to believe that American influence and liberal order are sustainable. Unipolarity is a tool or, better yet, an opportunity. The important question is what America should do with its unipolarity while it lasts. Using it to build liberal order enhances American security and extends American influence even if America’s relative material power declines.

The arguments in favor of restraint are weak, but advocates of restraint avoid them by rhetorical sleight of hand, by arguing against a straw man. The scholars of restraint regularly argue against a strategy of “preponderance,” “dominance,” or “extraregional hegemony,” which, they claim, had characterized America’s grand strategy since the end of the Cold War or since World War II. Yet it is unclear who is supposed to have advocated these positions. The labels “preponderance,” “geopolitical dominance,” and “hegemony,” were used almost exclusively by critics of those positions. Opponents of restraint typically described their position as “liberal internationalism,” defended the United States’ “unipolar” status or its role as “leader” or the “indispensable nation,” and called for a strategy of “deep engagement.” There is an important difference between “dominance” and “leadership” that advocates of restraint wrongly elide.

Advocates of restraint are arguing against a position no one holds and no one has implemented. Trump called for “America First,” implying that internationalists want to put America second—which is obviously false. Rather, internationalists believe deep engagement is the best means for securing America’s legitimate interests. Similarly, the use of the label “restraint” functions more as rhetorical strategy to suggest that their opponents are in favor of “unrestrained” grand strategy—which, of course, no one has ever done but makes restraint look moderate by comparison. The subtle denigration of foreign policy initiatives they dislike with prejudicial labeling enables advocates of restraint to influence the debate often without engaging their opponents on the merits.

Nor has the United States’ behavior since the Cold War been consistent with a strategy of “primacy” or “hegemony.” Far from pursuing a strategy of hegemony, the United States has, in fact, retrenched in hard-power terms. I am unimpressed with accusations that the United States has been overly zealous, hubristic, or imperialist for democracy, pursuing a grand strategy of “primacy” blessed by liberalism. Since the height of its power, in 1989, the United States withdrew a quarter of its troops from East Asia and 80 percent of its military forces from Europe, cut its active-duty military personnel and its defense budget by a third, destroyed its own chemical weapons stockpile, and demobilized three-quarters of its nuclear warheads. This is not the strategy of a crusading liberal hegemon bent on global domination.

The war in Iraq obviously hovers in the background. Critics betray a troubling tendency to over-interpret that war as a morality play in which American hubris led to a just and tragic fall—a simplistic reading of history and an unhelpful approach to learning its lessons and applying them to future policymaking. Moreover, advocates of restraint sometimes overgeneralize from Iraq as if it were the paradigmatic case of the United States’ role in the world. But Iraq was a single outlier, not a representative sample of U.S. foreign policy. Recognizing the failures of the Iraq War does not require opposition to a broad role for the United States in the world.


Abstract as it may seem, internationalism appears to be almost instinctive for policymakers. American statesmen faced with crises abroad, including Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Reagan rightly took the larger view that because the United States was a primary beneficiary, participant, and (later) architect of liberal order, a threat to liberal order was a threat to the United States itself. FDR’s famous analogy about lending his garden hose to a neighbor whose house is aflame worked because of Americans’ instinctive understanding that their individual safety was inextricably entwined with their neighbors’: a fire next door might spread. The same logic, FDR argued, works in the neighborhood of nations. So too, today, there are major challenges to liberal order which should be understood as threats to U.S. national security.

Today, scholars and policymakers are in greater danger of underestimating threats to American security than overestimating them: we are more prone to undervalue the importance of liberal order to American security than overinvest in it. In the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan, policymakers in both parties—not just Trump—have suggested the United States needs to pare back its international commitments, avoid interventionism, exercise a restrained version of American leadership—or even pass the baton of leadership altogether—and turn aside from ambitious efforts to champion liberalism abroad.

Because this seems to be the prevailing wisdom of the moment, it is important to stress the opposite. American security and liberal order are mutually constitutive: liberal order is the outer perimeter of American security, and American power upholds liberal order. The existence of liberal order is an opportunity for the United States: continuing to invest in its upkeep is a cost-effective strategy for producing an outer ring of security for itself. Advocates of restraint are wrong to neglect this opportunity, and illustrate the weakness of an exclusively threat-centric and reactive grand strategy. Liberal order already exists over much of the globe. It would be a foolish waste to walk away from it.

Dr. Paul D. Miller is the associate director of the Clements Center for National Security at The University of Texas at Austin. American Power and Liberal Order was released September 15, 2016.