A broadly conceived strategy to preserve and strengthen the liberal, rules-based global order is needed: the leaders of that order must “consolidate the core.”
The post-Cold War world order is fractured beyond recovery. Autocratic regimes are set on replacing it with a global order conducive to authoritarian governance based on pervasive surveillance, social and political control, and rigid regime leadership. A broadly conceived strategy to preserve and strengthen the liberal, rules-based global order is needed, and the leaders of that order must “consolidate the core.”
For roughly twenty-five years following the demise of the Soviet Union and its communist ideology, the democratic, capitalist model of governance appeared to be the last man standing. Alternative models of state and global governance were discredited or abandoned.
While the West focused on cleaning up the obscure corners and dark caves where terrorism still lurked, revanchist Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chinese revivalist president Xi Jinping directed their respective elements of national power toward a reordering of this liberal, rules-based paradigm. Christened as “multipolarism” or the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, its goal is the defeat and replacement of the liberal rules-based global order, which both China and Russia view as a euphemism for containment and a rubric for sustaining Western global hegemony.
The liberal, rules-based global order has been in the making for quite a long time, though only dominant since the end of the Cold War. It is the culmination of the Enlightenment, the scientific and industrial revolutions, the democratic waves, and the global human rights movement. It began in Europe, then spread to the Western hemisphere, then elsewhere throughout the world, and its accomplishments are significant. Its beneficiaries live longer in much better health, lead vastly more prosperous lives, and are substantially better educated than their predecessors or those living outside of the order’s perimeter. The improvements in the standard of living and quality of life under the liberal, rules-based order are extraordinary and historically unprecedented.
Alternatively, our adversaries in Moscow and Beijing offer a socially controlled life characterized by enforced stability built upon carefully curated information sources and flows, pervasive surveillance, security-based directly on loyalty and regime obedience, constant indoctrination, and repression of dissent.
This model may be optimal for Russia, China, and their followers, and it should not be our intent to transform them, a task best left to their own people. The risk in operating beside such systems is manageable so long as our system is functioning properly and can defend itself against the aggression of both the hard and soft power. This is how we survived—indeed flourished—during the Cold War.
The broad counterpoise to Russia’s and China’s assertive revisionism is “consolidating the core.” What is the core? It is neither the West nor the East nor the North nor the South. It is not a grouping against Russia, China, or anyone. “Consolidating the core” is neither containment nor imperial expansionism. The core consists of those states committed to the liberal, rules-based global order embracing human liberty, social justice, and the norms of international behavior articulated in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Today, the core consists of the NATO alliance members and partners, the members of the European Union, the AUKUS and Quad members, the Five Eyes, and a few notable others. However, the core is not frozen nor exclusive. Between the core and the authoritarian coalition exists a large number of hedging states unwilling or unready to commit to one or the other visions of global order or the coalitions advancing them. These are contested states that might continue to hedge or lean toward or join one group or the other. They are not insignificant, and the competition over their allegiance will be intense. The liberal, rules-based order does not require expansion to flourish. However, contraction poses the risks of reduced choices and economic scale. Geographical stagnation does risk system entropy and dissipation. However, these can be avoided so long as innovation, initiative, and invention are enthusiastically encouraged.
To prevail in the competition over the contested spaces, the core must offer a better deal, a better pathway to security, justice, and prosperity. The core is well-positioned for this due to its long-standing commitment to the principles of human rights, political rights, civil liberties, and the rule of law. Core countries must practice these principles both at home and abroad and compete aggressively.
Membership of the core is not exclusive. Any country can join by demonstrating clearly and consistently its commitment to the core values, government of, for, and by the people, to borrow an American aspiration that competes well internationally. Not merely rhetorical adherence like the all-inclusive Community of Democracies. Would-be core members would have to meet the standards of political alignment that would qualify for entry into NATO or the EU.
“Consolidating the core” must include reinforcing the core political values both in individual states as well as between member countries. The core countries must redouble their efforts to mitigate and soften legacy disputes and hostilities, such as between South Korea and Japan or between Greece and Turkey. And when a core country begins to veer from the path of the liberal, rules-based core, the community must not rush to castigate but rather incentivize re-commitment to the core values. This may take time and constitutional changes of government.
Today, Turkey and Hungary are departing from this pattern. Their leaders are narcissistic, obstinate populists who do not respond well to efforts to coerce, shame, or threaten them into aligned behavior. Intensive, skilled diplomacy and calibrated incentives might be more effective to induce them into the collective effort to consolidate the core rather than ostracizing them. In any case, their time in office is inevitably finite, and this struggle is forever.
Our adversaries are relentless, merciless, and unscrupulous; Competition with them is existential. The core countries cannot neglect the challenges forced upon them today by their authoritarian adversaries—they cannot abandon Ukraine or Taiwan. Yet the reflexive focus on our adversaries diverts us from the other, equally important element of the equation—our allies, partners, and the undecided.
Michael Miklaucic is a Senior Fellow at National Defense University and the Editor-in-Chief of the PRISM Journal. The views expressed in this article are personal and not official statements of NDU or any U.S. government agency.
John R. Allen was president of the Brookings Institution from November 2017 to June 2022, having previously served as a distinguished fellow in the Foreign Policy Program at Brookings. Allen is a retired U.S. Marine Corps four-star general and former commander of the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan.