Order from chaos: The need for U.S. leadership

The post-Cold War liberal international order is in trouble. For a quarter century, the world has experienced an era of growing global interdependence and relative peace and prosperity, brought about largely through the leadership of the United States and in the absence of genuine geopolitical competition. Now, though, several fundamental challenges to that order have emerged: in Europe, Russia seeks to undo the post-Cold War settlement through aggression; in Asia, the rise of an assertive China is generating friction; and in the Middle East, the American-led order is collapsing.

This intensification of geopolitics has been accompanied by a return to competition between democracies and autocracies. China’s rise and Russia’s recovery (at least until recently) have generated a new model of “authoritarian capitalism” at a time when the global financial crisis put a dent in the credibility of the Western economic model and the disappointments and consequences of the “Arab Spring” have led many to question the value of promoting liberal democracy. Transnational and global threats also pose deepening challenges to the United States, though also to its geopolitical competitors. Climate change, pandemic disease, and radical Islamic extremism pose shared threats, though as yet common solutions have largely eluded the powers. The digital revolution holds out the promise of a leveled playing field and increased productivity, but its disruptive impact will be felt in every corner of the globe.

All this also comes amid relative weakness in the Western alliance, characterized by political gridlock in Washington, double or even triple-dip recession in Europe, and continuing stagnation in Japan. In Asia and Europe, crises have both strengthened and strained alliances; in the Middle East, those alliances are badly frayed.

All told, we appear to be at one of history’s pivotal junctures, and again, the response of the United States will be critical. For all the talk of America’s relative decline, the United States retains more capacity than any other power to impact the calculations and policies of others. But America’s competitors are too powerful and their visions too different to imagine that U.S. leadership alone is a sufficient ingredient to maintain the liberal, rules-based international order that now feels so threatened by rising chaos.

In short, the task is urgent and complicated: how to reinvent the liberal international order in the face of so many centrifugal forces so that it can provide greater stability, peace, prosperity, and freedom; and how to do it in ways that encourage cooperation from other world powers, reduce friction generated by competition with them, and, if necessary, contain or constrain their ability to undermine the order.

To respond to this moment, Foreign Policy at Brookings is beginning a broad research project—“Order from Chaos” to understand the challenges to the international order and to develop strategies to deal with them. It is designed to promote a public conversation between the Foreign Policy Program’s scholars, distinguished fellows, and non-resident scholars and other experts from within and outside Brookings. It will provide analyses on the dynamics, challenges, and stresses impacting today’s international order. We will seek to define U.S. interests in this new era and develop specific strategies for promoting a revitalized international order. The ultimate goal of our “Order from Chaos” endeavor is to provide policy recommendations on how to develop the necessary military, economic, diplomatic, and social policies to redesign and reinforce the architecture of the international order.

The Order from Chaos project will focus on these and other critical issues, contributing to the policy debate during the 2016 U.S. presidential election process and to policy formation for the next president. It will conduct research on six major themes:

  • Rising and Revisionist Powers: The dynamics and interactions of those powers that seek to resist or change the international order.
  • Flashpoints: Unfolding or potential crises that threaten regional or international order.
  • Critical Leaders: Studies of key leaders whose visions of alternative forms of order will play a key role in shaping what lies ahead.
  • Alliance Dynamics: The interaction between the United States and its key allies, particularly in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
  • Geo-economics and Energy: The geopolitics of economic globalization, energy and climate change.
  • Developing a Bipartisan Strategy for the Next U.S. President. 

The “Order from Chaos” blog is part of that larger project and intended to help us debate the issues involved, with both internal and external audiences, as well as communicate our findings and views.

The name “Order from Chaos” reflects the urgency of the moment and the potential implications of failing to respond. We remain confident that the liberal international order that has been so painstakingly created over the last seventy years can persevere through the current challenges. But to so do it will have to respond and adapt. We hope in some small way through our research efforts to contribute to that important effort.