In the wake of the G20 summit in Hamburg, the United States has continued to step back from its global leadership role of the past 70 years. The Trump administration’s America First policy has raised serious doubts as to the future of a liberal international order that depends on U.S. power. Unlike past predictions, today’s “post-American world” stems from a lack of American will rather than capacity.
As the United States walks away from the system it built, eyes are turning to China and Europe as potential successors. Unfortunately for the continuation of a liberal, rules-based international order, Washington’s continued preeminence demonstrates that no other actor, including Beijing and Brussels, possesses the necessary global reach or dedication to liberal principles to step into the breach.
Chinese President Xi Jinping was the first to seek the mantle of international leadership after Trump’s election. At the January World Economic Forum, Xi decried protectionism, appearing to embrace an open global economy. Months later, as President Trump announced America’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord, Beijing again seemed to step forward, styling itself as the foremost actor on climate change. This move was not unanticipated; gestures by China aimed at strengthening its image as a responsible global leader began before the 2016 election, such as the country’s 2015 decision to increase UN peacekeeping forces.
Yet, despite these pronouncements, China will not emerge as the leader of an order that is liberal in nature or global in scope. Xi may have condemned protectionism at Davos and appeared to preach free trade, however Beijing’s commitment to liberal principles is shallow. China fails to abide by liberal economic rules across a host of issues, including its use of state-owned enterprises to accumulate disproportionate savings and its asymmetric approach to market access. When coupled with China’s assertive actions against its neighbors in the South China Sea, Beijing’s dedication to a liberal, rules-based order is only superficial.
Furthermore, while China may be an economic giant, Beijing lacks the force projection capacity to lead a global order or even expand its vision beyond East Asia in the near-term. China has expanded its military reach with bases as far as Djibouti, yet Washington has for decades secured the global commons (sea-lanes, air routes, and space). Beijing, conversely, will not possess a similar capacity for years as it has focused its resources on ships and systems suited project power in the near waters of the South and East China Seas.
Europe, nowadays, is often heralded as leader of the Free World. Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has remained resolute in the face of populism. President Emmanuel Macron’s victories in France’s May and June elections appeared to stem the nationalist tide that has wracked the West. Yet, while Europe may be the lamp that keeps liberalism alive, its power and reach remain limited.
To begin, the declared populist high tide is dubious. Macron’s success has obscured the significance of youth turnout for the far-right leader Marine Le Pen and socialist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon that reveals a severe disillusionment with more centrist politics. The Franco-German engine may hold the European Union together; nonetheless EU solidarity will remain hampered by illiberal forces from within and susceptible to pressures from without, such as China leveraging investments in Greece or Russia’s meddling in elections.
Even without these challenges, Europe’s willingness and capacity to maintain a global order is suspect. Despite a flow of refugees stemming from conflicts in the Middle East that, when coupled with concurrent crises, continues to shake the EU’s foundations, European leaders have shied from projecting power into the region. That Europe would act as a security provider as far as Asia is thus dubious. In the best case, the European Union will sustain its own region. Successful European leaders will maintain peace within the continent, and perhaps even counter Russian aggression in its neighborhood. Nevertheless, Brussels will not replace Washington as a global leader.
A concert of actors?
Without a clear successor to U.S. leadership, it is unclear whether the international system can survive in a piecemeal fashion whereby a variety of states take the lead on specific issues. In this scenario, China or Europe – alongside emerging powers such as India and Brazil – could lead on certain aspects of the international order, such as trade, climate, or the United Nations, while simultaneously withholding support for others. Following this logic, perhaps the order, or enough of it, could persist.
A concert of leaders on various transnational challenges may yield results on these important issues. However, a healthy global order ultimately depends on the existence of effective orders in the major geostrategic regions of East Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Without an actor capable of maintaining the foundational principles of a liberal international system within each of these key regions – in particular the prohibition against states intimidating neighbors by force – then the foundations of the international order will be chipped away regardless of progress on transnational threats.
Lacking those underpinnings, the peace and prosperity that the order has provided will fade away. What comes next remains unclear. But without the United States returning to its traditional leadership role, the future of the international system will diverge drastically from its past 70 years.
Will Moreland is the International Order Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). He also works at a leading Washington DC think tank on issues of American strategy and the liberal international order. Will earned his MSFS from Georgetown University.