October 18, 2022

Under Pressure: The Present and Future of International Order

By Richard Fontaine

International order is a concept much invoked and seldom defined, and even less often is it explained. Some argue that international order is anachronistic, others that it has fragmented, and still others that liberal order never really existed in the first place.

On the contrary: international order is real, it is important and, if it’s not defended, we’re going to miss it when it’s gone.

What is international order? The first page of Australia’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update warned “Confidence in the rules-based global order is being undermined by disruptions from a widening range of sources.” The introduction to the Biden administration’s new National Security Strategy states “We are in the midst of a strategic competition to shape the future of the international order.” And in their joint statement earlier this year, China and Russia noted that “The sides intend to strongly uphold the outcomes of the Second World War and the existing post-war world order.”

Defending a liberal international order requires unity and commitment. It entails costs.

World order comprises those institutions and rules that govern, if not always effectively, the conduct of nations. It is a rules-based order because it elevates standards above a might-makes-right doctrine. It is open because any nation-state that wishes to follow those standards can join its ranks; there are no exclusionary regional or ideological blocs. And it is liberal because it is weighted towards protection of free-market capitalism and liberal democratic political values.

The open, rules-based liberal order has generated significant benefits: an absence of great-power conflict, unprecedented prosperity, the expansion of democracy in every region. Given the stated intention of many governments to defend and strengthen international order, and even the protestations by countries such as China and Russia that they seek to abide by it, what, then is the problem?

One is that much of the recent political debate in the United States and in other countries has focused not on the benefits of world order but rather on its costs. Defence spending, alliances and military pacts, diplomatic deals, international economic arrangements – all are easy to dismiss as the obsolete manifestations of a Cold War mind-set, or the hubris of Western leadership, or the conceit of those who overlook the interests of the average citizens who shoulder the burdens.

Read the full article from The Lowy Institute.

  • Commentary
    • The Atlantic
    • December 5, 2022
    How to Stop the Next World War

    Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has given us a glimpse of what the return of industrial-scale warfare would mean....

    By Robert O. Work & Eric Schmidt

  • Commentary
    • War on the Rocks
    • December 1, 2022
    The Kadena Conundrum: Developing a Resilient Indo-Pacific Posture

    This article originally appeared in War on The Rocks. The long-standing debate over whether the United States is prioritizing China and the Indo-Pacific region has reignited o...

    By Stacie Pettyjohn, Andrew Metrick & Becca Wasser

  • Congressional Testimony
    • November 30, 2022
    Opportunities and Challenges for Trade Policy in the Digital Economy

    This hearing addresses digital trade, and I will focus my testimony on the national-security problems in this area posed by China – specifically, concerns about China’s open a...

    By David Feith

  • Commentary
    • Foreign Affairs
    • November 30, 2022
    Xi Jinping in His Own Words

    The contest between democracies and China will increasingly turn on the balance of dependence; whichever side depends least on the other will have the advantage....

    By David Feith, Matt Pottinger & Matthew Johnson

View All Reports View All Articles & Multimedia