BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 736, February 11, 2018
By Dr Gabriel Glickman
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Scholars disagree as to whether there exists a liberalizing global political order that has been preserved through American hegemony since World War II (often referred to as the “liberal world order”). Still, it is generally agreed upon that the US has been the dominant power in global affairs since at least the fall of the Soviet Union. With the release of the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy, the US Department of Defense is weighing in on this debate. Specifically, it has announced that American security policy is shifting from counterterrorism in the Middle East to strategizing against rising world powers like China. The reason for this pivot, according to the Pentagon, is the need to protect the current world order from states that seek to revise it.
The National Defense Strategy (NDS) was recently released by the US Department of Defense (DOD). It follows the National Security Strategy(NSS) that was released by the White House in December 2017. There are two components to the new release: an 11-page unclassified synopsis that is available to the public, and a much longer (and presumably detailed) report that will remain classified for the foreseeable future.
What is most notable about the NDS is that it emphasizes world order strategy and great power competition rather than the “war on terrorism,” which has been the primary focus of US security policy since 9/11. Thus, rather than committing to continuity in policy, the DOD is asserting the importance of the US recommitting itself to maintaining “a free and open international order.”
What is a liberal world order?
In the field of international relations, the terms “revisionist state” and “status quo state” are used to describe, respectively, countries that seek to change the current international system and those that seek to uphold it. Historians like Robert Kagan argue that ever since the allied victory against Nazi Germany and Japan in World War II, the international system has been maintained by a system of military alliances (e.g., NATO) and global institutions (e.g., the World Bank) that promote the spread of Western liberal democracy. Most importantly, the pillar of that system has been American military and economic strength. This is commonly referred to as the liberal world order.
Of course, not all historians agree on the existence of a liberal world order. Niall Ferguson, for example, has argued that the notion of an intentionally liberalizing global system is “historical fantasy” – and one that detracts from the actual era of liberal economic and immigration policies that began when the Soviet Union collapsed between 1989 and 1991.
However, what unites scholars like Kagan and Ferguson is their agreement that regardless of how one defines the current international system, the US is undeniably the most powerful country in the world. Indeed, Ferguson classifies the US as an “empire,” albeit one that is reluctant to hold such a title.