The Liberal Order seems to dying ever since January 2017, when Donald Trump prepared to enter the White House, and made his instincts clear: Tired of seeing the United States played for a sucker, he promised to place “America first,” abandoning global leadership and adopting a transactional foreign policy. He disdained international organizations, treaties and law as infringements on U.S. sovereignty and freedom of action; regarded the United Nations and other global bodies as worthless talk shops; and viewed longstanding alliances like NATO as protection rackets. Describing economic competition as a zero-sum game, he pledged to withdraw from “unfair” multilateral trade deals and use America’s market leverage to win concessions through bilateral negotiations.
Since 1945, the United States has provided geopolitical reassurance to dozens of countries, functioning essentially as an insurance agency. The Trump administration has suddenly called such arrangements into question..Examples of hedging against the United States are easy to find. In response to Trump’s relentless hectoring over burden-sharing and growing doubts about the credibility of U.S. security guarantees, Europeans are exploring ways to enhance their “strategic autonomy.” One proposal, recently floated by Macron, is to create an integrated European army—an echo of the continental defense community that the United States pressed in vain for Europeans to create in the early 1950s. Already, 25 of the bloc’s 28 members have endorsed an EU mechanism called Permanent Structured Cooperation on Security and Defense, or PESCO, as a way to pool defense efforts.Asian allies have also been uncertain about Washington’s willingness to sustain the regional balance of power in the age of America First.
The geopolitical competition is heating up, though, and economic relations are awful and likely to get worse before they get any better. For decades, most American commentators argued that globalization would transform China, moderating its military ambitions, opening its markets and liberalizing its politics. Today, disillusionment has set in. China has indeed been transformed. But its regional ambitions are expanding as it seeks to become the dominant force in Asia. Its economy remains closed to global trade and investment, even as it ramps up its mercantilist Made in China 2025 initiative. Beijing is determined to win the global race for artificial intelligence, pouring untold billions into it, while pursuing a mercantilist “Digital Silk Road” as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. Finally, its totalitarian system is becoming more deeply entrenched as its citizens navigate an increasingly Orwellian system of pervasive surveillance and “social credit” scores, a vastly expanded—and far more intrusive—version of Americans’ credit ratings.The world is thus bracing for a clash between two “revisionist” great powers. China is a rising, nationalist power that, like Imperial Germany, seeks its own “place in the sun.” It wants to dismantle the U.S. alliance system, achieve technological primacy and enhance its weight in global councils.