As U.S. politics becomes increasingly volatile, there is concern that the country’s instability (or unpredictability) may already be fomenting global disorder. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recently added her voice to a considerable list of voices across the political spectrum expressing this concern. From the outside looking in, allies are trying to understand what appears to be an erratic, incoherent and unpredictable foreign policy while delicately managing what most of them consider their most important diplomatic relationship. From within, there are concerns that despite having the world’s strongest military and economy, the diminution of the country’s prestige is having a negative impact on its ability to lead the globe, and if that persists, the nation’s security will soon be at risk. The latter concern is backed by polls showing the vast majority of people around the world no longer trust the U.S. to “do the right thing” in global affairs. It is not all gloomy, however. There are some gifts in this crisis.
First, U.S. instability is presenting a unique opportunity to test the strength and effectiveness of international norms and institutions. The U.S. has long been the de facto custodian of post-WW II international norms and institutions, having led in their formation and consistently played an indispensable role in their enforcement and maintenance. With the U.S. now seemingly retreating from those institutions, the test of the moment is whether they can stand without the country’s backing. The world now has an opportunity to examine the extent to which international norms have diffused globally or crystallized in international legal affairs and to assess whether the relative order and stability we have enjoyed post-war is a product of real threats of punishment or actual change in understandings of statehood and legitimate international relations (that is, states transformed by ideas). If the explosion of current reports of global disorder is indeed a result of U.S. instability, it would appear the absence of major wars only masked persisting global political dysfunction, a problem that may have contributed to our overestimation of the value of international institutions as global stabilizers. If the test (we can only guess how long it lasts) reveals that global transformation has indeed largely been illusory, we need to rethink international institutions and the manner in which they promulgate international norms. The exercise will be beneficial for long term global order and stability.
Second, U.S. instability is revealing the extent to which the architecture of the post-war global order is ill-suited for the present. The order was based on a series of assumptions about the victors of the war, the most problematic being their perpetual significance, rationality and stability. This assumption resulted in a global system that was overly reliant for leadership on a superpower (backed by a few other lesser but significant actors), and one that lacked effective alternatives should that power (or hegemon) fail, for whatever reason, to lead. Although it appears absurd today, in a largely unipolar world concerned most about the prevention of major wars, the presupposition was sensible. The world, however, has changed and so have its priorities. In this new world, as more states rise, the benignity and judgments of the hegemon are increasingly challenged, sometimes brazenly, and to resolve the most pressing challenges—economic globalization and its management, environment, terrorism, migration and poverty alleviation—more states need to participate both in substance and process. In his book, A World in Disarray, Richard Haass maintained that the U.S. is “not sufficient but necessary” for a working global order. Although certainly a correct assessment of the current situation, U.S. instability is demonstrating the undesirability of that reality for global order. A building is fundamentally unsound if its safety can be compromised by the instability of a single stone.
Third, U.S. instability is providing an opportunity or giving other states permission to rise. This may be interpreted unfavorably as representing U.S. decline, but the rise of more is good for global order. Though there are concerns that an anarchic multipolarity (as almost always assumed it will be) is likely to increase competition and conflict, U.S. unpredictability is demonstrating that unipolarity (or something close to it) is not inherently more stable. In fact, it can be more volatile because it lacks the effective checks and balances that a well-managed multilateral multipolarity could provide. Although many states currently lack the capacity or will to take on global leadership, it is apparent that the world needs to be working toward the creation of an alternative global governance model in which no single state is indispensable and effective decision-making power is spread more broadly. This can only happen if more states rise to the challenge by strengthening themselves first and then positioning themselves to be meaningful participants in global leadership. Many are recognizing the opportunity. Germany’s Angela Merkel has repeatedly noted the need for Europe to take its destiny into its own hands; Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, has thanked the U.S. for its seven-decades long global leadership, noting that the rest of the world should chart its own course and Canada must take on a greater role in the “strengthening of the postwar multilateral order;” Mexico, Chile and Peru have joined the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a move former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Albert Fishlow reportedly interprets, among other trade-related actions, as Latin America “trying to separate itself from the U.S. as much as possible;” and China, as one observer noted, is quietly assuming a greater global leadership role. The alternative is for states to continue to follow the hegemon hoping, fingers crossed, that it will remain rational, benign and indeed powerful.