For at least the third time in 70 years, the United States has a chance to help shape world order.

The first chance came in the fall of 1945, with Japan’s surrender to Allied forces. In the previous three decades, the world had experienced not only two wars, which killed some 80 million people combined, but also a global downturn to which every subsequent economic crisis has been compared.

With vast stretches of Europe and Asia laying in ruins, the United States inherited global preeminence by default. It consolidated its newfound influence by facilitating the recovery of those two continents; the centerpiece of that effort was a system that has come to be known as a liberal world order. Its foremost objective was to prevent another war between great powers; given the role the Great Depression had played in creating a breeding ground for fascism and Nazism, a corollary goal was to place the global economy on a stable footing and develop mechanisms that could resuscitate it in times of crisis.

A nuclear Damocles sword

This fledgling order – embodied in new institutions such as the United Nations and the World Bank – would come under enormous strain over the next 45 years. The emergence of a doctrine of mutually assured destruction raised a nuclear sword of Damocles over the world – a sword that, as Eric Schlosser documents in his latest book, came perilously close to dropping on numerous occasions.

Meanwhile, civil wars, proxy wars, genocides, and other types of armed violence killed at least as many as the two world wars had, and likely more. Still – and it is crude in the extreme to gloss over such horrors in this manner – the liberal world order got a passing grade at the highest level of analysis, for it managed to prevent another great-power war.

With the Soviet Union’s dissolution, the United States had a second chance to shape world order – this time, by entrenching the liberal variant. George W. Bush famously spoke of a “new world order” in a September 1990 address before Congress. Bill Clinton advocated “engagement and enlargement.”  George W. Bush launched two ground wars in the Middle East in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001; he argued in the 2006 National Security Strategy that the best way to expand the liberal world order was to expand the circle of democracies.

While Barack Obama has adopted a significantly different course in foreign policy – avowing the need to conclude the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq while rebalancing America’s strategic equities to the Asia-Pacific region – he, too, speaks often of the liberal world order’s virtues and has committed himself to its expansion.

The relative decline of the United States

Today, however, it is eroding for a number of reasons, two of which come to mind readily. First, its principal architect and underwriter, the United States, is in relative decline. Bruised by nearly a decade and a half of wars in the Middle East, moreover, the American people are wary of pursuing a proactive foreign policy.

One hypothesis holds that this mood is cyclical and malleable; should there be another terrorist attack on the homeland, for example, or a crisis abroad that threatens the country’s vital interests, the proposition runs, they will quickly cast off their inward gaze. Another hypothesis maintains, however, that this mood is new and, if not immutable, more hardened; this speculation suggests not only that Americans are more focused on domestic renewal, but also that they are pessimistic about the rate of return US foreign policy can achieve in a world that is increasingly crowded, competitive, and complex.

Regardless of which hypothesis is borne out, the balance of power among nation-states will continue shifting.  As it does, one will likely see the emergence of experiments in regional order—none that threaten to overturn the liberal world order entirely, but all of which, to varying degrees, will weaken its grip.

Beijing, not Brussels

Another reason the liberal world order is fraying is that its longstanding anchor, the Transatlantic project, is losing momentum. The vector of America’s strategic intentions increasingly points to Beijing, not Brussels.

Meanwhile, protracted economic stagnation and growing popular disillusionment with European integration threaten the vigor of the European Union. Disclosures by the former US National Security Agency contractor, Edward Snowden, have also undermined trust between the United States and many of its principal European allies. A successful conclusion of negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Project would offer a much-needed boost to transatlantic ties; for now, though, they are stagnating, if not regressing.

Greater world disorder

A growing consensus holds that these two phenomena, among others, are contributing to greater world disorder; this judgment is the rare one that seems to transcend ideological divides: one can find comparable concerns expressed in recent work by Robert Kagan and Bret Stephens (conservative commentators), Richard Haass and Mathew Burrows (centrists), and Zbigniew Brzezinski and George Packer (liberals).

The manifestations of disorder are ubiquitous. The grisly war of attrition in Syria, the ascent of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and the rampages of Boko Haram have captured much attention. Russia’s revanchism calls into question not only the stability of its immediate western periphery, but also the agency of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Meanwhile, resurgent nationalisms, historical antagonisms, and conflicting judgments about the prerequisites for regional stability are all destabilizing the Asia-Pacific.

Two existential challenges

Going forward, there are at least two phenomena that pose existential challenges – less to the liberal world order in particular, than to the notion of world order itself. First is the shift of power from nation states to non-state actors. Conventional wisdom holds that modernizing world order will require giving a broader array of countries a larger say in the structure and policies of influential international institutions. Without seeking to minimise the difficulty of that task, there is at least some shared sense of the countries whose voices should be amplified: among them, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa. Moreover, there is a finite number of countries: 196.

Which non-state actors, however, should be invited to participate in these deliberations? How would one even begin to distill the aspirations of a category of actors whose constituents are so varied – ranging from tech-savvy social activists to mammoth corporations? What metrics would one use to determine the representation of a given non-state actor against a given country? One would have to answer countless such questions in this vein to fashion a concept of world order that could accommodate two foundational categories of actors.

The second challenge is arguably even more vexing: the success world order has had in achieving its original objectives has left it without self-evident rationales. While few would venture to rule out the possibility of another great-power war, it seems unlikely. While there are numerous fault lines in the global economy, policymakers are far better equipped to keep the world economy afloat than they were in the 1930s.

If, as Henry Kissinger contends, world order is not an end, but instead a process that moves through stages of decreasing duration, what should the next stage of order attempt to achieve?

The less clear one’s purpose is, the less momentum one can generate in its pursuit. Compounding this lack of urgency is a tentative reality: growing disorder has not, thus far, reversed human progress; indeed, global gains in health, wealth, and security continue apace. It took horrific convulsions to lay the foundation of a liberal world order; one cannot blame today’s leaders if they are reluctant to risk more such convulsions, even if in quest for a more enlightened system.

A third chance

And so, the United States has a third chance to reshape world order—only this time, however, it is unclear what course it should take. Should it undertake to revitalise the liberal variant, the dominant postwar conception of order and the one with which its identity as a superpower remains inextricably intertwined?  Should it conclude that that variant will erode into oblivion and instead try to contribute to the formulation and construction of a new system? Or should it conceive of its role in a more negative sense, simply attempting to circumscribe the adverse consequences of disorder?

Far from being peripheral to the 2016 presidential contest, this discussion of world order is – or at least should be – central. Since the inauguration of the post-war era, the United States has defined its role in relation to a conception of world order. In his 1946 State of the Union address, for example, delivered a little over four months after the end of the Second World War, Harry Truman argued that the “great and dominant objective of United States foreign policy is to build and preserve a just peace.

The peace we seek is not peace for twenty years. It is permanent peace. At a time when massive changes are occurring with lightning speed throughout the world, it is often difficult to perceive how this central objective is best served in one isolated complex situation or another. Should either the liberal world order erode indefinitely or the concept of world order itself prove beyond realisation, the United States will find it difficult to refashion its role in the world.

Author: Ali Wyne is a contributing analyst at Wikistrat and a global fellow with PS21, a think tank that launched this January.

Image: The U.S. Capitol dome in Washington, August 2, 2011. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst