American Global Leadership Is in Retreat

If the U.S.-led liberal international order is crumbling, what comes next?

By Walter Russell Mead

Sept. 13, 2021 6:35 pm ET

The 20th anniversary of 9/11 finds American foreign policy in a peculiar place. The U.S. hasn’t stabilized the Middle East, permanently remade Afghan society or ended jihad. But no terrorist has managed to inflict another attack on the scale of Sept. 11 on the American homeland. As a result, the War on Terror has receded to the margins of U.S. politics as fears that the liberal world order is crumbling rise to the fore.

The central pillar of Washington’s post-Cold War grand strategy was a quest to build a liberal international order by promoting free trade and secular democratic governance under the aegis of American power around the world. The U.S. foreign policy establishment still believes not only that this strategy offers the best way to secure American interests, but that it represents humanity’s best hope to survive. In the era of nuclear weapons, the age-old cycle of great powers going to war with one another threatens the entire human race and must end, while global problems like climate change can only be addressed through the establishment of effective global institutions.

These are powerful ideas, but as a practical matter, globalists have so far failed to master the challenges of the 21st century. Progress on international trade liberalization stalled as the World Trade Organization’s last comprehensive round of global trade talks ground to a halt during the Obama years. Since then, protectionism has been on the rise. Liberal democracy is also losing ground. Surveys by democracy monitors like Freedom House show a steady decline in political freedom around the world. Meanwhile, China, Russia and Iran are challenging American power with growing success. The problems facing the liberal world order are more acute and urgent than they were in 2001; the order’s resources to address them have diminished.

U.S. policy failures overseas have reduced American confidence in the globalist vision. The Trump movement replaced traditional Republican internationalism with a more populist agenda and the growing progressive wing within the Democratic Party has pushed for more fundamental changes in American foreign policy. While President Biden’s rhetoric often echoes the ideas of the old American globalism, his administration doesn’t seem to have much appetite for the muscular humanitarianism and liberal trade policy that, for example, marked the Clinton presidency.

More failures seem likely. The fall of Hong Kong, the consolidation of Russian power in Belarus, the Afghan collapse, and gains by Iranian clients across the Middle East signal to both U.S. allies and adversaries that Washington has lost control of geopolitical events. The liberal order’s record in managing global challenges ranging from Covid-19 to migration to climate change also remains uninspiring.

Two alternative visions of American grand strategy are gaining prominence in U.S. politics as globalism fades. Restrainers, who include both progressives and conservatives, want to reduce America’s footprint abroad. As the U.S. withdraws from its global commitments, restrainers believe a natural balance of power will emerge, with American allies from Europe to Asia taking responsibility for their own defense. On the other hand, global nationalists—mostly more hawkish Republicans and independents—have little regard for global multilateral institutions, free trade and visionary human rights goals, but believe that U.S. security requires an active American presence in key theaters around the world.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration occupies an unenviable spot. Its goals on issues like climate change, human rights and denuclearization would have been difficult, if not impossible, to achieve even at the height of U.S. geopolitical dominance a quarter-century ago. Today, the determined and focused hostility to American world leadership emanating from Beijing, Moscow and Tehran limits Washington’s ability to orchestrate a global diplomatic consensus around those ambitious goals.

Under the circumstances, the old consensus in support of a global liberal order seems fated to fade even as geopolitical challenges such as a rising China and global problems like climate change grow. Whether restrainers or global nationalists can produce sustainable, realistic national strategies that work remains to be seen. Inadequate globalist responses to the complex challenges facing America will likely give one or both schools an opportunity to try.

Barring a dramatic, new attack on the scale of 9/11, radical violence from fanatical Islamists, however, appears unlikely to play a large role in the next era of U.S. foreign policy debates. Even as it steels itself for the struggles ahead, America should recognize that as a victory, which is something to be grateful for in a dark and dangerous time.

Copyright ©2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Appeared in the September 14, 2021, print edition.