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The United States’ Divide and the Future of the World Order

Zorawar Daulet Singh ( is a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi.


Over the last year there has been an animated debate in the United States (US) over the meaning of the world order and the US’s role in it. This struggle for ideas has not left other countries unscathed. In India, the response to these American contestations has been a mix of astonishment and fear, and policymakers and analysts appear to be clasping at binaries rather than unpacking the forces at play. Yet, there are no easy binaries to make sense of this phase of history, when the dominant power is struggling to establish a legitimate consensus on the nature of its relationship with the rest of the world and, indeed, on how world politics itself should be regulated.

The debate revolves around competing claims to some fundamental questions. What were the central motivations and concerns that drove American policymakers to envisage and design a liberal order after 1945? Does this “liberal order” benefit the US and the rest of the world, or is there nostalgia for a world that never actually extended beyond a very small portion of the planet? And, is this order sustainable, that is, does the US possess the material capacity to uphold its traditional responsibilities and continue to supply public goods and open institutions?

Clashing World Views

Opposing camps have been portrayed in several ways. No typology is devoid of value judgment, and yet each conveys some facet of the US’s divide. We have the “far right versus neo-liberals” as a way to capture the political competition. “Nationalists versus globalists” is another. Joseph Nye (2017), a proponent of the neo-liberal camp, prefers “Populism vs globalisation.” Since much of the debate is waged through rhetorical strategies aimed at delegitimising the opposing world view, the underlying beliefs and conceptions of order are what should be most pertinent for unpacking this debate. One fascinating aspect is how each side seeks to advance their preferred image of the international system as a means to also advance their domestic agenda. The international and domestic have become entwined in their world views.

The nationalists fear a decaying industrial economy and an influx of immigrants as not merely an economic travesty, but a cultural assault on the US. They believe that persisting with the traditional course of US foreign policy will wither the US’s economic and cultural foundations and heighten fault lines that have been latent for the past few decades when US material preponderance was undisputed. It would also overstretch American power and resources, producing an inevitable revolt at home. The advocates for the liberal international order, on the other hand, seem confident of the US’s power capacities, which, after some tactical adjustments, are seen as adequate to sustain an ambitious interventionist role. The globalists point out that the trends of interdependence are irreversible and the US must adapt to the new geoeconomic age of open borders and free trade rather than erect new walls. They also raise the spectre of chaos and catastrophes that would follow a world where the US was not directing the course of history. The globalists are also unperturbed by domestic stability arguments or that the US must preserve a distinct cultural and economic life at home. Indeed, they seek to radically change the US from within in order to maintain their vision of global primacy.

So, we have two rival, almost irreconcilable, conceptions of order that pervade US domestic politics and the foreign policy discourse. When it comes to a “buy-in” of their ideas, the nationalists from the right and, more recently, the progressive left, have been more on the money. And, this is for the most basic reasons of livelihood and identity. An overwhelming majority of Americans have been alienated in the otherwise dynamic age of globalisation, and a distorted political system has utterly failed to salvage this structural decline of the US’s middle class (Colgan and Keohane 2017). The neo-liberals have struggled to advance their global governance and trade ideas because they are, in many instances, the source of the problem. As a result, even more latent divides in the US—questions of race, identity and culture—have surfaced and increased the prospect of civil strife.

Historical Myths

The disdain by the Donald Trump administration for upholding long-cherished foreign policy ideas has led some observers “to double down on historical myths” (Danforth 2018). American foreign policy, it is asserted, found its groove during a “golden age” of the 1940s when the ascendance of liberalism (and its final “triumph” in 1989) drove US policymakers to remake the world. But, as Graham Allison (2018) pithily retorts, “Had there been no Soviet threat, there would have been no Marshall Plan and no Nato.” Or, as Allan Bloom (1989) notes, it was “Cold War sobriety” that disciplined Western states to raise their game and confront rival ideas in a way that would never have ensued if geopolitical rivalry had not prevailed. And, the prolonged great-power peace was a consequence of a balance of power between the superpowers, who not only held each other in check, but ensured their bloc followers eschewed the pursuit of narrow calculations of national interest in favour of a robust and interdependent economic and security community.

Nevertheless, a deeper liberal strand in Western strategic thinking was never absent and searching for its normative roots would aid our understanding of how we have reached the present impasse. Quinn Slobodian’s (2018) fine intellectual history of neo-liberalism uncovers the central tenets of the rules-based world order. Neo-liberal globalism sought to produce a “doubled world” of sovereign states with limited autonomy and a supranational edifice of institutions and rules to govern the global economy and resuscitate the traditional interdependence that had prevailed before the devastating shocks of World WarI, the economic crisis of the 1930s, and World War II. At the heart of this project was a quest to insulate the world economy from “mass demands for social justice and redistributive equality.” Neo-liberals “did not see capitalism and democracy as mutually reinforcing,” but viewed “democracy as a problem,” a threat that ranged “from the white working class to the non-European decolonising world” (Slobodian 2018: 16–17). In short, neo-liberal globalism was always about containing politics and populism at home and traditional geopolitics abroad.

Order for Whom?

In its utopian image, the liberal world order is one where the US supplies public goods in the form of norms, institutions, and military security to absorb the costs and undertake responsibilities so other states can benefit from such an open and predictable order. Legitimacy and the buy-in of the system by non-Western states, and the developing world more generally, is then central to the functioning of the order since it is not an empire and, therefore, cannot rest solely on coercion. Although it sounds altruistic, the order is envisaged to secure US hegemony and enable American capital and technology to access remote corners of the globe in a fashion that does not invite a revolt against the basic system by a return to either a 19th century-style regionalised balance-of-power system or the Cold War spheres-of-influence order enshrined in the 1945 Yalta agreements.

But, as Nick Danforth (2018) observes,

Well before Trump, US foreign policy had to navigate between rival critiques, from Americans insisting that the international order was a hopelessly idealistic project with little in it for them and foreign critics who saw it as a euphemism for American hegemony.

Over the past two decades,

the political class that brought unending, unsuccessful wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, as well as the financial crisis and Great Recession, had discredited itself. (Allison2018)

It would follow that Trump is a symptom rather than the cause of this disorder. Today, neo-liberal globalists have an uphill task in taming US nationalism and the rising claims to economic security by Western societies, and a changing global balance of power where uncritical acceptance of neo-liberal norms is at an all-time low. In short, it is a resistance on multiple fronts. Yet,

Despite his threats to overturn the old order, the power of the foreign policy establishment and its habitual ideas have steered Trump to quickly conform to the fundamentals of traditional US grand strategy. (Porter 2018; Deudney and Ikenberry 2018)

The proponents of the status quo believe that “were Washington to recommit to its previous foreign policy vision, the world would fall in line” (Danforth 2018). This appears unlikely and the more sober critics are urging American elites to redesign the system and accommodate great-power rivals before it is too late. Ironically, it is the rising powers that have made some attempts in renovating the tattered order. For some time now, they have been insuring against a sudden reversal of their fortunes that to a large extent were brought about by engagement with an open economic order. BRICS is one manifestation of this trend, not to depose the old order but to reimagine and reform it in ways that make the entire system more durable and equitable for the non-Western world. Other multilateral initiatives such as the China-initiated Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, which drew inspiration from BRICS and other developing world agendas, are also aimed at order-building in the face of a crisis in mainstream conceptions of globalisation. In short, when India, China and others speak of upholding an open international order, they do so from a different prism, different identities and interests than the West, and yet no non-Western power seeks to topple the system altogether.

Since the advent of Trump, India’s strategic discourse has lacked the subtlety to respond to the eroding bases of the neo-liberal order and imagine alternative futures, reflecting a “failure to comprehend the character of the post-war order, and the roles of race, empire and periphery war in it” (Parmar 2016). For the past seven decades, the liberal world order has “rested on the imperial prerogatives of a superpower that attempted to impose order by stepping outside rules and accommodating illiberal forces” (Porter 2018). And, beyond the “north Atlantic core,” where this order flourished, the legacy has been “far more complex and shallower” and evokes “cynicism and suspicion” rather than the euphoria of being liberated by an enlightened force (Staniland 2018). Finally, it fails to appreciate that the “militant globalism” underlying neo-liberal thought, and which purports to advance a seemingly noble endeavour of an interdependent world economy, is only made possible by disempowering politics and people, that is, containing true democracy and liberty itself. It should suffice to say that whatever intellectual framework follows the liberal international order, India’s identity and interests would be most secure, to borrow John F Kennedy’s words, in a multipolar world made “safe for diversity.”


Allison, Graham (2018): “The Myth of the Liberal Order: From Historical Accident to Conventional Wisdom,” Foreign Affairs, Vol 97, No 4, July/August.

Bloom, Allan (1989): “Responses to Fukuyama,” National Interest, No 16 (Summer), pp 19–35.

Colgan, Jeff D and Robert O Keohane (2017): “The Liberal Order Is Rigged: Fix It Now or Watch It Wither,” Foreign Affairs, May/June.

Danforth, Nick (2018): “What’s So Disordered about Your World Order?” 20 June,

Deudney, Daniel and G John Ikenberry (2018): “Liberal World: The Resilient Order,” Foreign Affairs, Vol 97, No 4, July/August.

Nye, Joseph S (2017): “Will the Liberal Order Survive? The History of an Idea,” Business Day,
12 January,

Parmar, Inderjeet (2016): “Racial and Imperial Thinking in International Theory and Politics: Truman, Attlee and the Korean War,” British Journal of Politics and International Relations, Vol 18, No 2, pp 351–69.

Porter, Patrick (2018): “A World Imagined: Nostalgia and Liberal Order,” Policy Analysis No 843, Cato Institute, Washington, DC, 5 June, https: //

Slobodian, Quinn (2018): Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Staniland, Paul (2018): “Misreading the ‘Liberal Order’: Why We Need New Thinking in American Foreign Policy,” Lawfare, 29 July,

Updated On : 28th Sep, 2018


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