What Will Replace the U.S. Based Liberal International Order?

As the tightly contested U.S. presidential election draws to a close, what effect will the outcome have on U.S. foreign policy?  I have already discussed this question in two recent posts.  First of all, we should not overly fear the rise of China, because China’s population, and especially its working-age population, will soon be in decline.  Secondly, Trump’s nationalistic and populist leanings are here to stay, regardless of how much longer Trump, himself, remains in office.

The political scientist, Michael Beckley, has a more extensive discussion about this in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. Says Mr. Beckley:

  • The era of liberal U.S. hegemony is an artifact of the Cold War’s immediate afterglow. In the coming decades, rapid population aging and the rise of automation will dampen faith in democratic capitalism and fracture the free world at its core.  The burdens of caring for older populations and the job losses resulting from new technology will spur much competition for resources and markets.
  • In the next 50 years, only Australia, Canada and the U.S. will have growing populations of working-age adults. China will lose 225 million working-age adults, 36% of its current total.  By 2050, Russia’s spending on pensions and medical care for the elderly will increase by 50% as a share of its GDP and China’s share will triple.  In the U.S. such spending will increase by only 35%.

  • The wide-spread adoption of smart machines will reduce the United States’ economic dependence on other countries. For decades the U.S. has chased cheap labor and resources abroad.  Now, automation will allow the U.S. to rely more on itself.
  • This rise of smart machines will also help the U.S. contain the military rise of its rivals. Drones and missiles will be capable of destroying enemy invasion forces.  The U.S. can capitalize on a fundamental asymmetry in war aims: whereas U.S. rivals need to seize and control territory (Taiwan, the Baltics) to achieve regional hegemony, the U.S. needs only to deny them that control.
  • The working-age populations of U.S. democratic allies will shrink by 12% over the next 30 years, while their senior populations will expand by 57%, the same problem facing China and Russia. Such challenging conditions will inevitably breed nationalism and extremism.
  • At the same time, North America will be the only region with all of the ingredients necessary for sustained economic growth.
  • The post-cold war order has fostered the most peaceful and prosperous period in human history. As it recedes, the world will become a more dangerous place with the return of great power mercantilism and new forms of imperialism.  A major example is China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its attempt to create a closed-off, parallel internet.
  • A nationalist mood has taken hold in the U.S. But warding off authoritarian powers such as China and Russia can be accomplished with advanced technology even while foreign bases are being eliminated or cut back.  Overall, this represents a realistic realignment of U.S. foreign policy rather than a retreat from the world.

Conclusion.  “The best hope for the liberal world order is that the U.S. find ways to channel growing nationalist impulses in internationalist directions.”  For example, the U.S. has previously undertaken liberal campaigns for selfish reasons.  It nurtured a community of capitalist democracies to crush Soviet communism.  The secret is to figure out how to continue this kind of outreach in the new, coming nationalistic era.

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