GOVT-305-05: Grand Strategy and International Order

Kori Schake, Deputy Director-General of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a high-ranking national-security official during the George Bush administration, writes that:

Quite explicitly, the leader of the free world wants to destroy the alliances, trading relationships and international institutions that have characterized the American-led order for 70 years. The administration’s alternative vision for the international order is a bare-knuckled assertion of unilateral power that some call America First; more colorfully, a White House official characterized it to The Atlantic as the “We’re America, Bitch” doctrine. This aggressive disregard for the interests of like-minded countries, indifference to democracy and human rights and cultivation of dictators is the new world Mr. Trump is creating. He and his closest advisers would pull down the liberal order, with America at its helm, that remains the best guarantor of world peace humanity has ever known. We are entering a new, terrifying era. According to the president, the liberal world order is a con job — he insists America is paying too much and being swindled by its friends. He wants the United States to pull back from its alliances and let its partners fend for themselves, and devote its money to its domestic needs. Those criticisms resonate in a time when Americans are fearful of how the world is changing, and when the country’s leaders have done a poor job of explaining those changes and easing their impact on workers and their families. Widening disparity of outcomes and fewer avenues of opportunity call the fundamental fairness of the current system into question. Terrible, costly mistakes like the Iraq war and the 2008 financial crisis destroyed the credibility of experts who are culpable for the failures but insulated from the consequences. And America’s allies celebrate the generosity of their social welfare systems and disparage ours, while spending less than America does to defend their countries. These are all fair points, and they help explain the rise of Mr. Trump and the declining appreciation for a liberal order. But none of these things invalidates the importance of sustaining a system in which America benefits more than other geometries of order will permit.

This is strong stuff. Even more remarkable, Schake’s diagnoses echoes the views of many national-security hands across the political spectrum, including prominent Obama and Clinton advisors.

But is any of it true? A number of scholars and commentators think that, at best, the “liberal order” is a myth and, at worst, simply a way of papering over American imperialism. As Patrick Porter, a scholar of history and international security, argues:

While liberalism and liberal projects existed, such “order” as existed rested on the imperial prerogatives of a superpower that attempted to impose order by stepping outside rules and accommodating illiberal forces. “Liberal order” also conflates intentions and outcomes: some of the most doctrinaire liberal projects produced illiberal results. This nostalgia is harmful because framing the world before Trump in absolute moral terms as a “liberal order” makes it harder to consider measures that are needed to adapt to change: the retrenchment of security commitments, the redistribution of burdens among allies, prudent war avoidance, and the limitation of foreign policy ambitions.It also impedes the United States from performing an increasingly important task: to reappraise its grand strategy in order to bring its power and commitments into balance.

This course is motivated, in part, by the debate now raging over  Trump foreign policy and its relationship to broader issues of international order and grand strategy.

We consider a number of questions, including:

  • What are the consequences of China’s rise, Russia’s efforts to wedge apart the North Atlantic community, and the general diffusion of power away from the United States and its major allies?
  • Is talk of the decline of American power overwrought—a replay of fears in the 1980s that Japan and Western Germany would overtake the United States with significant implications for world politics?

We examine these questions from a theoretical and historical perspective. We look at supposed “classic cases” often referenced in debates over grand strategy. We even ask whether “grand strategy” and “international” order are actual things.

Finally, please note that this is a Departmental Seminar. Thus, it involves a lengthy final paper, intense class discussion, and substantial reading and writing assignments. Our readings are generally at the advanced undergraduate level—some are at the graduate level—and no one who has not already taken an introductory international-relations course should sign up for this seminar.

The syllabus will not be ready until late December, at the earliest. Contact me if you have any questions