By Alexander C. Roberts
The Liberal International Order (LIO) is failing, as pointed out numerous times by the likes of G. John Ikenberry, Inderjeet Parmar, and John Mearsheimer. It saw an explosion of growth in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, opening and expanding its membership to countless states that were previously excluded. Through the success of the World Trade Organization the West sought to bring states like China and Russia into the world system. This idea in retrospect was an optimistic one. What we have seen since is an exploitation of the world system by the West’s rivals that has allowed them to benefit politically and economically, while showing no intention to reform. The LIO has expanded in membership to such a degree that it has become too ‘thin’, and functionally useless to combat the rising global influence that China exerts. It has even allowed a resurgent Russia to maintain an outsized presence on the world stage.
Whether the LIO is weak, or dead altogether, it would be beneficial to the US and its allies to look to establish a new order. Ikenberry suggests downsizing to reach an Order more in line with what existed before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Luckily, the US already has an organization ripe to expand into this new role, one that has become increasingly political throughout the past 30 years. One that America already exerts a great deal of influence within: The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Since the 1990’s NATO has expanded its role well past that of its original conception as a military alliance. It began this transition with peacekeeping operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. Then it expanded even further with humanitarian operations in Darfur that it allowed to be subordinated to the African Union, and showed a willingness for the organization and its members to engage themselves outside of the West. Its mission has further expanded since with disaster relief projects, peacekeeping capabilities, and dedication programs to non-military objectives such as Women, Peace, and Security.
In addition to this, the contributions from each member extend well beyond their monetary contributions, with countries such as Slovenia providing experts on Bio Cleanup, the manufacturing of goods such as tents, trucks, and pharmaceuticals. The United States should take note of this, and its own unique position to provide the funding that the organization needs to function, and encourage this disparity further. If it wishes to direct NATO towards accomplishing its own geopolitical goals, then having an even more outsized contribution to the organization’s budget will provide much of the soft power needed to direct it towards the LIO’s new rival: China.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative has granted it much influence worldwide, and while this has largely been focused in regions such as East Africa, it cannot be forgotten that it has made inroads with close allies such as Italy. China can focus its resources and efficiently use them to influence specific regions on the world stage. The United States is too spread out, partly out of necessity due to its position of power and leadership globally. This cannot change in a world where America wishes to retain its supremacy, but it also does not need to. America can continue to try and fund and influence countries around the world broadly, while using NATO as its Belt and Road Counter Initiative to specifically target regions which China itself is trying to sway, and work to undermine them there. This would have the added benefit of being a multinational effort on the surface, even if it furthers America’s interests directly.
NATO can be the face of an American push against China globally, and may find more support and open arms than the United States would directly. NATO has already been involved in international projects in regions that were not favorable to direct American intervention (Such as the aforementioned Darfur), and can continue to do so. However, such an initiative will require an expansion of the organization past its current budget and administration, and these are projects that Americans at home are loath to see their tax dollars spent on.
The Biden Administration should begin work now to convince the American people otherwise. Sentiments against Beijing among the public have never been lower. The American people might not be receptive to a pitch to expand NATO on its own merits (Particularly in a post-Trump era), however they might be much more receptive to support being framed as a countermeasure to China. More than this, it might even find bipartisan support in a climate where budget talks have been particularly contentious. If the LIO is well and truly dead, then there is a golden opportunity for its successor to rise. The framework is there, if the United States can take the initiative.
Alexander C. Roberts is a former student of Leadership and the American Presidency with the Ronald Reagan Institute in Washington, D.C. Alexander is a native of Edinboro, Pennsylvania and currently studies political science and international relations at Edinboro University.