A Disengaged America, an Eroding International Order

By Alan W. Dowd

Order is essential for individuals and nations alike. We need order to pursue happiness, to maintain free government within nations, to carry out trade among nations, to keep peace between nations. Of course, too much order is not good; it’s known as tyranny. But too little is just as bad; it’s known as chaos, which seems to be where the world is headed.

America and its closest allies built a particular kind of order after World War II. Some call it a “rules-based, democratic order,” others a “liberal international order.” Both terms aim to describe how the peoples of the West have tried to make the world work and indeed manage the world: They embraced and encouraged democratic governance; developed rules and norms of behavior; promoted liberal (freedom-oriented) political and economic institutions; and called upon governments to live up to the responsibilities of nationhood by promoting good order within and around their borders. 

It was upon this foundation that Cold War-era presidents forged a broad consensus about America’s place and purpose in the world: to be active and engaged on the international stage, to lead the West, to guard the frontiers of freedom, and to contain the Soviet Empire. But that consensus has frayed in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union: Fifty-seven percent of Americans want the U.S. to deal with its own problems and “let other countries get along the best they can on their own”—up from 30 percent in 2002 and 20 percent in 1964. 

Many political leaders share the public’s view that it’s time for the U.S. to take a much-deserved break. President Obama, for instance, reassured the American people that they could “focus on nation-building here at home,” withdrew U.S. stabilization forces from Iraq over the objections of his military commanders, drew and then erased his own “red line” in Syria, and allowed sequestration to shrink the U.S. military. Although President Trump ended sequestration’s maiming of the military, he continued the disengagement that began under President Obama—ordering a drawdown of U.S. forces from Syria and Afghanistan (also over the objections of his military), browbeating allies in Europe and Asia, pulling back from trade agreements, and declaring, “We have to build our own nation.”

As Freedom House concludes, these years have seen “America’s global presence…reduced and its role as a beacon of world freedom less certain.”


Given that Project Fortress explores the intersection connecting faith, liberty and security, it may be helpful before we go any further to spend a moment discussing what these have to do with global order.

First, the God of the Bible is deeply interested in order. Genesis tells us God brought order out of chaos. Jeremiah says God “made the earth…and gave it order.” Paul urges us to pray for “all those in authority that we may live peaceful and quiet lives.” The implication: Legitimate governments exist to promote order in a broken world bent toward chaos. 

As to liberty, we seldom stop to think about it, but liberty paradoxically depends on some modicum of order. Without any order, without any rules to make sense of that order, without anything or anyone to enforce those rules, liberty devolves into license and chaos.

Similarly, security—whether personal, national or international—presupposes order, rules, and entities to maintain order and enforce rules. As Niebuhr argued, “The sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world.” At home, that translates into laws, police, judges, courts and executive agencies acting to enforce the law, protect innocents, and punish criminals. On the international stage, that translates into responsible powers deterring and, if necessary, punishing aggression. When responsible powers fail to act responsibly, the result is the erosion of international order.

To be sure, there are costs that come with maintaining some semblance of order around the world. The Cold War cost Americans 104,000 military personnel and $6 trillion. The post-9/11 campaign against terrorist groups and terrorist regimes has claimed 6,900 American personnel and devoured $2 trillion. 

What’s often ignored or forgotten are the costs that come with allowing international order to erode: Nanking and Ethiopia and the Rhineland in the 1930s, Pearl Harbor and Auschwitz in the 1940s, Afghanistan in the 1990s, Manhattan in 2001, Iraq and Syria in 2014.


In Beijing’s piecemeal annexation of the South China Sea, Moscow’s assault on Ukraine, the spread of Iran’s malign influence across the Middle East, the retreat of liberal democracy and the rise of a new autocratic bloc in its place, and the collapse of the free-trade consensus, we hear an echo of those earlier times when global order came under attack. And we are reminded that the liberal order doesn’t run on autopilot or grow organically. 

As historian Robert Kagan bluntly explains, “International order is not an evolution; it is an imposition. It is the domination of one vision over others—in America’s case, the domination of liberal free market principles of economics, democratic principles of politics, and a peaceful international system that supports these over other visions.”

The world is fortunate the United States emerged from World War II and the Cold War as that dominant power, because those other visions are not pretty: Had the Axis won World War II, world order would have been characterized by godless racialism and fascist totalitarianism. Had the Soviets won the Cold War, world order would have been characterized by godless collectivism and Leninist totalitarianism. If Xi’s China and Putin’s Russia gain the upper hand, world order will be characterized by might-makes-right lawlessness between nations and the triumph of statism over individualism within nations. And if ISIS, al Qaeda and their kind have their way—they take literally Muhammad’s injunction “to fight all men until they say, ‘There is no god but Allah’”—world order will be characterized by theocratic totalitarianism, or perhaps no order at all. 

Speaking of a world without order, the late 1930s and early 1940s remind us of what the world is like when there really is no order, when no one is willing to enforce rules of the road or norms of behavior: freedom and free nations in retreat, predator nations assaulting weaker neighbors, murderous regimes laying the groundwork for a new dark age.

That era taught an earlier generation of Americans that in a highly interconnected world—a world far different from Washington and Jefferson’s day, when they counseled against entangling alliances—America must remain engaged in the messy business of international security. If not, the world will slide toward chaos—and America’s own security will be imperiled.

Benefits and Burdens

Some will counter my defense of the liberal international order by saying America does all the work to maintain it, while the rest of the world free-rides on the benefits of it. 

It is certainly true that some of our allies are free-riders, but many are not. Britain, France, Poland, Israel, Japan, Korea and Australia come to mind. 

Moreover, America benefits from the liberal order as much as—perhaps more than—any other nation. As Gen. William Odom, who was director of the National Security Agency in the 1980s, argued before his passing, the “myth is that our allies are making us poor by free-riding on our military expenditures…How then are we to explain that the United States has gotten richer than its allies? Proponents of this argument cannot explain why. They fail to realize that our military alliances, by lowering transaction costs, have facilitated the vast increases in international trade from which the United States profits enormously.”

Gen. Odom understood that the U.S. alliance system prevents the world from sliding into chaos; that dependable and strong allies serve as an outer ring of security for the U.S. and contribute to international stability; that open seas and open skies enable the movement of goods and resources, which fuels America’s economy; that stable governments serve as an antidote to a host of pathologies—terrorism, piracy, drug trafficking, illegal mass-migration—that have a way of harming Americans. 

In the post-Cold War years, these benefits of the liberal international order have become less obvious for the American people, and two successive administrations have failed to connect the burdens and benefits of global leadership. The result is the reemergence of political movements that believe America is either too good for the world or can do no good in the world. Both movements lead to the same destination: isolation and disengagement.

Others will counter my defense of the liberal international order by arguing that there’s no such thing as order on the international stage—that it’s all, at best, an exercise in crisis management.

Let’s accept that for the sake of argument. Let’s say that the idea of liberal order is a myth, or perhaps an aberration of the decade between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the World Trade Towers. Let’s stipulate that the best we can do is manage crises as they emerge.

How, then, do we manage the myriad crises that confront us, threaten our interests, and assault our values without allies that share those interests and values? How can we gather the resources necessary to manage those crises without the wealth generated by a stable system of international trade? And won’t those crises be more destructive without an outer ring of allies and bases to address them before they are fully formed?

If the decade leading up to 1939 is any indication, the answer is grim and obvious.


Defending and supporting the liberal international order doesn’t mean we have to make the world “safe for democracy,” as President Wilson declared in 1917, or “end tyranny in our world,” as President Bush declared in 2005. 

Instead, it means having the resources to ensure that America’s democracy can deter the world’s autocracies (sequestration erased those resources). It means maintaining hard-earned gains by remaining engaged (Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq jeopardized those gains, as does Trump’s zigzagging approach to Afghanistan and Syria). It means leading the alliance system America built (Obama’s stand-off approach to Libya fell short, as does Trump’s bruising treatment of allies). And it means recognizing that America is a force for good in the world (Hollywood, the media and academia say otherwise). 

I was speaking to a group of college students and grad students recently. As I concluded my remarks, a young grad student took issue with my premise, asking, “How can you say the U.S. is a force for good after all the wrongs we have committed, all the countries we have exploited? Russia could just as easily claim it is a force for good in the world.”

My response: Just as I believe that a person can make mistakes and even do wrong things at times but still be a good person, I understand that a nation can make mistakes and even do wrong things at times but still, on balance, be a force for good in a broken world. And then I asked her, since she mentioned Russia, to list what good things Putin’s Russia is doing in the world. Where is Russia’s equivalent of the Peace Corps at work? What is Russia doing with its foreign aid dollars? Did Putin rush aid and soldiers to Liberia after Ebola began to spread, to Sumatra after the tsunami, to Japan after the earthquakes, to Mt. Sinjar after the ISIS blitzkrieg? What did Russia do in Ukraine and Georgia? Are they waving Russian flags and singing the Russian national anthem in Hong Kong?

I then invited her and the rest of the room to compare Russia’s intervention in the Islamic State crisis with America’s intervention. Putin intervened to rescue Assad, who is responsible for the deaths of 500,000 of his own people, who used chemical weapons against civilians, who made common cause with the terrorists of Tehran and Hezbollah. America intervened to prevent ISIS from eradicating the Yazidi population and to block ISIS from overrunning Baghdad and Irbil—cities governed by free people. 

The difference between Russia and America—and their visions for world order—is stark. And so, it’s fair to say America is a force for good—or at least a force for something better than the alternatives. How sad that we have to spend 10 minutes explaining what earlier generations understood innately. 


In his farewell speech in 1953, President Truman reflected on the postwar order he and his countrymen began building out of the rubble of World War II. “We have succeeded in carving out a new set of policies to attain peace,” he said, “policies of world leadership, policies that express faith in other free people…the Marshall plan which saved Europe, the heroic Berlin airlift, our military aid programs…the North Atlantic Pact, the Rio Pact…the defense pacts with countries of the Far Pacific. Most important of all, we acted in Korea.”

He contrasted American engagement and commitment to a liberal international order after World War II with the very different course America took a generation earlier. “After the First World War,” he recalled, “we withdrew from world affairs; we failed to act in concert with other peoples against aggression. We helped to kill the League of Nations, and we built up tariff barriers that strangled world trade.” But then he added, with pride, “Where free men had failed the test before, this time we met the test.”

It seems that we are facing a similar test today.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose and authors the Project Fortress blog. Follow him on Twitter @alanwdowd.