Capstones: Out of Order

The American Legion Magazine, June 2023

From Crimea and COVID to Kabul and Kiev, recent events have reminded us that the natural order of the world is not all that orderly. That’s a problem because order is essential. Nations need some modicum of order to organize and sustain society within their borders, to conduct commerce, trade and other affairs across their borders, to keep the peace along their borders, and to preserve civilization beyond their borders.

Of course, too much order is not good; it’s known as tyranny. But too little order is just as bad; it’s known as chaos. In the international system they built from the rubble of World War II, America and its closest allies offered a happy and healthy medium between those extremes. Regrettably, that postwar order is under sustained assault today.


Some call it the “rules-based democratic order,” others the “liberal international order.” These terms may seem esoteric, but they are just descriptions of how America and its allies have tried to make the world work in the decades since World War II: They developed rules and norms of behavior; encouraged democratic governance; promoted liberal (open, freedom-oriented) political and economic institutions; and called upon governments to live up to their responsibilities by promoting good order within and across their borders.

The process of building this liberal international order began in August 1941, when President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill unveiled the Atlantic Charter, which envisioned a new international system premised on: self-government, respect for borders and sovereignty, rule of law, human dignity, free trade and freedom of the seas. These ideas were their blueprint for a durable and just postwar peace—what FDR called “the foundation for an international accord that would bring order and security after the chaos of the war.”

Indeed, contrary to those who dismiss the liberal international order as some gauzy outgrowth of 1990s-era globalism, key American statesmen considered it an essential part of America’s security throughout the postwar era. 

Gen. George Marshall explained that “we fought to prevent Germany and Japan from imposing their kind of order on the world”—and that under what he called the “cooperative idea of global order,” America and its allies would defend “a set of rules for global conduct.”[1]

President Harry Truman adopted a policy that committed America “to bring about order and justice by means consistent with the principles of freedom and democracy.”[2] Toward that end, his administration forged NATO, rescued South Korea and West Berlin, signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, promoted GATT and other tariff-lowering initiatives, and fielded a large peacetime military to buttress the postwar order.

Likewise, President Ronald Reagan redoubled investment in deterrent military strength, renewed America’s commitment to NATO, wielded U.S. might to enforce international law in the Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf, used the bully pulpit and economic big stick to promote human rights, unveiled a free-trade zone spanning North America, and committed the United States to defend “a peaceful, prosperous and humane international order.”

Each of these leaders recognized that the liberal international order sustains American power—and must be sustained by American power.


If the Free World proves unable today to follow the example set by those men, hostile regimes will replace the liberal order with something that’s less liberal and less orderly.

“The present order will last only as long as those who favor it and benefit from it retain the will and capacity to defend it,” historian Robert Kagan observes. “Every international order in history has reflected the beliefs and interests of its strongest powers,” he explains. “And every international order has changed when power shifted to others with different beliefs and different interests.”

Xi Jinping’s China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia are working to upend the liberal international order.

Xi and Putin issued a joint statement describing a “transformation of the global governance architecture and world order.” Xi vows to forge “a more just and reasonable new world order.” Putin’s foreign ministry boasts that Russia is shaping “the contours of a new world order.” Dismissing how “the West is insisting on a rules-based order,” Putin mockingly asks, “Who has ever seen these rules? Who agreed or approved them?” Russia, he barks, “is not going to live by such makeshift, false rules.”

To get a sense of what an international order shaped by Xi’s China and Putin’s Russia would look like, just look at Xi’s China and Putin’s Russia.

At home, Putin has jailed, poisoned and killed political opponents; muzzled independent media; and replaced the rule of law with the law of one-man rule. Abroad, Putin has launched wars of aggression against democratic Ukraine and democratic Georgia; committed war crimes across Ukraine and Syria; and propped up regimes that gas (Syria) and starve (Venezuela) their own people. Moscow armed Taliban forces waging war against NATO peacekeepers operating under UN mandate; attacked America’s energy infrastructure; and lobbed military threats at democratic governments in Moldova, Norway, Poland, Finland and Sweden.

Within China, Xi has erected an Orwellian surveillance state; engaged in genocide against Uighur Muslims; imprisoned bishops and Nobel Peace Prize laureates; and turned entire cities into quarantine camps in a hopeless effort to control a virus via government coercion. Beyond his borders, Xi has erased Hong Kong’s independence; attacked democratic India; threatened attacks against democratic Taiwan; and massively expanded his nuclear-strike capabilities. Beijing also has conducted a relentless cybersiege of the Free World; unleashed through incompetence a crippling global pandemic; illegally claimed a vast swath of the South China Sea; and built militarized islands to back up those claims.

“We are now facing two global powers,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley concludes, “who intend to fundamentally change the rules-based current global order.”

China and Russia aren’t alone; they serve as benefactors of North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba and Belarus. Given their past behavior and future goals, North Korea, Iran and Taliban-controlled Afghanistan stand out among this group.

North Korea has a terrifying vision to turn Seoul into “a sea of fire,” “sink” Japan “into the sea,” and “reduce the U.S. mainland into ashes”—and the nukes and missiles to make that vision a reality.

Iran envisions the elimination of Israel; is acquiring a nuclear arsenal to bring that about; foments revolution in Yemen and Bahrain; bankrolls terror groups in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon; attacks commercial and military vessels in international waters; and targets American personnel and bases.[3]

The Taliban has retaken Afghanistan—not a comforting thought given what happened the last time the Taliban ruled that forever-broken land. Recall that al-Qaeda used Afghanistan as a launchpad for attacks against two pillars of the liberal international order: the U.S. military and the global financial system.

To be sure, the nations in this bloc of tyrant regimes have different political structures and different economic systems, which is to say, they aren’t bonded in the same way the communist world was during the Cold War. However, these regimes are working together to destroy the liberal international order: Russia is delivering oil and gas to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Afghan soldiers are joining up with Russian mercenaries fighting in Ukraine.[4] Iran has shipped combat drones to Russia and deployed trainers to Russian-occupied Ukraine.[5] The new leader of al-Qaeda’s is based in Iran.[6] Pyongyang has sent artillery shells to Moscow. China is exporting drones to Russia for use over Ukraine.[7] And China has increased its purchase of Russian oil and gas, thus underwriting Putin’s war in Ukraine.


Pointing to all the chaos spread by those regimes, some critics of the liberal international order argue that there’s really no such thing as international order—that it’s all just an exercise in crisis management.

Let’s stipulate that the best we can do is manage crises as they emerge. How, exactly, do we do that without some baseline idea of what we want the world to look like after a crisis is resolved? And isn’t that baseline idea—that crisis endpoint—another name for a kind of order?

Moreover, how can we marshal the resources necessary to address the crises triggered by our enemies—the Berlin blockade, the 9/11 attacks, the COVID pandemic—without the wealth generated by a stable system of international commerce? And wouldn’t such crises—North Korea’s invasion of South Korea, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—be more destructive without alliances and institutions in place to serve as firewalls?

Since “there will always be differences of interest,” President Dwight Eisenhower observed, “there must be some source of international order.” Importantly, Eisenhower viewed America’s “collective-defense arrangements” as “the best and most effective means of preserving world order.

Some dismiss these arrangements—and the liberal order they buttress—as a euphemism for allies free-riding on America’s military muscle. While it’s true that some countries punch below their weight, Britain, France, Poland, Israel, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Australia are helping America shoulder the burdens of maintaining the liberal international order. Stung into action by Putin’s war in Ukraine, Germany finally realizes there’s no room in the Free World for free-riders. NATO is pouring resources into protecting Eastern Europe. Allies across the Americas, Europe and Indo-Pacific are helping Ukraine, punishing Putin, and giving Xi pause. Far from being a chain dragging America into wars or a drain on America’s treasury, these alliances create lines of defense beyond America’s shores, generate material and diplomatic support for American leadership, and serve as force-multipliers for American power. Indeed, the Free World’s multifaceted response to the war in Ukraine is a dramatic example of the liberal international order in action—and the staggering power its guardians can wield when they work together.


There are costs to maintaining a liberal international order. But the costs of a world that’s out of order are higher. As Milley recently detailed, the collapse of the liberal order would mean “doubling our defense budgets” and likely “an era of great power conflict.”

Indeed, the era predating the liberal international order reminds us of what the world is like when democracies don’t work together, when no one is willing to enforce rules of the road, when there really is no international order. Pointing to the 26,000 American troops killed in 47 days during the Great War’s Battle of Meuse-Argonne, to the 57,000 American troops killed in an eight-week span in the summer of 1944, to the 150 million people killed between 1914 and 1945, Milley concludes: “That’s what this international order that’s been in existence for seven and a half decades is designed to prevent.” [8] Adds Gen. James Mattis: “The postwar rules-based international order is the greatest gift of the Greatest Generation.”

The Free World has the power to preserve this precious gift. What remains to be seen is if it has the will.

[1] General George C. Marshall, The New York Herald Tribune Forum, New York City, October 29, 1945.

[2] NSC 68.

[3] See

[4] See

[5] See

[6] See

[7] See

[8] Before America and its allies began building the liberal international order, Ash Jain and Matthew Kroenig of the Atlantic Council

Note, “Major powers frequently engaged in direct warfare on a massive scale, as in the Napoleonic Wars, World War I and World War II…Armed conflict killed an average of 1-2 percent of the human population from 1600 to 1945. During the Cold War, an average of 0.4 percent of the world’s population perished due to war. Since the year 2000, less than one one-hundredth of 1 percent of people have died this way.”

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