Capstones: Out of Order

By Alan W. Dowd

“Order” is not a word Americans celebrate. After all, it carries the connotation of being controlled or constrained—and America is about freedom and independence. Yet 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.

It’s time for Americans to start repairing an old order that has served us well. For guidance, we should turn to a little document that had a big impact—a document that was shared with the world 78 Augusts ago.


In early August 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill rendezvoused in the North Atlantic for one of the most consequential summits in history. As the summit ended, they unveiled the Atlantic Charter—a roadmap to a better world and a durable international order.

At just 374 words, the Charter is amazingly succinct, yet packed with enduring principles.

First, FDR and Churchill sought “no aggrandizement, territorial or other.” Their postwar order would reject might-makes-right thuggery, define norms of behavior, and elevate the rule of law over the law of the jungle.

FDR and Churchill also vowed “no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned” and endorsed “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.” Their postwar order would favor free government.

FDR and Churchill called for “the enjoyment by all states…of access, on equal terms, to the trade and to the raw materials of the world.” If autarky and closed-off markets sowed the seeds of war, they reasoned, then the postwar order should promote free trade and a more liberal economic system. “One of the preconditions of any lasting peace will have to be the greatest possible freedom of trade,” FDR told Churchill during the conference.

Next, FDR and Churchill called for “the fullest collaboration between all nations in the economic field.” Their postwar order would widen the circle of development and progress.

FDR and Churchill committed to “destruction of the Nazi tyranny,” “a peace…which will afford assurance that all the men in all lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want,” and “establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security.” Their postwar order would depend on deterrent strength to protect free nations, bolstered by institutions committed to security.

Finally, FDR and Churchill declared that all nations should be allowed “to traverse the high seas and oceans without hindrance.” Their postwar order would promote freedom of the seas.

In sum, the Atlantic Charter served as the blueprint for an attainable international order. Some call it a “rules-based, democratic order,” others a “liberal 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 norms of behavior; promoted liberal (freedom-oriented) institutions; and called upon governments to live up to their responsibilities by promoting good order within and around their borders.

However, FDR and Churchill’s postwar order is under assault, and those who benefit most from it are not doing enough to defend it.

Territorial Aggrandizement

Vladimir Putin’s Russia has invaded and occupied democratic Ukraine, annexed Crimea and the Sea of Azov, invaded and lopped off part of democratic Georgia, and laid claim to half the Arctic Circle. Moscow has underlined its Arctic claims by reactivating military bases and deploying SAM batteries in the region.

In a bid to annex the South China Sea piecemeal, Xi Jinping’s China has constructed 3,200 acres of illegal islands—many of them in international waters or encroaching upon territories claimed by other nations. Like Russia, China is deploying SAM batteries and other weapons systems to preemptively limit access and deny entry.

Freedom of the Seas

Hoping to conquer the South China Sea via coercion rather than combat, China is harassing ships sailing through, and aircraft flying above, the resource-rich region. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan warns that Xi is turning the South and East China Seas into “Lake Beijing.”

We saw how dangerous Putin and Xi’s contempt for the rules-based order can be in July, when two long-range Chinese bombers, two long-range Russian bombers and a Russian AWACS-type aircraft repeatedly violated South Korean airspace. ROK fighter-jets ordered the intruding aircraft 30 times to leave ROK airspace; Japan dispatched its fighter-jets to respond; ROK jets ultimately fired 360 warning shots to reverse what the Japanese Defense Ministry called an “invasion.” Moscow and Beijing conducted the operation to test ROK and Japanese defenses and/or to exploit ROK-Japan tensions—thus further challenging the existing order in the region. Washington stood aside while two treaty allies nearly went to war.

Meanwhile in the Persian Gulf, Iran is seizing oil tankers in international waters, sabotaging cargo ships in international waters and attacking aircraft in international airspace. Washington has done little in response.

Free Trade

President Donald Trump’s critics forget that the free-trade consensus began eroding long before his administration.

During the 2008 campaign, then-Senator Barack Obama called NAFTA “an enormous problem” and said “NAFTA needs to be amended.” In 2008, Obama and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton opposed trade deals with Korea, Colombia and Panama. In 2016, Clinton vowed to “stop any trade deal that kills jobs or holds down wages, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership.”

By withdrawing from the TPP, amending NAFTA, increasing tariffs on Europe, China and Mexico,  and playing hard ball with China, Trump has merely done what Obama and Clinton threatened to do. In response, Europe, Mexico and Canada retaliated with tariffs on American goods; China found alternate sources of food and alternate trade partners. These are the sorts of trade conflicts the Atlantic Charter sought to end.


The UN, succumbing long ago to its systemic deficiencies, has never been the main security institution of the liberal order. Churchill feared as much, warning, “We must make sure that its work is fruitful, that it is a reality and not a sham, that it is a force for action, and not merely a frothing of words.”

What’s worrisome today is that the actual security institutions of the liberal order—the U.S.-led alliance system enfolding NATO, Japan and South Korea, the Philippines and Australia, and key partners in the Middle East—are in disarray. This interlocking system of alliances is the liberal order’s last line of defense. Yet America and its allies are weakening it. Again, the problems began long before Trump took office.

In Afghanistan (NATO’s first Article V operation), Italy didn’t allow its fighter-bombers to carry bombs; German troops were required to shout warnings in three languages before opening fire.

Obama unilaterally pulled the plug on missile-defense plans for Europe—plans endorsed by the entire NATO alliance—in hopes of mollifying Moscow. Poland’s Defense Ministry called Obama’s reversal “catastrophic.” The Czechs angrily rejected Obama’s alternative as “a consolation prize.”

When the Obama administration agreed to extend U.S. air operations in Libya, after an urgent request from the alliance, a NATO official emphasized the extension “expires on Monday”—a bruising metaphor for American leadership.

The Obama administration deactivated the Navy’s 2nd Fleet (which defended the Atlantic and supported NATO), deactivated three key Army brigades in Europe, and withdrew every American main battle tank from Europe (the first time since 1943 Europe was unprotected by American armor).

Trump has suggested he would come to the defense of NATO members under attack (an ironclad requirement of the North Atlantic Treaty) only if they had “fulfilled their obligations to us.” Worse, according to published reports, he asked aides about the feasibility of pulling out of NATO.

In reaction, German Chancellor Angela Merkel concluded, “It is no longer such that the United States simply protects us…Europe must take its destiny in its own hands.” All the while, only six of NATO’s 29 members spend 2 percent of GDP on defense—a standard NATO headquarters has been begging members to meet for a decade—and Turkey is cutting deals with Russia that undercut NATO.

Even as North Korea tested missiles, detonated nuclear weapons and grew its nuclear arsenal, South Korea’s defense spending has fallen from 2.7 percent of GDP to 2.5 percent of GDP.  And even as China builds up and pushes out, Australia spends just 1.9 percent of GDP on defense, Japan 0.9 percent of GDP.

Finally, the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration reduced the reach, role and resources of the liberal order’s greatest defender—the American military—slashing the defense budget from 4.7 percent of GDP in 2009 to around 3 percent by 2016. The Trump administration has reversed this decline. However, “It took us years to get into this situation,” as Gen. James Mattis explains. “It will require years of stable budgets and increased funding to get out of it.”

Free Government

An ODNI report concludes that Moscow’s goal in targeting Western political institutions is “to undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order.” Using different tactics to achieve the same result, China’s “One Belt One Road” program seeks to alter the liberal order. Indo-Pacific Commander Adm. Philip Davidson calls China “the greatest long-term strategic threat to…the rules-based international order.”

As Russia and China chisel away at liberal democracy, Freedom House reports that 71 countries have suffered declines in political rights and civil liberties. “Acceptance of democracy as the world’s dominant form of government—and of an international system built on democratic ideals—is under greater threat than at any point in the last 25 years,” Freedom House concludes.

With America promoting a liberal order, as historian Robert Kagan observes, “The balance of power in the world has favored democratic governments.” The alternative, Kagan warns, is a world where “great-power autocracies” undermine democratic norms, where there are “fewer democratic transitions and more autocrats hanging on to power.” It cannot be a coincidence that this is occurring as America retreats and retrenches.


FDR and Churchill knew the world’s ills couldn’t be remedied with a piece of paper. Building the liberal order they envisioned came at great cost; maintaining it requires constant effort.

“International order is not an evolution; it is an imposition,” Kagan explains. “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. Had the Axis won in 1945, world order would have been characterized by godless racialism and fascist totalitarianism. Had the Soviets won in 1989, world order would have been characterized by godless collectivism and Leninist totalitarianism. If ISIS and al Qaeda have their way—recall that 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 ruthless conformity and theocratic totalitarianism. And if Xi’s China and Putin’s Russia gain the upper hand, world order will be characterized by strongmen trampling weak institutions, might-makes-right lawlessness between nations, the triumph of statism over individualism within nations.

“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,” Kagan grimly concludes.

Representing 57 percent of the world’s wealth—and embracing a political-economic system that ensures legitimacy, spurs growth and encourages cooperation—America, the EU, Britain, Canada, Japan, Australia and South Korea have the capacity to defend the liberal order that was born in August 1941. What’s unclear in August 2019 is if they have the will.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose.  A version of this essay appeared in Providence