We don’t often think that how the US conducts itself at home has much impact on how we face the world, but it does. You’d be amazed at how closely people in countries all over the globe follow events here and count on the United States to lead the way. When it’s messy at home, it’s hard to sustain the strength and readiness to turn our attention outward.
Doing so is especially important right now because what we’ve come to term “the international order” is under stress. It’s not collapsing by any means, but US leadership faces challenges and if we’re divided and unsettled at home, it will be much more difficult to respond appropriately.
What is the international order? It’s essentially the set of structures and values that evolved during the 20th century to resolve disputes, promote commerce and free trade, undergird economic development and investment, further contacts and exchanges between nations and their citizens, and protect human rights. It’s based on mutually negotiated rules and initiatives that, in a well-functioning world, are promoted by institutions such as the UN, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the World Health Organization, and others.
These days, though, it’s fair to say that there’s no aspect of the order we once took for granted that isn’t at least facing questions. This is in part because, at the moment, both China and Russia are asserting their interests and, often, working actively to undermine ours. At the same time, the US role is less prominent than it once was. Our allies, especially after the four years of the Trump administration, are uncertain of our commitment to global leadership given that we questioned longtime alliances, withdrew from institutions, pulled out of international accords, and in general pulled back from the web of alliances and agreements that we had helped shape in earlier years. Understandably, our friends and allies wonder how much they can count on us and our adversaries are eager to test us.