THAT AMERICAN security and prosperity are predicated on the world’s “openness” is ahistorical. For the greater part of America’s existence as a republic, and even after its ascendance as a great power, most of the world was not “open.” America itself rose off the back of economic protectionism, and through its Monroe Doctrine closed off its hemisphere from other major states. The world was dominated by various great powers in a multipolar system up until the end of the Second World War, similar to the system the world is heading towards again. The standard strategies of statecraft were balancing and buck-passing. Postwar, the world was divided into giant superpower blocs, and balancing remained the norm, and the United States at times supported or abided by the reassertion of European colonialism. While the United States was rhetorically committed to an open world, strategically, it was aligned with brutal actors and allies for geopolitical purposes.
However, the United States succeeded in maintaining its economic and military primacy during the entirety of this period. The aspiration or absence of an open world was, therefore, not a causal factor in American geopolitical success. In fact, when the United States has pursued an “open world” as a restless missionary or economic globalizer, it has been detrimental and has resulted in a decline in American position due to imperial overburden and the rapid economic growth it afforded other powers.
It is this multipolarity that forms the baseline for our argument. “Open World”-ists accept that the rise of China coupled with the domestic dysfunction has resulted in the current scenario and there’s no going back to the old ways. Unfortunately, the chief causes behind America’s domestic dysfunction and the rise of China are the very policies they prescribe. Beijing managed to rise within a U.S.-led order, never having to shoulder any wider security burden partly because of American hegemony. Similarly, American domestic dysfunction is in no small part directly related to the policies that laid the ground: endless, peripheral wars which resulted in a reckless loss of blood and treasure; trillions of dollars in debt; the financialization of the economy and offshoring of industries and jobs; and the resulting coarsening of politics and public life. Pursuing overambitious armed supremacy across the world in the name of democracy has jeopardized its own.
One of the greatest flaws in this worldview is the failure to effectively identify or prioritize theaters for commitment. Not to separate regions that are existential to American interests from regions that are more peripheral, would logically entail a global crusade in support of democracy. This would mean, effectively, quintuple containment, confronting and combating Russia, Iran, North Korea, China, and Venezuela all at once. It would also mean either antagonizing democratic but illiberal allies, from Turkey to India, thereby adding to a load of American problems, or tolerating them, inviting charges of hypocrisy by the unrealistic standards the rhetoric sets. As the doctrine would implicate U.S. security almost everywhere, every conflict in every strategic backwater would need the harnessing of American diplomatic, military, and economic power. It would raise expectations from all who seek American help or patronage. In Asia, a commitment to openness, no matter how nuanced, would translate into a demand that Washington fight for and over Taiwan. Without the United States coercing others to shoulder burdens, there is little chance of any smart “buck-passing” to local actors or regional allies in this scenario. Every battle is America’s to fight and is a path to imperial overstretch. At the same time, in this “open world” America will be burdened with addressing climate change, post-Covid economic recovery, and rebuilding itself at home.
These doctrines also rest on the idea that systems are shaped by the whims of the preponderant great power, that America is capable of shaping the future world order according to its political will. History however suggests that great powers are often constrained by structural forces. A salient example would be the British empire, overburdened and overstretched due to hegemonic ordering. Great Britain was forced to align with the rising United States due to the fact that London considered an order under Imperial Germany as a much greater threat. It was a rational calculation, not dewy-eyed idealism and kinship, and the changes in the global distribution of power were the prime variables in that decision. It was once again forced to retrench post-Suez, reflecting a diminished status as well as an altered global balance. In both cases, a detached cost-benefit analysis was historically a better option for threat prioritization.
While “open world” doctrines enthuse about the value of allies, what if allies choose to have an independent path? What if South Korea desires a détente with North Korea, or Germany and France want to hedge with China or Russia? Again, ugly choices will loom, either to discourage such behavior with bribes and coercion or to allow it, thereby weakening America’s dominance. If NATO states agree to increase their defense spending in accordance with U.S. wishes, they will become more assertive, posing a tradeoff between hegemonic dominance and burden-sharing. And in the future, Washington might have to choose a tentative coexistence with a sphere of influence next to Moscow, to prioritize and stare down Beijing.
FINALLY, “OPEN world” liberalism argues that America is facing a global ideological conflict with authoritarian powers. An obvious problem with this proposition is many of the United States’ allies and partners are authoritarians, some of whom violate U.S. security interests. If “regime type” is to define America’s constellation of allies and adversaries, how to justify alliances with Turkey, Poland, Hungary, and Saudi Arabia against Iran, Russia, and China? Likewise, while Biden proposes an informal league of democracies, this presumably will include India. While India remains a natural counterbalance to China and a potential U.S. partner, it is a great power with its own interests and is increasingly authoritarian, especially in its treatment of Muslims. That is to say nothing of Israel, one of the Middle East’s only democracies but also increasingly illiberal, hyper-nationalist, and alarming to fellow democracies. Alternatively, if pressing planetary problems like climate change are to become the first priority, it is not clear how the United States will obtain meaningful concessions from rapidly industrializing countries like China or India, if it is to define its statecraft around the demand for democratic reform or human rights.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong or unwise in having illiberal allies. Indeed, America has succeeded in the past through dalliances and bargains with ideologically repugnant states, and through forming coalitions with dissimilar regimes. In the mid-twentieth century, the United States helped defeat the Axis powers by allying with the totalitarian Soviet Union. It prevailed in the Cold War by actively dividing the Soviet Union against communist China, and it strengthened ties with China by cultivating a genocidal regime in Pakistan. It defeated Al Qaeda in Iraq by realigning with former Sunni insurgents. On each occasion, a painful compromise was required. To make the world more inhospitable to some rising authoritarians, the United States will need to accommodate others.
Moreover, where does coercion of allies fit in the open world? America’s alliances are a means, not an end. They depend for their value on allies supporting their security interests. America possesses leverage, implicitly, with the threat that it can punish or abandon recalcitrant partners. After all, the United States historically discouraged allies’ nuclear ambitions or trade surpluses with the threat of withdrawn patronage. Only recently, Turkey, a NATO ally increasingly authoritarian at home, sponsored Islamist rebels in Syria, used immigrant controls as a weapon with which to coerce Europe, and used its Russian-supplied missile defense system to lock onto the fighter planes of Greece, a NATO ally. What is Washington to do about this? Thus far, it has penalized Ankara with closure, restricting it from the joint strike fighter program. A dilemma is apparent, that tolerance will aggravate other allies and allow Turkey’s destabilizing behavior, but stronger punishment might tip Turkey further into Russia’s orbit. To their credit, Rapp-Hooper and Lissner address this, propose a monitoring and punishment system for backsliding allies. Yet will America now punish itself? And the punishments (exclusion from military exercises or alliance councils or senior positions) are too weak to reform the behavior of a Turkey or a Poland, yet strong enough to strain relations. The only serious way to coerce an ally is to credibly threaten severe material punishment or abandonment. But then, closure, not openness, is the proposition.
The fixation on regime type brings with it an optimism—implicit or overt—that America is bound to prevail if it summons enough will and keeps faith with its political ideals. But historically, the great democracies or republics do not always prevail, whether classical Athens, medieval Venice, or the early modern Dutch Republic. Economically, in the earlier Cold War, one superpower was autarkic and centralized, a system that proved to be far less resilient to free-market capitalism. In this multipolar world, to consider Chinese state-capitalism to be less resilient than a free-market West might be hubristic. State-capitalism in China has allowed Beijing to harness capital towards national power, whereas a freer version has led to the hollowing out of Western manufacturing, relative power, and, most importantly, communities. As the contest between the United States and China remains open-ended, it would be more dangerous if Washington were to needlessly add other conflicts and self-inflicted problems to the list.