International orders seldom change in noticeable ways. Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, the Pax Romana was not a passing phase: it persisted for centuries. The order that arose from the 1815 Congress of Vienna didn’t fully unravel until the outbreak of World War I in 1914.
But at rare moments, confidence in the old order collapses and humanity is left with a vacuum. It is during these times that new orders are born—that new norms, treaties and institutions arise to define how countries interact with each other and how individuals interact with the world.
As the most far-reaching global disruption since World War II, the coronavirus pandemic is such a moment. The post-1945 world order has ceased to function. Under a healthy order, we would expect at least good faith attempts at international coordination to confront a virus that knows no borders. Yet the United Nations has gone missing, the World Health Organization has become a political football and borders have closed not only between countries but even within the European Union. Habits of cooperation that took decades to entrench are dissolving.
Whether we like it or not, a new order will emerge as the pandemic recedes. U.S. leaders should do everything in their power to ensure that the post-coronavirus order is equipped to tackle the challenges of the coming era.
Five years ago, I represented the State Department in an inter-agency project to evaluate the future of the international order. We studied past transitions and discussed possible reforms. We recognized that the order was fragile and needed repair, but we also appreciated the power of inertia—it takes extreme moments for leaders to accept that the old order is broken and summon the will to forge a new one.
Now that extreme moment is here, and U.S. leaders have an opportunity that typically comes around just once or twice a century: They can build an order that actually works for our times—one that combats climate change, cyber threats and public health challenges, and that allows for the fruits of globalization and technological progress to be shared more widely. If, that is, they do it right.
Consider the lessons of America’s last two major attempts to build international orders—in 1919 after World War I and in 1945 following World War II. The post-1919 order was marked by the Great Depression, the rise of totalitarian regimes and eventually a conflagration even more devastating than World War I. By contrast, the post-1945 order led to more than seven decades of peace and prosperity, in which violent deaths plummeted and world GDP expanded at least 80-fold.
How can America avoid the errors of post-1919 and emulate the successes of post-1945? Three primary factors distinguish the two projects.
First, U.S. leaders should plan for the new order right now, as the crisis is ongoing. When President Woodrow Wilson arrived at the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919, two months after the war had ended, none of the core principles of the postwar order had yet been agreed. Consequently, the allies’ deliberations were plagued by contradictory agendas, resulting in a pact incapable of managing the problems of the world to come.
Conversely, President Franklin Roosevelt began planning for the post-World War II settlement before the United States even entered the war. America and Britain issued the Atlantic Charter, which articulated their goals for the postwar order, in August 1941—four months prior to Pearl Harbor. The Bretton Woods Conference, which outlined the postwar economic system, took place in July 1944. By the time the war ended in 1945, the tenets of the new order were already well established, enabling the allies to focus on the critical details of implementation.
The coronavirus will arrest our lives longer than we’d like, but not forever—and when the crisis passes, the contours of the new order will take shape rapidly. To ensure that brief window is put to good use and not consumed by squabbling, U.S. and world leaders should begin collaborating now to formulate principles.
It would be foolish to expect President Donald Trump, who is one of the reasons that today’s international order isn’t working, to spearhead planning for a new one. We might have to wait for a more internationally minded president to form the institutions of the new order. But Trump’s presence doesn’t mean that valuable progress can’t happen in the meantime.
Leaders in both parties—especially younger leaders whose lives will unfold in the wake of the pandemic—should urgently start developing, debating and rallying around objectives for the post-coronavirus order. Before diving into specifics, such as the future of the United Nations, we must align on basic goals. We are likely more than a year away from the dawn of the new order, and a contest of ideas, in which the intellectual foundations of the system solidify, will precede any institutional innovation. Members of Congress, leaders in civic organizations and businesses, and scholars should follow the example of health care professionals who have collaborated across all manner of forums—from medical journals to Twitter—to design strategies to treat Covid-19. And they should know that any principles they propose, even if only in print or pixels, may eventually take on greater significance: Both the post-1919 and post-1945 orders originated in simple statements—the Fourteen Points for the former, the Atlantic Charter for the latter—that didn’t win broad endorsement until months or years after they were issued.
The second way U.S. leaders can learn from the past is to avoid the blame game. Led by French President Georges Clemenceau, the shapers of the post-1919 order were fixated on blame, forcing Germany to accept “war guilt,” make territorial concessions and pay reparations. These terms sowed resentment that fueled the Nazis’ rise to power. By contrast, the architects of the post-1945 order focused on the future, committing to rebuild Germany into a thriving democracy—notwithstanding the fact that Germany was more obviously at fault for starting World War II than it had been for World War I. The Germany of today, a liberal exemplar and staunch U.S. ally, is testament to the wisdom of that policy.
Despite temptations to find scapegoats for a pandemic that has already killed more Americans than the Vietnam War, U.S. leaders should be generous in aiding post-coronavirus recovery efforts around the world. Though Beijing doubtless bears blame for its suppression of early reports of the coronavirus, America and the world would be far better served by bolstering China’s public health system than by seeking to punish Beijing or embarrass it through racially insensitive epithets.
Nowhere is generosity more important than in the race to end the pandemic with novel therapeutics and, eventually, a vaccine. Instead of hoarding the benefits of such breakthroughs, as the Trump administration hinted it might do when it tried to poach a German vaccine company, America should lead a global effort to develop, test, manufacture and deliver these medicines as quickly and broadly as possible. More than anything else, America’s role in ending the pandemic will determine how much moral authority it has to shape the world that comes afterward.
America should also be generous in supporting the institutions of the new order. Washington has already spent upward of $ 2 trillion to pull the country out from the coronavirus abyss—and there’s more to come. These infusions dwarf the $ 56 billion International Affairs Budget, which covers the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, foreign assistance and contributions to international organizations. If there was ever a crisis that demonstrates why an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, it is this one: America should fund the institutions of the new order so that they are capable of averting the next crisis before it spirals out of control.
Finally, the new order should be grounded in domestic consensus. Wilson didn’t include a single prominent Republican in the U.S. delegation to the Paris Peace Conference, icing out not only radical isolationists but also moderate internationalists with whom he might have found common ground. In the end, the Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles, 53–38, and America never joined the League of Nations. FDR and Harry Truman learned from Wilson’s mistake, focusing early on building support for the post-1945 order. When the UN Charter came before the Senate, it won overwhelming approval, 89–2.
America’s influence in the post-coronavirus order will hinge on whether its participation is backed by domestic consensus. This might seem impossible in our hyper-partisan age. But nearly 70 percent of Americans, including strong majorities of both Democrats and Republicans, favor an active U.S. role in the world—among the highest levels of support in the last half-century. Even on specific international issues, Americans agree more often than they think. A full two-thirds of Americans believe the U.S. government should do more to combat climate change, and nearly 80 percent consider cyberattacks a critical threat. Now that the coronavirus has disabused us of our collective sense of invincibility, we can expect even greater majorities to take global risks seriously moving forward. U.S. leaders should harness that support and make building the new order a bipartisan project.
What exactly could this new world order, one that actually tackles the problems of the 21st century, look like? At the heart of every international order is a tradeoff between breadth and ambition: as membership widens, goals must narrow. So we should imagine a two-level system. At the global level, the new order should focus squarely on collective-action problems—including climate change, cybersecurity and pandemics—that will imperil our world in the coming era as much as nuclear weapons did in the passing one. The nuclear non-proliferation regime has been successful because it both sets clear rules and wields real power: monitoring, inspections, export controls, interdictions and sanctions work in concert to check proliferation. Covid-19 has made us all viscerally aware of our vulnerability to public health challenges; we should channel that trauma into norms and institutions just as forceful as those that keep nuclear proliferation at bay. Think, for example, of a world in which countries make firm commitments to reduce carbon emissions and curtail cyber intrusions—and where those commitments are enforced through commercial restrictions and the threat of economic and political consequences.
At the same time, we need a revamped order among like-minded democracies—which, as a smaller group, can be more ambitious. The United States and its allies in Europe and Asia should come together into a council of democracies, expanding collective defense beyond the military realm to counter subtler menaces such election meddling, disinformation and financial coercion. On the economic front, it’s well past time for an international system that prioritizes human welfare over growth for growth’s sake. America, the EU, Japan and other democracies should seal new economic agreements in which increasing market access goes hand-in-hand with cracking down on tax avoidance, protecting data privacy and enforcing labor standards. Some level of pullback from globalization is inevitable and warranted. But absent planning now, that retreat will be chaotic and blunt, throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
“Without history,” the historian Donald Kagan observed, “we are the prisoners of the accident of where and when we were born.” The post-coronavirus order is coming; there is no going back to normal. While transitions like this are rare, they have happened before, and we should heed the lessons of history. The stakes could not be higher: If we repeat the errors of 1919, we may eventually remember the coronavirus as the precursor to an even bigger disruption—the World Crisis I, perhaps, to climate change’s World Crisis II. We have the chance now to chart a different course—and navigate the history of our times toward fairer seas.